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March 2016
Utah's Art Magazine: Published by Artists of Utah
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Elaine Jarvik . . . from page 1

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. You can read it here.

Another starts like this:

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.

Theater: Salt Lake City
Climbing with Tigers
Red Fred Project, Salt Lake Acting Company and Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory bring a child’s vision to life

Picture a young child coloring: they smile in delight at picking out just the right crayon or enthusiastically grab a random one from the floor; they fill the page with broad strokes of vibrant color without any regard for the lines (assuming there are any); and an infectious sense of uninhibited glee brightens their eyes because they know that with just a little magic, the pictures they create can become an entire world of their own making, where epic adventure awaits. For a child’s imagination has unmistakable power—just ask 9-year-old Nathan Glad, a sweet-natured little boy with Osteogenesis Imperfecta (or brittle bones disease), whose dreams of becoming stronger inspired a book he helped to co-create and which has now been brought to life, illustrations and all, as a hero’s journey for the stage in the world premiere of Climbing with Tigers.

Published in 2014, Climbing with Tigers is the first in a series of books from the Red Fred Project, the brainchild of author, designer and illustrator Dallas Graham, who hopes to create 50 books with 50 critically ill children from all 50 states, the proceeds going to help pay the child’s medical expenses. The books feature stories developed by the children and illustrations by Graham—including photographic backdrops and Graham’s iconic cast of bird characters, “Red Fred and The Jolly Troop,” made from a series of exaggerated punctuation marks.

The project’s first collaborator was young Nathan, an authority on facing challenges, who with Graham’s help created a charming, whimsical story about overcoming obstacles. Climbing with Tigers is a tale about a bird named Blue who, because he has fragile bones, won’t venture away from his tree until a chance encounter with The Jolly Troop changes everything. With help from his adventurous new friends, Blue learns that frightening dragons and roaring tigers are not always what they seem and because his dream of being able to fly is more formidable than his fears, he ultimately conquers great challenges.

Like Blue, Graham is a dreamer, always searching for more. So he wasn’t content just to bring Glad’s story to the printed page. After the successful launch of the book, he approached his longtime friend Robert Scott Smith to see if his Flying Bobcat Theatrical Laboratory would adapt Climbing with Tigers for the stage. Smith and co-founder/co-artistic director Alexandra Harbold have always been eager for new opportunities to spiritedly explore uncharted territory and leaped at the opportunity. They almost immediately added writer, director, and actor Troy Deutsch to their Jolly Troop. The New York City-based Deutsch has proven chops as a playwright—his work has been shown in cities around the world, and he’s written stage productions for more than a decade—and Smith has known him for 15 years, since he wrote his first play. With Harbold as director, Smith as lead and Deutsch as playwright, the troupe came up with several rousing ideas on how to bring life to the stage adaptation of Climbing with Tigers.

After the first workshop, Harbold said it was clear that to execute the project it needed a professional theater, and with her fond ties to Salt Lake Acting Company (SLAC), where she saw her first professional play, landed her first professional acting job, and has directed numerous productions – she couldn’t imagine producing Climbing with Tigers anywhere other than the theater she thinks of as home.

The creative team knew right away they wanted to explore the possibility of using animations and projections so the play would have a visual resonance with the illustrated book. “As a company, Flying Bobcat has been drawn to use video in our work and felt like this was another opportunity to push our boundaries into unknown territory. I gave Troy some ideas and concepts and possibilities, and he came back with a beautiful adaptation and a visual language that was inspiring,” Smith says.

Ideas weren’t enough, however, and the adventuring trio reached a stopping point in the road because they needed to find a skilled craftsman adept at creating digital art and animation. Enter Jarom Neumann, whose artistic abilities gave the gang the power to forge ahead into unfamiliar terrain. Smith said that without Neumann they couldn’t have accomplished their vision to give Graham’s playful jumble of photography and graphic design a life of its own. As with many Flying Bobcat productions, the visuals are just as much a character on the stage as the actors (Smith in a variety of roles, including a moonwalking, opera-singing narrator, and Austin Archer as the intrepid Blue). Stylized photographic images create the backdrops—a backyard tree, a rundown barn, the mysterious rosewood forest and the moonlit tree of Thunder Tiger—where Graham’s motley crew of animated punctuation come to life. To accompany Neumann’s images, dynamic music and sound have been added by composer Kevin Matie and sound designer Adam Day, submerging the actors into a new realm. And Thomas George has created an inventive stage, with multiple entrances and compartments that blur the lines between the two- and three-dimensional worlds, creating a pop-up book effect.

Harbold describes the world created onstage as “high-tech and raw magic fused in live performance,” which is an expression of the story that sprouted in Nathan’s young, fertile imagination during his collaboration with Graham. Harbold used Nathan as guidance while the creative team discovered how to nurture his vision and help it to grow into a multi-layered production. “Climbing with Tigers is a hero’s journey for Blue; trying to imagine what would surprise, delight, and resonate with Nathan has been our compass as we’ve created the show,” she says. The creative team delivered on this goal, and Harbold says she feels a tremendous amount of gratitude to be on this excursion with a gifted group of people. “Each design element of the world is idiosyncratic and exquisite. The production mixes graphics and technological artistry in with handcrafted design.” It’s rich enough to hold the attention of any adult and gripping enough to keep the kids in their seats.

In the end, the team was victorious because they succeeded by using their comradery to fashion a theatrical production out of multiple layers that explored: Nathan’s desire to be stronger, the book he created with Graham about overcoming obstacles, and the search for the right tools to allow an audience to be invited along on a quest in a world created by the power of a little boy’s imagination.

A dynamic creative team brings a storybook to life in the theatrical production of Climbing with Tigers. Photo by Caitlin Blue.

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