Literary Arts | Theater

Based on a True Story: The Versatile Elaine Jarvik Plays It Where It Lays

I had forgotten she plays the drums. Or that she once wrote the Itty Bitty Salt Lake City feature for the Deseret News.

Amazing what you discover while researching a piece on someone you thought you already knew a lot about.

Elaine Jarvik is a woman of numerous talents: 27 years as a writer with the local LDS Church-owned newspaper, followed by a stint doing a few stories for The Salt Lake Tribune, all alongside a successful career as a playwright – her latest, “Based on a True Story,” sold out before rehearsals even began. I mean, who does that?

She won’t lay claim to the title “reporter” because “I’ll ask questions, but I’m not really great at digging out information,” she says; but will accept “feature writer” since that’s precisely what she did so well for so long. Who knows how many successful productions it will take before she’s willing to call herself a playwright? “I still have a little nametag they gave me at Humana [Festival of New American Plays] that says ‘Elaine Jarvik  . . .  Playwright’ and I keep that where I can see it every day,” she says with a quick laugh.

But she does dig when she writes features and is known for digging deep. I still vividly recall her 1995 story about “The Little Lama Who Loves Power Rangers” – a Bountiful first-grader who was the 23rd reincarnation of an important Tibetan religious figure. He would soon leave Utah to train in a monastery far, far away, giving up the American toys (all but one) he loved so dearly.

Another starts like this:

He once was chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court. In those days he wore a different black robe, but that was then and this is now, and, as any Buddhist knows, then is not so important. In those days he sat on the bench. Now he is sitting, cross-legged, on the floor.

In his deep, serious voice he begins: “Goso said, ‘To give an example, it is like a buffalo passing through a window. The head, the horns and the four legs have already passed through, but the tail has not. Why is it that the tail cannot?”

How does she DO that? You want to read on and on and on. And, of course, you will.

Jarvik truly likes going deeper into any religion and just about any other subject she comes across. She prefers longer-form stories, creative nonfiction. “I like just the writing part of it,” she states firmly.

While she was growing up in Maryland, her mother worked for the Department of the Army in their marksmanship program affiliated with the NRA and her father was an economist with the Commerce Department in Washington, D.C. Jake Levin was also a poet whose work infrequently appeared in The New York Times and who wrote gags for cartoonists just for fun as well as quips – Nepotism: putting on heirs – that were often published in the Wall Street Journal and Saturday Evening Post. He encouraged his daughter to compose a few poems when she was 7 or 8 and then put them in a scrapbook for her – Jarvik’s earliest experience as a published writer.

Later in life, at Syracuse University in New York, she changed her journalism major after discovering she was too shy to do interviews. (These days, she says, “I’m a little awkward; I don’t think I’m shy.”) Diploma in hand, she considered the Peace Corps, “but I would have been a disaster,” and decided on the prestigious master’s program in journalism at Illinois’ Northwestern University, despite previous reservations about the field. “I knew how to write,” she recalls. “In high school I realized that even if I didn’t understand what I was talking about I could make it sound good.”

At Northwestern, assigned to interview congressional delegates in Washington, D.C., she discovered, “I really do love writing. I will write anything,” she says with a smile, making the analogy that she loves to play the drums: “I will play any kind of music as long as I get to play the drums.”  She has played for 25 years.

After a newspaper job in Washington, she married and moved to Italy where her now ex-husband, Robert Jarvik of artificial heart fame, attended medical school. They would later move to Utah and have the two children he has not seen in decades. Those events eventually led to a play, (“a man enters”), written by Jarvik with their artist/author daughter Kate Jarvik Birch, produced in 2011 at Salt Lake Acting Company. (Birch lives a few houses down the street from her mother; son Tyler is in Portland. Grandchildren range in age from 8 to 20.) “I don’t know why I stayed here,” Jarvik muses. “But I’m kind of the victim of inertia, fear of change: kids in school, friends. I am not LDS but went to work for the Deseret News and felt part of this culture. They treated me really well. This whole state has treated me very well.”

At the News, Jarvik only worked full time for about a year and a half until the birth of her son, then freelanced for nine years before returning to the paper full time. She also worked for the now-defunct Utah Holiday magazine and currently writes profiles for the U’s Continuum. An inveterate freelancer, she likes being productive (trying to write something every morning) and spent six months last year working on a book on the Vietnam war.

Jarvik used to write longhand, when the children were small, because her manual typewriter was noisy and would wake them. “I thought I would never be able to compose on a typewriter. Now, I can’t think through a pen.” Today she uses a computer, a Mac Air, but says she is a very slow writer. “I labor at it.” And she deletes a lot.

She always wanted a desk by a window, too. Now that she has one, Jarvik has discovered that when you write, “you really don’t look out the window all that much.”

The collaborative effort with her daughter was not Jarvik’s first play. After thinking she would like to write the book to a musical based on a newspaper story she had written “about missed connections, like ‘I Saw You’ in the back of City Weekly,” she started reading books about playwriting “and was basically self-taught” early on. She took a workshop at SLAC around 2004 from noted New York-based playwright J.T. Rogers. With encouragement and help from Robert Benjamin, a high school friend who ended up a physicist in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and also writes plays, she began working on a form called the 10-Minute Play. Her short work, “Dead Right,” about a person wondering what someone would say about them in their obituary, was one of four plays selected out of more than 1,200 submissions at the 2008 Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky. It has since been published in a textbook, The Bedford Introduction to Literature,where it shares company with playwrights such as Shakespeare and Arthur Miller. “Dead Right” has now been produced in some10 states and Canada. “The Coming Ice Age,” a prequel to that play, about the person who was in the obituary, was produced by Pygmalion Theatre Company in 2010.

A year ago December, Jarvik wrote “Marry Christmas,” for Plan-B, about what it felt like to people she interviewed to get married during that 17-day window when same-sex marriage became legal in Utah after the state’s Amendment 3 was declared unconstitutional. It was creative nonfiction for the theater. “People already know the outcome so you have to tell it in an engaging way,” says the playwright.


“Two Stories,” for SLAC last February, was another play about “things that get under my skin,” she says. There were two threads to the story. One follows a journalist, a feature writer, natch, afraid she is going to lose her job. The other is about “people who build monster houses and block the view of somebody next door. So it’s about privacy and who gets to control what and who gets to control the story you’re telling,” says the playwright. We reviewed it here.

Jarvik explains that her current play at Plan-B, “Based on a True Story,” is about trying “to understand faith and comfort” —Jarvik is a non-believer but attends the nearby Presbyterian church, where she enjoys the sense of community, playing the drums, and the “incredible sermons of Pastor and poet Scott Dalgarno, being reminded each week to be a better person.” It’s also about time travel. The story takes place in 2046, after a malfunction in a time machine that was supposed to let you go backwards. The intake worker at the shelter where Megan ends up in the future on a search for her husband is a guy named Chuck with troubles of his own.

Asked what it’s like to give her play over to a director, Jarvik says, “I like to have control, so it’s hard, but I trust these people completely, so that’s not the problem. For me, the problem is that I’m always dissatisfied with my own work so I start seeing what I would like to have changed – and it’s too late.”

“I know the director and actors understand my plays better than I do.” She says that their interpretations can sometimes surprise her. “That’s how theater works.”

Later, while pondering what her favorite feature story of all time might be (we ask the most insightful questions, don’t we?) Jarvik mentions an incredible windstorm that occurred one Christmas “around the time Sony was hacked. And garbage cans were blown over and people’s stuff, their secrets, got spread all over the neighborhood. I picked up a lot of it and put it back into the cans. Think of it: nature hacking people’s secrets. There’s got to be a play there . . . “

The ever-imaginative Elaine Jarvik is on another role.



Categories: Literary Arts | Theater

4 replies »

  1. I love the way you work this information into an engaging story: feature writer on the feature writer. I saw the latest play and wrote this note to the author:

    I’ve spent the weekend thinking about your play, which we saw Friday night. I’ll keep thinking about it, I suspect, for some time.
    I don’t know if I have ever written the words “mordant wit” — but those are the words that get at the heart of what I saw and heard and felt. Wit in the sense of wisdom laced with humor (Witz in German is the root of our wit and it has that double meaning of joke and wisdom).
    The themes are deadly serious: faith and lack of faith and meaning and where meaning most productively come from. Does it matter if the stories aren’t literally true? Does it matter if believers think they are literally true? Are religions positive or negative for societies on the whole? Why do some smart people believe and others just as smart don’t?
    There are stupid ways to get at these questions, mean ways, angry ways, dismissive ways, logically powerful ways, hopeful ways, faithful ways.
    And there is your play.
    When Lessing got in trouble with the authorities in 18th-century Enlightenment Germany for pointing out the stupidities of a powerful pastor who argued that the Bible was literally true, he turned to what he called his “old pulpit,” the stage. Nathan the Wise was the play — still one of my favorite plays. Because it is a play, it is subtle and supple, funny and profound, thoughtful in the ways good literature can be.
    Based on a True Story worked in me similarly. It’s funny as hell. It’s poignant as it deals with fears and loss, the very things that can send us to religion. It’s wonderful satire, the kind that snuggles up to what it is making fun of. It is thoughtful rather than mean. And it raises and raises again that question that works as the brilliant title: is it based on a true story?
    There are several “true stories” ghosting through the play, all of them interwoven. The time travel puts the main character in such different sets of circumstances that she is left to think about true stories in the ways we are as mortal beings. And she doesn’t flinch. I liked her a lot.
    Live theater ups the ante, and last night everything worked for me. A good play in the hands of good theater people.

  2. Great story about an amazing woman. I thought I knew her quite well, but I learned some things in this story. That’s the way it always is with Elaine.

  3. It wasn’t easy, Scott, to write about a writer I admire so much. AND to put her work in the story so people can see just how great a writer she is. But it had to be done (sigh).

  4. The first thing to catch my eye…Jarvik. I knew the name but couldn’t place it. Oh..yes the artificial heart dr. The next thing to stand out was working at the Deseret News. I knew instantly that she must be a member. But no! She is not a member of the church that owns and publishes the news. Who in their right mind would plant themselves into a tight culture with pretty much its own lingo and not be one of them. Who does that? I think there is a play right there. And she doesn’t have to be a full tithe payer to keep her job with the church. (One of the very few who can get away with that). I did not like the swipe at the ex who hasn’t seen his kids in years. That is another play. What happened. He certainly loves his kids. Is this a way to score points against the ex wife? Why didn’t dr Jarvik see his kids? Why did his wife mention this? Is she public shaming him? Is the bitterness of the divorce still smouldering? Why? Why can’t she move past this? I don’t think there is a play there.

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