The Art of Duel: NICK JONES with Eliza Bent
Nick Jones may best be known for Jollyship the Whiz-Bang, the quite successful puppet pirate musical. But the “puppet man” is serious about playwriting too. I sat down with the Park Slope resident for a late afternoon sandwich during rehearsals for The Coward which opens Nov. 22 at Lincoln Center’s LCT3.
Eliza Bent (Rail): Maybe we could start with what inspired you to start writing The Coward.
Nick Jones: I’ve done a lot of co-written things and musical plays and I wanted to get into Julliard. I’d applied before and I realized I didn’t have a new play to apply with. A lot of my other plays, like Jollyship, don’t really look very good on the page, you know? So I wanted to write a play that looked like a play on the page and advance my career as a playwright and attempt to show I was a playwright…as opposed to a puppet man.
I read some books on dueling and there were some anecdotes in there that were hilarious. The whole idea of dueling, the idea of two men agreeing to stand 10 paces away from each other and politely murder each other in the morning is hilarious to me.
Rail: So it’s not based on a historical incident.
Jones: No—it’s just made up. It was just written casually.
Rail: In what way?
Jones: I sat down and in my mind I was like, ‘This is going to look like a play. What does a play look like? What kind of play does a respectable person write?” I thought of Sheridan and Moliere plays and thought it would be a comedy of errors, but I don’t live in that era, and I didn’t want to make it “period” because there’s all sort of clichéd ways of speaking that go with that. I mean, there’s some affectation I use and the language starts to loosen up the more it goes along.
Rail: Was that consciously done to loosen up the language?
Jones: I didn’t pre-think it out. There were some ideas for jokes based on anachronisms. I don’t really like being anachronistic to be funny—I don’t like to over use any type of joke, for that matter. But I guess if you examine the script, at a certain point the characters are like, “I’m just fucking with you.” [Laughter.]
Rail: Gotcha. In terms of you wanting to distance yourself from the idea of being a “puppet man,” could you explain why—
Jones: People are stupid.
Rail: I’ve noticed that.
Jones:They put you in categories. I think Woody Allen said that being a comedy writer, you feel like you’re at the kids table of writers. I think if you’re a puppeteer, you’re relegated to a table in the garage and not allowed to be near the children or the adults. I still care about puppets. But I wanted to be a playwright before I got involved with puppets.
Rail: How did you get involved with puppets?
Jones: Well (he takes a big bite of sandwich) I started writing things I called plays in college. And then, when I came to New York, I didn’t really know how to do that. Because I’d always written things to do, not like send to contests and things.
Rail: What a strange idea, to write something to do!
Jones: I know, right? So, in college we’d write a play and then produce it the next month.
Rail: Were you a theater major?
Jones: No, I was a creative writing major. I performed stuff and started adding characters. It became what I defined as a ‘“play” at the time, but none of the stuff is really re-producable—they weren’t plot based at all. (The Coward is really plot based.)
So, in New York, I didn’t know how to self produce, I wasn’t tapped into a pool of real actors, and resources were hard to come by. I became attracted to the idea of circus and went to see the Bindlestick Family Cirkus and the performers had this thing they’d learned to do and it was just in their bodies. They could do it anywhere. That idea was really appealing to me. Because one of the things I’d liked about theater, or playwriting, was that it seemed like the least lonely type of writing. My experience had involved a lot of collaboration and it was fun. Soooo, I volunteered with Bindlestick and I worked on one of their shows with my friend Raja. We had traveled to Bali and came back with this puppet. So we put together a skit about pirates.
Rail: And that’s where Captain Clump—
Jones: Captain Clamp.
Rail: Right, sorry. Where Clamp came into being. I really enjoyed his videos from the MacDowell Colony [YouTube]. Those are amazing. In terms of The Coward, and it being a ”respectable play on the page,” would you talk about how the puppets informed this? What’s it like going from writing for puppets to writing for humans?
Jones: I learned to write more structurally during the years I worked on Jollyship because it was originally episodic—there were 10 shows before the Ars Nova run. We’d travel and we had all these songs and we’d cobble together a new jukebox musical. The show was fast and loose so we could get away with that. Some shows were better than others. We did a show at Sarah Lawrence that was just about the Captain being a student there. [Laughter.]
Rail: My sister went there. She calls it ‘Scary Lawrence.’
Jones: Yeah I went to Bard, so we’re of a similar ilk. I think I developed my sense of comedy based on puppets being manipulated by non-actors. So in general, my comedy is often written to be foolproof. Or that’s the idea. It doesn’t rely on a lot of actor subtext, because I learned to write comedy for actors who couldn’t move their faces, i.e. puppets. So, the jokes have to be a little bit obvious. They’re in the lines. I think my jokes have a bit of vaudeville in them but that’s changing.
Rail: How so?
Jones: Well the subtext—the funniest jokes are usually the jokes between the lines. And these are things we’re figuring out now in rehearsal. It’s also one reason I actually don’t love to finish a play too thoroughly before I start a production. And it’s something that frustrates me about theater in general. So much is dependent upon the “perfect” script. In most cases, the “perfect” script that reads really well, is not ultimately the most theatrical once it’s produced. But you have to make it read well to get it produced and by that time…
Rail: It’s dead?
Jones: Yes, because too much is written. It doesn’t leave any room left for… I really liked Brief Encounter, for example, because there’s not too much to the story. It’s all theatrical. And that’s one of the things I was proud about with Jollyship. It was something that was its own thing. It was a hybrid. It’s not quite a musical, not quite a concert. It defines its own rules. Ugh—that sounds pretentious. But I’m proud of the fact that if you look at the script now it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s an artifact of the experience and proof that it’s a thoroughly theatrical one. And that’s part of what motivated— There was some frustration that motivated me in writing The Coward. Let’s see what happens. By playing by the rules, in some ways… I don’t think I sold out, in any way.
Rail: The Brooklyn Rail headline: “Nick Jones Is a Sellout.” [Laughter.]
Jones: The test of that was that it proved true. This play, The Coward, is by far my most successful play in terms of what it’s gotten me career-wise and it hasn’t even been done yet.
Rail: It’s interesting about not making a too-finished play. You can read stuff that’s great on the page but when you imagine it on stage it’s sort of dreary. And the reverse is true. I’ve seen great shows and then read the script and it’s not as exciting.
Jones: Yeah, I see plays all the time that won all these awards and they’re so boring.
Rail: Care to name names?
Rail: What about Straight Up Vampire, does that have future designs?
Jones: I don’t know if there’s a commercial future because of the rights, but we’ve been doing it for three years. Part of the idea was to write the worst jukebox musical in the world. In terms of starting from a baseline of awful, there’s a lot of room for improvement. I watched the video of the show recently, which I like to do more and more because you can actually tell what jokes are working by if an audience laughs or not. I like to engineer plays based on what works in terms of comedy. But I realized it’s actually a play now with characters. I like Straight Up Vampire. It’s a play about a play reading. We can do it anywhere. We do it for Halloween, Valentines Day and Independence Day. It usually sells out and we make some money.
Rail: Why not slap it up at Lincoln Center? You can rival the 26-person John Guare cast of Free Man of Color.
Jones: Ooh yeah I’m on it.
Rail: Has it been funny rehearsing alongside them?
Jones: Yeah, we’re set in the same period. But they’re in New Orleans and we’re set in England.
Rail: Perhaps you could have the casts play baseball against each other.
Jones: The first day of rehearsal the designers gave a presentation. And then Andre Bishop spoke and he apologized because bagels and fruit, that had been intended for us, was accidentally delivered to the Free Man of Color cast and they immediately ate it. We have a rivalry now. I try to trip John Guare in the hall.
Rail: How is it working with Sam Gold?
Jones: Sam is great to work with in terms of that fluidity of the script that I embrace. He was originally a dramaturg so he often looks at things structurally.
Rail: You also perform, will you continue doing that?
Jones: I like performing, so yes I would. But I’m not going to audition. After Jollyship, some agents asked me if I’d wanna go out and be represented and I decided I didn’t want to do that. They only wanted me if I was serious, which meant going on 2-3 auditions a week. Nothing sounds worse to me than an audition. I’m uncomfortable when I give auditions. Sam and I have talked about how it’d be great to do another show with me in it. But it’s hard to be on top of the writing while you’re in the show.
Rail: You’re telling me. Does Captain Clamp have a future?
Jones: I still have plans for Jollyship but I worked on it for so long I sort of want to have more things out there. I would like to write some plays that are publishable.
Rail: Proper plays.
Jones: Proper plays. I’m hoping The Coward will be successful enough that it will make people interested in Jollyship again because it’s a commercial show and should be produced again.
The Coward by Nick Jones, directed by Sam Gold, presented by LCT3, runs November 8 – December 4 at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street (229 West 42nd Street, Manhattan). Tickets: $20, visit www.lct3.org or call 646-223-3010.
Despite popular misconception, Eliza Bent is neither a vegetarian nor a Park Slope resident. She eats meat and lives in Soho and goes to school for playwriting at Brooklyn College. In her spare time, she's an editor at American Theatre magazine.