Elaine Jarvik: The accidental playwright
Heavy-metal singers almost never perform opera. Professional wrestlers seldom think of ballet. So when longtime Deseret News reporter Elaine Jarvik decided to write plays, no one was more surprised than she was.
"I kept telling myself that no one's going to come see a play by someone who says they're a novice, but I am a novice," Jarvik said.
If so, she's become an awfully good one, and quickly. And in terms of her favorite subject matter of aging and death, an unusual one, too.
Who would have guessed that a 10-minute play about two people reading an obituary would make for good comedy? Jarvik went there in "Dead Right." Then she lived to see her play one of four chosen from more than 1,300 submitted performed at the 2008 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky.
Jarvik's "Dead Right" proved just the shot of confidence the 64-year-old newspaper veteran needed.
She started writing plays about eight years ago after she was contacted by Robert Benjamin, an old friend who had gone on to become a physicist in Los Alamos, N.M., home to the atomic bomb. Benjamin, Jarvik's classmate at Northwood High School in Silver Spring, Md., called to inquire if she could put him in touch with Salt Lake City theater companies. After she fulfilled that favor, she got caught up in the intrigue of discussing ideas for plays with Benjamin. Somewhere along the way, the theater bug landed its first bite.
Problem is, even after years of hobnobbing with Salt Lake City-based playwrights such as Mike Dorrell and Tobin Atkinson and plenty of workshops, Jarvik says she still feels wobbly in the knees. Make that wobbly in the writing of dialogue.
Even more so than in journalism, every word counts when writing plays, Jarvik said. Protracted stares at the blank page can lead Jarvik to pay her daughter a visit, where the pair will fuss over snags in a character's development until just the right word or idea arises, often by accident. "I'm not a naturally gifted writer of dialogue," Jarvik said, ever humble about her writing.
Yet she's managed to see her latest venture, "The Coming Ice Age," thaw and then grow into a warm, full-blooded production under the wing of PYGmalion Theatre Company, dedicated to producing work by women and about women.
In the play, Jarvik draws upon the charm and abandon of Roger and Francie, a married couple well into their 70s. In mellow bickering, the couple confront what's arguably at the source of most human neurosis: fear of death. Looming outside, meanwhile, is a real-estate development project that threatens the most material aspect of their existence, the family house in which they raised their children, and all of the memories it holds.
Jarvik reported multiple stories around issues of aging and the elderly during her career as a Salt Lake City journalist, earning national awards. Seniors seemed to have an almost invisible status in society, as if time were a vessel that carried them to a foreign country known as "old age." It was as if the elderly were refugees, cast into unfamiliar states of mind.
"Old age is this strange shore you end up on," Jarvik said. "And the older you get, the harder it is to change. My father ended up moving to Salt Lake City when he was 85. I remember thinking how brave that was."
Larry West, director of "The Coming Ice Age," said Jarvik has "a very fast learning curve." Her early work read more like a screenplay, he said, with scenes sometimes ending and beginning with the same character a big sticking point when you're working in theater. Ironically, he praises the one aspect of her work that Jarvik criticizes: her ear for dialogue.
"It's incredible," West said. "There's an innocence and eagerness to absorb all that she doesn't yet know about theater. In the process, she gets a little overwhelmed by what her play has spawned. It's a whole lot of fun."
PYGmalion Theatre Company's 'The Coming Ice Age'
P The play, written by Elaine Jarvik, is directed by Larry West, and features David Phillips, Dee Mancuso, Teri Cowan and Winkie Horman.
When • Oct. 22-Nov. 6; curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, and 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; also Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., and an additional matinee Saturday, Nov. 6, at 3 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Black Box Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City