No Longer Waiting for Someone to Let Her In: An Interview with Playwright Julie Jensen

I have known Julie Jensen’s work ever since I came to Utah over 30 years ago, and we have been members together of the Playwrights Lab at Plan-B Theatre for a number of years now but this interview with her was the first time I learned about her journey as a playwright.

Julie started out in theatre as an actor, but became frustrated with having to wait for someone to “let me in.” After college, she was auditioning for a Shakespeare festival in California and said to herself, “If I don’t get this, I’m going to do something else.” She didn’t get it, and so she decided to turn to writing – because “you don’t need anyone’s permission” to do that.

She found that for some reason she was always writing plays, maybe because she started out as an actor. She tried writing in other genres, but then the characters would start talking – “and then there it goes,” she’d be writing a play instead of a story.

She saw teaching as a way to make a living and still write. Her BA and MA are in English and she taught dramatic literature in a college English department for 12 years – dramatic literature is, after all, still literature – “but it was always theatre.” She ended up with a PhD in theatre from Wayne State University in Michigan.

Then there was a stint in Hollywood, but “I couldn’t quite figure out how to do TV.” She returned to playwriting, won a “big” contest and eventually was hired by UNLV to run their graduate program in playwriting. She said the job was “heaven – but unfortunately you had to live in hell” (Las Vegas, that is). She got a grant and came to SLC as part of the grant requirements – and ended up staying even after the grant ended.

Colleen Baum as Annie Adams in Julie Jensen’s “Mother, Mother” (Photo courtesy Pygmalion Theatre Company)

Julie’s new play, Mother, Mother: The Many Mothers of Maude, opens on November 4th at the Rose Wagner. The play is about Annie Adams, an actress from Utah who is mostly known today as the mother of Maude Adams — was one of the best known (and highest paid) actresses of the early twentieth century. Among many other leading roles, Maude was the original Peter Pan on Broadway. She got her start in theatre through her mother – beginning when she was just two months old – and for a time toured with Annie through the mining camps and start-up towns of the West. Julie says, “Most of what happens in this play happened in fact — the rest of it could have.”

Julie was drawn to Annie’s story for a couple of reasons. First, she writes with a Western point of view, and Annie’s story is mainly set in the West: Annie’s father was a polygamist, she grew up in Salt Lake City, and Brigham Young helped her get her first roles. But mostly, she identifies with Annie’s desire to be a professional in a world that didn’t want to let her in, to have a career in theatre. She saw “the struggle of it all” as a reflection of “my own struggle with my own career.”

If you’re writing about women, you’re probably going to end up writing about mothers and daughters and there are two pairs in the play: Annie and her mother, Julia, and Annie and her daughter, Maude. Julie sees some of her own mother in the central character of Annie. “My mother was incredibly ambitious, probably would have wanted to be a college educator, but she lived in Beaver, and no one cared about what she cared about.” She watched her mother getting older and not achieving what she would have liked to have achieved, and some of that ended up in the play.

Nicole Finney as Maude Adams, Barb Gandy as Julia Ann Adams and Colleen Baum as Annie Adams. (photo courtesy Pygmalion Theatre Company)

Writing the play was itself a bit of a struggle. She had been working on it for a while and then ran into a piece of research that threw her for a loop. “I discovered that Annie had an affair with a senator, who was married and had two kids.” And on top of that, he had an established mistress, who also had children by him. When the mistress found out about Annie, she shot and killed the senator. And Julie said to herself “I don’t want to write about that.” She feared the shooting would dominate the story, so it would be all about what the men are doing and what happens to the men. She put the play aside until she could figure out how to keep the focus on the women.

At some point she realized that the mistress shooting the senator was like something out of the 19th-century’s theatrical tropes, and that became the way to approach the story. The play is modern in its sensibilities, but the language has 19th-century inflections. And the male characters — all played by a single actor — are more like stock characters from a melodrama, unlike the women, who are fully drawn, complicated individuals.
And like much (all?) of Julie’s writing, the play is mordantly funny. I couldn’t resist asking where her sense of humor came from, and Julie’s answer was unexpected:

“My sister. She’s the funniest person I know, wickedly funny, and I’m usually the butt of her humor. What she says is pithy, and true, and she’s also really brave, a lot braver than I am. So I write in her voice a lot.”

Mother, Mother
is being produced by PYGmalion Productions and runs from November 4th through November 19th, Fridays through Sundays, at the Rose Wagner. Masks are required for two performances (on Nov 10th and 17th); for all other performances, masks are recommended but not required. Ticket info is available at

Categories: Theater

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