Plays for Two is a unique anthology of twenty-eight terrific plays for two actors, by a mix of celebrated playwrights and cutting-edge new voices. I had the pleasure of speaking with playwright Jacob Juntunen about his play, Saddam's Lions, the impact Edward Albee had on his playwriting career, and upcoming work.
JACQUELINE LAWTON: Why did you decide to get into theatre? Was there someone or a particular show that inspired you?
JACOB JUNTUNEN: I always wanted to be a writer, but didn’t consider theatre until I was at Clackamas Community College in my early twenties. Luckily, at that time, CCC had a playwriting class taught by Sue Mach that helped me find my way. I didn’t see my first play until community college, and it was Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story. Jerry’s monologues made me feel like I wasn’t alone, that someone else was as alienated as I felt. When Edward Albee came to CCC, hearing him speak was like a thunderclap, and getting to work with him later in his playwriting classes at the University of Houston sold me on a life in the theatre.
JL: Tell me a little bit about your writing process. Do you have any writing rituals? Do you write in the same place or in different places?
JJ: I’ve actually tried to avoid rituals as much as possible so I that, in theory, I will be able to write anywhere, no matter the environment. In practice, though, I like to have tea, music, and an external keyboard/mouse for my laptop. The music, actually, is basically essential. Without it, my thoughts are too busy. The music occupies a chunk of my brain so that I can focus the rest of it on the emerging play. Also, when the play is new, I buy a big piece of poster board, write the title across the top of it in sharpie, and tape index cards to it with scene headings on them. I like to have that on the wall while I write, if I can. So it looks like I’ve failed to avoid rituals…
JL: Can you tell me about the play that’s being published in Plays for Two?
JJ: While I live in Carbondale running SIU’s MFA and PhD programs in playwriting, I consider Chicago my home base. Saddam’s Lions began as a collaboration between me and Chicago’s Vet Arts Project (VAP). Basically, VAP pairs artists of all kinds and veterans from all wars to help the veterans tell their stories. At that time, I was working with an actor friend whose sister had been an MP in Iraq. I interviewed her with her brother in the room, and it was an amazing experience. She shared things about which her brother didn’t know, by the end even talking about the death of her best friend. To see them come together was breathtaking, and I tried to take the transcript from that interview and turn it into a fiction that didn’t lose the truth of that encounter.
JL: What excited you about being a part of this anthology?
JJ: The most important part of this play, for me, was helping tell a veteran’s story and giving her family members some insight into her experience. I assumed that’s where it would end, that this play was a labor of love and activism. The fact that it’s become my most produced play, and now my first published play, is a real honor because I believe it speaks to the power of political theatre, even in the 21st century.
JL: What advice do you have for up-and-coming playwrights?
JJ: See theatre, read plays, and write. Consider a funded MFA program (like SIU’s!). You’ve got to always be seeing and reading a ton of plays in order to keep up with the conversation. You need to know the classics; you need to know the scholarly dialogue, to some extent, around the classics so you understand how the canon shifts over time (like when Machinal returned to the canon in the 1990s). You also need to know current new plays, not to compete, but to engage with them. Your writing will be part of the new play ecology, so if you don’t know your surroundings, you’ll be missing a big part of how spectators will receive your plays. Finally, graduate school isn’t necessary for everybody, but it’s worth thinking about. Graduate school provides space to practice your writing deliberately, to give it all your concentration, and be guided by a skilled mentor.
JL: What next for you? Where can we follow your work?
JJ: There’s lots coming up. On March 25, my ten-minute play See Him? will be part of the Belarus Dream Theatre project in which 18 theatres in 12 countries will present plays meant to call attention to the human rights violations by the government in Belarus. My full-length, Joan’s Laughter, will be done at SIU as part of our annual Big Muddy New Plays Festival April 3-6; Joan’s Laughter will also have a production in Columbus, OH at Shots in the Dark Productions this summer. Finally, and maybe most exciting, on May 12-14 my latest full-length, In the Shadow of his Language, will have a reading in New York, but the producing theatre hasn’t publicly announced it yet. Watch my website for more info as the date gets closer! www.jacobjuntunen.com
You can also read short plays I write monthly at: RiposteToTheWorld.blogspot.com
About the Playwright
Jacob Juntunen is a playwright and theatre scholar whose work focuses on people struggling against society’s boundaries. He heads the playwriting MFA and PhD at SIU (Southern Illinois University). His latest play, In The Shadow Of His Language (Alliance/Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Contest Finalist; O’Neill Playwrights Conference Semi-Finalist; Princess Grace Fellowship Semi-Finalist) was read at Chicago Dramatists, as part of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs “In the Works” series, and at the Alliance Theatre. Other plays include Under America, Joan’s Laughter, and Saddam’s Lions (published in Vintage Press’ Plays for Two). His work has been featured in TimeOut Magazine, and developed at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He has won Lee Blessing and Tennessee Williams Scholarships, as well as grants from the Illinois Arts Council. Juntunen’s work has been performed at the Alliance Theatre (Atlanta), Barrow Group (NYC), Source Festival (DC), the Vestige Group (Austin), and, in Chicago, at the Side Project, Chicago Dramatists, and others. His scholarship on the politics of performance has appeared in Theatre Journal, Puppetry International, Polish-AngloSaxon Studies, and a variety of anthologies. Additional recognition includes a 2011 Faculty Fulbright Fellowship at Adam Mickiewicz University (Poznań, Poland) and a 2014 Thesaurus Poloniae Senior Scholar Fellowship (Kraków, Poland).
About the Anthology
I'm a playwright, dramaturg, and teaching artist. It is here where you'll find my queries and musings on life, theater and the world. My posts advocate for diversity, inclusion, and equity in the American Theatre and updates on my own work. Please enjoy!