For one month, when Julia May Jonas was 17 years old, she was sent to a wayward girls institution. The way she tells it, she quickly realized that she was more sane than the others, but like any good teenager, she got swept up in the drama of the place. Recently, she began thinking about her time there, about the things they did, about the routines. They had goal setting sessions, interpersonal therapy, drawing therapy, movement therapy, art therapy. Clearly, this was the beginning of a recipe—she just needed to fill it out.
When Jonas’s stint was up at the institution, she wasn’t ready to go. She tried to tell them, convince them, that she’d really been acting the entire time and she shouldn’t be let out. The powers that be weren’t buying it and let her know that there was once an actor there and that she “turned the place upside down with all of her acting.” They dismissed her pleas to stay, and she was sent home. Cut to years later, cut to writing plays and finishing up the MFA program at Columbia, and you’ll find Nellie Tinder at the Bushwick Starr presenting Jonas’s homage to this unique experience: her new play Evelyn. (Much later, Jonas found out that it was indeed a very high profile actor that had been there, but don’t even ask her, she’s not telling.)
Nellie Tinder, Jonas’s production company, is not named after a real person. Jonas likes to say the name came to her in a dream, but she doesn’t really think that’s true. She’s partial to real names, even if they’re not real people. But Nellie Tinder had a certain feel to it, a sense of tone that seems to be a guiding force for work that Jonas writes and directs. The name has “an old fashioned flair to it,” and Jonas likes the idea of that being a guiding principle for the work.
“I love a good take down story,” Jonas says while describing Evelyn. Enter—the institution. The inmates. The great actress. The forest. Rituals in the woods. Spells. A love affair. A betrayal. “Evelyn comes into the facility and everyone is just generally upset by her presence,” she says. “It’s like, how weird—what a strange thing to be at this vulnerable strange place divorced of anything that makes you feel real at all, and then to have someone come in that feels MORE real than YOU in a way. And so at first she is very upsetting, but then the head therapist tells her she is no different than anyone else here. So, she decides she’s going to pull the facility down. She’s a little bit of an ant burner. She wants to watch people squirm. Because she can.”
Influences while Jonas was writing the piece range from Balzac’s Cousin Bette to getting really into the music of the Dirty Projectors. With the latter, she liked how these “emotional bursts would come out of nowhere inside of this kind of colder aesthetic,” all of which are elements she’s now working with as she creates Evelyn. “My aesthetic is usually really warm,” she says. “To the point of wet. To the point that it can make me really uncomfortable how warm it is.” She’s brought in some designers to help lend a moodier aesthetic (specifically production designer Ryan Holsopple of 31 Down), adding a more stylized coldness to the stage. Jonas wants to embrace the “dark stranger comes to town” feel of it and reflect it in the design.
Composer Jon Lundbom and Jonas work on the music together. They’ve collaborated often over the past few years, discussing themes and eras of interest to Jonas as a starting point. They are writing a bunch of new music for Evelyn. It’s going to be live—a lot of straight harmonic singing, with the actors all playing the instruments that they can actually play—violin, clarinet, keyboard, tambourine, xylophone. All the actors are singers/can sing, but they’re not “musical theater people.” The interest clearly isn’t in creating a musical. Rather, as she says, it’s more like a “deconstructed musical.” (It’s probably pretty clear that no one’s going to take over for Mimi in Rent next month.)
Bushwick Starr’s Artistic Director, Noel Allain, comments on Jonas’s unique style, saying that “as a writer I love Julia’s humor, sensitivity, and her eye for the ironies in life. As a director, her habit of seamlessly blending elements of dance, theater, and music fills her work with surprises and makes the whole evening a discovery.” Jonas expands on that, noting that she wants the audience to feel the play, too. She wants them to experience “the feeling of lifting you get when something is rhythmically pleasing… . It would be great if they felt the exhaustion of a whirlwind coming at you and then leaving you depleted. I don’t know if I experience that with plays in the same way you do with a novel. When you feel that really great sinking. I do like that feeling.”
The world of Evelyn is lyrical and magical, but rooted in reality. “I picked up this Wicca book so I started working with all these Wicca spells,” Jonas explains. She is drawn to characters who embrace magic because they can represent people pushed to a point of desperation in their search for answers, people willing to try anything. Jonas is exploring “this idea of being somebody and being nobody. And when do you feel like nobody, and when do you feel like somebody, and how that’s such a malleable feeling…I wanted there to be these woods and this place outside. This place where you couldn’t go. This dark woods surrounding. It’s a very common thing representing the unknown. A place of freedom and hiding, but also a place of great fear. You know, the outside world… .You have an institution, you have woods, you need some witches.”