Magazine article American Theatre

Nick Jones: Words Made Flesh: How a Writer Preoccupied with Puppets Progressed to Penning Plays for Human Actors

Magazine article American Theatre

Nick Jones: Words Made Flesh: How a Writer Preoccupied with Puppets Progressed to Penning Plays for Human Actors

Article excerpt

NICK JONES MADE A CONFESSION TO MARSHA Norman and Christopher Durang, codirectors of the Juilliard School's competitive playwriting program, shortly after he was admitted there in 2009 to study. His writing sample, a historical farce called The Coward, was the first play he'd ever written "for human actors."

Juilliard may have been surprised, but enthusiasts of Jones's work know that the real top billing in his early plays went to hard-living, libidinous puppets--dummies with names like Captain Clamp and Tudley--while the human actors played supporting roles: doing tech, playing the punk-rock soundtrack, or dressing up as the Manhattan skyline.

In a 10-year career that has seen Jones grow from downtown vaudeville impresario to highly sought-after playwright at prominent theatres around the country, he has learned to nimbly toe the line not only between the inanimate and the fleshly but between madcap lunacy and tragedy.

Now, with a new production, Verite, premiering at Lincoln Center Theatre this month, and another premiere, Important Hats of the 20th Century, slated at the Manhattan Theatre Club in the fall--not to mention additional commissions from California's Old Globe and Center Theatre Group and Boston's Huntington Theatre Company--it is clear that Jones has come to feel equally in his element with both puppet tales and more traditional scripted fare.

Juilliard's Norman wryly notes that she detects in Jones's recent writing a greater confidence in and knowledge of what human actors can do. And, to be fair, actors in a typical Jones play have to meet some unorthodox demands: portraying a chimpanzee with Hollywood dreams (Trevor), dueling as a skittish 17th-century dandy (The Coward), or singing an upbeat but unprintable ode to bodily functions (Hotnunailus). Deploying what Norman calls a "joyously deranged" imagination, Jones has forged an alternative universe where anarchy and id always conquer humanity's more civilized impulses. It happens, though, with such crack comic timing that bemused audiences may not flinch when chaos inevitably descends.

"I still retain my love of absurdity," Jones will tell you, "and that began at the Bowery Poetry Club with these punk-rock puppets." Jones is referring to Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, the popular and freewheeling aggregate of rock opera, pirate tale and sketch comedy created with classmate Raja Azar backin 2002. While working tech for the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, the pair was inspired by that downtown variety act's raunchy, cabaret-style aesthetic to create a skit that combined high and low culture.

Jollyship--in which a traditional Balinese rod puppet was reborn as the hedonistic character Clamp--soon found a regular home at the Bowery club, where fans returned to find-out whether the story's wooden antiheroes would fulfill their quest for the pleasure-seekers' paradise known as "Party Island."

After receiving early support from club proprietor Bob Holman, Jollyship's success (and the tenacity of its creators) precipitated a succession of new "episodes" at bars around the country, and subsequently at such locales as the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and Sarah Lawrence College, where Clamp ostensibly matriculated as a student for a single day of orientation. Kim Rosenstock, then the literary manager at New York City's Ars Nova, caught a performance and, recognizing a brand of eccentricity that could click with that venue's eclectic programming, engaged rising directorial star Sam Gold to fine-tune the show.

For Gold, it was unlike any other project he had ever participated in. Jones and Azar are "mad geniuses, working outside of traditional conventions," Gold notes admiringly. "They had their own thing that developed organically--to me, that's the best kind of theatre." In his initial role as dramaturg, Gold's challenge was sifting through "treasure troves" of material en route to clarifying the narrative arc. …

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