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Jeffrey M. Jones @ CSU

December 5th, 2011 No comments

Jeffrey M. Jones

Trying to catch up on my happenings, as a lot has been going on and I’ve been negligent in my posting. A few weeks ago I went down to Cleveland State University to sit in on a class whose guest was Jeffrey Jones. It was a pretty interesting time just sitting and listening to the stories that Jones was telling about all sorts of things, including his own writing process and current project to tales of his days with and around the Wooster Group in New York and earlier days when theater was just breaking out in the 60s with folks around like Sam Shepard and Fornes and even an early encounter with David Mamet, etc, at the theater door: “It’s Mamet, the writer.” (Sexual Perversity in Chicago). I should make clear, right away, that I’m talking about Jeffrey Jones the playwright (Seventy Scenes Of Halloween) and NOT the pederast movie star of Amadeus fame.

I also heard from David Todd, my one-time professor who now works down south at Otterbein, who had recently referred me to Jones’ blog:, which is quite interesting, revealing, and often aggressive: with Jones not being shy about his opinions when it comes to things theatrical. To tell the truth, I wish he posted more often. One entry that I found especially of this type was entitled “How Theatre Works” from 2008:; and at some point I’ll post a response to it as I found some of what he had to say quite surprising given his own style of play creation and works.

In his talk at CSU, Jones touched on how he created plays: for instance, that he has a strong interest in creating a “pastiche” of other materials, such as Harlequin romances (bodice rippers) and Nixon’s White House tapes, etc. That is creating a collage of materials and seeing what comes out of it. In terms of his process, he says that he likes to set up a rule or process and to follow it to see where it leads. For instance, on the Flea Theater website Jones has a workshop listed which discusses a process that he uses for play creation. For an even more elaborate discussion of Jones’ approach, take a look at Broadway Play Publishers.

In some ways, the very act of creating plays in this manner flies in the face of the traditional notion of the playwright as authority or playwright as author. The notion of “author” has been a subject of much speculation in general over the past thirty to forty years (See Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, etc.). For instance, what to make of a playwright such as Charles Mee and his (re)making project. Me, who does not “write” the words of his play, but instead “orchestrates” the words of others (found texts) into a play. But beyond this, the question was raised in the discussion regarding the “new trend” of “devised theater”–that is, plays being created using a physical process or a theatrical/spatial approach, rather than a scripted approach. Often you’ll find actors and a director working to create plays as an ensemble, possibly using myth, fairy tale, or other found texts as a guide that is then reinterpreted or re-constructed. This approach to playmaking often cuts out the playwright or, in some cases, has been seen by playwrights as a direct attempt to cut the playwright from the process. Jones’ thoughts on this–while being familiar with this approach under various names–including that used by the Wooster Group, or even Shepard/Chaikin–are that playwrights create story and pattern. Playwrights are responsible for the orchestration of events, and Jones felt that this is not a likely outcome from devised theater or spontaneously created pieces. Jones felt that, while actors may be able to create a character or even a series of actions that have some meaning in a given context, they are, in his experience, not likely to be able to create an overarching story, a grand pattern, and that the pieces are unfocused, and thus lose power, energy, and possibly meaning over the course of the event. Playwrights, as the name implies, are supposed to be master builders of story. Playwrights should be familiar with how story works and the energy potentials of its various constructs, rhythms, and events–be they in a beat unit, a scene, or in larger blocks across the play–even if they intend to violate these rules or work against them. Some actors may have an understanding of the constructs, rhythms, and events in story, but most do not. Directors had certainly better.

I have taken steps into this arena of playmaking by pastiche or collage, though not to the extent that Jones has, nor do I have his track record, pedigree, etc. My thesis play, Patterns, for instance, was a collage of generic forms, as well as a collage of various texts brought together to reflect and refract one another: an effort to force meaning to be created by the audience who experiences the play and, in some ways, to deny that I as the playwright am the sole source of meaning with regard to the text. (That is, not to deny my importance entirely.) My play Andrew Jackson ate my Homework: A racial farce, is another example of this approach to playmaking. The problem that I have run into, or have noted to myself, when writing plays that reject the Aristotelian dramatic structure–or at least one of the issues–is where does the play end? Or how do you craft the ending without falling into the trap of “forcing” the ending or dulling the play, somehow–that is, as Jones might have it, without killing the energy, power, and meaning. This is a question of editing and has been addressed in many locations by playwrights smarter than me, one of which I have pointed to before: an interview with Wallace Shawn in an issue of American Theatre. For Jones, the question of where or when a play ends is when you, as playwright, have exhausted the material or your ability to create new things with the material. Or, to use the words from Jones above, when you set up a rule or process and trace it out to see where it leads, it is precisely when you have run out of leads that the play must be done–in one sense. Then there is the cleaning up. For Jones, this represents the other important facet of playwriting, which he posited in a question: “is it tight”? That is, have you gone back into the work and edited every line to make certain that it is as tight and clear and clean as it can be? That there is no fat, no laziness, nothing imprecise? Has the waste from each line been removed?

The event at CSU was lively and important for me, and I look forward to my efforts at revising the plays mentioned above using Jones’ guidance and thoughts for both ending and tightening plays.

Finn in the Underworld

September 16th, 2009 No comments

I’m pretty excited about the upcoming production at convergence-continuum. A few years ago I went over to see Act a Lady by Jordan Harrison which was an hilarious romp. So, this next piece by Harrison is to be anticipated, too. However, this one is not a funny romp. In fact, it is the exact opposite: dark, brooding, and sinister.

Finn in the Underworld at convergence-continuum

Finn in the Underworld at convergence-continuum

Clyde Simon, the artistic director for convergence, is pretty careful in laying out the season–placing comedic hits like Charles Mee’s Big Love right in the midst of summer to catch that breezy, sunny disposition that keeps us all optimistic, happy, and alive; but coming right back as the weather changes over to windy, overcast, and cooling to stoke our more fearful and depressed autumnal dispositions. Finn in the Underworld is the perfect direction, as Lucy Bredeson-Smith (who plays Gwen in the play) points out, for Halloween.

I recently sat down and interviewed the cast and director of the upcoming production, so I went to Playscripts and read much of the play that they have freely available online: Then, when I got to The Liminis, as I waited while they all ran tech, I finished up the play with the scripts that were laying about on the set. I was not disappointed.

It was initially a strange sensation, reading the play. I am used to finding books through Google Books, reading happily along, and then encountering pages missing from the middle of the book–Google’s meagre concession to copyright concerns. This extraction of pages leads to a choppy reading experience. So, as I read Finn in the Underworld I was suddenly greeted by jumps in the script that sent me looking for page numbers to make sure that pages weren’t missing…that Playscripts hadn’t done the same thing. They hadn’t. Harrison’s script plays with jumps in time and it caught me off guard.

The jumps in time are what most attracts me to the play. It is fascinating to see an encounter at 7:35 pm only to (later on) pick up the thread of what happened earlier at 2:00 in the afternoon. The jumping fills in the details on events in strange ways, creating connections that go different directions in time and create a curiously timeless, eerie feeling…as if one were, I don’t know, in Hades? I was very much reminded of Fefu and Her Friends by Fornes which creates a similar feeling through the four mobile scenes in the mid-section of the play. There is something strangely vibrant about seeing scenes out of order and then connecting pieces of information from one place back to another. Harrison’s play handles this very competently and it creates a spine-tingling experience.

Harrison has described his play as a ‘psychosexual gothic horror story,’ which is an apt description, as there are elements of all of this in the play. Gothic stories, especially stories with horror elements, remind me of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights–the mad woman in the attic or ghosts on the moors. But the elements are present here, too: a dark house, an unexplained death, a family mystery that spans generations, and, very like the tales by the Bronte sisters, a jagged-love that is doomed from the start. Appropriately, Harrison quotes Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House at the outset of his play: “An evil old house, the kind some people call “haunted”, is like an undiscovered country waiting to be explored.”

For those of you who want a surprise, go and see this play! It will deliver. For those of you who want to see the play, but don’t mind having your surprise compromised, spoilers follow.

Warning: Spoiler Alert — What follows reveals plot, story, and will ruin your fun.

The quote from Hill House is more than just support for the Gothic horror feel of the piece. Other than the way Harrison plays with time and play structure, the one event that threw me the most was the revelation that Carver Bishop was already dead: thus putting the ghost element squarely at the center of the horror story. But, this is not nearly enough. Harrison, like Jackson, continues, with a house that is itself alive and that wishes to consume all of those within its walls, to keep the men and women forever, tucked inside of some unearthly plane of semi-existence.

This plane is where the second act of Harrison’s play occurs, and very like the Hades mentioned briefly above, the action that transpires is very Greek in its notion of the Underworld: very Greek because the river Lethe, which flows through Hades, erases the memories of the dead who drink from it. As with those poor dead folk in Hades, so it is with all the characters in the play who are consumed by the house–and as it no doubt is for those consumed by family grief or a tragic history–memory becomes questionable, personal history is drowned or left in a murky twilight, and logic begins to run in circles. For me, this last part of Harrison’s play is the most disturbing. It is oppressive, suffocating, and claustrophobic–and it is by no means an accident that it transpires within the confines of bomb shelter.

This play runs through October 17 at convergence and I can hardly wait to see it.

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