Theater archives

Minor Theater’s Julia Jarcho on Fear, Gogol, and How to Make Theater Scary


Playwright and director Julia Jarcho’s The Terrifying — directed by the author and playing at Abrons Arts Center through April 2 — marks the debut production of her company, Minor Theater. The company brings together actors and designers who have collaborated on Jarcho’s past productions, like Ben Williams and Jenny Seastone, both of whom performed in 2013’s Grimly Handsome. That piece, which garnered an Obie award for Best New American Play, was a funny, creepy story of Christmas tree salesmen, hard-boiled cops, and red pandas, written in Jarcho’s characteristically idiosyncratic, richly imaginative dialogue. Obie-winning costume designer Ásta Bennie Hostetter, the company’s fourth member, designs The Terrifying, which also stars an ensemble cast including Jess Barbagallo and Pete Simpson. The play is a horror story, following the teenage inhabitants of a tiny village under the frightening sway of a monster, and meditating on the forces of destruction, literal and metaphorical. Jarcho’s intimate staging plays to small audiences, gathered onstage with the performers, and features live, immersive sound design by Williams. As the show’s run gets under way, Jarcho spoke with the Voice about horror, playwriting, and the launch of her new company.

Village Voice: Where did the idea for The Terrifying come from?

Julia Jarcho: It was a convergence of things. Ben Williams has acted in my shows, but he’s also this incredible sound designer, and I wanted to come up with a project that would be especially hospitable to an intense sound design. A lot of my plays have horror elements, but I am really interested in genre, and never having dealt with the genre of horror before, it seemed like a fun thing to try. Also, around this time, I was reading the introduction to Gogol’s The Government Inspector, and I came across a reference to his unfinished horror story. It was called “The Terrifying Boar” — and that sounded amazing.

The other important piece is that, a couple of years ago, I decided to start a company. So I was looking for a project that would present opportunities to engage with the designers in a thoroughgoing way. Allowing myself to write things belonging to a genre that really lives in cinema has made for a lot of conversation.

What’s so interesting to you about fear?

I could give two answers. There’s the better answer: I think we’re all really scared right now. We, as a society, and a subsociety — we, the producers and consumers of a certain stratum of culture — are experiencing fear as a bigger piece of the pie, emotionally. So one hypothesis is: Is it useful to bring fear into theater, because it’s a place where we hang out with each other? It’s also a place where we see individual agency. And then there’s a less interesting answer. For me, fear has always been a massive part of what it means to be alive. The interimbrication of fear and desire seems like a huge driver of the narratives of our lives.

Are those emotions — fear and desire — at the forefront of this play?

Anger is in the mix. It’s really a story about being a girl, and what it means to come of age, sexually, in a world that is premised on your being the object of predation. How can that become a resource for ingenuity, and for pleasure? We can’t pretend that the political and the erotic are ever separate, but how do you play with these elements, acknowledge that they always are in play, without just adding another charcoal brick to the big bonfire?

So should the audience be genuinely terrified?

I hope the audience is scared. Because one thing I like about horror is that it burns off some of that fear. I hope that the play is also funny, because I think theater has to always be funny — my theater does anyway. But it’s also a design challenge: How do you make theater be scary?

This is Minor Theater’s first premiere. Where did the company’s name come from?

I was thinking about this shift toward the epic that I was seeing in some downtown work — and that is not what I’m doing. I’m interested in what happens if you say: My aims are not limited, but they are shaped by the idea of being small, and sharp, and sneaky. Then there’s Deleuze, writing on minor literature: He says “to be as another in one’s own language,” and that feels really resonant to me. And of course, the minor key.

Is the company specifically interested in horror? What are your common artistic concerns?

We’re all perfectionists. We all really appreciate obsessing over details. We share a dark sensibility, a certain fundamental sense that things are messed up and that we align ourselves with a position of messed-upness. Another thing about horror that’s appealing is the way that it’s associated with weird teenage boys — that’s a demographic that I identify with, at least abstractly, because of that sense of being misshapen, and not knowing how to be with other people. That, for me, is a fundamental thing that theater offers to explore and to have fun with, because it’s all about being with other people.

The Terrifying
Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street
Through April 2