Q&A: Julie James looking for jewels from local playwrights

Jewel Theatre Company art director Julie James.
(Via Jewel Theatre Company)

Jewel Theatre Company artistic director Julie James says she has one goal: To produce one new play a year.

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Jewel Theater Art Director Julie James

“Remains to Be Seen” marks the third time that Jewel Theatre Company has programmed a play by Santa Cruz playwright Kate Hawley, following “Complications From a Fall” in 2015 and “Coming of Age” in 2018. That means Hawley is now a known commodity at Jewel, but it’s still a rarity that a local theater company will present the fully staged work of a local playwright. We chatted with Jewel’s artistic director, Julie James, about Jewel’s approach to unknown or local playwrights and her commitment to expose her audiences to new plays.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Lookout: What is Jewel’s policy regarding local or unknown playwrights? Do you take submissions? Do you go out and seek out promising playwrights?

Julie James: Yes, it is part of my goal to nurture the development of new works. And, to that end, I have maintained relationships with playwrights who are submitting new plays to me. I don’t actively put out a notice to submit new work, but being a theater, people submit new work anyway. I try to read everything that people submit. We had one planned for the year of the pandemic, but that got quashed. It’s a goal to do a new work every year.

Lookout: Is it a risk to do a play from an unknown playwright?

James: I wouldn’t call it a risk. I mean, if there’s a risk, it’s in probably making less money on tickets. But just because I don’t think they will sell as well as something else, that’s not a reason for me not to do it. I like to do all kinds of shows, and I know some of them will possibly not be a good seller. But I still think it’s a valuable script even though it might not be everybody’s cup of tea. But I want to bring (audiences) something sometimes that’s not their cup of tea.

Lookout: There must be some kind of advantage to doing these kinds of plays, too. You get to use that tag “world premiere.” And, as Kate Hawley has done, you can often have the playwright around in rehearsals. Are there positives in doing new and local playwrights?

James: Absolutely, all of those you mentioned. And often there are certain grantors out there in the theater world, specific to theater funding, who appreciate and who like to see that you’re helping to cultivate new work in some way. So it can be an advantage for that kind of funding and development. You can get grants specifically to commission and develop new work with an artist that you have a relationship with. So yeah, there’s a lot of benefits from it that outweigh or make up for maybe fewer ticket sales because people don’t know the play or the playwright.

Jewel Theatre is set to give Santa Cruz playwright Kate Hawley a world premiere of “Remains to Be Seen.” It’s the third...

Lookout: What’s your message to aspiring playwrights who want to get their plays on the radar of you and other producers of theater?

James: I wouldn’t want to limit the type of things I receive, because I like to be open. And sometimes you can go, “Oh, wow, I never would think to do that. But that looks interesting.” Some places that are bigger, of course, they have people assigned to work on new works, and they have restrictions and this and that. But for people like me, where I wear 12 million hats, I would say to people that to feel free to send something, and also feel free to remind us that you sent something, but not to an irritating point. We need reminders about all kinds of things because I just have too much going on.

I want to bring (audiences) something sometimes that’s not their cup of tea.

— Julie James, on her philosophy as Jewel Theatre Company’s artistic director

If you’re not getting positive feedback, don’t take it too personally because sometimes it’s just that it’s not really a Jewel Theatre play. It’s not that I don’t like it, but maybe that the writing is not up to snuff yet, so to speak. Because some of them are very green, and there’s a lot of stuff that needs a lot of work. But there’s also good stuff that’s just not to my taste. But have some persistence, but don’t be too pushy. Persistence is good because it just reminds me, “Oh, yeah, I didn’t take a look at that and I should,” and then when I take a look at it, then I’ll know better.

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