Interview: Jonathan James Norton

Posted on April 17, 2012


Where are you from originally? And where are you living now?

I was born in Houston. I was adopted at age two and my adopted parents lived in Dallas. I’ve lived in Dallas all my life with the exception of college. I moved back home after college. I like Dallas, and I like to think of my city as the Marcia Brady of Texas. See… Dallas is Marcia. Houston is Jan. And Austin is Cindy. Dallas typically gets more attention than Houston – so I always imagine Houstonians griping, “Dallas, Dallas, Dallas,” like Jan saying, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”

What first drew you to playwriting and a life in the theatre?
When I was fifteen I performed in a production of August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Sitting in the greenroom and hearing this beautiful poetry coming through the PA system – night after night, had a huge impact on me. I played Rueben Scott, the boy that lived next door. I only had two scenes so I had a lot of time offstage. I started writing short scenes and monologues to pass the time. I began to read my stuff to a captive audience of anyone who happened to be in the greenroom. I got encouraging feedback and I was hooked.

What was the first play you ever wrote and has it been produced?

The first play I ever wrote was an Anansi the Spider tale. The theater that did Joe Turner’s (Theater Three) had a children’s theater group directed by the amazingly talented Laurence O’Dwyer. Laurence played Rutherford Selig in Joe Turner’s and he was one of my most loyal greenroom patrons. He asked me to write an Anansi tale for their group. But I was 15 and unfortunately my knowledge of African mythology was really limited. So there was absolutely nothing African about it. It was like an episode of Mr. Rogers with a dude in a big-ass spider costume. But Laurence did it anyway. I never saw it performed because it was during school hours, but apparently it did really well.

What inspires you?
HGTV, Project Runway, and Rupaul Drag Race. Seriously. I like to watch the creative process. I like to see how a vision is conceived, articulated and executed. Unzipped is one of my favorite movies of all time for this same reason. It follows Isaac Mizrahi as he created his fall 1994 collection. I could watch that movie all day every day. I’m also inspired by modern dance and choreographers like Robert Battle, Bill T. Jones, and Karole Armitage. I’m inspired by gesture, movement and music, and I try to incorporate that into my work.

Under what conditions do you write best?

I write best mornings and early afternoons.  I like to listen to music when I write. For My Tidy List of Terrors I listened to a lot of Stevie Wonder. In fact, his song Saturn is my anthem for the play.  Also If It’s Magic, Sir Duke, Village Ghettoland and Another Star were huge favorites over the course of writing the early drafts. I’m lucky to have a bedroom that opens onto a patio. When I write I like to open the doors and let the outside in. Even it is cold I still open the door for a little bit, just to get me started. I put on a sweater and sit in my room and write. Sometimes I sit on the patio, but I have lousy patio furniture… so it’s not as appealing.

What was the initial inspiration for the play being workshopped at PlayPenn?

The play was inspired by a few things. The artwork of Betye, Alison and Lezley Saar. Love is the Seventh Wave by Sting. The music of Stevie Wonder. And a really bad dream. I have a really cool story about how the play came to be and it all centers around Love Is the Seventh Wave.  But it’s too long to tell in writing. But I love telling the story in person. Be sure to ask me.

Why did you decide to apply to PlayPenn, and what do you hope to get out of the conference?

Melissa Maxwell gave me a list of programs to submit to and PlayPenn was on the list. I applied because I’ve heard really good things about the Philly theater community. For My Tidy List of Terrors, I really hope to strengthen character arcs and learn how to use existing story elements and themes to support that. I also look forward to spending time with my fellow cohorts this summer, and learning from them.

What’s the oddest job you’ve ever had while supporting yourself as a writer?
I’ve always had office jobs or call center jobs, nothing too odd. But at one time I worked in Arts Administration at an African-American performing arts institution. Everybody in my office would complain about how we missed working for Mister Charlie “i.e. White Corporate America” and then my boss would come in the office and pretend to be our slave master and crack an imaginary whip. Then we would start singing plantation slave songs. I actually got my current job by telling my boss in the interview, “If you can work for black people, you can work for anybody.”

If you could change anything about the American theatre, what would it be?
I wish we could use the artist/patron system in the visual arts world to support playwrights.  I know that it is not a perfect system, but it has some bright spots that can be beneficial to the American theater. I always think of how such a system helped to support the work of Charles Mee. I feel that playwrights have a lot more in common with visual artists than we do with other theater artists. I’m interested in exploring these similarities. And it might even be that a patronage system is the wrong model, but something better is needed. I think how playwrights are compensated and professionally engaged should be re-evaluated, with thought given to how much uncompensated time and energy is required to create new work.

Complete this sentence: I write plays because…
It is my way of understanding the world.

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