Daniel Alexander JONES
AN INTERVIEW WITH DANIEL ALEXANDER JONES
From the desk of the PRODUCING ARTISTIC DIRECTOR
to writers whose germination for new plays is as vast as the artists themselves, Daniel’s voice, miraculously, ﬁnds a way to wend throughout this wildly-varying intersection of theatrical expression.
“The ﬁnished dress is no illusion … It is whole through your own making. It is real. It will carry this woman through a swath of time and space. One stitch on Earth mirrored in Heaven and vice versa. Bound to memory through its intimate associations, your creation will endure.” —Lizzy, Phantasmatron
From the ﬁrst time I read his stunning Bel Canto, I have marveled at Daniel’s ability to express myriad moments that, somehow, live simultaneously between the operatic crescendo of Dawn Upshaw, the profound stillness of Diane Arbus, and the sweet honey of Sam Cooke. His ability to create dramatic truth in the supernatural, with no more than an outof-place object or the sudden recognition of a forgotten smell. Phantasmatron is a great new American play, one that examines a chilling moment in our history, and will certainly endure and sing for many generations to come.
Fresh from the hugely successful run of his Jomama Jones: Radiate at Soho Rep last month, Daniel Alexander Jones returns to the Twin Cities to develop his newest mash-up of theatrical beauty, Phantasmatron. This extraordinary play pulls together threads of history, society, friendship, family, life, death, and everything beyond and in between; binding them together with ﬁerce insight and ﬂowing, lyrical dialogue. And if the Playwrights’ Center is a home
JEREMY B. COHEN Producing Artistic Director The Playwrights’ Center
Daniel Alexander Jones
BY PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER CORE WRITER
Since the loss of her young son in 1862, Mary has enlisted every spiritualist of repute to make contact with him. Following a new lead, she travels with her friend and seamstress Lizzy to Manhattan, where a brusque and mysterious clairvoyant awaits them … and it soon becomes clear he has a talent the others do not. He knows Mary’s true identity, he has seen her future, and he is ready to lift the thin veil between this world and the next. March 7, 2011 • 7 pm • Free • At the Playwrights’ Center Reserve seats: 612.332.7481 x10 • firstname.lastname@example.org
The RUTH EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES presents free readings of new work by today’s most exciting playwrights. For more information visit www.pwcenter.org. Also sponsored by
Project journey: •
WORKSHOP AT NEW
DRAMATISTS THROUGH THE CREATIVITY FUND
AND CREATIVE TIME, FALL 2009 Cover design by Very, Inc.
WORKSHOP AT THE
PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER, FALL 2009
WORKSHOP AND READING IN
NEW DRAMATISTS, FALL 2010 THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER’S RUTH
EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES, MARCH 2011
WE TALKED WITH CORE WRITER DANIEL ALEXANDER JONES IN ADVANCE OF HIS MARCH 7 RUTH EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES READING of PHANTASMATRON.
WHAT, in your own words, is PHANTASMATRON about? Phantasmatron concerns two things. One is the relationship between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth Keckly. Their friendship was quite unusual at the time, because it was between a white woman of Southern ancestry, and a black woman who was a former slave. Phantasmatron is also about is the veil that separates our deepest longings and hopes from the realities that we live in, and how we negotiate that boundary. What happens when our sense of longing, our sense of loss, spills out from our interior to our exterior world? And how does this change reality, if at all? That’s the larger theme that’s at work in the play.
“What happens when our sense of longing, our sense of loss, spills out from our interior to our exterior world? And how does this change reality, if at all?” The play is set in the summer of 1864, when Mary Lincoln was still in mourning over the loss of her son, Willy, who was her heart, and was Abraham Lincoln’s heart as well, and she sought answers and consultation and condolence from a number of spiritualists. So in this play, we watch her come to a spiritualist in New York to seek answers, and … a whole lot of other stuff happens.
It’s documented that Mary Lincoln visited spiritualists—but were the spiritualists DEPICTED in this play, THE CAVANAUGHS, actually real people? They are absolutely fictitious.
“The artist’s imagination, I do think, sometimes taps into streams of information that really are beyond our conscious understanding of things.” What inspired you to explore these concepts with this story?
I had a dream. I was in Seattle for the National Performance Network conference a few years ago, and I had one of those incredibly vivid dreams where you wake up and you’re still partway in it. In the dream, the majority of the information in the play, and all of these characters, appeared, and I was a fly on the wall observing the whole thing. And I woke up in the middle of the night and I wrote down what had happened, and I knew that this was a play, because it felt like a play world to me. It wasn’t until much, much later that I began doing research on this time period and on Mary Lincoln—whom I had no real interest in beforehand, other than a cursory historical understanding of who she was, and I didn’t know much about Keckly at all. The artist’s imagination, I do think, sometimes taps into streams of information that really are beyond our conscious understanding of things, and I found a lot of verification of the things I had dreamed about. Having a lot more information helped fuel the heart of the play, and basically it kept nagging at me until I devoted a good chunk of time to it, and the first draft came out pretty whole, pretty quickly. That’s the true story of its genesis. But I’ve always, in my work, been preoccupied with the boundary line between the perception of self that is internal and the perception of self that is external, especially as it concerns race and gender and sexuality in America.Those are themes that keep coming up for me. And I was very interested in this real relationship between two people who ostensibly should not have had that
relationship during the height of the Civil War, according to our assumptions about that period in history. It’s not only that they were sort of friends, and had a business relationship, but that in many ways Keckly was the superior. Lincoln, in terms of her ambition and in terms of her political position, appeared to be the social superior, but that was not always the case in the power dynamic of the relationship. So it is a fascinating, fascinating world that let me open a lot of doors and ask a lot of very interesting questions. You told me a couple years ago that Phantasmatron is a new chapter in your life as a writer. How so? A lot of my work has been either explicitly or tangentially autobiographical. And even if a play, like my play Bel Canto, had just a tiny sliver of my real life, a lot of the themes, a lot of the historical information came out of my need and desire as a writer to examine not only the world that I lived in, but the time that I lived in. I drew a lot on my own information. Phantasmatron, both in terms of its content and in terms of the process that I used, is a wholly imagined world, and it’s been a real joy to give over to that experience. As I mentioned, I think there’s still a lot of thematic connection to the concerns I have as a writer, but here I don’t have the same relationship to my own experience, or to the historical truth of the people that I may have been drawing upon. There’s a bit more distance. Even though they’re historical figures, I feel like they’re as free to me as completely created characters, both Mary Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckly.
“I think I’ve written long enough now that I understand something about how I write musically, that my theatrical writing works both as a dramatic dialogue and as a musical composition at the same time. ” Also, in terms of a new chapter, I think I’ve written long enough now that I understand something about how I write musically, that my theatrical writing works
both as a dramatic dialogue and as a musical composition at the same time. Just like anything, if you practice something long enough, you hopefully get better at it, and you understand it more. You have your own vocabulary for it. I’m definitely trying to weave a musical spell with this piece. Even though there’s not literal singing in it, it’s quite rhythmic. The images function musically. And it feels really exciting to be working with no need to explain it, no need to justify it, but really just making it.
“That’s why we come to the theater. We want to breathe, we want our blood to flow, we want to be quickened as a whole being, not just a passive observer. At least the theater I’m interested in.” The play makes great use of sensory language and imagery.What’s driving the emphasis on sensory experience?
The body, the integrated body, is for me the place of truth and authenticity. I want my work always to speak to the whole body, not just the intellect, not just the pleasure of the turn of a phrase or even solely a musical feeling. I really want the whole body to be engaged. I want there to be a sense of temperature. I want the muscles to respond to the language. I hope that the emotions are embodied in a way that the full impact of anxiety or loss or tenderness is felt by the audience in their entire body, not just as an intellectual exercise. Because for me, that’s why we come to the theater. We want to breathe, we want our blood to flow, we want to be quickened as a whole being, not just as a passive observer. At least the theater that I’m interested in. Again, it’s important for me to create an experience that functions on multiple levels at the same time. It’s not dissimilar from music. There is a rhythm being held down, and then there is melody, and then there are counterpoints to that melody, and then there is a kind of polyvocality—more than one instrument is voicing something
that creates part of the whole composition. I hope that when you are in the room, something is literally speaking to your bones as much as it is to your head. How has the play evolved during its development? I was thrilled to have an opportunity to workshop it at the Playwrights’ Center a while ago, and I also was able to do a couple of short-form workshops during the end of my time as a resident playwright at New Dramatists. It’s been integral to its developmental experience to be able to hear it through the voices of a number of different actors, and to feel it, for the reasons mentioned, moving through their bodies.
“This play is not a play that I can write fully in the corner with my notepad or my computer … I really have to hear it back and feel it back to be able to make the slight turns that it needs.” This play is not a play that I can write fully in the corner with my notepad or my computer. I have to be in the room with the action, because it is so musical. I really have to hear it back and feel it back to be able to make the slight turns that it needs. I think drafting it by myself was fine, but once it started to move, because I think it’s so musical and so visceral, the refinement, the rewriting of it, needed to be done in dialogue with actors. I love working with smart actors who can ask the kinds of rigorous questions that only they can ask if they’re in the middle of the world of the play and they are letting that person pass through their own body. I think one artist that I would single out as having been immensely, immensely helpful to me in this regard would be Ana Perea. She’s an incredible actor based in New York who has most often read the character of Mary, and in a way I began writing with her voice in mind. What she really helped me understand was how Mary’s psychological shifts needed
to be reflected in the smallest details in the syntax of her language. As she started to veer off into a self-referential frenzy, the language needed to move. When she started to wail and go crazy in response to her anxiety about her son, the language needed to move in a particular way. And it was really listening to her about how she was experiencing the interiority of that character that gave me the kind of information that I needed.That intimacy—that’s so rich, and that’s why I’m so grateful to have had the chance to have these workshop settings to be able to dig down like that. It’s really a dialogue with brilliant actors. Debbie Saivetz, who fortunately is going to be joining us in Minneapolis to direct the reading, also has been invaluable. I feel like she has tapped into the world of the play in a really imaginative way. Over the course of the time we’ve been working on it, she has every once in a while sent me an article or asked a question, that may come from her grappling with something in her own life, that resonates with the play. So I don’t feel like I’m the only one tending it, which is such a lovely feeling, too. Because it’s for sure way bigger than me, and I think it’s bigger than any one collaborator, and everyone needs to be up there hammering away on it.
“I love working with smart actors who can ask the kinds of rigorous questions that only they can ask if they’re in the middle of the world of the play and they are letting that person pass through their own body.” Do you write a lot on your own, or are your projects mostly collaborative? I do a lot of writing on my own. Not as much now, but for a good period of time I did write alone. At least the text—but the embodied version is certainly realized through collaboration, but I’ve written a lot off in the corner back in the day. But I prefer collaboration. I think I’m a jazz artist at heart. I don’t need to go off by myself
to feel that I’m doing the “true” work. I think the magic happens when I’m in a conversation with other people. So it’s my preference to find a way to play the music in collaboration, which I think in my more recent work has been not only a place of great joy, but it feels like that’s what I’m supposed to do. If I were less interested or curious about playing with others, you know, I might feel more comfortable being off in a garret somewhere, but I really want to see what happens when I do something with other people. What do you like or dislike in a play? I really love feeling that the people who are making the play are in love with the thing that they’re making, however complicated that love may be, and that I’m being invited as an audience member to share in an experience that’s been vital for the people making it. I also am drawn to really courageous work—work that not only is willing to tackle charged subject matter, but also work that asks all of its collaborators to step beyond the boundary of the thing that they know, so that you get a sense of risk in the room.
I really love feeling that the people who are making the play are in love with the thing that they’re making, however complicated that love may be, and that I’m being invited as an audience member to share in an experience that’s been vital for the people making it.” And that does not mean that everything about the final product is polished. There’s not a bow on it. I’m very much impacted by coming up in the so-called “avant-garde” theater, and having made work in many kinds of spaces. I have found that many of
my most impactful experiences as an audience member have been in rooms where the work was very raw in some ways. So, polish doesn’t impress me one bit if the content isn’t there.
“As with anything, if there’s something that you don’t like, it’s probably telling you more about yourself than about the thing itself.” As far as what I don’t like … it’s sort of like with people, it really depends on the individual. But, as with anything, if there’s something that you don’t like, it’s probably telling you more about yourself than about the thing itself. For sure, I don’t like complacent work. I don’t like work that is rehashing something for safety’s sake, or that relies on a kind of shorthand or an in-crowd experience to get over. I prefer that it has done the real work of truly finding its own language, that every word, every gesture that I see, every visual composition that I experience feels like it had to come out of the DNA of the play or the performance piece being made, and it’s not some shorthand from somebody else. WHAT DRAWS YOU TO WRITe FOR THE STAGE?
One of the reasons that I keep writing for theater and that I keep finding myself back in a conversation with theater is that I do feel that it continues to have the power to engender transformation. Part of the recipe for that kind of experience that might engender transformation is a willingness not to stop at the surface of things, not only in terms of the obvious questions of this play that might have to do with race or gender or class, but metaphysically, too, because this is really a play about life and death.This is, too, a play about legacy, what we leave behind. Whether it’s what a little boy leaves behind in the heart and the mind of his mother, or what a woman who went from being a slave to a renowned seamstress leaves behind for the children who are left to be born, or even in conversation with her little girl self. So the willingness to keep digging for the deeper meaning of our own experiences, I think, is one of the prerequisites, because the more nuanced we are, the more
“The ideal is that you actually turn all that stuff off, and you’re really in a room, you’re really in a room with other living, breathing people, and you have an experience that awakens you to detail.” responsibility we’re required to take for our stories and other people’s stories, because we can’t make a post-it note of them. And it really works against the superficiality, the easy access, the instant gratification of our culture right now. I think it’s a place where people go, and for that hour and a half or two hours that you go to the theater—and mind you, I see people texting up in shows lately, but you know, the ideal is that you actually turn all that stuff off, and you’re really in a room, you’re really in a room with other living, breathing people, and you have an experience that awakens you to detail. And hopefully that experience can be something you carry outside before you turn on your phone again.
Next SCENE THE 2010-11 RUTH EASTON NEW PLAY SERIES:
God Fire BY John Olive Marooned devils Michael and Catherine discover a peasant girl who may be their ticket back to hell. But the more Catherine manipulates her, the more entranced she becomes by the girl’s passion. Combining epic scope and subtly drawn characters, God Fire explores the tie between spirituality and sexuality in the woman who would come to be known as Joan of Arc. APRIL 4, 2011 • 7 PM • AT THE PLAYWRIGHTS’ CENTER • FREE RESERVE SEATS: 612.332.7481 x10 OR INFO@PWCENTER.ORG
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