Featured THE TERROR FANTASTIC artist: Nicole Jost, playwright

Nicole Jost headshot 2017Meet Playwright NICOLE JOST, and then come see THE TERROR FANTASTIC!

1. Talk about your background as an artist and a playwright. Have you been involved with 20% Theatre in the past and, if so, in what ways?

This is my first show with 20%! I have to shout out Shalee Coleman (fab director) for
bringing my work to the Twin Cities. I’m so grateful to her for introducing me to this
wonderful company. As for my background, I started writing plays when I started writing The Terror Fantastic. When I think about my growing up, it’s laughably obvious that I wanted to write. Whether it’s the notebook full of ideas I kept as a little kid, the song lyrics I collected as a teenager, or the way I’ve always quoted movies and TV – all signs pointed to writing. But I didn’t realize how much I wanted it until I got the idea for this play. It was scary to call myself a playwright – that opens the door for failure. But when I finally admitted to myself that this is what I want to do, it felt really good.

2. What inspired you to write The Terror Fantastic? What can you tell us about it that we won’t know just from seeing it? 

In college, I wrote a queer fairytale play. Mostly for fun. I put it down for a couple years.
At the same time, I was experiencing panic attacks. And I started to feel like anxiety was
this monster following me around. I would have a panic attack seemingly for no reason,
sitting up in bed, at the movies with friends. The randomness really bugged me, and it
started to take on a personality, this beast-like thing following me around and messing
with me. So, I got the idea to cannibalize my sweet little fairytale play, to write a play
that occupied two worlds (real life with a monster and a fantasy space). I was involved
with a theater company called The Inkwell in DC (where I’m from), and the way they
articulated an aesthetic of pushing boundaries in theater really spoke to me. The weird
plays they described sounded like plays I wanted to see. And I thought, wait a minute, I
should be writing plays that I would want to see! That was a big part of the inspiration.

3. What aspects of your [queer] identity are you hoping to express through The Terror Fantastic?

For me, The Terror Fantastic is about being queer without being “about” being queer.
What I mean is that the protagonist experiences universal stuff – fear, lust, mental illness, self doubt – filtered through the lens of her identity as a queer woman. That was really important to me, to strike that balance of representing my queerness (through a character who is not me!) without overriding my humanity. I am queer. And a person. Both. I also wanted to talk about fear for a queer character who can’t say without a doubt that they are safe in the world. How does that real fear intersect with her mental health, how does it create boundaries around space, and how do queer people wrestle with fear?

4. Why do you feel it is important to share this story/the story(ies) of this production with the community?

When I first had readings of this play, I was incredibly moved by the people who
approached me afterwards to say, I have anxiety, and this is exactly what it feels like. I
think it’s important to say this stuff out loud, to combat the isolation that too often comes
with mental health issues. I also think it’s important to share stories of women’s
sexuality. I’d like to think that as a culture we’ve moved past the idea that men are
initiators of sex and women are receivers of that initiation, but I’m constantly reminded
that we are not. I find it really joyful to center a lusty woman in this story, even when
she’s so surrounded by so much darkness.

5. What social issues are important to you and how do they inform the art you create and/or the plays you write?

I always try to tackle social and political issues through a personal lens, shrinking the
capital “P” politics down to a person’s very real, intimate experience. All the oppression
“isms” show up in people’s daily lives, so as a playwright I can explore them through my
characters. I am a white writer, and I have been working to create three-dimensional,
believable, flawed, complicated characters of color. Not only because representation
matters, but also in the theater I am always conscious of the fact that my characters make jobs for actors. I can’t use my white privilege blind spots as excuses to write only white characters – that’s literally taking money from artists of color. Those blind spots are very real, though, so I need to do the research, listen, and remain accountable. Of course, queer experience and queer issues are very important to me, too. I guess I’m a bit of a narcissist, because even when I set out to write a cis character in an opposite-sex
relationship, they somehow end up a bit queer. Maybe on some subconscious level I
don’t really believe that non-queer people exist…

6. Are you working on any other projects or are there others you hope to work on?

I’m finishing my M.F.A. in Playwriting at San Francisco State University this May,
which means I’m juggling a whole bunch of different projects right now. I wrote a play
called Sucia that will be produced on campus this March – it’s a modern retelling of the
Cinderella story, about a young Chicana and her Ivy League dreams (spoiler alert: there’s
no prince in this Cinderella!). And I’ve got other things in the works: a vaudeville about
Betsy DeVos, a magical realist drama about a sex worker who becomes best friends with
her former client after the client’s death, a dark comedy about a woman with armpit
cancer in near-future America, and an immersive queer divorce play (in collaboration
with two other queer writers, which is so awesome!).

7. When you’re not writing awesome plays like The Terror Fantastic, how do you spend your time? What are some of your hobbies or passions in life?

It’s fun to complain that being in grad school means I have no free time, but the truth is
that doing my homework is awesome. I took a big break between graduating from college and starting this M.F.A., so the joys of being a student are really clear to me. (Not that I don’t get stressed out and complain, too.) But outside of that, I’m an introvert, so I love spending time at home with my wife and my cat. That’s my total sweet spot. I also love to cook. I find it really calming. It uses a different part of my brain than writing does, and when I get way too full of language it helps me to do something sensory. I’m also one of those yoga people. I know, I know, it’s so boring and trendy, but I really love it. Anything that connects me to my physical body makes me happy. (And all that deep
breathing for anxiety!)

8. In The Terror Fantastic, we get to experience some of the main characters’ fantasies. What are some things you fantasize about?

I get a lot of energy from the initial spark of an idea (for anything, not just plays), and
that energy often sends me off into a fantasy about all the ideal steps leading up to an
ideal product. It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because I’ll just start work on
something and conjure up this vision of finishing it. And that vision can propel me, but it
also makes it hard to make adjustments when things change. So I have to work on being
flexible, and letting go of the fantasy a little. I’m also a teaching artist, so I run fantasy
classes in my head constantly!