A Conversation with Gloria Playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Photo courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Shortly before the world premiere of Gloria, the Vineyard Theatre’s Miriam Weiner sat down with Branden Jacobs-Jenkins to discuss his play.

Miriam Weiner:  What was the seed idea for Gloria?

Branden Jacobs-Jenkins: I was living in Germany for a couple years beginning in 2010 and right before I was about to move back to the U.S. and begin my residency at the Vineyard Theatre, I was panicking because I needed a new play to work on. I was battling one of the worst cases of writer’s block in my life. So I spent two weeks in my studio banging my head against a wall, starting play after play after play and throwing them all out. Then, one day, I sat down in this office chair and had a sense memory of when I was working at The New Yorker and the experience of being in a cubicle with a friend/co-worker of mine, and I just started writing. I imagined the two of us — or two people like us — sitting in our cubicles on an average day at work, and I just let them talk and eventually they became the characters Dean and Ani.

gloria0149-rt_web
Jennifer Kim and Catherine Combs in the Vineyard Theatre production of Gloria. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

MW:  How much of the play is based on your experience working at The New Yorker?

BJJ: Very little, actually, and people will be disappointed if they come to the play looking for some sort of behind-the-scenes Bright Lights Big City tell-all situation. I wanted to write about work because it was during a period in my life when I did not have a job, and I was missing the daily structure of having one.  The only office job I’ve ever had was working at the magazine, so obviously I drew heavily on that experience to build out the world of the play, but none of the events in the play actually happened to me. If anything, I was obsessing over that moment in your early adulthood when you’re learning how to “be a part of the workforce”: how one spends this period of one’s life, and does it matter how you spend it, and is it supposed to matter? How disposable are your 20s? I think about when I was at a cubicle every day for years, and how surreal it felt once I realized that the essence of my job was just to be there, even if I had no work to do. I was like, “Well, if I don’t have any work to do, why can’t I just stay home and be paid?” I’m actually being paid for my presence. And then you look up and realize you’ve spent years of your life sitting in the same chair. It’s also worth mentioning that I was also drawing on some events I kept seeing in the news over and over again around the time that I was writing. Events that still show up — and seem to be showing up with even more frequency.

I was writing about a group of people whose job is to…decide what’s newsworthy or not…what lives have value or not, determined by what happens in them.

MW: Can you tell us about the theme of ambition in the play? 

BJJ: New York is a city that basically runs on ambition. That’s why an assistant is willing to work for like, $26,000 a year, in a city in which that is definitely the poverty line. People make such sacrifices to work in fields that mostly fulfill some very strange emotional or psychological need that they may not even be fully aware of — needs which may not even be healthy at the end of the day. I’ve also met people who just seem to be ambitious for the sake of ambition – they’re just addicted to the feeling of moving up and ahead in life. In any case, I was interested in the ways that this kind of relationship to the idea of work affects the compromises you make with yourself and your morals. I was also interested in what a writer’s ambition is, because I was writing about a group of people whose job is to basically transcribe life and experience and decide what’s newsworthy or not newsworthy, what lives have value or not, determined by what happens in them.

MW: How do you see Gloria fitting into your body of work? Are you trying to do something different, or are you writing about the same themes consciously?

BJJ: A lot of my work has been wrestling with the idea of authorship in some way, and I think this is my first play in which the drama is pretty overtly anchored around that theme. It’s also the first one in which I’ve drawn on personal, biographical details in a slightly more explicit way in order to tell the story. I still think – I mean, I don’t want to give the play away, but my interest in the playing of character and multiple characters and what that might say about identity is still here.


Buy tickets and learn more about Gloria here. Tickets start at just $25!