Tracy Weller, whose “Jarring” is inspired by those who lived and died in NY’s psychiatric hospitals, talks to us about the play, human decency and labels.
As a writer, I have the privilege of covering all facets of life in New York. For the past couple of years, that has included the theatre (and yes, I spell it that way). Family and friends from out of town are constantly asking me what’s worth the $100 a ticket. I spend quite a bit of time and effort trying to convince them to see something other than a revival of a not-very-good-in-the-first-place musical. Don’t get me wrong; I love Broadway. But New York has much more theatre than that.
For those of you who are prepared to take a chance, there’s a new work called “Jarring” by a young performer named Tracy Weller, which is inspired by the stories of those who lived and died in New York’s psychiatric hospitals over the years. It’s not Andrew Lloyd Webber to be sure.
My colleague Megan Lohne wrote, “Tracy Weller is mesmerizing in her house coat and lunch lady glasses. … ‘Jarring’ is a fascinating evening where you are truly transported somewhere you’ve never been. Tracy Weller is a delight to watch.’”
I interviewed Weller just before the show opened last month and got some insight into her process and ambitions for the show.
Jeff Myhre: What exactly is “Jarring” about?
Tracy Weller: “Jarring” is the story of one woman’s secret collection of Mason jars, her obsession with John Landis Mason, inventor of the Mason Jar, and the nearly forgotten lives of thousands of profoundly marginalized Americans. It is a fictional piece inspired by a shocking reality.
What fascinated you with the subject matter so much that you wanted to write a play about it?
Every human life is epic in its own way, and yet people are so easily misplaced and their lives forgotten. I feel an imperative to tell stories that would otherwise remain untold — and to present them in a way that is extremely intimate. This is one of those stories.
What was the hardest part to write?
It is an enormous responsibility (and privilege) to tell someone else’s untold story. My heart thudded and raced through most of the writing process, but the moments of darkest truth were the most physically and emotionally demanding. Thankfully there’s also a lot of humor in “Jarring” — and in that I found lightness and joy.
What did your experience in researching and writing this work teach you?
I am stunned by how much faith we put in psychiatry and how quickly we abandon our innate sense of human decency when we are dealing with anyone or anything that challenges our conception of what is “normal.” We are very quick to pathologize and alienate people that make us the slightest bit uncomfortable. We tend to ask the question “What’s wrong with you?” rather than “What happened to you? What is your story?”
Tracy Weller in ‘Jarring.’ (Photo by Joshua Paul Johnson)
What do you hope audiences will learn from “Jarring?”
I hope to engender a greater sense of wonder and respect for lives that occupy the periphery of societal norms. The truly nuanced, mysterious and ambiguous nature of life and humanity is too uncertain for some, but I do hope that people will start to question the way we reflexively sort and label people.
How do you prepare for a performance of this piece?
Aside from a really rigorous vocal and physical warmup, I spend a lot of time just thinking of the people who deserve to have their stories told and what I want to give an audience. I remind myself that a performance is a gift to be given. It’s my job to offer it as completely as I possibly can.
What about the space you’re working in adds to the production?
This is a site-specific piece, so it is a potent player in the experience. The space is like a supporting cast.
To what degree is this a finished piece or, to put it differently, is this work still evolving?
Because it’s theatre, it should obviously evolve and grow every night, but I think the script is it a very developed stage, and I stand by it.
What comes next? Do you take “Jarring” on the road or are there other works we should expect to see soon?
If “Jarring” was wanted and needed outside of NYC, I would happily consider it. That said, my company, Mason Holdings, has other stories to nurture and share.
“Jarring” will be performed at 225 E. Houston St. in New York through Sunday, May 17.
Jeff Myhre is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.