Interview: Jonathan Spector on his Aurora winning play

Jonathan Spector. Photo: Cheshire Isaacs
Jonathan Spector, author of the play FTW which was chosen by Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre for its tenth annual Global Age Project (GAP). Photo: Cheshire Isaacs

Ask playwrights about their interest in theater and you will likely travel back in time to a childhood — if not further back to ancestral DNA — leading them to fall in love with words.

Such is the case with Jonathan Spector, who attended four different elementary schools in a family of fluid movers as they followed his professor father’s career from Washington, D.C. to Alabama and beyond. Entering each blacktop playground scene as the new kid, Spector analyzed relationships, learned the “language” of novel circumstances, developed an eye for the social color of various classrooms and communities. In non-theater words, he learned to get along.

So it comes as no surprise that FTW, a new play selected by Aurora Theatre Company for the 10th annual Global Age Project (GAP), is all about relationships and characters playing out large, social concerns against a backdrop ripped right out of everyday life.

“I wrote this very quickly; it’s very local West Oakland,” Spector says in an interview. “It’s three women who went to college together and how the shared experience falsely flattened out differences between them. They launch themselves into the world thinking they are the same and find out that is not the case.”


Flinging themselves into the unknown is not the only reason the characters embody GAP’s manifesto. If the four-week festival of free staged readings (this year by three different playwrights) is designed to promote the creation of forward-thinking theater, and it is, then Spector’s FTW (“For the win!”) threesome could be the perfect mascots.

One millennial works for Google; another, for Teach for America. The third roommate is studying community development in grad school.

“Their ideals are in conflict in fundamental ways. That’s part of the tension of the play,” Spector says.

And it’s part of the tension of life in the 21st-century global age, where diversity is desired, feared, admired, resented — and unstoppable.

Spector, co-artistic director of the independent-minded Just Theater with his wife, director Molly Aaronson-Gelb, welcomes the challenge of putting a non-produced new work in front of an audience. He says Aurora’s post-performance feedback sessions are the best in the Bay Area.


“They don’t put the playwright on the stage,” he explains.

That simple, intentional act of omission releases the audience from what he says can become “people telling you everything you did wrong.” He finds the resulting dialogue invaluable.

Perhaps it satisfies his tendency to eavesdrop.

“I listen to conversations on BART, on the street, everywhere. I’m fascinated by pedestrian language. It’s almost impossible to get real world language to sound genuine on the stage,” he says.

While writing drafts and during the play’s short rehearsal period, Spector will be stripping stray dialogue from the script while holding on to four thematic “strands” he imagines thread through the plot. Comparing the process to a juggler “keeping all the balls in the air,” he plans to do little to no staging — deferring to Jessica Heidt who directs FTW.


“Without staging, the actors focus on the text and the audience hears the play,” he says.

In many ways, Spector himself will “first hear” the play when it is being read by actors onstage. He often starts a new play with a question, but says he’s not always chasing an answer. Primarily, it’s deeper understanding of the question that he seeks.

Retrospective provides insight — reflecting on a play will tell him what he was working on, providing a safe, reliable feeling. But knowing what’s ahead, beginning a new work or predicting which play submitted to Just Theater will strike him and Aaronson-Gelb as irresistible territory, are harder to define.

“For any playwright, a driving curiosity about the world and a sense of humbleness to ever fully grasp that (story or truth) are essential,” he said, describing what he believes are writers of any genre’s essential characteristics. As for the nuts and bolts of a script that works, he said, “Language, structure, the way stories are told. Other than that, it’s tricky.”

Aurora Artistic Director Tom Ross says in a press release that the tenth anniversary GAP is “a time to look back and reflect on all of the wonderful work we have been privileged to read and produce.” Out of 250 submissions this year, he notes that the festival’s three winners (receiving a $1,000 award, staged reading and consideration for further development during the company’s main stage season) include “a playwright who resides in our own backyard…Spector.” Spector was a GAP director in 2011 and his In From the Cold was a prize-winning play in 2013.

The Aurora announced that instead of presenting four GAP playwrights, as has happened in prior years, GAP will celebrate its first decade and close the 2015 festival with a party featuring original casts performing scenes from GAP plays on Monday, March 2.

For find out more, visit the Aurora’s website.

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