AN INTERVIEW WITH DOUGLAS JONES
Mary Flinn: This is Mary Flinn in the Blackbird office in Richmond, Virginia, and I'm talking with Douglas Jones, author of Songs from Bedlam, which appears in our current Gallery section.
Douglas, thank you for coming in, and thank you for letting us have the piece.
Douglas Jones: Glad to be here.
MF: Now, tell me a little about the origin of Songs from Bedlam and how it's developed and what its future looks like.
DJ: It had it genesis seven years ago when I was the Playwright-in-Residence for the New Voices Program at TheatreVirginia, and I've been in one way or another affiliated with that program for the last ten years or so, either reading the scripts or teaching tutorials.
MF: Did you start out with Randy Strawderman?
DJ: No, I didn't. I came in right after he left.
MF: For people not from Richmond, the New Voices Program at TheatreVirginia has been a program that encourages high school and middle school students to write plays and then offers the opportunity to workshop the material that they do.
DJ: Which is a terrific opportunity for those students. I wish I'd had something like that when I was growing up.
The director of Education and Outreach at the time, Donna Coghill, asked me if I had anything that I was working on, that I would like to see given a staged reading, and I said "No, but I will." And I promptly sat down and started working on "Axolotl," the first monologue in the piece. I also adapted another story by Cortázar called "House Taken Over," and then I wrote the second monologue, "Angel." And some friends of mine who are actors gave those a staged reading as part of the New Voices Workshop, and then I got to thinking about putting together a collection of monologues. I was familiar with Christopher Smart's poetry from my college days at the University of Chicago, and those works had haunted me. They were just so lyrical and beautiful and strange. I had toyed with the idea for years of writing a one-person show about Christopher Smart in the madhouse, writing his poetry, and I believe his long poem cycle Jubilate Deo is subtitled A Song from Bedlam. So that was how the idea started to come together.
MF: And now, are you going to be able to have it produced by Barksdale Theatre in Richmond this season?
DJ: Yes, yes, we are in the process of holding auditions now. It will go into rehearsal the end of March, and it opens May 2.
MF: Now, the structure strikes me almost more like an Elizabethan masque than a typical drama piece in some ways, that it's combination of monologues and songs, almost tableaus rather than something that moves dramatically through a plot.
DJ: It's very different from anything else I've written. David Bridgewater, a local actor, is directing it, and we've had several exciting conversations about ways we might approach making it theatrical and getting it on its feet. It had a staged reading two years ago at the Barksdale. There were only six pieces at the time, now there are ten, and for purposes of the reading, we just had actors stand in front of a podium and read. There were about seventy people there, and the audience response was tremendous. There was electricity in the air. The audience members stayed for an hour-long discussion afterwards, and Randy Strawderman was at that reading and was very excited about the idea of producing it at the Barksdale. Unfortunately, that didn't work out because he's no longer at the Barksdale. Bruce Miller now has picked it up the project, and David's very excited about directing it.
MF: Are you old enough to remember TheatreVirginia, I think back when it was the Museum Theatre, did a production of Marat Sade in the early seventies, and Peter Brook made a film of the original production of that. Have you ever seen that?
DJ: I have.
MF: Because this reminds me a little bit in terms of structure, like that, which is a combination of sort of songs, probably a little more interaction than you have here. But is sort of dealing with revolution and madness, when yours deals mostly , I guess, more with madness and neglect.
DJ: Yes. I think that what the characters have in common is that they are in one way or another disadvantaged. Not necessarily mad, but displaced. David has described them as broken people or fragmented people, or outcasts.
MF: Where did you find the characters, what led you to them?
DJ: Well, they're all me. I am a homeless man and a call girl and a schizophrenic. I see them all around me. I worked briefly for the Department of Mental Health and Retardation. I would see them in everything that I read. I see them on the bus. When I lived in Chicago, I would see them on the El. You know, you walk past a homeless person, and if you're thoughtful, you think, There but for the grace of God go I. I'm very interested in breaking down the boundary between us and them and putting a face to the homeless or to the mentally ill or to alcoholics. My greatest hope is that people will come away from the project thinking, My God, that was my uncle, or, That was why my grandfather was so sad, or, My aunt did have a drinking problem, and now I understand it a little better.
MF: Where did the songs come from?
DJ: My friend Kelly Kennedy is setting the songs to music. I've known Kelly for a long time, and she has a lot of background in Celtic and Irish and English ballads. She just seemed like a natural fit for the project.
MF: This is something germane, I guess, to the area or to the life of the cultural community in any small-sized city like Richmond, but do you feel that this theater community has been supportive of this project and supports like projects, or are there ways it could be more supportive?
DJ: I think that it's a tough time.
MF: Well, the economy's awful, but . . .
DJ: Yes, of course, and I feel that as an artist as well as an educator, but I think it's a tough time for theaters who want to do original work but also need to meet their budgets. I think, in general, theaters in Richmond right now are not as experimental as I'd like to see them be, but I understand the reasons for that. You know, they need to fill their seats, bottom line, they need to meet their budgets. In better times, theaters like the Barksdale will do staples, like Carousel or Quilters, that they know will sell well, and then will use that money to invest in a new project, a smaller, less expensive project.
Songs from Bedlam is not going to be too terribly expensive. It doesn't require elaborate set pieces or anything like that, and we've decided to cast it with only four actors, which cuts down on costs and makes it more feasible.
MF: So people play a variety of parts.
DJ: Right, and that was David's idea. I think because he is an actor, he thinks as an actor and wants the project to be attractive for the four people doing it, wants each of them to have several things to do.
MF: This will be a challenge to stage, to sort of keep an audience rapt through the whole thing, where the peaks and valleys were, and as there are a lot of peaks, it strikes me more than valleys, little rest points. Is it going to be played straight through without intermission?
MF: What do you figure will be the entire running time?
DJ: Probably ninety minutes, an hour twenty, maybe an hour thirty.
MF: Just thinking about your theatrical background, in playwriting particularly, when did you start writing plays and who were your models when you started?
DJ: I fell into playwriting by accident. I wrote fiction and a little bit of poetry. I had published a couple of articles in academic journals. I moved to Richmond in 1984 and was touring with Theatre IV as an actor, and my friend John Glenn was set to direct a play called First Ladies, which had been written by a school teacher. They had received a grant, and one of the conditions of the grant was that the play be written by a teacher. And he brought the script to me, he knew I was a writer, and asked if I would take a look at it, and it was terrible, it was unusable. So with his encouragement, I rewrote it from scratch. I wrote one scene a night while I was touring during the day, and I finished it in two weeks. That was the deadline before it was going to go into rehearsal, and looking back on it . . .
MF: Sometimes deadlines are very useful.
DJ: Yes, they are, as much as I hate the word and the sound of it. Yeah, that was how I did it. And then I looked at it and thought, Well, I can do this. I didn't know I could, but it turns out I can. And then Theatre IV started hiring me on a regular basis to write plays for young audiences, and I wrote seventeen of those, and by then I was hooked.
I grew up in Louisville seeing plays at Actors Theater and the Humana Festival. I saw Crimes of the Heart, and The Gin Game, and The Shadow Box, so I've been attracted to the theater all my life, but I fell into playwriting pretty much by accident.
MF: What plays have you seen in more recent years that you wish you could steal from?
DJ: I saw an adaptation of Crime and Punishment in D.C. at The Arena. It was a foreign director, a European director, and it was just fascinating, very expressionistic. I saw Baryshnikov do The Metamorphosis.
MF: This is the Metamorphosis that's been running in New York, that the same play or a different one?
DJ: No, that's Ovid's Metamorphoses, this was Kafka's Metamorphosis, where he turns into a cockroach. I'll never forget Baryshnikov climbing around this cage, you know, and being a cockroach. It was weird and exciting and very different.
MF: Do adaptations intrigue you? Is that something you like to do?
DJ: They do. My first published play was an adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, which premiered at the Barksdale in 1994, and that's a story that had intrigued me also since college.
MF: Talking to Romulus Linney last summe,r because he's done a lot of adaptations as well, he said that some were things that you fell in love with and some were things that were more love affairs and marriages. That marriages, that you were faithful to a large degree to the work that you had, and that the love affairs, you went more to the heart of the work and sort of created your own version from there. Is that something that strikes you as a sort of a parallel to the way you might think of them, or have you just had love affairs with works rather than marriages?
DJ: I'm not sure. I do know that when I adapted The Turn of the Screw, I wanted to stay as true as possible to the tenor of the book. One of the biggest challenges in adapting it was taking what's mostly inner monologue and entirely subjective material, and making it into action and dialogue, and trying to preserve that tension between the possibilities that the ghosts are real or the governess is mad. My own personal take on it is why can't both be true? Maybe the governess is mad and mad people see ghosts more clearly or ghosts are attracted to neurotic women? That's my extra turn of the screw.
MF: Have you done other adaptations?
DJ: Well, I did an adaptation of The Nose by Nikolay Gogol several years ago. Theatre IV premiered it as a part of what they called their Summer Lights Festival, and that was a lot of fun. I fell in love with the idea of seeing a giant nose running around on stage and people talking to it. Actually, that was intended as a warm-up exercise for adapting The Turn of the Screw; and then instead, it became its own project. You know, the first monologue in Songs from Bedlam is an adaptation of a story by Julio Cortázar. I seem to be attracted to freakish things.
There's a book by James Hogg called The [Private] Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and it's about a man who falls into this Calvinist way of thinking, that he is justified, and therefore nothing he does is wrong in the sight of God, either you're already saved or you're already damned. He acquires an acquaintance who may or may not be the devil, whose face is constantly changing, and this acquaintance encourages him to commit murder. I first thought of it as a teleplay, but the more I think about it, I think there is a way to put it on the stage, I just haven't had the courage to try yet. It's a very complicated, convoluted story. It's basically told three times from three different points of view.
MF: I know Romulus makes a point, too, that the difference between writing, say, short fiction and theater is that you have to be moving the action forward in the dialogue, and you don't have those nice intersperses where you can say, "And then the sky turned red."
DJ: . . . and you describe the scenery or the cutlery, or what have you.
MF: And though that you sort of give another version of what's going on in terms of the action. That's got to be a challenge, and I know you sort of solve it in Songs from Bedlam by doing it in monologues rather than having a line of direct action running through the play.
DJ: Right. And one of the challenges in the monologues is to move each character from a beginning to an ending within the individual monologue, so that it's not just flat.
MF: It can't just be information.
DJ: "Here I am and this is who I am and nice to have met you." So that each character has an arc, each story within the larger story has a beginning and a middle and an end, and hopefully a climax.
MF: What theater were you working in before you came to Richmond? Were you in Chicago in school or . . .
DJ: I was in school at the University of Chicago, and I had just finished doing a production of The Elephant Man and was at a loose end. And, my friend John Glenn called and said he had just had someone walk out of a contract with a touring show and would I by any wild chance be available, and I was. And then I came to Richmond, lived with him for a year, and toured, and started looking into the graduate program at UVA [University of Virginia], and then started doing graduate work there.
MF: So you went up to UVA rather than to the School of the Arts here at VCU. Did you do an MA in creative writing?
DJ: No, I did an MA in literature, but I also took creative writing classes, and then I pursued the PhD, and I've been ABD for a few years now.
MF: What is your dissertation topic if you ever get around to it?
DJ: I've toyed with American Gothic literature. I burned out. You know, for the oral exam, I had to read 150 books, and it literally came to a point where I had one pile on this side and one pile on this side and I'd finish a book and put it on this side and pick up another one. It was hard to read for pleasure for some time after that.
MF: You were in American literature in particular?
DJ: American literature, twentieth-century literature, drama as a genre, Hemingway as an individual author.
MF: Doing it all with postmodern critical theory?
DJ: Of course, with Michael Levenson, who's a terrific, terrific guy.
MF: Thinking of things in the contemporary theater, playwrights as different as David Hare or August Wilson or Tony Kushner, are there any of those whose work you follow closely and are interested in?
DJ: All of them. I love Romulus Linney, I love Edward Albee, Sam Shepard. I don't always understand it, but I always enjoy it. I think Sam Shepard said when people see his plays, he doesn't want them to come out thinking about it. He wants them to come out having been changed by it. I've seen plays that have had that effect on me. Crime and Punishment was one. Nicholas Nickleby I saw three times in Chicago. Of course, it was ten hours long and you could see it in one day or two days in a row. I tried both, and that was wonderful. I saw an adaptation of Moby Dick in Chicago.
MF: You seem a little drawn to the epic.
DJ: I guess so.
MF: What we've talked about mainly is things that have started for you and other pieces of literature. Have you done work that generates out of autobiography or things in terms of the traditional three-act play that is not tied to another piece of literature?
DJ: I wrote the book for the musical Bojangles, which premiered in Richmond in 1993. Of course, that's about the life of Bill Robinson, so again, there's other source material involved.
MF: It's all very postmodern, taking one thing and turning it into another, that may be who you are.
DJ: Maybe. I don't think about that too much.
MF: I know Romulus, as well as doing the adaptations, has mined some of his experience as a child in the mountains of North Carolina and has drawn on that and on things connected with it for things like Heathen Valley.
DJ: It's a great play.
MF: Oh, it's a wonderful play, and I was just wondering if you had anything that was sort of in your background that you wanted to get to or that you had in mind for something.
DJ: Actually, there's an extraordinary amount of personal material in the adaptations that I've done.
MF: Romulus says that, too, that he will find out later one thing that attracted him to a certain project is something personal that might be attached to it.
DJ: Yeah, I can go through Songs from Bedlam monologue by monologue and point to elements from my childhood, things that I was afraid of, things that friends have told me from their own experiences, personal, painful, frightening things that I've twisted and put into somebody else's mouth.
MF: Is that true of The Nose, too?
DJ: Yeah, The Nose was very much about losing what you had and wanting what you didn't have, and in some ways, that reflected my feelings at the time. The narrator of The Nose is Gogol himself, the author who also is an outsider. A broken or twisted character obsessed with a beautiful woman who is unattainable to him.
MF: Now, what you've talked about does seem to show an attraction to the broken or the outsider, the broken individual or the outsider, and the thing in The Turn of the Screw or The Nose or Songs from Bedlam. Is that a particular part of your interest or a side of your own personality? Everybody reduces a lot of what is created right now to autobiography, and I think that's oversimplifying, but it also is sometimes, I think, a little way in to some things. Is that a particular link in your interest in the pieces or it speaks to you more deeply than other things?
DJ: Yeah, I think it must be. It's interesting. Songs from Bedlam is the first play I've written in a long time that wasn't commissioned. When Donna Coghill said, "Do you have anything that you would like to see read?" I didn't know what I was going to come up with. And more or less intuitively or organically, my thinking turned to these characters who needed voices. A couple of the actors who have auditioned had the mistaken idea that the play was going to be a musical because it's called Songs from Bedlam, but what I have tried to do figuratively is to give each of these voiceless individuals an opportunity to sing. The moment in the final monologue when the schizophrenic is able to recite "My Cat Jeoffry" represents for me what all of these characters would like to be able to do, which is to sing, to recite beautiful words, and for me, that represents what's lost or crippled in these characters.
MF: Which makes Christopher Smart's achievement that much more remarkable.