Interview: Julia May Jonas on how faith and the church formed the basis of your personal exegesis

What a year 2022 was for writer Julia May Jonas. In February, Simon & Schuster published her widely acclaimed debut novel, Vladimir. Lincoln Center Theater LCT3 is now presenting the world premiere of her play Your own personal exegesislasts until December 31. Here he tells us about this new work, which our critic called “a slow-boiling confessional that gently but persistently pulls you in.”

Julia May Jonas
(© Adam Sternbergh)

Your own personal exegesis, may be an intimidating title to some. How do you describe the play in your own words?
The play uses the loose form of a church service to tell the story of the downfall of a youth pastor. The play is a play of memory – both collectively and individually – and I wanted to use a form of service to consider how we remember certain events and stories – in bursts, images, imaginary scenes, musically, with extraordinarily large emotional moments that loom is perhaps larger than it was, expressionistic gestures and gaps that we cannot quite fill in with details.

Exegesis is a religious term for critical analysis (although now often used in secular contexts), and the play explores questions about the interpretation of past events, as opposed to the stories of the Christian religion (which is also the foundation of Western art) and how our foundational stories interact with the cultural foundation stories that many grew up with. I think I just made the show sound even scarier, so I’ll also describe it as a comedy with an emotional center and beautiful music by Brian Cavanagh-Strong.

What made you write this play? How did you discover the story and the characters?
My grandfather was a failed priest who renounced his faith, and I, on the other hand, am the daughter of a church organist who grew up in the church — I sing, play the violin, participate in competitions, sit in the organ booth during the service, do my homework while my mother practiced. As my character Beatrice says, I’ve always been there.

Being a church employee, especially one who is responsible for putting on a show, is a very different experience of going to church. There is skepticism and humor that creeps in, aided by my grandfather’s perspective and the fact that my father is an infidel. So the setting was always one I wanted to explore. It felt liberating to allow myself to present and play with that world.

And as for the story, I’m constantly drawn to the representation of morally ambivalent women who are at odds with themselves. Kat, the youth pastor, is that woman for me: deeply flawed, interested in what she sees in goodness, and at the same time interested in corrupting that goodness. I wanted to write a sexual attraction that the audience could feel before anything explicit was said or done. And I wanted to write about the potential dangers of trusting your emotions, about which I could talk a lot! But it is very prevalent with all the teenagers in the play.

Annie Fang, Cole Doman, Savidu Geevaratne, Hanna Cabell and Mia Pak star in the Julia May Jonas film Your own personal exegesisdirected by Annie Tippe, on LCT3.
(© JeremyDaniel)

Do you see a line between the themes of your novel? Vladimir and any of the situations within Exegesis?
Definitely. Both are about how longing and the stories we create around longing can distort our sense of reality. Reality is pretty hard to grasp at any point in life, but certain situations can really push us away from ourselves and our inner compasses and cause real damage.

How does your playwriting work influence your novel writing, and vice versa?
I think they make each other more who they are. I want my theater work to be alive, theatrical, dependent on the audience. I’m a Brechtian, I want the audience to always know they’re watching a play with real people in front of them (the most amazing mental trick of theater, what we do with our disbelief from the moment we sit down in our seats and agree that the people acting six feet away are actually other people, it’s always amazing to me). I want to see virtuosity, to give actors excellent roles to dazzle people, to use music, dance and theatrical images, to think about duration, to do things that no other form can do, because they do not require the same presence to be performed. A novel is about collusion with one’s thoughts and offers deep interiority, the possibility of insight and intimacy – very different from writing for plays.

You started the year by publishing a novel; you finish the production of the play. What have you experienced? How are you feeling now?
Many years have passed. I’m generally dizzy and have a shock of gray hair where I didn’t before. Making the work is the best part for me, showing it and getting to know the public is the hardest part. I’m quite introverted and sensitive and prone to feeling overexposed, even when I know I should just be happy. That said, oh my gosh: I’m so grateful – to have a show produced in New York is akin to being struck by lightning, and so is the reception and acclaim. Vladimir. I am very indebted and grateful to everyone who believed, supported and brought their art to my work to bring it to life. And now I can’t wait to get back to writing.

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