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

What a year 2022 has been for writer Julia May Jonas. In February, Simon & Schuster released her acclaimed debut novel, Vladimir. Now, Lincoln Center Theater’s LCT3 presents the world premiere of his play Your personal exegesisrunning until December 31st. Here, she talks to us about this new work, which our critic called “a simmering confession that gently but insistently pulls you deep inside.”

Julia May Jonas
(© Adam Sternbergh)

Your personal exegesis, for some, can be a scary title. How would you describe the show in your own words?
The play uses the loose form of a church service to tell the story of a young pastor’s fall from grace. The show is a memory game – both collectively and individually – and I wanted to use the form of a report to consider how we remember certain events and stories – in fits and starts, images, imagined scenes, musically, with outsized emotional moments that frame perhaps more great of them, expressionistic gestures and gaps where we can’t quite fill in the details.

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

What prompted you to write this comedy? How did you discover the story and the characters?
My grandfather was a lapsed minister who renounced his faith, and I am, in turn, a church organist’s daughter who grew up in the church: singing, playing my violin, entering competitions, sitting in the booth of the organ during services, doing my homework while my mother practiced. As my character Beatrice states, I was always there.

Being a church employee, especially one who is responsible for putting on the show, is a very different experience than going to church. There’s a skepticism and humor that creeps in, and it’s helped by my grandfather’s perspective and the fact that my father isn’t a believer. So the setting has always been one that I wanted to explore. It felt like a release to allow me to introduce and play with that world.

And when it comes to the story, I’m consistently drawn to featuring morally ambivalent women who are in conflict with themselves. Kat, the young shepherdess 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 was explicitly said or done. And I wanted to write about the potential dangers of believing our emotions, which I could talk about a lot! But this is very prevalent with all teenagers in comedy.

Annie Fang, Cole Doman, Savidu Geevaratne, Hanna Cabell and Mia Pak star in Julia May Jonas Your personal exegesisdirected by Annie Tippe, at LCT3.
(©Jeremy Daniel)

You see a line between the themes of your novel Vladimir and none of the situations inside Exegesis?
Decidedly. They are both about how desire, and the narratives we create around desire, can distort our sense of reality. Reality is hard enough to grasp at any point in one’s life, but certain situations can really take us away from ourselves and our internal compasses and cause real harm.

How does your work as a playwright inform your fictional writing and vice versa?
I think they make each other more who they are. I want my theater work to feel alive, theatrical, dependent on an audience. I am Brechtian, I want the audience to always know that they are watching a play with real people in front of them (the most amazing mental trick in theatre, the one we do with our disbelief from the moment we sit down in a chair and agree that people acting two meters away from us are actually other people, that’s always great for me). I want to see virtuosity, provide excellent roles for actors to amaze people with, use music, dance and theatrical imagery, think about duration, do things that no other form can do, because they don’t require as much presence to perform. A novel is about collusion with someone’s thoughts and offers a deep inside, the possibility of insights and intimacies, very different from writing for plays.

You started the year with the publication of your novel; you’re running out of it with comedy production. How was everything you experienced? How do you feel now?
It’s been a good year. I usually feel dizzy and have a strand of gray hair where it wasn’t before. Making the work is the best part for me, showing it and making it meet the public, the hardest part. I’m quite introverted, sensitive and prone to feeling overextended, even when I know I should just be happy. Having said that, my God: I am so grateful: to have a play produced in New York is like being struck by lightning, and the same with the reception and recognition of Vladimir. I am so indebted and grateful to everyone who believed, supported and brought their artistry into my work to bring it to life. And now I can’t wait to get back to writing.

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