Author of the Month: Julie Tepperman

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Tell us about yourself.

My name is Julie Tepperman, I live in Toronto (grew up in Thornhill) and I make a living as an actor, playwright, and educator. In 2006, I started an artist-driven theatre company, Convergence Theatre, with my husband, Aaron Willis. (We met while attending George Brown Theatre School . . . our first time working together was playing Sid & Florrie in Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets—how romantic!)

Convergence Theatre was born out of our shared desire to create opportunities for ourselves as actors, for me to start writing and Aaron to start directing, collaborate with like-minded peers, and bring together artists at different stages of their careers and from different disciplines. We think of ourselves as “accidental producers,” or “producers-by-necessity.” Though it was never our intention to be “producers,” initiating our own projects and being in control of what we work on and with whom, has been very rewarding.

As a result of starting Convergence Theatre, I’ve written three pieces so far that have had productions: ROSY (for AutoShow), I Grow Old (for The Gladstone Variations—Dora nomination), and YICHUD (Seclusion), which I’m excited to say was recently published byPlaywrights Canada Press.

In 2011, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre commissioned me to re-imagine August Strindberg’s play The Father, for Manitoba Theatre Centre’s Master Playwright Festival. Currently, I’m working on a one-person play called Hello, Birdie! about a high school drama teacher who gets into hot water when students post an inappropriate video of him on YouTube.

When did you realize you had a passion for writing?

I recently went through bags and bags of old school stuff—a bag for each year from grade three onwards. I recycled most of it, but I kept all of my writing. I feel like somewhere in there is the key to how I became me . . . I hadn’t realized how much I was actually writing when I was in elementary school—mostly short stories or novels abandoned after chapter one. I even discovered an attempt at my autobiography when I was ten! I remember feeling exhausted by the time I got through introducing everyone in my family in great detail—I went downstairs for hot chocolate and never went back! Stamina was my biggest problem. It still is in a way, but deadlines help with that now. I think the problem was that I always set the bar way too high, like writing an 800-page autobiography—I was defeated before I began. Self-defeating/self-sabotaging is still something I come up against, but at least now I’m aware that I’m doing it!

Every now and then my dad likes to remind me of how when he’d ask me if I ever considered being a writer when I grew up, and I would say that writing was too hard (compared to acting, which is what I wanted to do ever since I saw the movie Annie at the age of five). I think what I meant was that I found writing too taxing . . . probably because I had trouble finding my voice. Novels were what I was emulating, and I found that I was no good at descriptions (I even got bored when reading long descriptions in novels), and I felt limited by the way dialogue was written. I don’t think it ever occurred to me that I could write a play. It’s remarkable that in all of my elementary schooling—and I even attended an arts program—that nobody ever gave me a play to read!

When I was in grade six, an extra-curricular drama group I was part of decided to collectively create a show called Growing Up Is What You Make It. I ended up writing a short scene between two sisters, in which the younger sister discovers her older sister has been taking drugs and confronts her. The climactic moment: Stephanie: “Drugs! You’ve been taking drugs?!”

There was also the classic: “I’m gonna tell mom and dad on you!” Of course by the end of the scene, the older sister has agreed to stop using, and they hug and go watch TV. Its utter sincerity and Full House inspired happy ending makes me cringe, even now. I remember really hating saying many of the lines, and just feeling like a bad actor. (Yes, I wrote myself the part of the younger sister!) It wasn’t until I played Rachel in my playYICHUD that I realized if I’m not connecting with a line, duh, I can change it! In the YICHUD workshops, Richard Greenblatt (dramaturge and co-director) was always very clear when he was talking to Julie the playwright or Julie the actor. He encouraged my actor-self to advocate to my playwright-self, like any actor would on behalf of their character in a workshop process. (He also suggested I pretend that I auditioned three times to get the part!) So yes, it appears that I wrote a lot as a kid, but I never really thought of writing and acting as something I could marry . . . that is until . . . 

What pieces of writing/authors have had the greatest impact on you?

I discovered Daniel MacIvor and Diane Flacks when I was in high school. (On a side note, Diane was a drama teacher of mine when I was nine—she directed me in a play called The What If’s, based on Shel Silverstein poems. After years of quietly stalking her, she played my mom in YICHUD, and has become a friend, as well as a mentor.) See Bob Run, Wild Abandon, House, Here Lies Henry, and By A Thread made me feel like the world was my oyster in terms of playwriting. Those pieces resonated with me tremendously—their unabashed humanity, their exploration of what it feels like to be human, to struggle, to live in pain, to be lonely, to ask difficult questions. I imagined my ‘way in’ to the theatre would be as a playwright of one-woman shows that I’d perform myself. So far, that hasn’t been the case, but I do go back to those plays every now and then, as touchstones. Those writers taught me a lot about voice, style, rhythm, and theatricality, and they also taught me how to read plays—out loud!

How and when do you find time to write?

Ummm . . . after every e-mail is answered and every receipt is labeled and every dish is washed and oh yeah, I have to call my grandmother! A deadline often helps, either for a workshop, or a production, or from a commissioning theatre. Self-imposed deadlines are not as scary for me, therefore not as effective! I need to feel the pressure of other people relying on me to deliver something, so that their part of the process can happen. Often, when I’m in that pressure-cooker of a situation, I long for the day when the deadlines will all fall away and I can just write at my own pace. Though the odd time that actually hashappened I’ve found myself freaking out (“What is all this time?!”) and desperately wishing for a deadline! I think it has to do with needing to know there is an end in sight—a signpost on the road, a water stop on the marathon route—otherwise, I begin to feel isolated and panicked, the work suffers, and there is no pleasure. Writing with a production in mind (which is often the case for our Convergence Theatre shows) is a great privilege, because I am surrounded by a strong support network, and can also be thinking about audience, in a non-hypothetical way. Maybe one day I’ll find a balance, but so far in my short time writing, I tend to be most productive when the clock is a-ticking.

What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced as a writer?

Self-doubt. Second-guessing. Getting to a point where I can no longer hear the play. Wondering if anyone will care. Wondering if it will actually have an impact (“ . . . because I existed, something changed . . . ”)

In the case of The Father, I wasn’t able to go to Winnipeg until the last three days of rehearsal, so it was essentially dramaturgy by e-mail, which was not ideal. I felt quite vulnerable sitting in the audience on opening night; someone I know equated it to taking a bath in a room full of strangers! I’ve been quite spoiled in terms of development—I’m used to workshops, to being in the room with the actors and director and design team, to making my decisions based on what I hear and intuit from watching and listening to the actors. When they stumble, when they say something different from what I’ve written, where they breathe . . . all of this is super useful information for a playwright. It’s been my experience that, when plays are in the hands of good, skilled, generous actors, more often than not their accidental choices are better than the choices I made while sitting alone in front of my computer. I think it’s because I’m an actor myself, that I truly value the input of actors in the workshop/development process. An academic once accused me of being a weak and insecure playwright for needing other people! He had this romantic notion that plays are simply written, submitted to the theatre, and performed perfectly, word-for-word, as-is, end of story. Ha—not even Shakespeare wrote without the support and influence of his company. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about collective creation here—it’s not a democracy—we all have our roles, and as playwright, the final decision is always mine, but come on now, plays are not created alone in a room!

One of my all-time favourite Tony Kushner quotes on this topic is from his afterword inAngels in America, aptly titled, “A Little Help From My Friends” in which he says:

The fiction that artistic labor happens in isolation, and that individual talents are the sole provenance of artistic accomplishment, is politically, ideologically charged and, in my case at least, repudiated by the facts . . . While the primary labor on Angels has been mine (defensively, nervously, I hasten to shore up my claim to authorship), over two dozen people have contributed words, ideas, structures to these plays, including actors, directors, audiences, one night stands, my former lover and many friends . . . . Had I written these plays without the direct and indirect participation of my collaborators, the results would be entirely different and much the poorer for the deprivation—would, in fact, never have come to be.

How have you changed as a writer over the years?

In some ways I’m a lot more confident. Though check in with me on a bad day . . . Actually, I’m not sure that’s true at all. Every time I begin writing something new, I feel as though I’m starting from scratch, like I’ve never done this before in my life. After YICHUD, I wondered if I’d ever write anything again. Or at least write anything as close to my heart. I guess, having been through numerous processes, from the birth of an idea all the way to a full production, I now at least have a sense of what that journey feels like for me, and that’s somewhat of a comfort during the darker moments. Sometimes I look over at my pile ofYICHUD books stacked on my bookshelf (I buy them at my discounted ‘author rate’ and mail them out to artistic directors and producers with the hope that it might one day have more life elsewhere in the world) and I morbidly wonder if one day my grandchildren will bring a copy to my nursing home, in an effort to break through the Alzheimer haze. (“See Bubie, you did write a play once!”)

At the end of the day, it’s difficult for any artist to measure the impact their work has had. Of course, I know the impact my work has had on me, and on Aaron, and on Convergence Theatre, and I have somewhat of a sense of the impact it’s had on my fellow collaborators, but often the artist never knows if and how it’s impacted the audience and the larger community. This is something I struggle with, and contributes to my feelings of isolation in my work as a playwright. It’s also what’s motivated us at Convergence Theatre to explore ways of creating intimate and immersive audience experiences.

In the case of YICHUD, we had an inordinate amount of interaction with the audience—a pre-show that allowed us to improvise in character with them, and after the show Aaron and I made a point of making ourselves available, either with formal talkbacks, or just in general, so that we could engage with the audience and learn the way(s) in which the play resonated with them. One thing I learned from that experience is that I can’t control the lens through which people witness/experience a play. Everyone brings their own baggage and their own worldview to the theatre, and that impacts their experience. We also learned that the more specific we are, the more universal the play becomes. Maybe these things seem obvious, but they became even more so during our interactions with people aroundYICHUD, and that is something I often think about when considering audience and impact when starting work on a new project.

Perhaps this will read as portentous, but I really do believe that the creation of art, for me specifically theatre, is an integral element of tikkun olam—the Jewish concept of ‘repairing the world.’ Theatre asks us to engage more fully with our society and the world around us; it has enormous potential to transform us for the better by asking us to consider how to live more honestly and more fully, and how to treat each other better. Hopefully, in doing so, ‘a small piece of the broken world is mended.’ If I didn’t truly believe this, how could I go on?