An Interview with BRIGHT SHINING SEA Playwright Julie Jigour

We recently sat down with playwright Julie Jigour to talk about her new play, Bright Shining Sea, one of the two world premiere productions in this year’s PlayGround Festival of New Works at Potrero Stage (the other being Bill Bivins’ Scapegoat), performing in rotating rep through June 16.

PlayGround: When did you first start writing for the theatre? Tell us a bit about your background as a playwright.

Julie Jigour: When I was a junior at Santa Clara University, I took a playwriting class with Brian Thorstenson. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and it definitely changed my trajectory. Prior to that, I wanted to write, but I thought I wanted to pursue fiction. Under Brian’s instruction during my last two years of undergrad, I developed a passion for playwriting and theatre that I hadn’t expected to. The form clicked with me better than fiction or poetry ever had, and Brian encouraged me to pursue it (ask any of his students—he’s the most wonderful teacher and human).

After undergrad, I joined fellow SCU alums in founding the Cardboard Box Theatre Project, a DYI theatre company that produced readings and new plays in the South Bay for a few years before most of us moved or went to pursue our theatre disciplines in grad school. (I’ve reunited with a couple Cardboard Boxers in LA, where we’re currently creating storytelling projects as Trap Street.)

In 2014, I moved to Pittsburgh to pursue my MFA in dramatic writing at Carnegie Mellon University. I’m interested in TV writing and screenwriting as well as theatre, which is why I made the move to LA after graduating.

PG: How long have you been working with PlayGround? Any favorite memories/experiences?

JJ: I’ve been in the PlayGround-LA Writers Pool for the past three years. My first month in the pool, the ten-minute version of Bright Shining Sea was selected for a Monday night staged reading. I was thrilled. After that initial Monday night reading, PlayGround and Planet Earth Arts commissioned me to expand the play into a full-length. So Bright Shining Sea has been a part of my PlayGround journey since the beginning, and seeing it reach production with PlayGround is absolutely a highlight.

PG: What was the inspiration for your play?

JJ: Bright Shining Sea began as a ten-minute play in response to PlayGround’s 2015 Planet Earth Arts prompt: the water plays. Planet Earth Arts gathered a panel of scientists and water experts to speak on topics ranging from drought to ocean acoustics, and then the PlayGround Writers Pool was tasked with developing plays inspired by that material.

The drought in California was particularly bad at that time, and I got stuck on this image of a woman lying in an empty bathtub. During this time, I had also been thinking a lot about the heartache endured by women and couples struggling with infertility and related losses. The plight of a planet struggling to support life beside that of a woman struggling to create one struck me as rich territory to explore.

When I received the commission for the full-length play, I began by brainstorming characters that could each have a distinct, defining relationship with water and went from there.

PG: How has the play evolved over its development? What have you learned about your play that you maybe didn’t know before?

JJ: The play has grown so much since the first ten-minute version and then the first full-length draft. In 2016, the play had a reading in the Planet Earth Arts New Play Festival at Stanford University and then in the PlayGround Festival of New Works that summer. I used the information from those readings to rewrite the play, and for the past few months, my fabulous team of collaborators has been instrumental in further revisions.

Some of the actors bring very related personal experiences to the play. They have been generous both in taking on emotionally challenging, vulnerable work and in sharing their experiences with me. Those shared experiences have made their way into script changes and have deepened my understanding of the characters.

PG: Why should people come see your play?

JJ: Well, climate change is a pretty big deal, and the play certainly addresses that important issue. But the play doesn’t exist to tell people the planet is suffering. It’s a play about six specific individuals struggling with their personal losses and the more intimate effects of the environment they live in. I hope everyone can find someone or something they can identify with in the play. And there are jokes! We can still laugh in a drought.

PG: If you weren’t writing plays, what else would you probably be doing?

JJ: I remember a high school counselor administering a personality test in order to provide career guidance. My results indicated a strong social bent, which may have been surprising to those who knew me at the time because I was very shy and quiet. The counselor said, “So it doesn’t look like you’ll be writing the Great American Novel.” I remember feeling a little devastated by that comment because I so wanted to be a writer.

But I think part of the reason why playwriting clicked with me more than fiction ever did is because I love collaborating with other artists. I enjoy the social part of theatre. And for me, writing and art, whether done in collaboration or not, is all about people and relationships. If I didn’t care about people, if I weren’t fascinated by them, if I didn’t desire so much to connect with them, then I certainly wouldn’t be writing.

But if I hadn’t built my life around artistic pursuits, I think I may have considered going into social work, which would be in line with my high school counselor’s feedback. I’m sure that is a tremendously difficult field, and I have such admiration for those who dedicate themselves to it.

PG: Anything else you’d like to share with the PlayGround community?

JJ: Being a part of PlayGround has been the most enriching part of my artistic life these past three years. It’s rare to have an organization see your work all the way through from conception to production, and PlayGround does just that. I’m so grateful for the opportunities and community PlayGround has given me.

PG: Did you get a chance to see the other Festival premiere, Bill Bivins’ Scapegoat? What did you take away from that experience?

JJ: I loved how Bill weaved the comic book content and style throughout his play. The audience enters the world of the play through a scene from one of the protagonist’s comics (which is a delightful place to begin), and then we experience the protagonist’s journey both in his interactions with the people in his life and in moments where we see his comic book characters alive in his mind. It’s a lovely way to illustrate how strong a force our imagination—and for artists, our work—is in our daily lives and how we’re working so many things out in that terrain.

I also appreciated Bill’s use of the comic book narrative to explore such timely and serious subject matter. There is a way in which the style opens up a fresh perspective on the issues and invites audiences to engage with the challenging subject matter.

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Bright Shining Sea performs in rotating repertory with Scapegoat through June 16. For more information on Julie and Bright Shining Sea, including a video preview of the production, visit http://playground-sf.org/brightshiningsea.