Sunday, October 09, 2011

I Interview Playwrights Part 390: Daniel Alexander Jones


Daniel Alexander Jones

Hometown: Springfield, Massachusetts. McKnight Neighborhood in the 1970s.

Current Town: New York City. Manhattan. Inwood.

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I just recorded the new music project for Jomama Jones (my alter/altar-ego) In LA, with composer Bobby Halvorson. I am also collaborating with Bobby on a musical adaptation of a 107 year-old children's book. In NY, I am putting the finishing touches on my newest play, Phantasmatron, which is a speculative historical drama set in 1864 involving Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckly and a pair of Spiritualist twins. And, I'm starting the academic year at Fordham University, where I am an Assistant Professor; I'm very much looking forward to working with our students - they are spectacular people.

Q:  Tell me, if you will, a story from your childhood that explains who you are as a writer or as a person.

A:  In Summer 1977, just after the birth of my brother, I contracted a strange illness. My body ached, I was continually feverish and I lost most of the meat off my bones. The pediatrician put me on all sorts of medicines, none of which worked; I was waylaid for half the Summer. All I could tolerate was ice cold Hi-C. Though I'm pretty sure I had always felt connected to "the other side" so to speak, i.e. aware of the presence of energies and entities not in this reality, somehow during this extended fever dream state, with my physical self so weakened and in unexpected isolation, I experienced my first true lifting of the veil. The warp and weft of time loosened and a visceral sense of the precarious pulse of life accompanied my every waking moment. I'll never forget the first day I was allowed outside. The sunlight was electric honey. I could hear the tones of the bees flying through the air and literally feel them land on the plump clover and feel the bend in the stems of the tiny flowers. It was almost too much. Before I had language to describe it, I was experiencing the musical idea of all things. I saw both the thing itself, and its living blueprint simultaneously. That fever changed me. I think it removed some part of me from unconscious connection to other people and things; there's a tinge of isolation in me that I can trace back to this time. Most importantly, it cemented something in my perceptive abilities; I see more than what's immediately visible. Thinking about this question makes me realize that as an artist I consistently seek to theatricalize unseen architectures.

Q:  If you could change one thing about theater, what would it be?

A:  Changes are already underway and the heat is being generated outside traditional structures. The rich examples provided by many contemporary musicians and visual artists (who have simply and directly cultivated new audiences and broad platforms) motivate me to get up and get moving in service of my dreams and those of my colleagues. Direct address. Pearl Damour's recent How to Build a Forest; Aaron Landsman and Mallory Catlett's evolving City Council Meeting, Erik Ehn's Soulographie and Sharon Bridgforth's upcoming River See, are but four examples of artists creating networks and partnering with forward-acting institutions to make work that seeks to engage beyond typical structures. The American theatre writ-large does not seem to want the kinds of change that I, or many of my collaborators, would wish for it. Therefore I have learned to pour the full measure of my desire for change into my own work. I am hugely inspired by and drawn to artists and institutions who have planted themselves firmly in this twenty-first century and are committed to dynamic, collaborative exploration of the possibilities for live art in the lives of all sorts of American people in all sorts of modalities. The comfort of knowing exactly what story will be told, exactly how it will be told and exactly who will be telling it leads, in my opinion, to a dangerous complacency. And the idea of making art by consensus (which ends up being the fate of many new plays) is in direct opposition to the theatre I seek. I don't want art to lull me to sleep, I want art to wake me up. So, we do it differently. Of late, I returned to Audre Lorde's infallible quote, "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." I am no longer interested in trying to dismantle self-repairing elitist structures, or systems of thought, that do not in fact support the future expansion of the art form for which they claim to exist. Unwelcoming systems are maintained by individuals who make choices. I intend to leave that all be. We're making something new now.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  My heroes are people who make the room sing. My heroes are people who speak truth with power. My heroes are people who choose joy. My heroes are people who make a way out of no way. My heroes are people who share. My heroes are people who don't suffer fools. My heroes are people who take responsibility for the gifts and the powers they possess and cultivate their craft. My people seek to heal and not harm. There are many - I will omit some for brevity's sake - but I could fill your blog with names. I was fortunate enough to be mentored by several of them including Aishah Rahman, John Emigh, Robbie McCauley and the late Rebecca Rice and Kathryn Gagnon. I will never forget being a frequent visitor in the room with Paula Vogel, Anna Deavere Smith and David Savran at Brown University when they taught a workshop together - I have rarely felt such a creative charge in the air. The writers and/or performers Adrienne Kennedy, Ntozake Shange, Bridget Carpenter, Naomi Iizuka, Ruth Margraff, Erik Ehn, Jake-ann Jones, Eisa Davis. Lisa Kron. Peggy Shaw. Lois Weaver. Lisa Damour and Katie Pearl. Stacey Karen Robinson. The Rude Mechanicals. Jason Neulander. My former colleagues at Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre in Austin. Elissa Adams. The visionary artistic leaders at New Dramatists and The Playwrights' Center. Polly Carl. Many of them I get to work with - including Helga Davis, Sharon Bridgforth, Bobby Halvorson, Grisha Coleman, Barbara Duchow, Walter Kitundu, Vinie Burrows, Tea Alagíc and recently Sarah Benson. And there is a long list of students who I've had the privilege of working with who inspire me beyond belief. A few of my heroes succumbed to the shadow side of the artist's journey; and I have struggled (as have many of my colleagues) with the experience of seeing anger, bitterness and resentment consume the capacities of some artists who had been burning torches. No-one can hide from the shadow side. Yet, I have been given tremendous lessons and resonant examples by artists who found ways to transmute the negatives, too. They found ways to tap the generative capacities of darkness and ways to harness and direct their energies to make something luminous and lasting. Two legendary artists, Josephine Baker and Lena Horne continue to 'minister' to me through their life stories. There are so many to name. And that fact alone is inspiration, to me.

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  Theater that is all in. 100% plus. Theater that leaves you trembling and ready to greet the dawn with new resolve. Taylor Mac's The Lily's Revenge springs to mind - it used impossibility like a diver uses a diving board. Theater that knows it can conjure the holy ghost and does it fearlessly - watching Omi Osun place the headdress upon her head and dance out the ritual of becoming 'king', her eyes glinting in the twilight, sweat coating her skin like diamond dust, strut, strut, strut... in Sharon Bridgforth's delta dandi at SummerStage in Harlem last year. Theatre that depends upon the essence of its own form - the pulsing, breathing, human presence demanding and binding the willing imaginations of its audience members in a live, ephemeral moment. Watching Anna Deavere Smith do an early, stripped down, "unplugged" performance of Fires in the Mirror - no light or sound cues - just her, a table, a rolling chair, her grand arms and angular legs, her voice ricocheting off the wooden beams of Rites and Reason Theatre - we were all close enough to hear each breath - a once in a lifetime experience. Theatre that honors the virtuosity of elders and the insight of new arrivals simultaneously. Watching legendary actor Vinie Burrows and the gorgeous young actor Sonja Perryman recount the aftermath of a lynching in my own Phoenix Fabrik - Sonja as bright and urgent as a night star, Vinie, as vast as the indigo that surrounds it. Theater of quantum physics. Theatre that reminds us of who and what we really can be.

Q:  What advice do you have for playwrights just starting out?

A:  Give yourself the permission and approval you seek. Make work. Make work. Make work. Develop your practice. Beware of choices you are making that are about consensus - collaboration offers you and your fellow artists an opportunity to reach beyond yourselves to find the most resonant expression for a project, yes - but that does not mean that you should be writing for other people to agree or 'like' what you write. It means you should let your work with others push you toward writing the thing that is most honest. Be willing to stand your ground - and - be willing to let go of something you thought was sure - so long as you are pursuing that most honest thing. Learn the difference between self-confidence and egotism; learn the difference between a loud voice and a talented voice. Seek humility through your constant attention to all aspects of your practice. Volunteer a measure of your time, quietly, consistently, in the service of others' work. Devour the body of work of as many playwrights as you have fingers and toes. At least. Challenge yourself to move beyond the facile language of "like and dislike" and spend time analyzing, reflecting upon and describing pieces of art (be they theatre, dance, music, visual art, film) that you say you like and that you say you hate. Learn the nature of the elements that resonate with you - ask yourself why they do. Learn what the elements are that put you off - look more deeply into your own aversion. Ask more questions than you spout answers. Drink water. Get sleep. Develop a parallel practice - get really good at something that has nothing (ostensibly) to do with theater - planting trees, baking cakes, repairing bicycles, digging wells, planning rallies, coaching... whatever. Remember you are not the first. Challenge the viral ideas of exceptionalism and the pursuit of fame. Devote yourself to becoming the best craftsperson you can become and remember that more often than not, most other artists are seeking to do the same.

Q:  Plugs please.

A:  Jomama Jones's albums RADIATE and LONE STAR are available on iTunes and CD Baby and we will release the EP SIX WAYS HOME in 2012. Stay looped in through danielalexanderjones.com.

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