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Theater In Dialogue

Scalping History: JULIA JARCHO with Richard Maxwell

Richard Maxwell: I had a strange experience reading your play. It has density and yet it still feels ephemeral. I liked trying to graph the different worlds that you’re presenting. I’m also wondering when the official interview will begin.

Julia Jarcho: It’s already happening.

Maxwell: Reading this play I felt like there was an urge to get to the root, in a historical sense.

Jarcho: I think that’s what the play is about: what’s involved in wanting to know the truth about something. Wanting to get to the root, or the source. So that for instance a particular story—like  the story of John Smith and Pocahontas—becomes a primal scene.

Maxwell: You have two actors playing all these different characters that are related to that primal scene. Can you talk about what the relationship is?

Jarcho: Well, the two characters that the play centers around are a History Detective and a Girl who comes and asks him to help her solve a mystery concerning her sister. The different characters that they wind up playing throughout the rest of the play, and the scenes that happen between those characters, are like stages of discovery in the pursuit of the mystery.

Maxwell: There’s a real sense of metaphor throughout the play. I don’t want to give anything away, but, what does the scalping represent?

Jarcho: Scalping is so interesting to me because it’s a backwards image—it seems to be an image of the savagery of the Natives, but because this image enters the culture in order to justify genocide, it’s actually secretly an image of that savagery—of “our” savagery. It’s a head trip—the part that goes over your brain. And it’s a figure of incompleteness, of missing parts—unwholeness and unwholesomeness.

Maxwell: That relates to another question I have: there’s a love story here too.

Jarcho: I think that in probably most of my plays, love kind of appears as a vanishing point. It orients characters, but without there ever being any consummation or satisfaction really. So in this play there’s the desiring of the past, of history as something we can’t ever get ahold of, something we can’t quite put together or get together with. I started writing this because I had just seen National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, with Nicolas Cage. Have you seen that movie?

Maxwell: No.

Jarcho: Have you seen the first National Treasure movie?

Maxwell: No. I missed those two. I saw The Mummy. Does that help?

Jarcho: Kind of similar, I guess. In those movies there’s this idea that by answering the historical question you are putting things to right in the present, and there’s a kind of desperation to that fantasy that’s interesting to me. I’ve never been very good at working with historical facts, but history interests me as a point for fantasies to attach to.

Maxwell: But I detect a bias. Your sympathies fall with the underdog.

Jarcho: Because how could you not feel bad for a people being exterminated? Or, almost exterminated. And that’s interesting too—the fact that Native Americans have been so often represented as completely vanished, that it’s been convenient politically or mythologically to portray them as not existing in the present at all, to the point that in many people’s minds they don’t. The titillation of the historical tragedy—in a way, my feeling like I’m in a position to relate myself to the underdog in this situation is part of what I’m trying to question in this play. When I watch a documentary on the Trail of Tears and it gets me all fired up—I’m obviously getting something out of that, and do I deserve to be getting it?

Maxwell: Do you feel like to have a claim on this story, you would need to be Native American?

Jarcho: I don’t know what would give me a claim on this story. But I definitely don’t have it. Because obviously these are not just historical issues; there are plenty of folks who are devoting their lives right now to trying to make things better for Native people and trying to make some progress towards correcting these events. And the fact that I’m not doing that—that I’m not helping—to me that does restrict my entitlement. I can talk about what it’s like to live in a world where certain stories are told, and what it’s like to have feelings about these stories. I think it’s valuable to dwell on those questions in art, in theater. I’m not entitled to make pronouncements or come to conclusions. But I don’t think that an answer or a solution has to have been reached in order for there to be a reason to make a play.

Maxwell: And then I guess you’re putting it into the audience’s laps in a way, to make what they can with that. Is that what you’re doing?

Jarcho: I think so. I mean, when I leave a play, I don’t really want to know completely what’s just happened. I like not being sure and having to think about it. And I think that with plays that touch on politically relevant themes there’s a real danger of creating something that people can just congratulate themselves on agreeing with.

Maxwell: Right.

Jarcho: And so I don’t want that. I’d rather keep a kind of discomfort going. Because mostly discomfort is what I feel, so I don’t want anyone else to get away with being comfortable.

Maxwell: What does it mean to enjoy yourself in theater, if comfort isn’t the goal?

Jarcho: I think for me, it needs to feel strenuous. When I go see a play, I want to feel that I’m working, at least a little. That I’m being stretched. That I have to pay attention, or maybe that I don’t know exactly how to pay attention the whole time. For me that’s part of what theater offers in terms of enjoyment—a kind of athletic experience. Probably because I never actually exercise or play sports. So this is—

Maxwell: This is your workout.
Jarcho: Yeah. Have you seen Wall-E? It’s in the future and everyone just sits in chairs and gets fat and watches things. I think my idea of theater is geared toward those people.  [Notices a painting on the wall.] Is that JFK?

Maxwell: Yeah.

Jarcho: What else do you have in your house?

Maxwell: OK,I think that’s all.

Jarcho: Do you think there’s any more questions about playwriting you should ask me?

Maxwell: Your process—I guess that’s what we would be talking about here.

Jarcho:  My process usually starts with a feeling. Of anger or sadness or excitement about something. And then trying to find the contours of the thing that is producing that feeling, and then using that as a launchpad for a bunch of stage events. And I don’t know that I’m actually trying to produce that feeling in the audience, but my sense that there’s something worth writing about usually comes from there. [Pause.] I like to talk about my process because it makes me feel interesting and legitimate.

Maxwell: I’m hoping that they can somehow, in the Brooklyn Rail, capture these pauses.

Jarcho: It’s probably going to be me typing it up. So I can do whatever I want.

Maxwell: You’re really gonna transcribe this?

Jarcho: Well, we have a volunteer who’s supposed to do it, but-

Maxwell: That’s gonna take a lot of time.

Jarcho: Yeah. I think I might have to be selective. I might include this part, because I kind of like it.

Maxwell: This part right now?

Jarcho: Yeah.

Maxwell: Us talking about the interview?

Jarcho: Yeah.

Maxwell: Before, when I was asking the questions, I felt really dumb. But I was thinking that when it appeared in print, it probably would look pretty smart. That’s what I was thinking. I was asking the questions and I was wondering about it the whole time—not the whole time, but more or less—thinking what’s this gonna look like in print?

Jarcho: Yeah. I was a little worried because I was feeling like people reading this who didn’t know what the play was about, or who I am, might not care what the scalp represents and stuff.

Maxwell: Well I disagree with that, because you need something. As soon as you mention “history” in print my feeling is that most people start to turn off. If you say “scalping,” you know, that’s an image that people can latch onto.

Jarcho: Yeah, well that’s why in American Treasure the only parts of history involved are the steamiest possible ones, like scalping and romance.

Maxwell: Do you want anything in your tea?

Jarcho: No, I’m fine, thanks.


Julia Jarcho’s play American Treasure, produced by 13P, will premiere at the Paradise Factory on November 21 and runs through Dec 12.

IN DIALOGUE is a column written by playwrights about playwrights, with a focus on showcasing new texts. If you are a playwright and would like to write a column, please contact Emily DeVoti at


Richard Maxwell

RICHARD MAXWELL is a playwright and director and the founder of New York City Players.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2009

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