So, tell me your name, where you’re from, and where you’re based.
Deborah Yarchun. I claim Austin, Texas. I was there from fifth grade to the end of high school, but my dad was Air Force, so we lived a lot of other places before then. I’m currently based out of Minneapolis.
Is this your first time at SPACE?
How did you end up here?
Through the Jerome Fellowship program. Haley Finn wrote up a grant that I guess led to us having the option of a subsidized residency.
Tell me more about the Jerome Fellowship.
So, it’s a one year artistic residency in Minneapolis. When you have the Jerome Fellowship, you’re required to live there, and they prefer that you not leave Minneapolis more than eight weeks during your time. They give you funding, a fellowship stipend, basically. Then, you have a year in Minneapolis with development funds to work with actors, hire directors, whatever you need. Whatever your needs are that year.
That’s great! What have you been working on there?
A bunch of projects. I wrote a bunch of plays at the University of Iowa very quickly because we had to write a whole new play every semester.
Yeah, so I revised a bunch and then I wrote two new plays, a new full-length called Great White and I just wrote during the last residency year a one-woman show called A Pickle, based on a woman I met in Minneapolis.
What’s she like?
She’s a character! She contacted the Playwrights’ Center and was like, “I have a story for a playwright!”
They were like, “I think you might be a good writer for this.” So, I was really excited about the project, actually, her story. She went up against the Minnesota State Fair in 2000 because they rejected her pickles. She took them up on a diversity issue because they, the pickles, were traditional, brined kosher pickles and they [the Minnesota State Fair] had an issue with the brining process, which they were not familiar with because they were fermented. There’s another process they typically use. So, she went to the table of disqualified pickles and discovered all of these Jewish names on them because they use the same brining process. She got on national news.
How did it go for her?
Not well. She lost the battle in the end because of USDA food safety reasons, which are interesting and somewhat reasonable, but at the same time culturally unaware.
Right! That’s an issue with kosher meat, too, I think. That whole process is on the fence for a lot of people, but it’s culturally necessary for a large group of people. So, what do you do?
Yeah, the tradition goes back thousands of years.
What have you been working on here?
Here I’ve been working on a play called Tectonic Melange. It’s about a petroleum geologist hired by a very small town in western North Dakota that wants to interest investors in leasing their mineral rights so they can drill and profit. I’ve been trying to figure out how factual vs. fictional this is going to be. I’ve been working on this idea that this town believes there are minerals, because they had a well during the previous boom that was really productive, that are being passed over for bad reasons. They hire a geologist and she gets very involved with the people in the town.
How does it compare to the other work you’ve done?
It’s an interesting… synthesis of styles that I’ve been exploring. I was thinking about, “That’s kind of rooted in this play, and that’s using that thing that I did in that play,” and it’s bringing it together in a way that I hope will be one of my better plays, honestly. I’m not knocking others, but I think I’ve learned a lot from the other ones and this is bringing what I’ve learned from the others into one place.
So, this is completely new and not a revision of a previous play.
Yes, it’s a completely new play. I started it a year ago but abandoned it because I realized how extensive the research was going to be and how unrealistic it was for me to actually do that. Sometimes, you have intrinsic motivations that push you to finish a project; it connects to you on a deeper, personal level and it doesn’t require much research because you can mine your own life and your own experiences, without making it autobiographical by any means. Then, sometimes it’s so outside of yourself and so outside your realm of experience that the amount of research is going to eat a lot of your writing time. So, I decided to pursue other projects; but I applied for a Sloan grant, a commission through Ensemble Studio Theater, and they gave it to me! Now I have a deadline and a lot of extrinsic motivation to finish it by April. I’ve already drafted it, so I’ve been really focused on it. I took a trip to North Dakota…
Oh! Hold still. It’s a bee.
It’s okay. I made peace with the bees when I went flower harvesting yesterday.
That’s right! Can we talk about that a little bit? What was that like?
It was great! This girl, Christina, took us around. It was me and Tara [of Vertigo Theater Company]. They taught us which ones to pick, how you know when it’s ready to be harvested…
How do you know?
It has something to do with the cones, how grown they were. The center of it? I don’t know proper flower terminology. I didn’t pick up the vocabulary, clearly. I messed up and at the end, they were like, “Nope. Nope. Nope.” I was like, “Oh, I missed that!” But they would cut those anyway. The takeaway I got was that flowers, I always thought, “You cut them and they die,” but they’re going to die anyway. By cutting them [the flowers], it leads to the plant growing more. That was kind of an epiphany.
Interesting. You could apply that to other parts of your life.
We made bouquets at the end. We were brought to this one spot. It was beautiful. They have an old school flower cart. They had a group of people harvesting other flowers, and they brought them all to this one place at the end to go through and make bouquets. I made a bouquet and I realized that I should not be making bouquets. [laughing] Along the way, Christina would show us edible plants, like Thai basil, and we had a little sampling of all the herbs and the food.
How are you using your time here to work on this project?
Because I started it a year ago, I have a boatload of research on geology, petroleum geology, North Dakota. I had documents and documents of attempts at the play, so I’ve been going through them and grabbing bits that are still useful. I did a lot of research recently, too, so I’ve been assimilating all of my notes and putting it into order. I have the structure of the play worked out now, but I still have a couple other people to call. I’ve been calling a lot of geologists and contacts, doing a lot of first-person research by interviewing people who are doing the kind of work that my character is doing. I need to make sure the facts are correct before I say, “This is certain. I can write this play now.” I can certainly cover the first act, I think. I have the complete structure of the play, so I’ve been filling in the scenes, which I will then turn into the actual scenes. I have to finish going through the rest of my documents. I cannot believe how many pages there were! I open one and I’m like, “This is 65 pages of notes?! No! What was I doing? How did I do that?” But with all the time at the Jerome, I could really use it. Then, I’m going to go through all the notes that I took on my research trip. I have this pad just filled with notes from talking to people, a lot of people in small towns. I was trying to get the characters’ voices in my heads because I hadn’t been to North Dakota and I wasn’t going to make up people. I’ve made up people for plays that have been a little more abstract, but this is so grounded in reality that I’d feel like such a jerk if I ended up writing stereotypes without any understanding of who North Dakotans are. I’ve talked to tons and tons people, from the mayor of a town to a roustabout on a rig.
Did any of your findings surprise you? Or weren’t what you expected?
Not incredibly. I was really surprised by how willing people are to talk and how excited they were to tell their stories. It pretty much confirmed that people are both for and against it [oil drilling]. They see both the positive impact it’s had on their community and the negatives at the same time. No one really knows where to stand, which is exciting. So, the characters are all trying to figure that out in the play. How are they going to stand, and for what? Their values keep shifting based on who owns mineral rights.
So, what’s next after you leave here?
I’m going retreat hopping right now, which is a luxury that I’ll never probably get again. I’m going to fly back tomorrow, have one day in Minneapolis, then head out early the next morning to Tofte Lake to a retreat at a place called Norm’s Fish Camp. This is where the Jerome Fellows and the McKnight and the other fellows have our orientation. We get to bond and get to know each other. So, another lake, more boating opportunities! Stand-up paddleboarding, I hope. This is a good week and a half.
It sounds like you have more alone time here and then you’ll be thrown in with other people there.
Yeah, this is more work-oriented, even though there have been lots of opportunities to be social, and that [Norm’s Fish Camp] is less writing because it’s only a couple of days. More campfires and hanging out. I have another project that I’ll probably start there that involves listening to a lot of music for a musical that I’m going to embark upon writing.
Interesting! Have you written a musical before?
No, it’s… I don’t know how openly I want to talk about it. It’s based on my favorite Jewish songwriter, so I’m using her music and telling the story of her life, I hope. I’ve been having a lot of good conversations with her estate, which is basically her sister and her mom and her family. They’re interested in the idea and are really happy to help provide resources for me to work on it. She wrote over 200 songs, and I have a lot of them with me, so I think that’s the setting to do it where I can hang out and listen to music and get a sense of all of it. I know a lot of it from my upbringing, but there’s so much that I don’t.
Last question: if you were reincarnated as a farm animal, which farm animal would you be and why?
You don’t have armadillos out on Ryder Farm… they’re not really farm animals.
I don’t know that I’d call them farm animals.
No, but in Texas they’d be out and about. Give me a second.
This is the question that people have to think about the most, I think.
Prairie dogs? I guess I’m thinking of wild, more invasive animals.
I think we’re going for more domesticated farm animals. Vaguely domesticated.
A horse would be such a cool thing to be, but I don’t know that I would be one. Maybe. I’d be cool and be like, “Hey, I’ll give you a ride.” Someone earlier was making a point that horses are really kind because they could kill you in a second if they wanted to, but they don’t. I feel like I’d be generous in that way. I hope.
Interviewed by Arden Armbruster.