A Conversation with Jaime Jarrett
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Written by Esther Cohen
Art by Michelle Tse
April 25, 2016
Jaime Jarrett is a composer, playwright, and student at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Their musical Normativity is being produced as part of The Next Link Project at The New York Musical Theatre Festival this July. We sat down at The Last Drop Coffee House in Philadelphia to discuss Normativity, being a queer person in theater, the limits of representation, and of course, Fun Home.
Esther Cohen: What’s your elevator pitch? How would you describe yourself as a person and an artist?
Jaime Jarrett: I got started in theater really young, maybe 6 years old. My parents sent me to workshops and classes, so I was a performer in the beginning.
EC: Everyone starts out in community theater musicals.
JJ: Yes! I think the first thing I did was Disney. And I always loved writing songs – I was writing these little songs when I was really young – but I started actually writing songs on guitar and piano when I was in middle school. I put my songs on Youtube for a while, but those are all gone now, of course. When I got to college I deleted them, because some of my friends were finding them, and those were not the type of thing I wanted circulating. They were really embarrassing. I realized that I really loved writing music my senior year of high school. I wrote this song that was a parody about being a hipster. Everyone always called me a hipster in high school, even though, if they had used their brains, they would have realized I was actually just gay. Like, wow, I wore a lot of flannels, I wonder why that was! So I wrote this parody song for a class and I kept getting asked to perform it again and again at school functions. And I started thinking, “Wow, people like this. I’m doing something cool that people like.” And then I wrote a film underscore for another class, and I won an award for that piece. That was when I started connecting the dots and going, “Oh, I’m good at this.”
EC: Discovering that you’re good at something is the best feeling.
JJ: It’s really wild. My freshman year of college, I wrote this song, and I remember showing it to the girl I was dating at the time and my sister, and I remember them saying “How did you do that?!” That was one of the first songs I wrote for Normativity.
EC: How did Normativity come about? It seems like it’s had a long development period before even getting to NYMF.
JJ: It started as this 60-minute show called Don’t Bury Your Gays.
EC: Oh god, what a title.
JJ: I know! And I got this mishmash group together of my friends and people who were friends of friends and we just did a show. And a lot of people came to see it. I was totally blown away by that. The summer after my freshman year of college, I made myself stay at school in Philadelphia so that I would write everyday. I would go to the practice rooms at 11 am everyday and I would stay for 6 or 7 hours. I’d bring my lunch and I’d just stay and write music all day. I wrote so much stuff that didn’t even end up in the show, but the whole point was that I was working really hard. I’m so grateful that I had that summer to kick myself into gear and say “I’m going to finish this show. I’m just going to do it until its done.” I was grateful for the consistency that writing gave my life. The schedule of waking up, eating breakfast, exercising, and then sitting with a piano for 7 hours. I loved that. That felt amazing. Especially because I don’t think I’ll ever have the chance to really do something like that again. Life gets in the way, y’know?
EC: And now you’re going to NYMF! How did the show get there?
JJ: I applied on a whim, knowing that there was a really high chance I wouldn’t get in. They told me I’d hear back sometime in December about whether or not I was being considered. And on December 1st, I got an email telling me I was being considered as a finalist. And that was “¦ I mean, I was screaming and jumping around because I had never been recognized that way before.
EC:: And NYMF is such an incredible festival!
JJ: I mean, it’s blowing my mind. I’m really grateful. And since then, everything has just been falling into place. Like, Mia [Walker], our director, was just casually talking to Rachel [Sussman], the Director of Programming, about what she wanted to work on next, and she told Rachel that she wanted to work on a lesbian love story. So from the first time I spoke with Rachel, she was able to say “We already have a director who’s interested.” And Mia is great. I think that our morality and our issues with the world lie in the same place, so I think we’re really going to click.
EC: Normativity is a story very much plucked from your own experiences. What’s your view on queer representation in media? What void are you trying to fill with Normativity?
JJ: Even with a really supportive family and friend group, I struggled with coming out to people. And as I continued to come out – because it really is an ongoing process – I was trying to pick apart why I wasn’t feeling comfortable with my identity yet. So I started looking at the theater and the media I was taking in, looking at the portrait of lesbians that was being painted there, and I thought, “this is where I think something is going wrong.”
That portrait was abysmal and made me feel like I did not have a life ahead of me in any way. I just remember thinking, and this is kind of dark, but I remember thinking pretty confidently that I was going to die before I was 30. I wasn’t suicidal, I just felt that I wasn’t going to have a long life.
EC: You were asking “What’s next?” and there didn’t seem to be a clear answer.
JJ: Exactly. I didn’t see any queer stories. I remember going into Barnes & Nobles and saying “I want a book with a lesbian protagonist. Can you help me find that?” And they searched, and searched, and searched, and found nothing. In an entire bookstore! There were floors and floors of books, and they couldn’t find one. Eventually, they directed me to the queer section. Which is the same at every Barnes & Noble I’ve ever been to. It’s two shelves, one labeled gay, one labeled lesbian. And it’s all erotica. And I was standing there wondering “Is this me? Is this what I get as a person?” I did find a handful of books with protagonists who were questioning their sexuality, but it was always a really taboo thing. There’s actually a line in the Normativity script that is pulled directly from the back of a book like that, in which a girl’s life gets turned upside down when she falls in love with a girl because she didn’t even know that could happen and now everything is so wrong! Why does realizing you’re gay always have to be associated with “and now my life is going to shit”?
EC: Why can’t it be “I realized I’m gay. And then, life continues.”
JJ: Yes! Life continues! We never see lesbian stories that continue on past the point of realizing you’re gay. It’s always about the tragedy of coming out. I just wanted to read a book about a girl whose problems didn’t revolve around her being queer. And that was so hard to find. So Normativity is about literally rewriting the queer narrative and pushing it in that direction.
EC: How do you think Fun Home deals with telling a fully-realized story about a gay woman without being all about the fact that she’s gay?
JJ: If someone asked me what Fun Home was about, in one word, I would say family. It’s about the connections that a child and parent can have, and it’s about uncovering your family’s past and rewriting the past. And I think it just so happens that one of the connections that Alison and Bruce shared was that they were both queer. But I wouldn’t say Fun Home is about being gay. What makes that novel and that show so great is that it’s not just about one thing – there’s so much to connect to. It’s written for anyone who doesn’t see themselves, who doesn’t know how to identify themselves in the world. That “Ring of Keys” song isn’t just about seeing someone like you who is gay – it’s about seeing someone who is like you, period.
EC: It’s about the thought of “I can live past 30 being who I am.”
JJ: Exactly. And my “Ring of Keys” moment came really late, in that it came when I saw Fun Home. I saw the show and I thought, “Oh, this is me. This is the kind of person I am.” I’m so grateful for that, and I do feel very connected to Alison Bechdel as an artist because of that.
EC: The ability to identify oneself in art and the media is obviously important to your work. How far do you think representation and truthfulness need to go in creating narratives? In other words, do writers and actors simply have to look the part, or do they have to have lived it too?
JJ: That’s a complicated question. So I’m gonna give you a complicated answer.
JJ: I have this discussion every time I newly cast Normativity. We want a cast full of people who are queer. But what’s the deal if we see someone who is really right for the role and they happen to be straight? It’s a tricky question. And so far, we’ve only had straight women play the two lesbian characters. We’ve never had queer women in those roles. So even in my own work, I don’t have a clear answer.
As far as gender and race goes, I’m very strong and unwavering on the point that, if a character is trans or if a character is black, it must be a trans actor or a black actor playing that role.
EC: And why is that? Is it about bringing truth to the role? Or is it about artistic opportunity?
JJ: My friend explained this in a great way the other day. He is a cis man and he once played a serial killer. And he was saying, well, theoretically, in some world, he could become a serial killer. That’s something that could happen, it’s an experience he can tap into that is in the realm of possibility. However, no matter the experiences he goes through, he identifies as male and is never gonna be a trans man. And, no matter the experiences he goes through, he is white and is never going to become black. Identities are developed over time, but there are certain aspects of your identity that do not change. Your race doesn’t change, and while gender is fluid, I think we can all agree that there are cis people who will always identify as cis. There isn’t anything that can change that fact about you.
So it’s about truth of experience and it’s also about opportunity. Because if my cis male friend is cast in a trans role, there is a trans actor out there being actively denied an opportunity.
EC: Does your take on this issue change when it comes to writing experiences? Because a big part of playwriting is accurately writing a whole host of characters who might be completely different from you.
JJ: As someone who is queer, I can certainly speak to the sexuality aspect of that. I do think straight people should be writing queer stories as well. If straight people only write straight stories and queer people only write queer stories, then we’re not going to – well, first of all, we’re going to have fewer queer stories, because there’s less queer representation amongst playwrights.
EC: Right, and if white people only write plays about white people – which they kind of already do – there will be very few stories about anyone who is not white.
JJ: Yes. And as a white playwright, I can’t fully speak to the race aspect. Because maybe I’d like to say that I can totally write a truthful story from a black perspective, but could I? What I could do is listen. A lot. I once had a man ask me, “How do I write about women?” And I told him, to get a truthful perspective, you just have to listen. You have to talk to actual, real, live women and actually listen to their stories. If you don’t know someone’s life and lifestyle, and you want to write about that, then you have to actively learn and not stereotype and not fetishize.
EC: Talk to me about your experience being a woman and being queer in theater.
JJ: So, while I can certainly speak to experiences in the theater as a woman – because for most of my life I’ve been treated as one – I think it’s important to clarify that I currently identify as genderqueer.
EC: Great point.
JJ: When I was younger and auditioning for female roles, there was this weird competitiveness. I was realizing that all my friends who were male got cast all the time because there was a scarcity, and because there were so many girls, I just wouldn’t get callbacks for things. I just remember thinking that that didn’t make sense, because these boys who I was working just as hard as or harder than were getting roles, and I wasn’t getting any turnaround.
EC: When I was maybe 14 I have a distinct memory of a director telling me I didn’t “look like a leading lady.” When you’re not traditionally pretty as a female actress your options shrink intensely.
JJ: I remember all my dance teachers talking about my weight when I was younger. I would always hear that if I lost a couple pounds that I would be more marketable. And I’ve always felt uncomfortable with my body, but I could never figure out why. In the past couple years, I’ve come to identify somewhere in between the binary genders. I’m somewhere along that spectrum. So being told that my body wasn’t right, that it wasn’t female or feminine enough, when I was only 12 years old, was difficult. And men or boys just don’t get as much flack for their bodies not being perfect or not looking right.
EC: How did your experience change as you moved from acting to playwriting?
JJ: When I made the switch over to being a playwriting major, I started to dress how I wanted to dress. I realized that I didn’t have to be female anymore. I switched my major and I cut off all my hair. I was changing my major to Joan! I used that joke a lot when I was changing majors. I don’t really wear dresses anymore, I don’t really wear makeup – except for my eyebrows –
EC: On fleek eyebrows are important no matter who you are.
JJ: Yes, of course. So moving away from acting meant I got to stop thinking about how to make myself desirable for men to look at. Because even though I was never actually trying to attract men sexually, it still mattered what they thought.
EC: Because men rule the industry.
JJ: Exactly. And that’s part of why I love working with women and with non-binary folks. I feel very safe in that environment. And even if I’m working with men who identify as queer, there’s a shared perspective there that I like.
EC: One last fun question. Who or what inspires your work? Who are some of your dream collaborators?
JJ: When I was really young, one of my first memories is of my Mom playing a song from Falsettos on the piano and my Dad singing along. It’s such a beautiful song – “What More Can I Say” – about falling deeply in love with someone. And of course I ended up becoming so obsessed with queer politics, so William Finn has always had a big influence on my work. I also have such a love for the basics. I love Sondheim. And – this sounds so nerdy – sometimes I’ll just sit and listen to A Little Night Music because I think it’s just such a beautiful score and there’s a lot to learn from it. Also, although I know I’m so different from Lin-Manuel Miranda, I’m obsessed with his work. And if I could work with him one day, I would die. He’s just so smart. I just admire his sheer creativity. And I think he’s very socially-aware, which makes me happy.
Jaime Jarett is a Philadelphia-based playwright, composer, and lyricist who is currently studying Directing, Playwriting, and Production at the University of the Arts. Writing credits include Normativity, Aubade, The Cabin Play, and Brief Connection(s). They were the associate music director of Sometimes in Prague and will music direct and orchestrate the upcoming Hear Me War. Dramaturgy credits include She Keeps Me Warm and Michael Friedman’s American Pop. They are the recipient of the NVOT Outstanding Original Score Award for their work on the film From Me To You. Projects currently in development include Hearts, Brains, and Other Organs: A Song Collection in Progress and Fair Woman. They are particularly enthusiastic about bringing queer stories to the stage.