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Julia Jarcho brings new vision to MFA Playwriting Program

Playwright, director began first term as head of MFA program

Julia Jarcho, a playwright and director, began her first term this semester as the Head of Playwriting for the Master of Fine Arts Playwriting program. Jarcho will help Brown playwriting students to develop skills for theatre performance.

The MFA Playwriting program is a three-year graduate program at the University that allows students to lean “into faithful transformation of society through theatrical action,” according to the program’s website. Alongside their courses, MFA students attend a graduate playwriting workshop — collaborating with actors, designers and directors — during all six semesters.

Jarcho has a PhD in rhetoric from the University of California at Berkeley and has been a professor in the Department of English at New York University since 2013. Her New York City theater company, Minor Theater, promises audiences “dark humor and goofball precision ... where we feed off pop culture’s sticky undergut,” according to the company’s website. Some notable works by Minor Theater include “Grimly Handsome” and “Pathetic,” both written and produced by Jarcho.

In a review of Jarcho’s 2017 production “The Terrifying,” the New York Times named Jarcho “a queen of experimental mayhem.”

Jarcho was drawn to the Brown MFA Playwriting program for its reputation “of being intellectual, of drawing people who make work thoughtfully, theoretically … and who think creatively,” Jarcho wrote in an email to The Herald. “I write criticism and theory too, and while I think of that and art-making as distinct practices, I always want to be in places where you can keep them both in the room with you — and I want to put my energy into making and maintaining those places,” Jarcho wrote.

“Leading this program is a chance to think about what I value in theatrical practice and new writing, and then implement those values at a level that can actually help shape a larger sense of what is possible in this field,” Jarcho wrote. “The teaching itself, the chance to work closely with a small group of committed, talented writers and … help them figure out how (their work) can grow, get weirder and funnier and more courageous — that’s the kind of teaching I like best.”

The MFA Playwriting program was initially founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel in 1984. Vogel served as the director of the program until 2008.  The program was originally housed under the Literary Arts department, but moved to the Department of Theatre Arts and Performance Studies in 2010, “in order to bring playwrights closer to the performance of their work,” The Herald previously reported.

“We were looking for a head of playwriting who would be committed to developing emerging playwrights in our MFA and BFA programs and who would be an innovative artist in their own right,” wrote Patricia Ybarra, chair of the TAPS department, in an email to The Herald. “Julia brought skills of rigorous pedagogy and generosity as well as a strong formal vision. … I think she will support our blending of theory and practice in the department, which serves all of our students and our own vision,” Ybarra wrote.

Jarcho’s arrival coincided with MFA admissions season and the Writing Is Live playwriting festival. While still adapting to her new role and learning about the program, Jarcho is “trying to watch and listen and figure out what’s here and what’s not here yet.”

“I want to make sure there’s a stable, recurring structure for what we offer students — grads and undergrads — in the course of their time here,” Jarcho wrote. She emphasized the importance of experimentation: “It is very important to me that within this structure, students understand themselves as responsible for their own projects. So for example it’s not, ‘Come to Brown and get your plays put on by the theater department,’ but, ‘Come to Brown and write some plays that are so rigorous and wild they surprise even you, and then make them happen onstage.”

Jarcho looks forward to bringing new innovative approaches to the MFA Playwriting program. “Designing a new blueprint for the program is a big project, and it’s great to have colleagues and students to think with me in that endeavor.”

Outside of her role at the University, Jarcho also currently has several projects in the works with Minor Theater. “Marie It’s Time,” her adaptation of Georg Büchner’s “Woyzeck,” reimagined as a two-woman rock concert, will be performed Feb. 24 and 25 at the HERE Arts Center in New York City. Jarcho is also working on her second critical theory book on “masochism, literary genre and 20th-century theater.”

“She’s on the forefront of taking this discipline to another level,” said Kym Moore, professor of theatre arts and performance studies. Jarcho “is not only a playwright, but a director. She does experimental work. She’s a brilliant scholar.”


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