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What Are Your Co-Workers Not Telling You?

Date: Jun 10, 2015
In real life and in their work, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and Evan Cabnet explore the boundaries of collaboration

It's challenging to write about the Vineyard Theatre's new pitch-black comedy Gloria without giving too much away.

Like all of rising playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' shows -- including Appropriate and An Octoroon, which together earned him the 2014 Obie for Best New American Play -- Gloria surprises, shocks, and provokes. Other than that, however, it's unlike anything he has written before. "That's one of the things I admire so much about Gloria," says director Evan Cabnet. "It has all of the depth and complexity and sophistication that audiences are familiar with from Branden's earlier work in a vessel that's very different. He's thinking deeply about form and genre, and the various approaches writers can take to storytelling. It's all signs of an incredibly brilliant mind."

Suddenly Jacobs-Jenkins cheerily chimes in, "Just so you know, I'm holding a knife to Evan's throat right now!" and the pair giggles in that way only longtime friends do. The theatre artists were introduced at the Vineyard back in 2011, when Cabnet was directing Outside People and Jacobs-Jenkins won the theatre's Paula Vogel Playwriting Award. Jacobs-Jenkins had recently begun working on Gloria, which focuses on three snarky, underemployed magazine editorial assistants (with big book dreams) who all have a really bad day. Since the dramatist spent a few years toiling in the fiction department at The New Yorker, it's impossible not to wonder whether that inspired the show. But Jacobs-Jenkins is quick to put that notion in context. "It's not a Bright Lights, Big City situation," he says. "No one knows where these ideas come from, that's the weird thing about [creating] anything. The New Yorker is the only job I ever had where I fully experienced office politics. I left to be a playwright, and I started thinking about what I missed about that kind of structure, and what I didn't. It's what I had to draw from. If I had worked at an insurance office, Gloria probably would have been set there."


Indeed, Gloria is no exposé of the media industry, and anyone who's worked in any kind of office can relate. "It's about authorship, who owns which memories and experiences," says Jacobs-Jenkins. "How all offices feel the same, and this conflation of identity that happens in certain environments. How we can work next to someone eight hours a day, spend more time with them than our partners or family, and not really know anything about them."

Ironically, Jacobs-Jenkins and Cabnet have gotten to know each other quite well while working on this show, perhaps because the theatre is nothing like an office. Gloria marks the first time the author has collaborated with one director throughout a play's development, and the intimacy that's come with that has been helpful. "It feels like raising a child -- although I don't have one and Evan has two so maybe that's insulting to say," says the playwright. "It's been a rich experience to see this strange collection of impulses every day gain muscle and meat and skin, and I think that has a lot to do with our relationship. I've always felt free to work and try things and explore. I don't know if Evan would say he'd work with me again after this week! [Laughs.] But I have five unfinished plays for him to look at."

Adds Cabnet, "There are playwrights who work in the same milieu over and over again, so it makes sense to collaborate with the same directors. It speaks to the breadth of Branden's work that he likes to cast a wide net. But I'll go on record and say I'd be happy to read those five plays he mentioned. I'll throw everyone else out! There's a certain amount of shorthand between us. When you're working on a new play, you're there to give it the best first production it can get. To have marinated for so long, it's a real treat. When Branden's not in the room, I can look at something and feel like I have a good enough handle on what he's after."


Raven Snook
is the associate editor of TDF Stages

Photos by Carol Rosegg
. Top photo: Jennifer Kim, Catherine Combs, and Kyle Beltran