Talitha Jones, a 15-year-old sophomore at Aspen High School, got the idea for her first playwriting effort from her older sister Naomi’s experience with online dating. Talitha spun that experience into the fictional “Who’s Paying?” a blind dinner date in which the man’s expectations end in disappointment. (“Mine was more successful than the play,” Naomi McDougall Jones said, noting that her date led to marriage.)
Talitha makes her debut as a playwright when “Who’s Paying?” is performed tonight through Tuesday in Theater Masters’ Take Ten National Playwrights Festival. The festival, featuring short works by writers in top Master of Fine Arts programs — plus two pieces by local high schoolers — is at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theatre. Serving as guest adjudicators are Naomi, who is Theater Masters’ artistic associate, and Theater Masters’ artistic director Julia Hansen, along with several professional playwrights and actors.
Talitha probably owes more than just “Who’s Paying?” to the influence of her sister and the rest of the creative Joneses. Talitha is the youngest of a Woody Creek family for which artistic achievement is the norm. Naomi, 26, might be the dominant force; she tells of being 8 years old and whipping up a home production of “The Wizard of Oz” that ran four hours. Naomi has been a dancer, actress and playwright; she now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and has two films in the works: “Imagine I’m Beautiful,” which she wrote, co-produced and stars in and which is set for release this spring; and the romantic comedy “Nothing About Chloe,” in which she stars.
Their brother Obadiah was well-known during his school years in Aspen for being the leader of the rock band Slightly White and for numerous acting roles. He is currently in his final semester at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts in England. Claire McDougall, their mother, will make her debut as a novelist in March with the publication of “Veil of Time,” a dark drama of family, fantasy and Scottish history.
Against this backdrop, Paul Jones, the father, is a laggard on the artistic side, but he just might be a latent achiever. In addition to playing a bit of violin, he surprised the family by participating recently in a two-hour theater workshop connected to Take Ten.
“He’s definitely not uncreative,” Naomi said.
On a practical level, Talitha might not have known about Take Ten if it were not for Naomi, who won the festival’s high school playwriting competition in 2005 with “Walking Wounded,” about two survivors of 9/11. But there is a bigger picture of creative ambitions that has surrounded Talitha.
“I don’t think I’d be into theater at all without the influence of my siblings and parents,” said Talitha, whose onstage credits include appearances as an orphan in Theatre Aspen’s “Annie,” Dorothy in Aspen Middle School’s “The Wizard of Oz” and Penny in Jayne Gottlieb Productions’ “Hairspray.” (She will appear as Verruca Salt in Aspen High’s version of the musical “Willy Wonka” in March.) “I can’t bring anyone over without them questioning what goes on in our family. There’s music all the time, playbills everywhere.”
One significant role that all the family members share is being an honest sounding board. It might help that the siblings are all separated by a few years and that each seems to be finding a distinct creative niche.
“We all hold each other to very high standards, which has been helpful in my creative life,” said Naomi, who spoke to her sister about rewrites on “Who’s Paying?” “I know they’re never going to tell me something is good just because they think they ought to. The most useful thing for an artist is being able to trust the feedback you’re getting.”
It seems to be Claire who sets the pace on honesty.
“Our mother is very open about her opinions,” Talitha said.
Talitha began her performing career in the footsteps of her brother. She played in a music duo that covered classic rock songs in numerous battles of the bands, and she got a slot a few years ago at Carbondale Mountain Fair. Writing a short play was an assignment for her high school theater class. “Who’s Paying?” was performed recently in a showcase for the Aspen High theater department, with student actors. At Take Ten, the play will be performed by three of the adults — Nina Gabianelli, Dan Bosko and Sean Warnecke — from the corps of actors. Directing will be Stephen Cedars.
Talitha is uncertain which direction her creativity will follow. She hasn’t started a second play — “I’m just getting over this one,” she said — and was only partly enthused about the prospect of participating in Take Ten next year.
“I’ll probably have to do this again next year. Well, not have to — get to do it. Because our theater teacher loves this opportunity,” she said.
Talitha has written off playwriting as her future field of study. “I’m not going to do this in college,” she said.
“That’s what I said,” Naomi responded.