An Interview with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Lila Neugebauer
Throughout his body of work, Residency Five playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins has illuminated the present by looking to the theatrical past. His comedy Neighbors collided kitchen-sink realism with blackface minstrelsy, exploding centuries-old attitudes toward race and social progress. In An Octoroon, Jacobs-Jenkins fused contemporary vernacular and pop music with the plot of a popular nineteenth-century melodrama. His Obie Award-winning Appropriate, the first production of his Signature residency, explored the submerged racial anxieties underlying classic American family dramas. Now, Jacobs-Jenkins returns to Signature with the world premiere of Everybody. A riff on the fifteenth-century morality play Everyman, Everybody again excavates contemporary meaning from an older theatrical form, posing powerful questions of human mortality – and by extension, human life.
Joining him in the rehearsal room is Lila Neugebauer, who previously directed the Signature productions of A.R. Gurney’s The Wayside Motor Inn and Signature Plays, featuring works by Edward Albee, María Irene Fornés, and Adrienne Kennedy. Shortly before rehearsals began, Jacobs-Jenkins and Neugebauer spoke with Literary Associate Nathaniel French about the play’s development, the element of chance in life, death, and theatre, and why a medieval allegory like Everyman continues to resonate today.
This is your first time working together. Why did you want to collaborate on this project?
BJJ: I was desperate! [Laughs] Lila’s someone whose work I’ve always watched with much interest. I feel in awe of her intelligence and think we see eye to eye on so many things and that’s always a good sign. Aesthetically, politically, emotionally, I feel like we live in the same zip code. It’s a horrible metaphor, but there you go.
LN: I love it, I love it. I’ve been in love with Branden’s brain for a number of years now. I’m astonished by the breadth of his imagination. He tackles ideas with such rigor and complexity; he’s invested in irreconcilable oppositions, which is intellectually thrilling. But what he puts on stage is also so viscerally undeniable, and that collision—of guts and ideas—exhilarates me. I’m also right now fortuitously in rehearsal for a production of Appropriate at Juilliard with fourth year students, so I’m having a year of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins [Laughs].
What were your early conversations about Everybody like?
BJJ: I think it was a matter of me saying, “Lila, would you like to meet me at this bar late in the evening?” And then she showed up and I said, “I want you to direct my play.” It was pretty simple.
How far along in your writing process were you at that point?
BJJ: I didn’t really have a script, I just knew that it was going to be loosely based on the medieval play Everyman. I wanted a partner who could be a sounding board for me as I worked through my attack on the original. Lila has a background in devised work. She has an eye for making in addition to interpreting.
Why did you want to dig into Everyman?
BJJ: At first I was flirting with doing an adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill play Emperor Jones, but as I was working on that I kept thinking to myself, “This is very similar to Everyman.” Like in some weird way I was using O’Neill as the lens through which I might look at Everyman. And at a certain point I realized that I really just wanted to adapt Everyman, so I just kind of shoved O’Neill to the side and leaned into this.
Like many of your plays, Everybody is inspired by a much older theatrical tradition. Where does this interest in form come from?
BJJ: When I think about genre or old forms, I think of them as interesting artifacts that invite a kind of archeology of seeing. How much are Race and Gender about visual cues that we don’t question? Genre comes out of the needs of a historical moment, of a community requiring a new way of looking at old things. So I’m interested in why we saw things the way we saw them five hundred years ago. What actually is different about the way we look at things and people now? So for Everybody, I was like, how interesting that five hundred years ago it was totally okay for an abstraction to be played by a person. Whereas I think in our culture now there’s an overwhelming proclivity for thinking that actors can only play other people. It’s part of my ongoing struggle with naturalism as our default mode of storytelling.
What were some of the other things you were thinking about as you started writing?
You know, I was watching Signature deal with the imminent loss of its Founding Artistic Director, Jim Houghton, and I was just thinking through the way the loss of a person could be processed in a work environment. That was such a fascinating thing to see people wrestle with. There was also just so much death in the news, whether it was gun violence or police brutality/murder. I mean, I felt like we were all processing dying in some strange way, and it all felt like it was wrapped up in moral and ethical questions. So I just kind of kept thinking about Everyman
as a moral play about life and death, and I tried to think through what a morality play might look like now. And whether we are even interested anymore in moral theatre. As a field, we’ve moved away from thinking through an ethics of the stage or how the theatre relates to the moral. We sort of assume that Theatre is, like, inherently a “good” thing to do, make, and see; whereas I think actually as artists, we have to work a little harder to make that real.
"Everyman is itself adapted from this Dutch play Elckerlijc, that in turn is influenced by a Buddhist fable. Every time we want to make a play about Life and Death, we’re always erasing someone else’s philosophy."
- Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Have recent events in America changed your thinking about the play?
BJJ: I actually think Lila was one of the first people I called—
—on “the day the world stood still.” You know, I think for a while I was sort of wrestling with the place of politics in this play, and it was sort of nice to have something make it very clear that politics wasn’t something that anyone should shy away from right now. Even thinking through this idea of a play about life and death having no room for politics in it—actually, that’s all the play was about originally. It was about Catholicism cementing its place within a social sphere. But Everyman
is itself adapted from this Dutch play Elckerlijc
, that in turn is influenced by a Buddhist fable. Every time we want to make a play about Life and Death, we’re always erasing someone else’s philosophy. That idea of the politics of erasure felt very central somehow to the experience of making this play.
What has it been like engaging with a time period whose mindset is so similar and simultaneously so different from
I’m someone who believes very much in the importance of History. I’m very moved by this idea that our lives are predicated on people living—much as we are— through trial and error, surviving and making sense of themselves. So I’ve read all this weird medieval history and been like, I can’t believe this is the way people walked around and interacted with the world. Everyman
was playing to, essentially, a homogeneous religious society, but we fancy ourselves today living in a secular, diverse, democratic republic. So the trick here is, in the absence of a unifying belief system or cosmology, what becomes of things like a “good life”? How should a person live in such a pluralistic petri dish?
"Inviting that randomness, that arbitrary violence, into a theatrical event–as a physical enactment of the ideas we’re investigating–struck me as challenging, scary, and thrilling."
- Lila Neugebauer
Chance will play a role in this production, with different actors playing different characters each night. Why were you interested in exploring that element?
BJJ: Take it away, Lila.
From our very first conversation about this endeavor, Branden knew that he wanted some element of chance to be essential to the fabric of how this event functions, how the evening makes meaning. And that immediately resonated with me on a number of fronts. In part, the impulse is predicated on a desire to avoid distilling the identity of an “everyman” into the body of a single actor, who necessarily has an age, a gender, a race, a sexual orientation. Also, the notion that death could strike any one of us, at any moment… when I get off this call, walk out of the restaurant I’m sitting in right now and cross the street. Inviting that randomness, that arbitrary
violence, into a theatrical event—as a physical enactment of the ideas we’re investigating—struck me as challenging, scary, and thrilling.
BJJ: I’ve also been thinking so much about how, if death is the end of an identity, there’s so much we think about in terms of identity that’s about variables attached to the body, which is ultimately the thing that actually dies. And I just never loved this idea that “everyman” had to be the index by which we judge the experience of dying. Do people all die the same? I don’t know. People certainly don’t seem to live the same. So how do we actually honor that?
LN: Practically and philosophically, incorporating chance will force us to dismantle many of our accepted notions about the process of making a play. Something about disrupting much of what we take for granted as theatre-makers felt right to me when grappling with material of this nature.
We developed this play through a series of readings. Why was that so important for this process in particular?
BJJ: I think for exactly the reasons Lila just said: We both are really trying to rethink every assumption we make about how theatre happens. You know, I couldn’t just sit down and write a play, I felt like I would somehow be cheating. We wanted to explore the limits of what, in each of our prescribed roles in the theatre, we’re expected to do versus what’s possible. That includes actors. What are the limits of what an actor can actually, feasibly accomplish given the wild demands we’re placing on the event, and on the limited amount of time we have to make a show?
Without giving anything away, what can you tell us about the design?
BJJ: It’s crazy.
Part of the project has been putting the audience at the center of the experience. We want people to feel that the event is principally orchestrated around the fact that they all showed up that night. Which is fundamentally what every night at the theatre is defined by. But again, we tend to take that—the sheer element of presence—for granted.
What is it about the story of Everyman that has allowed it to survive and challenge us more than 500 years later?
BJJ: It’s about a mystery that we’ve never solved. [Laughs] You know, ever, in this society or as a species. It’s a play about a scary thing.
LN: Someone once encouraged me to investigate a play—any play—
by identifying an unanswerable question at its core. A question that would keep me—as a reader, director, or spectator—curious, challenged, and creative. Everyman contains some of the most vital, existentially urgent questions we’re capable of asking.