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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.

Building the Play: Re-Writes

January 27th, 2011 No comments

What can I say about re-writes? Hmmm. Self-defeating, triumphant, withering, the source of endless self-questioning, confusing, revisionist approach to history, etc.

There is much to be said for Shepard’s belief that the first shot is the one. Period.

I wrote a while back about Wallace Shawn’s piece in American Theatre where he discusses editing. Well, Sex and Editing. In that blog entry I wrote that:

The small kudos paid to the logical dweller in the great cavern who’s only pedantic offering is to sort things out. And I don’t underestimate this by any stretch of the imagination. Shawn is quite right to point to the “skill” required, for it is that. It is one that I am still honing. I can catch the torrent and ensure that it pours out onto a page. It is that skill at going back and doing the “modest organizing” and the “finding” that is most important. To pare down the utterance. To select. And yet NOT TO HARM or DISTORT the voice.

And, of course, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I found myself right back in this same place. I guess I’m finding that the true challenge in writing is how to become a good editor–and pedantic organizer.

I’ve just gone through one round of meetings and revisions only to have a reading where the whole structure of my piece has been called into question; and hence, made me call it into question (right at the point where I should be affirming, not doubting–rehearsals begin in a week).

The main comment that has set me off is that “pattern is no replacement for narrative”.

That was the comment. The whole premise of my play is precisely that. It is precisely that pattern is a replacement for narrative. The human mind actively seeks pattern. The human mind finds pattern and then makes meaning out of the repetition. This is absolutely true. It has been proven time and again by cognitive scientists and psychologists and computer scientists, and even though I know that is a “weasel” statement, because I have no intention of finding citations at this time to back that sentence up. But I’m not even concerned about the assertion right now so much as I’m concerned about the fact that my specific set of patterns aren’t working.

Then again, maybe they are. I don’t know how many people who heard the reading felt that “pattern is no replacement for narrative” and how many felt the opposite. You see, the trouble here is that narrative has functioned in 1) (subversively) the structure of how plays are written; and 2) (overtly) using a narrator or strong exposition; for so long that people come to expect that sort of guidance. Hence, when you don’t provide it (intentionally) they might just not be used to it. It’s not that they don’t get it, but that they don’t like it.

The contradiction between the two paragraphs above is not me being fickle, but rather it highlights, I think, the inherent problem of re-writing and revision: you may have done it right the first time but given the opportunity to re-examine what you’ve done, you start to tinker where you should have left well-enough alone. This is especially the case where there are readings, and more readings, and more readings, and you gather input from more and more people. Perhaps the best example of this is contained in these two quotes:

Patterns not necessarily a substitute for narrative

Really felt the oppression of repetition…the oppression is in the repetition itself.

That is, if my interpretation is correct, there are some who felt that there was something missing from the play without the standard through-line of narrative; and others who felt as if the patterns used were oppressive–hence, overly strong. How do you deal with that? Two people expressing completely opposing views of what is wrong with the play?

The obvious answer is to ignore both and just assume that you’re right on the mark, which is what I’ll have to do.

The good thing about readings is that you can tell where things are just too damn long. There are places in the play where it just drags a bit. These are places to cut and re-draft. This is easy. It’s in the structure or “theoretical” parts of how you’ve built the play that the damage can be done if you’ve mis-stepped. For instance, right now the play is cast, so there is very little I can do in editing it–that is, I can’t really cut characters or re-think them. I have to work within the framework that exists now.

Let’s hope that’s a good thing.

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