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Sarah Jones and Carolyn Cantor. Photo by Ramon Garcia.

Building Character(s)

Longtime collaborators on Sell/Buy/Date, writer/performer Sarah Jones and director Carolyn Cantor sat down on the first day of rehearsals for the Geffen production to discuss the origins of the play, the writing process and the nature of art in the time in which we live.

Carolyn Cantor: Sarah, would you begin by saying a little bit about how you arrived at the subject matter for the show?

Sarah Jones: Since I’ve spent my life in a woman’s body, I’ve noticed the really uneven and unfair conversation about women’s sexuality and women’s empowerment. Whenever I went to the theater and saw a piece about prostitution, or trafficking, or something that was really at the nexus of women’s power and sexuality, I always felt dehumanization was the dominant experience. And I thought, “What would it look like to give audiences a humanizing experience of thinking about this so-called ‘oldest profession?’”

CC: How do you decide which characters to include? How do you decide whose voice is essential?

SJ: Since I’ve been in not only a woman’s body, but a person of color’s body, and am thinking about race and multiculturalism, coming from different races myself, I thought about whose voices are usually marginalized and therefore will hopefully offer an audience a new lens on these ideas. I got a lot of support for my research through the Novo Foundation, which does work helping to empower women and girls, and it was so helpful to go around the world and speak to lots of different women. As an artist — and I know you experience this, Carolyn — we want to explore all of the facets of a theme, but never feel like we’re agitprop. This is not a rally. There’s nothing wrong with a rally, but when people come to the theater, I want to provoke thought and laughter and I don’t want to prescribe what they should think.

CC: Can you talk a little about when you started working on this piece?

SJ: I’ve been doing research for this, like every woman in this room, since I was 12 — as soon as you’re aware of your sexuality, and the messages of either hiding it or putting it forward or shaming it. But the earnest research began in 2011. I went with Gloria Steinem and a group of American feminists to meet with feminists in South Korea and learn about the so-called “comfort women.” These were the last living examples of women who had been conscripted into the Japanese army, as though they were artillery or objects for the soldiers to use. As you can imagine, the brutality of their stories was unspeakable. I literally got to sleep over in the house where they were living, and I thought, “I have to write this.” Their stories actually didn’t end up in the script, but they informed [my work].

CC: Where you are with the text now? So much has happened around feminism and women’s issues just in the last year and a half [since it premiered].

SJ: It’s odd to remember that, a few years ago, Donald Trump was in the Sell/Buy/Date script as someone who was a mentor to a pimp character — someone whom this pimp admired so much for how he subtly exploited women. I eventually made an editorial decision to remove the reference because I really didn’t want to dignify him with a presence in my play. I thought I could just delete him away. Little did I know. I think this is unfortunately a timeless topic — “Time’s Up” and timeless at the same time. We really want to address that, and anyone who saw it in New York and now comes to see it here in L.A. will see some subtle, but important, changes.

CC: Let’s shift gears to you as a performer. What kind of physical or vocal preparations do you have to do to perform in this show?

SJ: My regimen is — don’t try this at home, I’ll put it that way. I have a monastic way of living. I have to live like the show is the only important thing in my life for the time that I’m doing it. Getting through eight shows a week means I don’t talk, to the best of my ability, outside of performing if I want audiences to have the same quality of experience from the first night to the very last night. It’s a demanding show, but I’m willing to go to any lengths for it.

CC: What do you find are the rewards and challenges of working with material you’ve written yourself versus working in things written by other people?

SJ: There are huge rewards and challenges on both sides. There is something so freeing about being given someone else’s words. As long as I know I’m communicating the feeling they tell me they want, my work is done. With me, it’s like there’s a committee in my head saying: “I don’t know if you delivered that line exactly right,” “Why don’t we rewrite that section?,” “Maybe it’s not landing the way we think.” Fortunately I have collaborators like you, Carolyn, who help me land in the character.

Sarah Jones as “Lorraine.” Photo by Zachary Maxwell Stertz.

CC: It’s fun working with you, too. Sometimes when I give you direction, and you’re in a character, the character responds, and I’m like, “Sarah? Sarah?”

SJ: Yeah, sometimes I’m gone and the character is like, [as the character of Lorraine, an “elderly Jewish bubbe”] “Where’s my light?”

CC: And I’m like, “Lorraine, we need to talk to Sarah.”

SJ: [As Lorraine] She’s not available, sweetheart. I’m having such a wonderful time working with Carolyn. It’s been so long since New York, she’s still not used to me yet. I’m also not in the union — don’t tell anybody. Sarah’s in the union for the rest of us.

CC: This is what I mean. Can we get Sarah back? What do you see as the responsibility of an artist in modern times?

SJ: I’ve come to see that the choice for work to not be political or to not make a statement is, in itself, a political statement. It’s saying, “I don’t feel any urgency about these things. I don’t feel any responsibility or need as an artist to touch on those issues.” That sounds like a really delightful and less burdensome place to live, but to not use the megaphone I have and say “Hey! Is everyone seeing what I’m seeing here?” would actually be the kind of myopia that has landed us where we are now. We can also laugh, cry it out, gather and have a debate, but let’s not pretend it isn’t here.

CC: I also wanted to ask you about your relationship to the audience. Do you think about the audience and what you hope they’ll experience or take away as you’re writing?

SJ: I think the audience is reflected in my characters — I would like them to recognize people they know. I think connectivity is what the theater provides in a way that no other media can — an experience of actual human connection. I can think of nothing more important than the communal space and experience that’s shared when we literally have to turn our phones off, be present with ourselves in a way that we never are anymore, and be forced to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with other people who, hopefully, aren’t exactly like us. Or, at the very least, to have an experience of something we don’t already know everything about. It is a collective adventure, and we all have to have the willingness to show up and hang out together.

For tickets and showtimes, please visit geffenplayhouse.org/sellbuydate or call our Box Office at 310.208.5454 (open daily, 7:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m.).

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