Interview with Julia Katz
The Capital Fringe Festival is about to close and I can’t believe I have not really talked about it! I slack. (If you don’t know what the Fringe Festival is see my last blog post). Well anyway, today I sat down with my friend, Julia Katz, in Greenberry’s Coffee Co. (a “happening” spot in McLean of the Northern V.A.). Julia is approaching the end of the run of the show she created and directed called The Freshman 15/life in transition. It is being performed as a part of the Capital Fringe Festival.
Hannah Menchhoff: The Freshman 15/life in transition is a collection of interviews from your classmates at various universities throughout the country about their first year of college. Where did you get the idea to do this show?
Julia Katz: Well I took a class, spring of 2011, called Gender and Performance. One of the artists that we studied was Anna Deavare-Smith, she pioneered the documentary theater genre, and made it her own. I was really inspired by her and how her work had focused on capturing both multiple perspectives and true perspectives of any given event. [For this show] I wanted to look at an event that I had access to, which was the college experience and examine that through multiple lenses. I also love using story-telling as the basis for grounding my work. I think storytelling is a really powerful and magical ancient art form that is also really empowering.
HM: How exactly did you create the script? You had the interviews and then what?
JK: I have hours of tape and I carry a tape recorder everywhere. I have this real attachment to keeping it with me and pulling it out when I felt it was appropriate. I actually caught some of the best moments when I would hear what someone would say and ask them if they minded it being recorded on tape. I also had more formalized interviews, like at a coffee shop. Mostly, I had these very uniform almost research questions. Almost all of the interviews were 15 to 20 minutes long. And then afterwards, I would go home and transcribe and for a while, I would transcribe whole interviews, but as it came down to the wire and I need to write a first draft, I only transcribed parts that were most relevant. Then I took the best of those things, I looked at it all, I took my favorite quotes and categorized them in these weird ways and then made a first draft. It was awful. I took it to the cast and we took it scene by scene and edited it. We would also spend parts of rehearsal doing storytelling exercises and improve and would incorporate our stories into them. Then overtime we made some great changes. I feel this way the ensemble could own the piece.
HM: How long did the process take you from interviews until this point at the Fringe Festival?
JK: April 2011 [is when it started]. So weird [the show has] been my baby for so long! [Laughs] And like I really love the metaphor of art and it being your baby. Opening night it was born and suddenly I didn’t have control over it anymore. It was so weird. It really works with pregnancy because you incubate it for so long. I have been with this baby for so long and I birthed it and what I do? Need to move on and go to the next piece.
You need to add a disclaimer: that I realize how pretentious I sound and that I actually know nothing about art.
HM: How would you say the process went as a whole of being both a playwright and a director?
JK: It was really intimidating going into it because I have never done anything like this before. I have been you know given a specific role in my time in theater my whole life. I have been doing educational theater, so high school and college theater where the show was going to go up. [My work didn’t affect that.] To be in control of this process, you know if I don’t do my work the show won’t go up. That was a sobering realization. Actually, doing production and rehearsals was a lot less stressful than I thought. [It was so] mostly because I invested in two fantastic stage managers, Debroah Cline and Callie Towler (and they are my life and I don’t know what I would do without them), and because there were a lot of things that just luckily ended up working out in the end. My stage manager and I set out production goals about 6 weeks before opening, and I think we met them all. That was surprising to me. My previous experiences in theater have always been so high stress. There was always major crises’ happening. The one major crisis that happened was handled. The actors weathered it. I just want people to enjoy themselves and I don’t want them to hate me. I just want them to feel positively about this work.
HM: What do you hope theater-goers get out of this play?
JK: I want them to recognize, I think the unique challenge of going to college in the millennial generation, which is kind of this mandated experience that seems like a one size fits all solution for young people these days. Older generations didn’t have this as such an oppressive force. On the other hand, there is definitely a universality to anyone who has gone through college, as this tumultuous, liberating period. So I just want people to recognize that they had this sort of experience, this pathos. I want them to laugh. I’ve had several audience members say to me that any one of those characters [in the piece] are like someone they met in college. I think we’ve been very successful at capturing several different perspectives and experiences and leave it open as a montage to keep people questioning.
HM: You have a blog that you have been updating along the way about rehearsals and posts along those lines. Since the show started you have been adding confessionals. Could you just explain this and the idea behind it?
JK: So the confessionals. I love to do theater that has community based responses. The Freshman 15 is a traditional theater piece, a fourth wall show, where the actors perform for the audience. I wanted to engage the audience more in a way that seems genuine. So we put these questions on slips of paper onto each seat of the audience—and we put a different one for each show—and post the answers on the blog. And then we also have a slip that has the blog’s web address. Then the audience can go and look at what they wrote, the stories people share, and different perspectives on being young.
HM: What is it like working with the Fringe?
JK: Capital Fringe does a lot. I am incredibly grateful to have been around the organization as an audience member (Julia has also been to the Fringe Festival in Scotland), writing reviews, now directing. The Fringe gives you a huge amount of publicity, a space to work with—I love our space—, they give you the freedom to create something artistically that might suck. An ordinary producing environment is safe. As a result a lot of great artistic work is left behind because artists can’t take the risk. The Fringe allows awful weird stuff but also really great weird stuff. The point is that they give you the chance to do that.
HM: Are you done with this show or is there more life to The Freshmen 15/life in transition?
JK: I mean I’m not promising that I’ll never ever pick up the script again and that I’ll never do anything with it. I think it’s lived a pretty solid life. It’s something I’m happy with and has given me a lot and hopefully the cast has gotten something from it. This is not something I’m going to focus on for the next five years, it has been an exploration and I think it’s done. I am really lucky that I have been able to do this so young and still have time to mess up and throw it away and start again. If the opportunity were to arise, I would definitely change things, but I don’t think I will too much with it.
I do have a number of other projects coming up. I am in the beginning stages of the show Blinded which will be showing at VA-Tech from February 28 to March 2. And that is a work I can see myself investing years in it, but I don’t know yet. I still don’t know anything. That is my mindset that I am 20 years old and I don’t know anything yet.
If you are interested in seeing The Freshman 15 it is running through this Sunday, July 29. I really recommend it. It is dynamic, avant-garde, and thoughtful. I am not just saying this either. It is really something worth seeing.
Check out the show’s blog: http://thefreshman15lifeintransition.wordpress.com/
Capital Fringe website: http://capfringe.org/index.html