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In Depth: “Untethered” by Julia Edwards

May 10, 2015

10984616_10205027635624016_8944670423992970330_nLast Friday was opening night of Untethered, a new play by local Julia Edwards. She was kind enough to find the time to answer our questions…

 

HP: Untethered is described as “a wacky new love story—not the Hallmark variety—the messy, screwing up, begging for mercy kind.”

Where did the source story for Untethered come from and how did it evolve?

JE: I have been writing Untethered on and off since I was pregnant with my daughter, Sadie, who is now 7 years old! I have been doing readings and workshops and rewrites over the years. Several years ago, I started working with director Jen Bloom and fellow UCSD grads Adam J. Smith and Joy Osmanski with the desire to ultimately put the play on its feet some day. The seven-year writing process was not really my plan but the pro to this epic timeline is that I gained necessary distance from the work. I had months between hearing a reading to actually being able to work on rewrites and that time and space away from the script truly elucidated what needed to be done.

The ideas behind Untethered (which was previously titled Ellie’s Third Eye and Death of Dreams) were born in 2002 when I became engaged. I had nightmares. Bad ones. My fiancée died in lots of them. Suddenly I had something to lose. And from that moment I understood the delicate relationship between love and death. They are tethered together, each forcing meaning on the other.

 

Photos by Kathryn Roberts

Joy Osmanski (Ellie) and Adam J. Smith (Ari) in Untethered; photos by Kathryn Roberts

 

This play was born in 1964 when my grandmother died. My grandfather went off to work a night shift and when he arrived home, she was dead from a brain clot at the age of 54, leaving him alone to wander the world, writing haiku. He wrote about how much he missed her. About regret. About things he should have said to her when she was alive. And worse, things he shouldn’t have said and could now never take back. My grandfather’s haiku wove themselves into this play because it is also about time and inheritance. About appreciating a moment and repeating our mistakes—and perhaps those that have come before us.

This play was born in 1959 when my parents were married. Fifty years later on their wedding anniversary, I interviewed them. How do you make a marriage last? I asked. My father, the mathematician, said: time and space. Perhaps that’s why I wrote the fourth dimension into the play? Because when we speak of love, concrete meaning eludes us. Yet every time I write, I write about love. I write about fear. And I write about our messy attempts to find a home. As Ellie says in the play,

I refuse to let time mend my wounds
I refuse to move on
Don’t they understand?
Love isn’t an emotion
It’s a place
You are my home
And I’m not leaving.

What drove me back to the play again and again over those years of rewrites was a desire to capture the vulnerability that comes with love. And, of course, the strength.

 

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HP: A father as a siren from the sea and portals into the time-bending 4th dimensional…how did these elements come into your consciousness and become a part of your play? What do you like about these elements that you consider them essential and/or chose to go down this road beyond concrete reality?

JE: I took a class called The Fourth Dimension while I was an undergrad at Brown University from Professor Thomas Banchoff, a pioneer in the field. The class was populated by hardcore mathematics majors as well as curious humanities students. I was the latter. We read Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, we pondered what four-dimensional shapes would look like in our three-dimensional world, and…the math students talked math. I remember one student’s final project involved him using the foundations of topology to get himself out of a jacket with its sleeves tied together.

Two decades later, the class remains with me. Not so much the math part but the allegory of it. As the character Abbott says in the play, “Mathematics has a long history of sounding impossible.” Galileo was tried for heresy, Cantor (who introduced us to the notion of infinity) wound up in a mental institution. For me, the fourth dimension allows us to imagine the impossible.

 

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Ellie imagines what it would be like if we could relive moments—not just in a video or even holographic way—but really be there. Wouldn’t it be cool? No, says her semiotician boyfriend, Ari. “Because time is the only thing with absolute meaning. And if the past wasn’t the past then the future wouldn’t be the future and your precious present wouldn’t mean anything.” While time travel is so enticing, the very fact that we are imprisoned by the present is what makes these transient moments of our lives so precious.

The “siren of the sea” was a long time coming in this script. Generally when I am writing and rewriting, there’s one scene or character that eludes me. I must have rewritten the last ten pages of Family Planning fifty times. For this script, it was Niko. I tried so many incarnations. From real to godlike, from very young to eternal. I landed on a purposefully opaque blend between the two. Is she a girl who fished Ari out of the ocean and saved his life? Or is she a siren playing with a mortal, like a cat with catnip? Or both? Ultimately, she is the embodiment of temptation. When we ponder a mate for life and have an uneasy feeling—is this the one or…could it be someone else? For Ari, Niko is the test.

 

Untethered

 

HP: Family Planning was performed “site-specifically” at a private home. Was this a conscious or necessary decision? Same question regarding Untethered…is Mt. View the venue you would choose over all others or was the decision to stage it there a necessity, about availability, etc.?

JE: When I was little, I staged original plays and skits in my house and forced my parents to pay me money to watch them. I recall a monologue on the toilet—that still makes me laugh. When director Larissa Kokernot suggested that we do Family Planning in real houses, I was blasted back to the past. Yes! I felt like I was going back to my roots. And now I’m a convert.

Here’s the thing that’s different about site-specific work. The audience does not know what to expect. The house lights don’t conveniently go down and you don’t sink anonymously into a plush seat. You are visible. You are a part of the experience. In Family Planning, the actors were inches from audience members. At one point in the play, we split the audience—one half seeing one scene and the other half seeing another scene. After the play, they had to trade notes. That’s the key for me. The audience is activated in a way that is much more visceral.

 

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When I was first looking for a venue for Untethered, all I knew was that I wanted something unconventional. A friend turned me onto Unbound Production’s Wicked Lit, which mounts a new production every October at the Mausoleum. I ran home after the show, read the entire script and knew Untethered needed to be realized there. Ellie’s fear of death suddenly felt palpable, mixing with our own fears of being surrounded by the dead. I have had my share of sleepless nights since that decision. Why am I doing a play in a mausoleum? What was I thinking!? But among these halls of “a million dead love stories” we can ponder how to make love last…before it’s too late.

HP: What have been the upsides of working at Mt. View. I imagine that you imagined how it would be staged, etc., but once in the venue rehearsing, was there anything(s) that surprised you, challenged you, and/or thwarted you?

Challenges? Yeah. The list is long but my favorite one is: Dead center in our space, the Cloister Garden, there are a bunch of wires sticking straight up about eight inches. They were once used to power a fountain and the cemetery wants to keep them there for a future fountain. Initially we thought we’d plop a set piece over the wires but the play had become so much more fluid. We needed the set to move so that actors and dancers could be free. We spent hours discussing how we could mask the wires. A platform? A box? A blob? Then one night, Jen had a vision of a tree (a main image in the play) with its roots exposed hovering, surreal, in the center of the space—obscuring the wires and representing that which tethers us to the earth.

 

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HP: When your pen is drawn to paper or your fingers to the keyboard to begin a new work, can you verbalize what leads you?

JE: Every play evolves differently of course, but for me everything starts with a deep emotional core. With Family Planning, which is about a couple dealing with fertility issues, I had witnessed my sister and her husband going through years of issues and treatments and dead ends. Her emotional journey was the heart of the play.

For Untethered, fear of death was the key. My own vivid nightmares about losing my fiancée were one catalyst. But the fear of death goes further back. Ari reveals what it was like for his ten-year-old self to find his dead mother. This experience is grounded in my own finding-death experience, discovering a college suitemate who had taken her own life. A suitemate and I had to call 911 and attempt to deliver CPR though we later discovered that she was long dead. We were completely unprepared to fathom what death looked like with our own eyes and felt like with our own hands. Processing deep emotions is what fuels my writing. It’s where I can face down my fears.

Another piece of the puzzle was my grandfather’s haiku. He died in his Lazy Boy chair with his haiku pad at his side, one final haiku written:

home from work tired
you waiting, your smile, your kiss
a cup of tea

He spent the years since his wife’s early death processing his grief, 17 syllables at a time. I needed to make sense of his years of longing and regret by writing this very haiku into the play.

 

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HP: Is Untethered a minimalist work? What about staging, production design, set design, costume?

JE: When we were first scouting locations at the Mountain View Cemetery, I fell in love with the Pasadena Mausoleum. I could envision the ocean on a wide set of stairs. The space is beautiful and huge and…all marble. Jen and I quickly realized that a two-hour play in an echo chamber was impossible. After wandering hallways in the larger Mountain View Mausoleum, we came upon the Cloister Garden. On the second floor of the mausoleum, it is surrounded by interior hallways, but there’s no ceiling and…no echo. The perfect place for a play.

Our designers came aboard very excited about mounting this play site-specifically and were committed to the idea of realizing the play to fit the space. We don’t have fancy lights or special effects. The set and setting are minimal because we know the space itself informs the experience.

 

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While we didn’t want to compete with echoes for two hours, it seemed a shame not to make more use of the magnificent space. Jen found a spot in the play, when the characters delve into the fourth dimension, where we could potentially move the audience. Like Ari searching for the fourth dimension, the audience could share in his otherworldly experience. But was it technically do-able? We scheduled a nighttime rehearsal in the space. We flipped lots of ancient switches until just the chandelier in the Grand Hall was lit. Joy and Adam ran their final few scenes of the play. Steven, our composer and musician, filled the hall with gorgeous and haunting riffs. Adam delivered Ari’s final lines of the play vowing his love for Ellie until his last breath, among the thousands who have already passed. We had finally discovered the magic that drove this crazy vision.

 

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HP: A few personal questions? How are you feeling about StoryLab now as it’s getting some traction? Enjoying it? Growing, evolving?

JE: StoryLab evolves as I discover how to fit into the world of extracurricular activities like soccer and violin and tae kwon do and…the list is endless. There are only so many minutes in the day and parents have to pick those classes that will expose their kids to important subjects but also energize them after long days at school.

I worked all year long at Cottage Co-op Nursery school with pre-kindergarten students and it was a thrill to take my lessons gained at the Reading and Writing Institute that I attended last summer at Columbia University’s Teachers College and put them into practice. This is really one of my favorite ages to work with because I get to bear witness to some of the most magical firsts. Kids making their first letter-sound connections or, wow, the first time a child writes his name. It’s an honor to be a part of that. But even for those young’uns, I talk to them as writers. And they talk about themselves as writers. I think these early approximations are important so that writing does not go the way of subjects that kids decide later on they are “not good at.”

 

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I taught a site-specific playwriting class at our house near Eaton Canyon last summer that was a hoot. I had taught undergrads playwriting but never seven year olds. I had no idea what their starting place would be. I suppose that’s why I love teaching younger ages. It energizes me to relive the learning process.

I decided to circumvent the guesswork of figuring out what classes to offer at what time on what day by offering a Design Your Own Class option. A mom in Sierra Madre took me up on it this past winter. She had students eager to write stories and we created a class just for them. It was a joy to tailor a class to a specific group of people so I’ll be doing more of that in the future.

As soon as I have a spare moment, I’ll post some summer camps on the website (PasadenaStoryLab.com). I know we’ll be doing a sports writing class as well as something about Greek gods. And maybe playwriting again? Check back soon.

 

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HP: What is your favorite time of day and if you have it free, how would you spend it?

JE: I’m not very good with free time. As in I never seem to have any. I have a serious volunteering problem. And I don’t really know how to relax. But this was remedied somewhat last year when we got a hammock for the backyard. Suddenly, I had a destination to relax. This made sense to me. So I schedule Hammock Time and after my allotted relaxation session, I get back to the next project.

 

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Untethered
Runs through Sunday, June 7th
Friday & Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7:30 p.m.
Bonus show, Thursday, June 4th, 8 p.m.
Mt. View Mausoleum, 2400 Fair Oaks Ave., Altadena 91001
Tickets: $30, purchase here or call 1.323.960.1054
For complete info, visit UntetheredThePlay.com

 

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