Professor, playwright Julia Jarcho combines academia and theater

Abraham Gross
Ben Williams and Jenny Seastone Stern performing a scene from Julia Jarcho’s “American Treasure.”

NYU English Professor Julia Jarcho presented and performed excerpts of her plays during a faculty member spotlight event on Monday night. The event was hosted by the department’s Contemporary Literature Series, in which Jarcho spoke about her creative process while reconciling the academic and theatrical worlds.

Jarcho’s plays effortlessly combine strange and imaginatively nonlinear storytelling with sharp wit and humor. This can be confusing to the uninitiated, but many of the off-off-Broadway productions excerpted that night have received notable acclaim from critics.

On Monday, though, Jarcho let her work — or rather, her actors — do most of the talking. Ben Williams and NYU Tisch school alumna Jenny Seastone Stern have starred in Jarcho’s performances since 2009, and now work alongside her in her company, Minor Theater.

“You just have such a clear sense of what you do and don’t want, which is very unique in the theater scene where it’s a lot of trial and error, especially in the avant-garde scene,” Williams said.

Williams and Stern, occasionally accompanied by Jarcho herself, performed scenes from several plays. In one, Williams played a killer who spoke directly to the audience in a strong, menacing tone, but lured his victim, Stern, with a heavy accent and a meek demeanor.

Another scene, from Jarcho’s 2009 play “American Treasure,” had Stern reprising her role as a tough-speaking woman who asks a private eye, Williams, for help after selling the scalp of her deceased sister. These scenes appear beyond the pale, but were all masterfully performed by the seasoned actors walking a tightrope between dark narrative and humorous dialogue.

Speaking at the Q&A afterwards, Williams shared that what was distinctive about their work together was how well Jarcho was able to convey to her actors the often evasive, dreamlike quality she wanted to see from her work.

“When you’re making a play, you’re making a world you’re going to spend a lot of time in, so you want to make it a place you want to spend a lot of time in.”

Jarcho also said that the event held personal significance to the professor’s dual passions as a teacher and an actor, finally meeting in the middle.

“I have this academic life, where I’m a professor, and I have this other life with these people,” she said, motioning to Stern and Williams, “Which is my theater life, and usually those two lives are pretty separate. This was a chance to bring those two worlds together in a supportive atmosphere with people from both worlds.”

 

Email Abraham Gross at [email protected]

 

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