An Interview With Jake Jeppson By Hayley Finn
Hayley Finn: No Cure is a very personal play. Writing something so personal is a very brave act. How did you come to know you could write this play?
Jake Jeppson: A few years ago, I saw a play that used cancer as a way to raise the emotional stakes, but it felt deeply disingenuous to me because it ignored the way cancer acts on our bodies. In theater, we work with bodies in space, and cancer—there are so many different journeys with cancer—but what might unify them all is that they act on a person’s body. I was so upset about this particular play, that I wanted to send a note to the dramaturg. Instead of writing a note, I wrote the first 30 pages of this play. It took half a day of sweaty and urgent writing.
HF: Was that the first time writing about your experience?
JJ: No, grief is in all my plays. It is always being referenced—feelings of loss. I’ve written two plays recently about my family. I did two plays about dads. I did a play about my father and then my step-father, back-to-back. I needed to work something through as I was about to become a dad myself.
HF: Why do you think grief is something you return to?
JJ: Well, it’s a frequency I tend to pick up on in people. Maybe it’s how I’m made. Or maybe it’s because I’m the baby of a family with a lot of different permutations of divorce, half-siblings, step-siblings, cousins, etc. I spent a lot of time as a kid watching this constellation of people stumble and experience grief. I also think that theater is a good place to explore grief. Death and birth are things that when you’re experiencing them, you feel a heightened sense of being alive. It’s awful in some moments and even when it’s awful you are somehow tapped into this deep spirituality of life, like, “Wow! I’m breathing and colors are more vivid.” Theater does that too. It is a place where we come to watch and experience our humanity.
HF: What has changed about the play as you continue to work on it?
JJ: I love being in the room because I’m able to see the work; getting to be clinical and cut away all the stuff that feels overwritten. I’ve had a couple of different readings of this. Normally I’m like, let’s not workshop a play to death, but it actually feels great because each one gives me a chance to get a little further away from the events of the play, so I can make dramaturgical and writer decisions that move things forward.
HF: What was a discovery you made from workshopping it last spring at the Playwrights’ Center?
JJ: So the hardest and scariest thing about this play for me is that characters in the play originate from human beings who are still alive and with whom I have a very close personal relationship. There’s a possibility of profound personal alienation when you do that. The ability to collaborate with great actors who ask questions, make choices, and shape journeys gave me an opportunity to breathe life into the play’s characters and see them as characters instead of extensions of the people they were based on.
HF: So it started off from the “Jake” character’s perspective and now the aperture has opened up and you have more understanding of the other characters?
JJ: Yeah, something one of my teachers in grad school said, which I appreciated was, “If a maid walks onstage and says a line, she walks offstage and has an entire life.” It helped me in this process.
HF: That’s great! What are you hoping to explore this time around?
JJ: We live in a land of Zoom theater. When are we going to be able to gather into a theater again? Do we need work to bridge the space from where we are to then? And this play, because it's narrated by the characters, doesn’t require a huge amount to live on an online platform. That’s one question I’ll have. The other thing is the script has been locked-in in some bits for a long time. What are some of the moments and scenes that aren’t in the script that might be worth exploring? And what would writing those scenes do to the shape of the play?
HF: Do you imagine experimenting with that and writing some new scenes?
JJ: I think I would write stuff that might never make its way into the workshop. I’m really responsive to stuff. If someone does something or says something in rehearsal or if an actor brings a certain texture to the role, I’ll go off and write three new scenes that might never make it into the play.
HF: You did a Zoom workshop in the spring. In what ways was it beneficial, surprising, or different?
JJ: There are two big negative sides. First is that you’re not sitting in a dark space with other people observing how the play is landing. I also miss the post-workshop communal gathering at a bar or coffee shop which feels like a ritualistic closure. But the things that feel exciting are I can have a script open on a screen while I watch actors read along. I’m bouncing back and forth and quickly perceiving parts of the text that are dishonest or need a little bit more. It is almost like being in a writing room by yourself with voices speaking. Like “No, uh uh, not that!” “More of that.” which is really cool.
HH: Are there any particular questions you have for the play now?
JJ: So there is humor in it but it is a sad play. The positive way to say it is, “It's an unflinching look” but you know, maybe collectively we all want to flinch right now. There’s so much sadness and communal and personal grief happening. I wonder how does the play meets this moment? Is it just too sad?
HF: You’re working on two dad plays simultaneously. This one, No Cure, and one about your biological father. Can you talk about the other one you’re working on right now?
JJ: This makes my tummy hurt because I’m close with my mom’s side and not so close to my dad’s side. Which is kind of why I wanted to write about them. What I feel comfortable saying is I was raised in educational settings that held up the problematic white patriarchal canon and in my theater work as an apprentice I was around artists who subvert that canon and reflect more of what I see life to be rather than the structure of naturalism versus realism. In the patriarch plays there’s a family secret; a father/son strained relationship. The son has been away. He comes home and the secret is revealed. The father and son either make up or don’t; there’s a slight hint at possibility and hope and the play ends. And people sniffle in the audience. That’s a story we all know. That’s a structure we all know. So, the play I made is a PowerPoint presentation called “Another Fucking Dad Play” because who wants another play like that? I discovered in plumbing my relationship with my dad is that the father/son narrative, structure, and dramaturgy is so poisonous and toxic because it creates an expectation that that’s how things work -- that our relationships have rising and falling action -- that reconciliation is possible. And that is not the way things work.
HF: So that play is finished?
JJ: It’s a PowerPoint presentation I can bring to your living room and play for you. That’s how it exists.
HF: That’s fun! That seems like it could happen on Zoom!
JJ: Totally! It is zero veiled, completely bald, and out there naming names. It feels cathartic and possibly a violation.
HF: Are you working on anything else now?
JJ: Yeah, I’m writing a new play about an invasive plant species called Japanese Knotweed. It is a plant that is taking over the east coast of the US; already taken over the UK. It is full of metaphor and fun to write about.
HF: Are there people in this play?
JJ: There are people in the play, but also the plant is in that play. The plant is a rhizome. It is almost impossible to get rid of once it invades. The rhizome has no center. It is really exciting to get into the mind of the rhizome. A tree is centralized: there’s leaves and roots and it all comes back to a unified power structure. It is fun to see how knotweed thinks and breathes. It is a chorus for the play. It is very early days.
HF: I want to ask about your trajectory as a writer; how you knew you wanted to be a writer and how studying with Paula Vogel changed your writing?
JJ: The playwriting teachers I experienced in my 20s were students of Paula. Donna Dinovelli at the National Theater Institute was the first person who ever gave me a playwriting assignment. She was a big supporter earlier on. I did a workshop with Adam Bock and he was supportive. Through Paula, I met Ken Prestininzi, an amazing teacher and director and thinker.
I ran apprentice programs for students who were leaving the academic setting for the real world. My advice was always “Get coffee from people in the right room, as opposed to the tony opportunity that doesn’t speak to you”. And that was my experience. Always being around people who were on the same frequency, and a lot of them were part of the Paula family tree.
Paula and the other writers in our workshop offered me a lot of generosity and grace as I stumbled over the process of confronting my privilege and assumptions. Which is not to say I’m through some magical doorway where I no longer carry privilege with me but it was really important for me as a human and as an artist to be able to sit in that space for three years and decentralize my status. The other thing Paula teaches is defamiliarization. A lot of other writers talk about this. To see something that is familiar and new. That’s what we do. You’re walking along in your busy life. You go to see a play; you see something ideally under 2 hours and you walk out and the world that was so familiar and so programmed looks a little different. That’s what Paula does.
HF: What are some of the curiosities on your mind about theater and art?
JJ: I have some strong opinions about our theater industry. We are at an inflection point. If the theaters that have a lot of power in our country come back and pick the same people and the same dramaturgical structures, then forget about it. I don’t want to be a part of that. I am deeply skeptical because power doesn’t want to secede power. How do we figure out how to keep that pressure on?
HF: Is there anything else you want to say?
JJ: I would just say it is exciting to be in a relationship long term with an institution like the PWC where you are allowed to evolve and change. There are so many institutions that want you to be a certain way forever, so it is pretty exciting to feel the continued connection as we are all evolving.
HF: What did the Jerome Fellowship mean to you and how do you feel like you interact with the Playwrights’ Center now?
JF: As a Jerome fellow, I was like “give me time and space to write.” Now, I want to go deep into the playwriting I’m doing, which is more specific now than it was back then. I think in part this is because I’m older and have more limitations on my life. I’m drilling down instead of casting wide. There’s also something weird happening in Zoom that I really like. Pre-Covid, we would fly to Minneapolis and interact with a few people and leave. Now, we come to Zoom gatherings at the PWC and it feels so good to see familiar names pop up in the chat. it feels like a collective in a way that is so nourishing in all this isolation.
HF: That’s really beautiful and really nice to hear because it is challenging to figure out how to have a real connection in the Zoom world?
JF: And if you compare it, it’ll never be as good as real life.
HF: We are adapting, which is because we won’t have options.
JJ: I’m sure in the future you will want to keep some of these things.
HF: Yeah, live streaming and there is an incredible quality to access this. Anyone can watch from anywhere.
JJ: Technology creates a lot more access, but it’s not going to be that if we actually don’t create real opportunities for more people; if it’s just the same system slid onto a different platform.
Join us for an online reading of
NO CURE by Jake Jeppson
Wednesday, December 9 at 7:00 p.m. CST
The Ruth Easton New Play Series is supported by the Ruth Easton Fund of the Edelstein Family Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.Actress Ruth Easton (nee Edelstein) was born in North Branch, Minnesota and graduated from North Branch High School. She attended the University of Minnesota for one year and the following year attended Macalester College before finishing her collegiate career at Cumnock School in Los Angeles. She went on to New York where she studied acting with Oliver Morosco. Mr. Morosco opened a stock theater company in upstate New York where Ms. Easton starred in several plays. After performing with other stock theater companies she returned to New York City where she appeared in five Broadway plays over a period of seven years. They included Exceedingly Small, Privilege Car, Town Bay, Buckaroo and Charlie Chan. Exceedingly Small was directed by Ethel Barrymore and Easton played opposite Eric Dressler. New York critics praised her performance as “thoroughly touching” and “highly spirited and excellent.” She starred in radio dramas on the Rudy Vallee Hour and the Fleischmann’s Yeast Hour opposite such actors as Walter Huston, Judith Anderson and Lionel Barrymore. She also appeared with Clark Gable, Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson during the course of her career. Ms. Easton’s legacy, her commitment to theater and the development of new works continues through the charitable gifts made by the Ruth Easton Fund of the Edelstein Family Foundation.