BWW Interviews: Julia Traber Talks MISS JULIE, Studio 101, Strindberg's Legacy & Arts Impact On Politics

Houston's Theatre Community offers something for everyone-ranging from the very modern and experimental to the classics. Next week, on September 26, 2012 Classical Theatre Company will be opening MISS JULIE at their new home, Studio 101 in the Spring Street Studios. Director of MISS JULIE, Julia Traber and I recently chatted about the show, Studio 101, August Strindberg's legacy, and the impact of arts on politics.

August Strindberg wrote MISS JULIE in 1888. What challenges did you face making the show relevant to modern audiences?

Julia Traber (JT): Well, we had a lot of challenges. [Laughs] During the 1880s, especially in England, Northern Europe, or even the United Sates, there was this whole idea of the hierarchy of class that was a dominant thing in society. Women did not have the right to vote and the ability to divorce or to own property. We hadn't really quite had the suffrage movement yet. All those things going on made the play so relevant in his dealing with rising above one's class or rising above one's station. So, initially, I thought it was going to be really challenging because I just thought, "How will American audiences relate to that? So many Americans believe part of our makeup is that anyone in America can make it, despite what you're born into, you know, with hard work." There's this notion of rising above in the United Sates, but I think it's kind of topical that in the last twelve months, with the elections, this whole argument of the 47%, the 1%, and people saying "Oh, this is class warfare" and "There is no class warfare in the United States." It's really still kind of topical and relevant. I also think the whole notion of feeling that you're stuck in your place in life is still relatable, whether it's class or whatever. Ultimately, the story is about two people who do feel trapped and feel that they can't escape the life that they're in. They don't know how to escape it, and that's all they long to do. I think that that's something we can all maybe relate to. Maybe not on that same level as Jean and Julie's class structure, being a servant and being an aristocrat, but, ultimately, I think that struggle's very human. I think modern audiences can relate to it on that level.

To help it along, we've pushed the action of the play forward to 1920s New Orleans, rather than setting it at the turn of the century in Sweden. A lot of people have played around with MISS JULIE. There have been contemporary productions where it's set in 2000, and there have been productions where they've set it in the Civil War. There have been some productions in England where it's post World War II Great Britain. In Britain, I think, it's very real because I think there is definitely openness about the class struggle there, but I thought in the United States we definitely can relate to race relations. That's kind of where we are in America as far as class goes, in our history. And New Orleans in particular, it's such a mix of so many different ethnic and religious groups. In the 1920s, Jim Crow laws are still in effect. Women had just barely gotten the right to vote, so women still are struggling for the same rights. And, I thought it would be interesting to play with the idea of race a little bit because in New Orleans and Louisiana history Creoles were able to own property, and they themselves even had slaves prior to the Civil War. But, after the Civil War, they were labeled as African-Americans-as black-as well, so they lost all of their rights and property. So we kind of set it in 1920s New Orleans and play with the idea that Jean is Creole, Christine is African-American, and of course Miss Julie is white, the Southern aristocrat type.

As a side note, with the Creole elements, if you haven't already, you should read Nella Larsen's novel Passing. Those similar ideas, especially concerning skin tone, play a big role in that novel.

JT: Okay. Passing. I need to write that down. Someone else mentioned that one. And we're not overtly saying anything. We've changed the text where we talk about Mardi Gras instead of Midsummer. You know, we've made those references, but I didn't change the language to specifically talk about skin tones. But the whole notion with Jean, you know, is could he pass the paper bag test? Could he pass? And he possibly could. That also drives his drive to get out of this world. He thinks he deserves something better than being a valet. So, I thought maybe American audiences, especially in the South, could relate a little more to that. Again, carrying over to everything we're talking about in the 2012 elections-the haves and have-nots-I think that's still a theme that everyone can identify with.

Strindberg is noted for helping develop the foundation of modern drama. What hallmarks of modern drama can audiences expect to see in MISS JULIE?

JT: I think what's great and what was shocking about the play at the time when it was first produced was the fact that he cut out the whole three act, two intermission structure. When you think about Shaw, Wilde, and some of Ibsen-some of the contemporaries-they still followed the structure of the three act play, and Strindberg is playing around with everything spinning out of control and reaching climax in a very short amount of time, and there's no intermission. So, he was one of the first to play around with that idea. Most contemporary plays are 90 minute shows, no intermission. So, we really get that kind of play, and Strindberg was one of the leaders in that. Maybe modern audiences will think, "Oh wow, this is kind of modern in its structure." I am not a dramaturge or theatre historian by all means, so I'm sure some of them would correct me on how I'm phrasing this, but I think definitely that's one of his influences.

 Also, his whole idea was being very naturalistic-that audiences were up close and could smell Christine's actually cooking-and we're really kind of playing an homage to Strindberg as far as the naturalism, realism, and the illusion of realism. We're going to have some of those elements like real cooking on stage. And again, that's stuff audiences have seen since Strindberg, but it harkens back to the idea that this came from him.

I think what is also unique about Strindberg and influential about him was, during his time, the melodramatic dramas sort of dominated theatre, and with his work he sort of is embracing naturalism and trying to portray human emotion through plays that focus on working class characters and just exposing the grittier aspects of everyday life in society. That isn't really new to 2012 audiences, but it was to 1880s audiences. Strindberg also exposes the gender struggle too, I think. So, I think modern audiences will find it quite modern.

Now that Classical Theatre Company has a home at Studio 101, how has this improved the rehearsal process?

JT: Well, it's been great to collaborate and share the space with two other awesome theatre companies in town-Stark Naked Theatre and Mildred's Umbrella. On one level we're hopefully going to build our audience base, and they're going to build their audience bases as well. So, people who might not come see a Classical Theatre show might now come see one of our shows, and one of our CTC audience members might go see something from Mildred's Umbrella. So, that's a great opportunity for us to get more people to see all kinds of theatre. So that's the first immediate positive, I think.

Another obvious positive aspect is we get to rehearse in the space that we're actually performing in, which is a real rarity. I mean, even at The Alley they don't rehearse on stage until they go into tech. They're rehearsing in a rehearsal studio. So to get to actually rehearse on the set that's at scale, what it's going to be like, the actors are going to be much more comfortable and just be ready because they won't have to make such a huge transition from rehearsal studio to the actual stage. There's a convenience there for getting to design, build, and rehearse all in the same space.

I also think that the location is great, being in The Warehouse art district, and being in this warehouse with a bunch of other studio artists, dance companies, sculptors, painters, and just being a part of that community. Artists from other walks of life are maybe going to check out theatre as well, and then we get to go see their beautiful shows. There are several shows going on right now at the studio, so it's cool just being a part of that scene. It's beneficial for all the artists and renters in the space at Spring Street.

Without giving away too much, what is your favorite moment or moments in MISS JULIE?

JT: Oh boy. [Laughs] Honestly, that's really hard to answer. I really kind of like the first half of the play, in the sense that you just see these two characters, Julie and Jean, playing and flirting. It's sort of playing a dangerous game with one another, and volleying back like a tennis match. It keeps you wondering where this is going to go, and I guess the whole drive and anticipation of "oh, this is not going to be necessarily a good thing. It's sexy! It's hot! But this is only going to be trouble!" I think it's kind of exciting, so I think all the build up to a certain event is kind of the fun part. I think it's quite tragic seeing them both unravel, besides the ultimate decision that they make at the end of the play. So, it's not an uplifting story by any means. And I think it will get people thinking about all the choices or lack of choices that they still have in modern America. We are told constantly that we have a lot of choices, and we do. We have many more choices than our grandparents, but I think that it gets you thinking about the consequences of any chosen moment in our own lives, the consequences of choices we've made, and whether we can move on with them.

I love that you mention the tennis match. Everyone talks about the struggle of power back and forth in this show. It reminds me so much of the film Match Point, which unfolds like a really well played tennis match.

JT: Exactly. I think that people who do enjoy theatre, and even if they're not that savvy on theatre, are  going to enjoy that because you're just wondering, "okay, what tactic? What is he going to do now? When is he telling the truth? When is she being honest?" And you really can, let's say, for people who are fans of playwrights like Edward Albee, Harold Pinter, or Tennessee Williams, you really can see Strindberg's influence on them-as far as having moments in plays where characters really fight to the death as far as who's going to win the power struggle verbally and action wise. As we've been rehearsing, partly because we set it in the South, there's been several nights where we're like, "Oh my God. This is like Tennessee Williams." We can totally see the influence. Also, with Edward Albee, I keep thinking of WHO'S AFRAID OF Virginia Woolf? too-as far as the games they play and Albee played. You can definitely see where they were influenced by Strindberg's MISS JULIE.

What do you hope audiences will walk away with after seeing MISS JULIE?

JT: I don't think that they're going to come out feeling happy [Laughs] necessarily. I hope they make some connections to where we are now, where class and gender are still factors that influence our actions and how we relate to other people around us. I just don't know if they'll take that away, but I kind of hope they pick up on some of that. [Laughs] I just hope that they also, you know, come away thinking, "Man, I didn't know what people would sometimes do, what lengths they'll go to, to try to find resolution or find a way to escape." It's quite saddening really, you know, and one person is still left feeling trapped. Maybe it'll make people think about ways they also can try and move forward in their lives and not be trapped. [Laughs]

Do you feel that the play's treatment of class warfare will have any impact on audiences when they consider their options in the voting booth this November?

JT: [Laughs] Probably not. I am so cynical. I think people typically are going to vote who they're going to vote for regardless. So many people are going to vote Democrat because that's what they vote, or they're going to vote Republican because that's they're base. They believe in these core things. I don't know how much influence the arts actually have. I mean, the arts are very political. I think everything's political, really. I just don't know how much influence it would have on the November election. I think that people will definitely leave the show connecting it back to what's been in the news. I think that if they've been watching the news they'll see it, but I don't know if it will influence them one way or the other. [Laughs] I just hope that people go out and vote. I think a lot of people are dissuaded and decide that they're just not going to vote at all, and I think that's going to be terrible if people don't go and vote.

Nestled neatly in The Heights, Classical Theatre Company's offering is helping to further put this local theatre hub on the map. For tickets or more information, please visit or call (713) 963 – 9665.

Photos courtesy of Classical Theatre Company.

Headshot of Julia Traber.

Julia Traber directing George Bernard Shaw's CANDIDA for CTC.


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