Wednesday, June 03, 2015

I Interview Playwrights Part 749: Jason Odell Williams

Jason Odell Williams

Hometown: Columbia, Maryland

Current Town: New York City

Q:  What are you working on now?

A:  I’ve always got a few things happening at once since I like to be able to bounce from project to project when one inevitably hits a wall. So here’s what I’m doing right now:

Plays: I’ve got a two-hander that I co-wrote with my wife, Charlotte Cohn, and we are very close to getting a world premiere production this fall in the regions, but just waiting for final confirmation. Then the plan is to  bring that play to NY for a commercial run Off-Broadway in the spring of 2016. We have a great director and producer and some investors already attached (we just need to find a venue! Easier said than done). We did a similar thing a few years ago with my play HANDLE WITH CARE which did very well here in NY and is now published by DPS and hitting the regions again – that play was also optioned for a film and is being shopped around by a producer. And I’ve also got a political drama that will premiere regionally next year but I think I need to wait to officially announce where and when!

Film: I wrote a Young Adult novel called PERSONAL STATEMENT that was published by In This Together Media in 2013 and optioned for a film. My wife and I co-wrote the screenplay adaptation and we’re nearly finished with our final round of producer notes on that script.

Books: I’m working on a new YA novel for the same publisher of my first book about the current Colorado marijuana boom.

TV: And my day job is working as a writer and producer at a production company in New York helping to produce and develop shows for The Weather Channel, Science Channel, Animal Planet, etc. One of the shows I worked on premiered on The Weather Channel last night. (Who knew they had original content, right?) But it’s a super smart and funny show called “3 SCIENTISTS WALK INTO A BAR” and I highly recommend it, especially for families with kids ages 6 – 15 looking for something family friendly, entertaining and even a bit educational!

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

A:  When I was in 4th grade we did a production of The Wizard of Oz at my elementary school. It was the first play I was ever in and I remember doing something on stage that got a laugh from the audience and feeling this rush of excitement and giddiness and pride. I sort of knew then that I wanted to entertain people for a living. And there’s nothing better than making an entire audience laugh!

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

A:  MORE. NEW. PLAYS. I’m paraphrasing Harold Clurman, but he said something like “There need to be a 100 new plays for 5 amazing ones that will stand the test of time.” But there are nowhere near that many commercial productions On and Off Broadway each year. So to have more good plays, you need more new work in general. It’s a numbers game. And I wish there were more commercial venues for Off-Broadway, and that it wasn’t so expensive to mount a play (which makes it so expensive to SEE a play) both On and Off-Broadway. Also: one major problem with American Theatre is that it takes so long to develop work, and theatres plan seasons 2 years out so that anything current a playwright has to say is passé by the time opening night roles around. I find myself writing plays and literally saying it’s 2016 or 2017 in the stage directions because I know by the time someone reads it that will be the current year! I wish more regional theatres would take chances and do more new work.

Q:  Who are or were your theatrical heroes?

A:  I’d say my heroes aren’t necessarily certain writers but certain plays. The Pillowman, Doubt, August: Osage County, Proof, The History Boys (and even some slightly older plays that influenced me like The Lover, Barefoot in the Park, and The Piano Lesson come to mind.) I’m also a product of growing up with film and TV being so easily accessible. So other big heroes for me are James L. Brooks (The Simpsons, Taxi, Broadcast News), John Hughes (She’s Having a Baby, Sixteen Candles) and even actors! I started as an actor so I really respond to great performances – Dustin Hoffman is a hero and to me he can do no wrong! (see Tootsie, The Graduate, Kramer vs. Kramer) Ditto Mark Rylance! So yeah, my influences are kind of all over the place!

Q:  What kind of theater excites you?

A:  New stuff with real people in mostly realistic situations speaking the way real people do, that has humor, heart and pathos… and yet still finds a way to be theatrical and not just like a movie on a stage. The Curious Incident… did this most recently this season. As did Hand to God. A few years back August: Osage County and Doubt did this amazingly well. I was also a huge fan of Passing Strange the musical. Anything that speaks to what is happening right now in a way that I haven’t seen before. (Again: The Pillowman) And please please please make me LAUGH! Even if your play is dark, we need to laugh! So in general, I like new plays that take place here and now but aren’t snarky! A lot of new work just in the last 5 or 6 years is very smart, written and directed and acted by talented smart people, and they’re often funny but there’s no GUTS, no HEART in the production. It’s too clinical. People are so afraid to be sentimental (since critics are often hard on anything that smacks of sentiment) that they end up coming off as cynical and forget to make characters we truly care about, that move us to laughter and tears.

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

A:  Write page one, then move on to page two, then page three until you have a complete first draft. If you stop and re-work the opening scene over and over, you’ll never have a completed play. So finish the first draft as short or as long and as messy as it needs to be. Then get some friends to read it out loud and talk about it. Then dive into re-writes and do it all over again: page one, page two, etc. The big secret to writing is that it’s not some magic trick. I fully believe most people are capable of writing something great. It just takes discipline and follow-through. And tenacity. Lots of people will tell you “no.” Keep writing anyway.

Q:  Plugs, please:

A:  You can buy the play HANDLE WITH CARE here:

And the novel PERSONAL STATEMENT here:

And you can watch “3 SCIENTISTS…” on The Weather Channel now!

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