Eight years ago, Julia Cho came to South Coast Repertory for the first time. She was a novice author, still in grad school, and excited to have her play, “99 Histories,” read at the Pacific Playwrights Festival.
Her visit was “amazing,” she recalls. “I couldn’t believe they were going to fly me to Costa Mesa from New York and put me up in a hotel, let alone put on my play.”
The experience also proved to be “a little intimidating,” she says. “I was glad to be there, but I wasn’t sure I belonged with all the older, more established playwrights.”
Times have changed.
Today, Cho, 34, is one of those established playwrights, her name on many theater hot lists thanks to a reputation for crafting intricate, often poetic pieces that blur the lines between fact and fiction.
She is back at SCR for the fifth time for the world premiere of “The Language Archive,” which tells the story of a linguist who focuses on trying to save dying languages rather than his own dying marriage.
“Archive,” which opens Friday, is generating more than the usual buzz because it just received the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, which honors works by female playwrights.
And where it once seemed intimidating, South Coast now has become what Cho calls “so familiar and comfortable it’s the closest thing I have to a home.”
“South Coast has been there for me throughout my career,” says Cho by phone. The theater took a chance on her when she was starting out and has followed up with repeated commissions and invitations to return.
“When we find writers like Julia we want them to feel they are a part of our family,” says John Glore, SCR associate artistic director and festival co-director. “We try to support them however we can.”
One way South Coast does this is through PPF, its annual showcase for new works that attracts playwrights and theater leaders from around the country. “We offer writers the chance to see their play on its feet and in front of an audience for the first time,” says Glore, as well as the exposure that can lead to future productions.
“With Julia, there was no question she was going to make a mark on American theater with or without the festival,” says Glore. “But we hope we’ve helped by featuring ’99 Histories’ when we did because we probably introduced her to some people early. And with ‘The Piano Teacher’ and ‘The Language Archive,’ we’ve been able to show our colleagues her trajectory as she has matured as an artist.”
From the beginning, Glore adds, “Julia has always had a strong poetic vision. What has developed over the years is her confidence as a playwright. There’s a kind of masterly way that she uses her craft now. She has learned how to construct a play and not just envision it.”
Getting her start
Cho was studying playwriting in New York when she wrote “99 Histories,” in which a former music prodigy copes with an unexpected pregnancy. Her agent sent a copy to South Coast, which invited her to PPF.
During that first visit, Cho says, she learned a lot from “having a very generous audience” and working with people like director Chay Yew and then-SCR dramaturge Jerry Patch.
Afterward, South Coast offered her the first in a series of revolving commissions. “Once you turn something in we talk to you about doing something else,” Glore explains.
One such commission resulted in “The Piano Teacher,” a morality-memory play in which a woman known as Mrs. K tries to figure out why so many of her students stopped coming to their lessons. The piece was presented as a reading in 2006 and a full production in 2007, both directed by Kate Whoriskey.
For “The Piano Teacher,” Cho arrived in Costa Mesa armed with a body of work that included “The Architecture of Loss,” “BFE,” “Durango” and “The Winchester House.”
“There was a sense of ease about this play,” she says. “There’s always anxiety about an audience watching a play, but I was much calmer about it all.”
Aside from a flurry of media attention caused by the Blackburn, things also have been pretty calm for “The Language Archive” as it heads to the Segerstrom Stage in a production directed by Mark Brokaw, who also directed a reading last year.
The play -- the rare Cho offering described as a romantic comedy -- took shape slowly. It began as a 10-minute piece involving the linguist, George, and his wife, Mary. Eventually, Cho found herself writing about another couple as well -- “an old man and woman from a foreign place who argued in English but didn’t speak it as their native tongue.”
Later, the character of Emma, George’s lovelorn assistant, appeared.
At its heart, says Cho, “The Language Archive” is about “language as a metaphor for love” and thus about the ability (or inability) to express one’s feelings.
Finding the words
“I’ve always been fascinated with languages,” she says. “Specifically, the idea of dying languages kind of stuck with me because I always felt guilty about not being able to speak Korean, which is the language my parents speak.” Cho, who was born in L.A., is the daughter of Korean immigrants.
“The Language Archive” was commissioned by the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York but is receiving its premiere in Costa Mesa because of the Roundabout’s generosity -- and SCR’s persistence.
About a year and a half ago, Glore asked Cho if she had anything that could be ready for PPF. “We keep in touch with her and other writers like Amy Freed, Richard Greenberg, Howard Korder and Donald Margulies,” says Glore. “We call them the cornerstones of the festival.”
After hearing about her newest work, South Coast called the Roundabout and obtained permission to do a reading.
“Later, we went back and said, ‘You won’t be able to produce it next season, but we can iron out the kinks outside New York,’ ” Glore recalls. “They agreed.”
The theaters jointly nominated “The Language Archive” for the Blackburn.
Cho was a finalist for the prize twice before -- for “99 Histories” and “The Piano Teacher.” She calls the award, which includes $20,000 and a signed Willem de Kooning print, “a happy prize because it celebrates women playwrights in a global way.”
Life after the Blackburn has been pretty much the same as before, Cho says. She lives in West Los Angeles with her husband and continues to pursue her day job -- writing for the HBO series “Big Love.”
“The Language Archive” will finish its South Coast run April 25 and open at the Roundabout in the fall. Beyond that, her theater plans are simple: “I’m going to start on another play.”
Glore is happy to hear this. “Julia already has a new commission from us,” he says. “We can’t wait to work with her again.”