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Interview with Playwright and Actor Douglas Jones

Songs from Bedlam

Douglas Jones is one of Richmond’s best-known playwrights and actors. He was written a chilling adaptation of Henry James’ Turn Of The Screw which had its world premiere at historic Hanover Tavern several years ago and many shows aimed at children for both Virginia Rep and the Science Museum Theatre. Acting roles have seen him taking on both Shakespeare and Dylan Thomas, as well as more contemporary roles.

One of his shows that left an indelible mark on the Richmond stage was Songs From Bedlam which is now being staged as a one-night event for Henley Street Theatre and Richmond Shakespeare at Centenary United Methodist Church on Tueseday, March 10 at 411 East Grace Street. 88.9 WCVE’s John Porter has this report.

88.9 WCVE: Can you briefly explain what we will see in Songs From Bedlam?

Jones: A landscape of the mind. I worked on this play for seven years. It’s one of the few plays I’ve written that wasn’t commissioned. And these were the voices that began speaking to me, wanting or needing their stories to be told. When Mary Flynn interviewed me for Blackbird (VCU’s online literary journal), she asked: “Where did these characters come from?” And I said “Well, they’re all me: I am a homeless man, a schizophrenic, a prostitute.” I was only half-kidding. These characters are not me, but every one of them came through me. Mostly I just tried to stay out of the way.

What you’ll see, I hope, is a character-driven piece of theatre in a new setting that meets the three criteria of Henley Street Theatre’s mission statement: reverence for language, commitment to diversity, and a spirit of adventure. What you’ll take away, I hope, is an understanding that the barrier between “us” and “them” doesn’t exist. There is only us. And there--but for the grace of God--go I.

88.9 WCVE: Why is it being staged as a one-night special?

Jones: Richmond Shakespeare and Henley Street Theatre are offering the one-night staged reading as part of this year’s Acts of Faith Festival. Which I love, because the play does raise questions about issues of faith--and this time it will be performed in the sanctuary of a church. There’s no budget--actors and crew are generously volunteering their time and talent--and I very much appreciate that. My hope is that the reading will generate conversation about taking the piece to other venues: hospitals, medical professional conferences, rehab facilities, veterans groups, colleges, etc.

88.9 WCVE: Who are the people involved?

Jones: David Bridgewater, who directed the world premiere at Barksdale Theatre (now Virginia Repertory Theatre), jumped at the chance to direct it again. And I’m lucky enough to have a virtual wish list of actors and friends: Joe Inscoe, Dawn Westbrook Boyd, David Clark, Kimberly Jones Clark, Aly Wepplo, David Janeski, Robert Throckmorton, Jacqueline Jones, Jacqueline O'Connor, David Maier, and Ellie Wilson. Robert and Jacqueline Jones are returning to play the characters they helped create in the 2003 premiere.

88.9 WCVE: You are often seen acting in productions around town. Is the way you approach building a character for you different than building a character for the play?

Jones: I love the diplomatic way you say I am often “seen acting.” Actually I first came to Richmond as an actor in 1984, and wrote my first play the same year. As for portraying (versus writing) a character, I would say that I give the text a close and careful reading. At every point the playwright is making specific choices: why this word instead of that word, why now instead of sooner (or later), why this image instead of anything else? When I’m writing a character, having friends in the theatre community helps keep me honest. A friend read a script I was working on years ago and said “I don’t know, Douglas; if I were playing this part and said this line, I think I would only be saying it because you need someone to say it.” That was a valuable lesson, and it taught me to give each character his or her own specific point of view--rather than relegating lines to what Robertson Davies called “fifth business.”

88.9 WCVE: You’ve written for adults as well as children. Are there different approaches that you use for each?

Jones: Adults are usually taller. Other than that, I would say that when writing for young audiences I try never to patronize or condescend--because when I was young, I recognized immediately when someone was talking down to me or telling me what to think, and I didn’t like it. I try to drop down to one knee, look my young audiences in the eye, and say “This story is for you, and I’m going to tell it to you straight. You decide what you think or feel.” Writing for young audiences was excellent training, because they don’t lie. If they’re bored, they fidget. I also enjoy writing on different levels, to keep the actors and teachers and parents (and myself) entertained as well. Whether writing for young audiences or adults, I try not to pull  punches. I try not to moralize or reach conclusions. Sam Shepard said he wanted audiences to come away from his work not thinking about it so much as having been changed by it. Me too.

88.9 WCVE: How is theatre a family exercise for you?

Jones: My wife Harriett Traylor, my daughter Emma Jones, and I are all actors (or have been “seen acting”). We take turns. We run lines for each other, and talk about character choices. We usher for productions around town, and talk about the play on the way home. And Harriett is my trusted first reader. When I’ve written a scene or monologue and something about it just doesn’t work, she finds a way to tell me without actually telling me. When what I’ve written works, she tells me that too. I stuck my neck out and wrote a monologue for Songs from Bedlam in which the actor never says a word: the entire monologue is sign language. It became the central metaphor for the play: we can better help the mentally ill if we learn their language, “a primary language of pain.” There is some controversy over which of us came up with this (it was me, for the record); but when we talked about it, Harriett smiled and said “That just gave me goosebumps.”

88.9 WCVE: What attracted you to Bedlam?

Jones: Other than having been there myself? When I was at the University of Chicago I read some poems by Christopher Smart, a little-known English poet who was confined for seven years in a madhouse. While he was there, he wrote poetry like nothing else I’d ever read (William Blake comes closest). I thought about writing a one-person play about Smart in the madhouse: hallucinating, praying to God, tormented by inner demons, and writing brilliant poetry. Later I realized I could use that historic framework to explore characters who are, in one way or another, disadvantaged: homeless, alcoholic, schizophrenic, reduced to prostitution, etc. What they all have in common is that they are trying to connect with someone or something to help them believe that their lives, however twisted or broken, have meaning.

88.9 WCVE: Do artists need to tap into their darkest sides in order to create their art?

Jones: You and I have talked about this. Here’s what I think. I teach a class called “Writing the Shadow.” Each of us has a shadow in our psyche. Some artists and writers are in touch with it, and I believe it makes their work richer, more fully-dimensional. Others are not in touch with it. Norman Rockwell had a shadow, but I don’t see it in his work. And although he was good at what he did, his art doesn't speak to me in a way that makes me want to hang it on my wall. Rod McKuen sold 60 million books, but there's little or no darkness in his poetry. He was later diagnosed with clinical depression. Would it have been therapeutic for him to pay out some of that darkness in his writing? All I can say with certainty is that it has proven therapeutic for me--and I’ve seen it help my students grow as well. If I want to read fully-realized characters, I go to Shakespeare, Melville, Conrad, Camus, Nabokov, Woolf, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Joyce: writers who scaled the heights, but also plumbed the depths. They have more colors on their palettes.

88.9 WCVE: Will we be seeing a new play from you soon?

Jones: I’ve been asked to write a play for this winter. And I have an idea for a one-woman play, based on an historical figure. No one is commissioning it--then again, no one commissioned Songs from Bedlam, and now I get to revisit it.

88.9 WCVE: Who are your influences as a playwright?

Jones: In no particular order: Edward Albee, Caryl Churchill, Marsha Norman, Harold Pinter, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Martin McDonagh, Brian Friel, Peter Shaffer, John Patrick Shanley, Tom Stoppard, Wendy Kesselman. And a lot of writers who are not playwrights.

For more information about Songs From Bedlam or other productions from Henley Street and Richmond Shakespeare, please visit henleystreettheatre.org.