SALT LAKE CITY — Elaine Jarvik doesn’t back away from a challenge.
She tried to write a play in high school and, in her words, “failed miserably,” so she channeled her curiosity about human nature into a career in journalism — at the Deseret News.
But several years later when a friend started writing plays, Jarvik thought she’d try her hand again at writing a play, too. She bought books about playwriting, read a lot of plays and ultimately decided to write a musical.
“I failed at that too, but by then I was hooked,” Jarvik wrote in an email interview with the Deseret News.
She didn’t give up but instead started writing 10-minute plays as a way to practice. She submitted one to the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and in 2008, her play “Dead Right” was one of four 10-minute plays selected to premiere at the festival.
Jarvik calls it “lucky” that her play made it to the Humana Festival, but whether it was luck or skill, it eventually led to her transition from full-time journalist to full-time playwright, now with more than half a dozen plays that have been produced by local theater companies.
“I am not a natural-born playwright,” Jarvik said. “I have to labor over what I write. In that way, it’s like trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle — something I’m really bad at — so it’s a challenge, which is fun but also daunting.”
Her recent play, “An Evening With Two Awful Men,” is set to premiere at the hand of Plan-B Theatre Company Feb. 21-March 3 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center. It is her fourth full-length play to premiere with Plan-B.
“Salt Lake is an extremely supportive town for local playwrights,” Jarvik said. “All the theaters are willing to at least occasionally produce locally written plays, and Plan-B even devotes its entire season to plays by local playwrights.”
Jarvik’s route to playwriting began with her love of writing and came after her career as a journalist, including almost 30 years spent at the Deseret News. A graduate of Syracuse University for her undergrad and Northwestern University for her master’s in journalism, Jarvik joined the Deseret News in 1972 and stayed there — aside from a nine-year hiatus to focus on raising her children — until 2010. During her time with the paper, she covered a variety of topics as a features and then a general assignment reporter.
“I can’t imagine any career that’s better than being a journalist, unless it’s being a playwright, but journalism actually provided a reliable paycheck,” Jarvik said.
It wasn’t until 2002 when her friend again sparked Jarvik’s interest in playwriting. From there, she studied under now-Tony Award-winning writer J.T. Rogers in 2004 during his time as resident playwright at the Salt Lake Acting Company. Four years later, she found herself at the Humana Festival.
By 2010, Jarvik had taken an early retirement and was only working at the Deseret News two days a week when the newspaper went through a restructuring. As a result, Jarvik was laid off, an event that Jarvik said gave her the final push to focus solely on writing plays.
“I loved my years as a reporter at the Deseret News, but that layoff was one of the best things that ever happened to me,” she said. “ … (But) sometimes I long for those journalism days when smart people fed me dialogue and I just wrote down what they said.”
A month and a half after being laid off, Jarvik’s first full-length play — “The Coming Ice Age,” which she began writing while in Louisville, Kentucky, for the Humana Festival and which was inspired, in part, by a series about aging she wrote for the Deseret News with Lois Collins — premiered at Salt Lake’s Pygmalion Theatre Company.
“Elaine could make instructions on how to put together a bookcase interesting,” wrote Deseret News columnist Lee Benson after seeing the premiere of “The Coming Ice Age” in 2010. “Losing her (as a co-worker) was like losing Harper Lee. But as her play so ably communicates, life does not stand idle. And for her next act Elaine is now a playwright, still delivering really good lines — and then giving them to actors for proper enunciation.”
Since then, she’s had two plays produced at the Salt Lake Acting Company — including one co-written with her daughter — and four at Plan-B, including “An Evening With Two Awful Men.”
“An Evening With Two Awful Men” — a “dark comedy about race, privilege, sexuality, shame and legacy,” according to Plan-B’s website — started with a phone call from Plan-B’s artistic director, Jerry Rapier, in the summer of 2016.
“Plan-B had produced my play ‘Based on a True Story’ that winter and Jerry knew I was trying to figure out what to tackle next,” Jarvik said.
Rapier suggested Jarvik look into President James Buchanan — “the original worst-ever” and “possibly first gay” president, according to Plan-B’s website — as the subject of her next play.
“This was the jumping off point for the play I eventually wrote, but the play is less about that and more about what it would feel like, 150 years after your death, to realize people had called you ‘the worst president ever,’” she said. “Eventually, as I began writing, other characters also showed up.”
Those other characters include John Wilkes Booth, Harriet Tubman and a “host” as Buchanan and Booth must answer for their actions before a live studio audience.
Jarvik said she hopes the play makes everyone — regardless of political affiliation, race or background — squrim a little and cause them to re-examine their own world — a process she says is one of the main things she enjoys about being a playwright.
“Playwriting has been a way for me to figure out the world and to work through aspects of my life I might be struggling to understand,” she said, “which I guess isn’t that different from being a journalist.”
If you go …
What: Plan-B Theatre Company's production of "An Evening With Two Awful Men" by Elaine Jarvik
When: Feb. 21-March 3, dates and times vary
Where: Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center Studio Theatre, 138 W. 300 South
How much: $22
Note: The run of "An Evening With Two Awful Men" is sold-out but Plan-B Theatre's artistic director Jerry Rapier says there is still an opportunity to see the show. A pre-paid waitlist will form in the box office one hour before show time. Patrons must be there in person to get on the waitlist and must check back five minutes before show time. As many waitlisters as possible will be seated at show time, and those who can’t seat be seated will receive a full refund.