Julia Jordan Coming of Age: Her Characters Are Complicated-Like Adolescents Really Are

By Kaiden, Elizabeth | American Theatre, November 2003 | Go to article overview

Julia Jordan Coming of Age: Her Characters Are Complicated-Like Adolescents Really Are


Kaiden, Elizabeth, American Theatre


Julia Jordan's youthful characters linger in the mind long after they leave the stage. Her stories play over in the imagination like catchy tunes. The playwright, whose work for young and adult audiences will be seen in no fewer than five New York productions this year, strips her characters and her plots to their bare bones and offers up a kind of theatrical marrow that nourishes the most basic human appetites.

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Jordan is a graduate of the Juilliard playwriting program and has been living and working in New York City--most often, to her frustration, in jobs unrelated to theatre--for 14 years. Theatreworks/USA, a company that is devoted to new work for young audiences, was the first to offer Jordan's work major visibility--in 2002 the company presented Sarah, Plain and Tall, a musical based on a Patricia MacLachlan book, to captivated audiences and critical praise. This summer, Jordan and her musical collaborators, Nell Benjamin and Laurence O'Keefe, spent several weeks at the O'Neill Music Theater Conference in Waterford, Conn., turning Sarah--a love story involving a widowed farmer in Kansas and the free-spirited title character, who soars in like a gust of fresh air from Maine--into a fulllength musical for audiences of all ages.

Theatreworks called her back this year for another stage adaptation, The Summer of the Swans, from Betsy Byars's coming-of-age novel. In Jordan's freehanded version, 14-year-old Sara Godfrey lives with her popular older sister, her developmentally disabled younger brother and her Aunt Willy. In railing against her fate--as teenagers will do--she comes to recognize that she is no longer a child and might even be ready to fall in love. Jordan presents a touching portrait of sibling rivalry and teen angst, developing her characters lovingly through clearly plotted scenes that move the play forward with a sure hand.

Both stories feature young women who wince at traditional conventions of femininity; both want freedom from the expectations such conventions create. Both also want to be loved--just the way they are. And, in the deliciously uplifting world of Jordan's theatre, both get exactly what they want.

But not all of Jordan's plays end happily. Tatjana in Color, for example, is based on a true story of a 12-year-old girl who models for the Austrian painter Egon Schiele. The girl refuses to testify against Schiele when he is accused of raping her, and she mourns his loss when he is imprisoned for the corruption of minors. The play ends with Tatjana, six years later, searching unsuccessfully for Schiele in Vienna.

The premiere of Tatjana opened last month at the Culture Project in New York City. Despite the age of its title character, the play is perhaps Jordan's most adult work to date. Culture Project founder Allan Buchman cites the challenge of dealing with the politically charged notion of adolescent sexuality, particularly as it is aroused in a young girl by an older man, as a reason for doing the play--and praises Jordan's sophistication, poetic language and evocative use of imagery.

In fact, at the heart of the play is not a passive victim but an eager naif. Tatjana loves to be in Schiele's presence and keeps returning to the house the artist and his mistress share to revel in their bohemian freedoms and the artistic stimulation it offers her. Jordan explores the possible realities of an historic event through the otherwise forgotten eyes at the center of it--a 12-year-old girl, after all, has a consciousness and a complex, if perhaps confusing, emotional life. Jordan gives her emotions a clarity and urgency that send them piercing through the audience's defenses.

JORDAN ADMITS THAT SHE ENJOYS writing for young audiences partly because, as she explained over lunch at a Manhattan restaurant she once managed, "I really love writing adolescents. They make me laugh. Everything is so damn important at that age. …

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