The write stuff: Actress returns to Aspen stage to perform her own material
December 1, 2009
ASPEN – Ever since Naomi McDougall Jones realized, at the age of 13, that she wanted to be an actress, her focus has been on the live stage. Film, she has come to realize, is a “fragmented” medium. “You jump forward and backward; you don’t take the ride of the story the way you do in theater,” she said.
But the 22-year-old Jones, who grew up in Woody Creek and has been living in New York City the past four years, has been warming to the ways of the film world in recent months. In September, Jones shot her first feature movie, “Ghost World,” which she describes as an “1800s Western horror film.” She had the lead role, as Claire, a social-climbing werewolf riding a west-bound stagecoach. She was flown out to Arizona for the seven-day shoot. But what really seems to have opened her eyes was not her own role, but that of another crew member, whose sole job was to hold an umbrella over Jones’ head, to shield her from the desert sun between shots.
The umbrella-holder was in constant trouble with the director, as Jones, unaccustomed to being a prima donna, kept telling him not to perform his assigned task. But when filming concluded, Jones began thinking she could probably get used to such perks.
“I woke up the morning after doing that film thinking, ‘Maybe I should move to L.A., do more films,'” she said. In the months since, Jones has taken roles in several student films, and is putting together a performance reel, in an effort to advance her movie career. But at the same time, she has also reconsidered that morning-after reaction, and recognized that the live stage is dear to her.
“There’s something about theater you can’t replace,” she said.
For most actors, that irreplaceable element is the unmediated connection to a living, breathing audience. For Jones, though, the attraction to theater is as much in the story-telling. She is a playwright as well as an actress, and cherishes the idea of being able to spin a narrative that unfolds on the stage over an uninterrupted two hours or so.
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Those various skills are on display Wednesday and Thursday, as Theater Masters presents a two-night run of “May-December with The Nose and Clammy,” a play Jones co-wrote with Jonas Cohen, her former acting teacher at New York’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The two-person play – tagged as “a romantic comedy for people who don’t believe in romantic comedies” – is being presented at Aspen High School’s Black Box Theater as a staged reading, with the playwrights getting feedback from director Pesha Rudnick, who is also associate director of the Aspen-based Theater Masters. Jones and Cohen will inhabit the roles of the ambitious grad student Lily, and the neurotic, older lawyer Noah, who meet in a New York City bathroom. “May-December” had its premiere in August at the New York International Fringe Festival, with another actor in place of Cohen, who was unavailable.
As a playwright, Jones hasn’t shown much belief herself in romantic comedies. Her work has skewed toward social issues. “May-December,” though, had an unusual origin. Jones, who dances, sings and plays piano, set out to write a cabaret with Cohen. As the project progressed, they saw that the scope had outgrown the cabaret form, and they made it a full-length play with an expansive theme.
“We’re told all these things about what relationships ought to be, what love ought to be, what marriages ought to be. And we make ourselves unhappy because we can’t live up to that,” Jones said. “So at the top of the play they’re about to get married and neither knows if it’s the right thing to do or not. They explore the reality of who they are and the possibility that all the things they’ve been told may not be true.”
Jones spent some years contemplating her artistic possibilities. Her earliest ambition was to be a dancer, as she studied with the Aspen Ballet School. At age 13, she decided she wanted to be an actress, and landed roles like the oldest Von Trapp daughter Lisl in Aspen Community Theatre’s production of “The Sound of Music.”
When she took the International Baccalaureate theater class in her senior year at Aspen High School, Jones didn’t believe she could actually write a play. But writing a script was a requirement, and her teacher encouraged the students to enter their work in Theater Masters’ Young Playwrights Competition. Jones’ “Walking Wounded,” about two people dealing with the aftermath of 9/11, took top prize.
Jones expanded that 10-minute piece into a full-length play and it got a reading in New York, launching her writing career. She has written five full-length plays and a similar number of shorter works. Virtually all have been produced in one form or another. “36-24-36,” about eating disorders, played at the New York Fringe Festival. “The Threadbare Sex,” a British-accented dark comedy, was developed at the Theater Masters’ New Bridges Festival, and performed at Manhattan Repertory Theatre. “Patriots,” a short play about a soldier coming back from Iraq, has had 10 performances.
Despite setting her stories around 9/11, Iraq and eating disorders, Jones says she isn’t doing social commentary through the medium of drama. “The plays are never really about the issues,” she said. “They’re about the people dealing on a personal level with those issues.”
Choosing between writing and acting, theater and film, isn’t much of an issue for Jones at this point. She says writing and performing strike a nice balance. Writing reminds her that each actor is only a piece of the story. Writing also gives her the opportunity to create characters, scenarios and dialogue that suit her vision. And writing hasn’t taken her away from other acting jobs; she has appeared in dance, drama and children’s theater productions, and is set to play Abigail in a New York production of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” in January.
Jones’ ideal world would include a little of everything: writing and performing, doing her own plays and films by other writers, comedy and drama. “May-December” broadens her universe in several ways. It is, she says, “as close to a comedy as it comes” for her. And it might be a step toward the film world; she says that several people have commented that the play would work well on the screen.
“The dialogue – people keep saying it’s a mix of Woody Allen and Neil Simon, that kind of repartee,” Jones said. “I don’t think it would take a lot of rewriting to make it a screenplay.
“But I think more in terms of theater. That’s what I know so far.”