An Interview with Playwright Julia Jarcho On Her Play ‘Grimly Handsome’ Staged at George Mason University’s Harris Theatre on 9/12@8 PM

The singular voice of 2013 Obie Award-winning playwright Julia Jarcho is coming to the area. Wait, you haven’t heard of her? Well, she hasn’t yet been produced in the DC area, not even her visionary Grimly Handsome. At least, not up to now.

Julia Jarcho. Photo by  Cody Carvel.
Julia Jarcho. Photo by Cody Carvel.

So a unique opportunity is coming as Jarcho will be appearing at the annual Fall for the Book Festival along with a staged reading of Grimly Handsome with the original New York cast. The Fall for the Book Festival showcases literary talent and literary events. It was originally conceived by George Mason University (GMU) and the City of Fairfax in 1999. It is now a week-long, multi-venue, regional affair held in September at locations throughout Virginia, DC and Maryland.

Playwright Jarcho first will have an interactive session with audiences the morning of September 12 examining theater and writing with expectations of  some startles. Later that evening, she will direct the original Incubator Arts Project cast in a staged reading of Grimly Handsome at GMU’s Harris Theater.

What is Grimly Handsome about? Having read the script it is a delight of shifting layers, overlapping dialogue, with physical reality bumping into the concealed. There are men who are handsome or at least good-looking and take advantage of it, and a woman less certain of herself.   Grimly Handsome has three distinct “parts” without intermission. Some of the play is even like a playful police procedural. One just never knows what will happen in the Grimly Handsome as quite unexpected urban wildlife and Christmas trees have key roles.

Beth Hoffman. Photo by Jennifer Stone.
Beth Hoffman. Photo by Jennifer Stone.

Beth Hoffman, GMU Assistant Professor will moderate the morning session with Jarcho. She had recommended Jarcho to Festival staff. “When Beth Hoffman suggested Julia, we were excited about the opportunity to share the work of such a successful up-and-coming playwright with Fall for the Book audiences, and to highlight playwriting in a way we don’t get to do every year,” said Kara Oakleaf, Festival Manager.”

In a recent phone interview, Hoffman described Jarcho’s work as unique, distinctive, provocative and not political.   When asked for other playwrights or authors for comparison, Hoffman responded with names such as David Lynch, Bertolt Brecht, Harold Pinter, and American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis.

Grimly Handsome will challenge an audience with its subtle dream-like qualities, indicated Hoffman. One of the play’s “fascinating purposes is to bring emotional interaction with the audience…but not to unify the audience.” she added. “It is a different kind of theater, a new mode of writing, story-telling and narrative.”

In a lovely metaphor, Hoffman described Jarcho’s writing and narrative as what we see as light is diffused flowing  through “a prism;  endlessly multiplied.”

The following is edited from phone and email interviews with Julia Jarcho by DCMTA’s David Siegel.

David: Why did you want to become a playwright?

Julia: It’s very exciting to hold the attention of a room full of people. When I was little, like everyone else, I used to want to be an actor, or a dancer. Later on I played in a rock band. But it’s become clear to me that I can make more complicated and enjoyable things happen onstage when I’m not performing. Language is the medium in which my muscles work the best, so I make these events in writing first, and then in staging, with actors and designers. There’s a fantasy that I think animates most playwriting: that you can seize control of an entire four-dimensional space by writing down some words. That’s a thrilling thing to feel, and then–unlike most fantasies–it’s even more thrilling when you turn out to be wrong, because whereas (for me anyway) it’s very difficult to love something you made by yourself, it is possible to love something you make with other people.

What has inspired your playwriting over the years?

I think the number one inspiration is just allowing yourself to experience the strangeness around you. Not smoothing over the incommensurabilities and bizarreries that assail you every day, resisting the pressure to apply the commonsense assumption that really things are more or less predictable and normal. They’re not! For example, every year when it gets cold in my city, small forests of pine trees sprout overnight full-grown on the sidewalks, ruled over by rugged, ageless, and unplaceable foreign men. These are territories that do not exist until, suddenly, they do.

Of course there’s another way to describe this phenomenon, which makes it sound like there’s nothing weird about it at all. Over the years, the artists who’ve inspired me the most are the ones who hold open the door to the weirdness. Writers like Lautreamont and Henry James, and Jane Bowles, David Lynch, The Pixies, and other theater artists I feel very lucky to be alive amongst, like Mac Wellman, Richard Maxwell, Anne Washburn, and Elevator Repair Service.

Specific to Grimly Handsome, how did it take shape?

Those Christmas tree stands I mentioned above have always affected me very powerfully. With pleasure I mean. There is a really strong desire to be part of that world– growing up I always loved places in the middle of cities that seem like interruptions of cityness– like backyard gardens, for instance, or terraces, or of course certain parts of parks. Even vacant lots sometimes. I suppose they’re like theaters, in that they’re these odd dips in which the larger environment gets suspended and new rules are in effect– rules of the forest! So, I thought I would make a play that would let me spend some time in one of those worlds. And what I would want to find there would certainly be some kind of fantastical criminality.

left to right:  Pete Simpson and Ben Williams in 'GRIMLY HANDSOME' at Incubator Arts Project, in New York, 2013. Photo by Alex Fabozzi.
left to right: Pete Simpson and Ben Williams in ‘GRIMLY HANDSOME’ at Incubator Arts Project, in New York, in 2013. Photo by Alex Fabozzi.

So Grimly Handsome“started with Part I, about two wicked Christmas Tree salesmen in the city and the young woman who tries to navigate their forest. I had been watching a lot of police procedurals, and that seemed like it would be an interesting compliment, which led to Part II, in which the same actors play their counterparts on the side of the law. And then there had to be something to mess with the symmetry, and I was at the Providence Zoo with a friend on a chilly, rainy day right before closing time, and we saw the red pandas– which are sort of everything you want in an animal. The idea of the play ultimately dissolving or breaking down past the human made a lot of sense to me, so that’s where Part III came from.

The logic of the play developed also from discussions with designers– especially the costume designer, Ásta Hostetter, who is fantastic. We were doing it at the sadly now-defunct Incubator Arts Project in Saint Marks Church, with a very small budget, but we were able to be very specific about the look and feel of each part. That was also a credit to the actors, two of whom– Jenny Seastone Stern and Ben Williams–have worked with me a bunch of times, one of whom– Pete Simpson– I’d also known for years; all of whom are incredibly smart, generous athletes of the stage.

In Grimly Handsome lines such as “I like to help people. I like to make them happy” or “She said I could take it…because I’m handsome. How do they arrive in your mind?

Sometimes I’ll think of, or hear, a phrase or a sentence and write it down and try to work it into something, but usually my scenes grow from situations. But on the other hand, the characters are always creating their situations through the language, not just responding to them. And they are rarely expressing something they already know. So, for example, in the first line you mention, Alesh–the “handsome” tree vendor–is trying out a line of thought to see where it will lead, including to see what it will provoke in Gregor, his partner. My characters tend to have experimental relationships to language.

As I understand, your works haven’t been produced yet in the DC area. If you could introduce yourself to DC area artistic directors how would you do that?  What might you say to them?

I’d say that my collaborators and I make pieces of theater that are funny and strange and precise, that will be pleasing to people who enjoy wild words and ideas, funny accents and viral videos of furry animals. That we believe it’s always possible to do something new, and that is what is interesting to us about theater as a live medium. And then I would ask them to take a look at some of the work.

The last word is from Bill Miller, Fall for the Book Festival Executive Director speaking about the staged reading of Grimly Handsome at a literary festival. “A staged reading brings to life the words that the writer shaped and gives them a presence that a normal textual reading doesn’t afford audience-members…we are keenly interested in showing the diversity of experiences that can come through reading, and that includes working through various channels or modes in order to make the experience real for readers. ”

left to right: Jenny Seastone Stern, Ben Williams, and Pete Simpson in 'GRIMLY HANDSOME' at Incubator Arts Project, in New York, in 2013. Photo by Alex Fabozzi.
left to right: Jenny Seastone Stern, Ben Williams, and Pete Simpson in ‘GRIMLY HANDSOME’ at Incubator Arts Project, in New York, in 2013. Photo by Alex Fabozzi.

Here is information on the 2014 Fall For the Book Festival to be held from September 11-18, 2014, and Julia Jarcho’s appearances at the Festival.

Playwright Julia Jarcho @ Sandy Spring Bank Tent, Johnson Center Plaza, George Mason University -4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA.  September 12, 10:30 a.m. – 11:45 a.m.

– The OBIE Award-winning playwright and director discusses the craft of playwriting with specific attention to her work Grimly Handsome.

-A staged reading of Grimly Handsome will take place from 8 to 9:15 pm on September 12,, 2014 in the Harris Theatre at George Mason University – 4400 University Drive, in Fairfax, VA. It will feature actors from the original production.

Read more

Julia Jarcho’s bio.

Beth Hoffman’s bio.


  1. Thanks for the heads-up! Great interview and sounds fantastic. These words are so appealing: “experience the strangeness”. So often, that’s why I head to the theatre!


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