A Conversation with Jonathan Spector

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Playwrights' Center Associate Artistic Director Hayley Finn recently connected with Core Writer Jonathan Spector on his upcoming playThis Much I Know, the magic of decision-making, and writing during the pandemic.


Hayley Finn: Your play This Much I Know has so many different threads of intersecting stories. One of those stories is about Stalin’s daughter Svetlana. Was that the impetus for writing the play? How did it emerge? And how did you get interested in her story?

Jonathan Spector: The initial impetus came from reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow. I was struck by the wonderfully theatrical way it prompts you to take note of your own cognitive errors, and so you engage with the text in an active way.

From the start I had the idea that the play was going to be composed of multiple strands and that one of them would be anchored in a larger historical moment. At one point I went down a rabbit hole about Russian history and noticed a mention of Stalin’s daughter. I didn’t know he had a daughter, and the more I read about her the more it felt like she wanted to be part of the play.

I was taking part in Berkeley Rep’s Ground Floor Program. I had two weeks in a room by myself to write. The time there was wonderfully unstructured, which meant that when I stumbled across Svetlana. I felt that I had the permission to pause the writing, go out and find a biography of her.  I spent the next three days reading it. It’s rare to feel that kind of luxury of time in play development programs.

And then once Svetlana entered the play, the problem I had was that I found her so fascinating and compelling that she sort of took over. In many earlier drafts, the struggle was to balance out the play and not let her completely dominate it. 

Hayley Finn: How did you have an instinct that she was the person to follow? What were the things you were looking at in the play and how did they relate to her story?

Jonathan Spector: The play, to some degree, is about decision making. One of the first things I read was that she had defected to the United States at the height of the Cold War, leaving her teenage children behind. In interviews and her memoir, she talks about how she makes all of her decisions impulsively. That was the spark that felt like these things connected.

I already had the character of Harold, who is the son of this leading White Supremacist and comes to disavow the movement. So there were wonderful parallels in terms of what your responsibility is to the stuff you inherit, being the children of monstrous people. 

Hayley Finn: And the play’s story about the student on campus who has a father who is a famous white supremacist is also based on a true person?

Jonathan Spector: Yes. Unlike the Svetlana character who is based on the real person, this is a fictionalized version of a guy named Derek Black, who is an alumnus of the very small, very strange Liberal Arts college I went to. I remember first hearing him being talked about on the Alumni Facebook page, as the story was unfolding—so after the school community discovered who he was but before he had made his transformation. My sense is it had been this incredibly tumultuous moment on campus of: how do you deal with the person in your midst?

Hayley Finn: I love how the play has to deal with decision making. It also seems that one of the themes is about the assumptions we make; assumptions made blindly or falsely. And because it’s so woven into the piece, I was wondering if as the writer, you were thinking about that in terms of how you led us through this narrative? The theme of how we create narrative construction, maybe even falsely because of our assumptions. How does that relate to how you constructed the story?

Jonathan Spector: Something that started to click into place as I was working was the idea that the same cognitive errors we make—the way we unconsciously fill in gaps by say, make biased assumptions about people or being easily influenced by marketing—is just our brain’s relentless hunger to make connections and meaning. Those same things that can be so flawed in our decision making are also the mechanism that allows us to make sense of our lives; making connections and stories about things that have happened to us where there actually may be none. And also, that “filling in of the gaps” is also what allows magic tricks to work. I started thinking about stage magic as a metaphor and a mechanism for how the play unfolded; how one thing transforms into something else, both theatrically in front of us and over the journey of the play.

Hayley Finn: That’s fascinating because my experience reading the play is that “Oh, the story is going to go here,” but it’s actually about something else. And someone else appears and they are all interconnected in this incredibly masterful way. You have these distinct threads and they are so interwoven. How do you go about writing that? What is your process?

Jonathan Spector: Every play is uniquely hard in its own way. I’ve been working on this for a while, and at certain points would have to put it down, feeling like I couldn’t figure it out; feeling overwhelmed by it for the reasons you talk about. It was only this past summer that I felt like I finally had the play functioning the way I wanted it to. I couldn’t figure out how to do that for a very long time. Part of it is the juggling and weaving of stories.

In terms of process, I worked chronologically because a scene would often be informed by the passing of the baton from the previous thread. Initially that was really helpful for finding my way through the play. In later stages, I’ve been able to more cleanly go back and just look at one thread at a time, and make sure it’s functioning the way it’s supposed to. But it was a lot of having note cards spread everywhere, all over the wall, and moving things around. Initially, I had the idea of structuring it around a series of psychological concepts that would anchor it. I abandoned that as the primary organizing principle, but the bones of that idea are still there. 

When you finally land on the right form for a play, it simultaneously feels so obvious, like how did it take you so long to get here? But also, so completely unlikely, as though it’s a miracle you got here at all.

Hayley Finn: One of the elements I find very engaging and compelling in the way that you structured it, is that you set it up like a mystery where we don’t know why this woman has left. And then we learn through the course of the piece. Was that an early idea? What brought you to that format?

Jonathan Spector: I think anytime you have a play with multiple story threads it’s naturally something of a mystery. The audience is wondering how these things are going to come together, and looking for clues and connections between them. And since the play is so much about our mind’s hunger to make connections—even where none exists—launching us into the play with a mystery felt right.

But I’m a little muddled in my memory of when certain ideas emerged. When I wrote the initial monologue, which is more or less the same unchanged, I didn’t know where it was going. I had unarticulated ideas. I knew I wanted to explore this idea of accidental killing and that this would be connected to her, but I can’t remember if I had that idea so clear in my mind when I started writing. 

Hayley Finn: Maybe it was a mystery, as you were saying, for yourself as well. You set up the mystery and you had to solve it. Another thing I want to talk about is that one of the anchoring principles were these cognitive ideas you were working with. That’s obviously a very cerebral concept. At the same time, there are some very emotional stories happening within this piece. I’m wondering how you balance those two things; living in a very emotional place and also a very heady place? Was that conscious? And what was that dance for you?

Jonathan Spector: I think that’s something you’re always aware of and trying to balance if you are dealing with things that are heady and intellectual. That’s why the collaborative process is so important; hearing the play with actors and being a room (or virtual room) with people. It becomes really clear when the play feels really alive, which is generally not the more intellectual moments—although hopefully that is still alive in a different way. As the play builds on itself, hopefully those moments also feel emotional, personal, and meaningful. As you begin to understand how the play works, you’re more able to figure out how to strike that balance. But I can’t really figure out how the play works until I see it and hear it embodied by other humans.

Hayley Finn: As you head into your workshop, what are the things on your mind? What do you really want to dig in and discover this time?

Jonathan Spector: I’m most interested in getting a really clear sense of what the journey of the play is, how the play moves, and what the experience will be for the audience moving through the play. It is a play that asks a lot of an audience, in terms of throwing a lot of balls up in the air and tracking all of them as they come back down. I want to make sure that people are neither too far ahead nor too far behind.

I’m particularly interested in—and the degree that we’ll be able to figure this out on zoom is a question— because it’s a show with three actors who play many roles, what is the journey of each character in the play, but also what is the journey for each performer. What is the meta-narrative that combines all the different roles the person is playing as they move through the play? That’s something I’m interested in coming to understand more and something I can’t do without the help of actors.

Hayley Finn: Do you imagine in a full production that sort of meta aspect would be exposed?

Jonathan Spector: I think it would be but it’s a question of the degree. I have one moment I’ve written into the play that acknowledges that. I think we want to feel the accumulation of things. To what degree and in what way that happens, I am not sure. I don’t know if it wants to happen in the text necessarily, or if those are things in the production and design are bringing forward.

Hayley Finn: This will be your first time working with Margot Bordelon for this piece. When you are working on a new collaboration with a director for the first time, what are some of your processes, questions, or things that you look for in that collaboration?

Jonathan Spector: That’s something, in some ways, I’m still trying to understand for myself. I had an experience last year, of having a play that had a bunch of different productions, and I got to be in a room with a bunch of different directors on the same piece. It was fascinating and edifying seeing all the different ways directors approach a piece, and to interrogate for myself why I felt one person’s approach aligned with my instincts more than another’s. But that was a little bit different because the play was more or less fully cooked, so I got to sit back and be more observational, as opposed to still being down in the mud with it.

I’m always curious what a director is going to see in the play that I don’t. I started off in theater as a director before I was writing plays. I don’t know if that makes me a good playwright to work with or a really annoying playwright to work with. I don’t have the point of view that I could direct this so much better because I don’t want to direct my own plays and I don’t necessarily think I’m the most fantastic director. But I think it does mean that maybe I have more opinions about certain things than other playwrights do. But it’s always such a thrilling thing to see how someone else’s brain works on your play.

Hayley Finn: In addition to being a director you’re also and an Artistic Director, right?

Jonathan Spector: Yeah, sort of. We’re much less active than we used to be. When my daughter was born (she’s five now), it became obvious I had to pick between running a small theater company and being a playwright. There just wasn’t the time in my life for TWO very consuming pursuits that didn’t really compensate me much for the time. Happily, that was also the time I was beginning to feel a little momentum with my writing work, so it made the choice easy.

The company—Just Theater—has produced a few shows since then, but it’s mostly been in the form of co-productions where another company is doing the heavy lifting. I think one only has the stamina to run a small theater company for so many years. And right now, during this pause, it’s an open question whether when the world is back we will have a reinvigorated drive to produce, or find other people to pass the company on to, or feel like it’s okay to just say, “We had a good run, let’s call it a day.” But I certainly appreciate the benefit of knowing all of the aspects of producing, from having worn that artistic director’s cap.

Hayley Finn: Has that affected your playwrighting or made you think of your work in different ways?

Jonathan Spector: I’m sure all the different experiences I had before I started writing—being a director, an artistic director, and a literary manager (for Bay Area Playwrights Festival) had some impact on my writing.  

Early on something I wrestled with was the thought that if I were cracking open this play as the reader, how would I respond to it? What are the things in a play that make me excited about the writing? It’s a double-edged sword because that kind of thinking can be be super paralyzing, especially when you’re just starting out. But it also is clarifying in honing your own taste.

Hayley Finn: What about playwriting in particular do you find most compelling? And what do you gain from writing plays? What excites you?

Jonathan Spector: I love the ability to become obsessed with something and follow wherever it leads, and hopefully end up with a play. And then, after all the suffering of being alone writing this, the reward of being in a room with other people to make something together.

Hayley Finn: Do have other plays you’re working on currently? 

Jonathan Spector: I have three other plays somewhere in between idea and first draft. One is a play set in South Florida right before the 2000 election; a little bit of a Ralph Nader play. As we got closer to our election, I realized I couldn’t write the play before I knew the outcome of the election because the world we would exist in on either side of the election would be so different, that there was no way to write a play that would make sense in both worlds. Now that we are through that I feel like I’m finally ready to start writing that play.

Another is a play set in the box office of a theater undergoing a leadership transition. And the other play, which is a much bigger beast in terms of research that I’m hoping to tackle this year… who knows what it will be about. The thing I am interested in is the denazification of theater in Germany right after World War II.

There is this moment where the American Army was occupying Berlin jointly with the Russian Army, and the Russians had started opening the theaters and music halls again. Apparently, the Russians did everywhere they conquered. They would get the theaters open again right away because they wanted the people to have something to do and they cared about art. And so, the Americans were pressured to open theaters on their side as well, and they were undergoing the denazification process of the government where no one who was too aligned with the Nazis could have any position of prominence in society.

There was this one guy who was this half-Jewish Austrian who was recruited by Army Intelligence because he spoke fluent German. He was put in charge of determining out of all the performing artists in Berlin, who was “too Nazi” to be allowed to do their art anymore. They had come up with a five-point scale of how Nazi you were. I stumbled across this guy in this documentary and have started doing research. I went through his papers in the Holocaust Museum and it’s one of those weird quirks of history that almost nothing is written about that I’ve been able to find. But this guy, because he had been studying theater and film, he had so much sympathy for the artists, even the ones that were aligned with the Nazis, even though he was Jewish.

So, it’s in part about, what do we do with all the Trump people. Like it seems clear-cut that the likes of Stephen Miller and Kelly Ann Conway should be forever shunned from society (though sadly, they probably won’t be). What about lower-down undersecretary types? What about career civil servants who may not have been supportive of the policies but still carried out orders rather than resigning? Where do we put them? And the other piece of it is, the Louis CK thing. What do you do when you love people’s art but they’ve done horrible things? What about the whole catalogue of movies Harvey Weinstein produced. Do we discard them all, knowing the misery that accompanied their creation? How horrible is the thing they’ve done for you to not consume their art anymore?

Hayley Finn: I have this issue with Woody Allen.

Jonathan Spector: Right! Like is it okay to watch the old Woody Allen movies but not the new ones? Anyway, I do so much research because I know nothing, so I have to read so much about the period and probably have to get someone to translate German documents for me.

Hayley Finn: I love the idea of this play. It sounds really fascinating and I would love to read whatever you have of it when you have it. It sounds like you’ve been busy writing.

Jonathan Spector: In the first half of the pandemic I was totally paralyzed. I did a rewrite of This Much I Know, and had a workshop of another play, What Comes Next, but otherwise accomplished nothing. I was somehow able to start doing work again late in the pandemic—such a strange time, especially writing for theater. It’s one thing to keep working on something that exists because you’re just trying to make it better, but the idea of starting a new play in a world where there’s no theater is really hard because to write a play you have to have so much optimism and so much hope, especially when you come down from the production life of a play.

And then the idea of going down to the bottom of the hill and you’re going to have to push this boulder all the way to the top, and the top feels so far away, it’s hard enough to do that in normal times, but to do that during a pandemic when there’s no theater and no one knows when theater is coming back, is overwhelming.

Hayley Finn: Have you found there have been things that have been able to help you with that? Or tricks that you’ve been able to give yourself that inspire you to sit down and write?

Jonathan Spector: It goes in phases. I remember in the first few weeks of it, being home with my daughter and thinking to myself: if I can just get out of the house and go for a walk today, then I will have accomplished something. At times I’ve been able to grow that to something like: I’m gonna write three pages of my pilot today. But mainly it’s been about accepting that some days (or some weeks) during this time, you’re just overwhelmed by the world and not going to get any creative work done and letting that be okay.

Hayley Finn: I’m curious to know how you came up with the title and, in general, what is important to you in a title?

Jonathan Spector: I don’t remember exactly how I came up with it. And I don’t know, honestly, if I’ve ever loved it, but it sort of stuck. The play is so much about what we know, what we think we know, what we don’t know, or don’t know with certainty. And because it begins and is guided by the direct address, it felt appropriate to have a title that had that direct address quality.

In general, I really struggle with titles. I usually don’t feel happy with them. Usually the best titles have been suggested to me by other people. But every once and awhile, you come up with a good one and it feels like you happened to pluck a four-leaf clover out of the ground somehow.

Hayley Finn: Thank you. I’m looking forward to your workshop.

Join us for an online reading of
THIS MUCH I KNOW by Jonathan Spector
Wednesday, February 3 at 7:00 p.m. CST

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The funders of the Ruth Easton New Play series

The Ruth Easton New Play Series is supported by the Ruth Easton Fund of the Edelstein Family Foundation and the Minnesota State Arts Board.

This activity is made possible by the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund.