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O-Lan Jones Talks About ICELAND, Living in Yucatan, and Her Artistic Inspiration

A Smiling O-Lan Jones
Kenneth Dolin

I had the privilege this month of corresponding with O-Lan Jones, a multifaceted creator and artist of exceptional talent whose experimental theatre piece, ICELAND, is making its preview debut at REDCAT's New Original Works Festival from July 24th to July 26th. Words cannot describe how grateful I am to O-Lan for taking time out of her busy, rehearsal-filled schedule to talk to me about ICELAND's inspiration, her favorite acting roles, and what it was like growing up in a few unlikely places.

How did you get into playwriting? Did you grow up in a family of performing artists and creative types?

I’m not really a playwright, I’m a composer -- and when I work with a librettist I create the story and structure, too. This time I’m also writing the libretto that goes through the whole piece, and working on how the story unfolds with my collaborator Emmett Tinley who is also writing songs for ICELAND.

I grew up in a very bohemian family where all my artistic pursuits were encouraged. It was an extremely non-traditional household headed by my mother, who was a marvelously original thinker, and who led my sister and me through the wilds of America and also into the jungles of Yucatan, where we lived in a village of about 80 or 90 Mayans in a hut. Our own borrowed hut. While we were living on the Lower East Side in New York, I got involved in the experimental theatre world as an actress.

What was the first work you put on? What was that experience like?

I guess if you discount those really good shows in the backyard that I produced, directed and starred in, the first real production was in San Francisco where I wrote AFTER STARDRIVE with Kathleen Cramer. It was a musical about a woman who’d had an encounter with an extra-terrestrial that allowed her to see inside people and situations – that’s where the songs happened. It was very successful but I didn’t know what the next step was – how to move it to a venue where it could keep going.

I’m still in the process of learning how that happens. I get all involved in the creation of a piece and it’s a completely different skill set to then bring it to a broader audience. But now I have a wonderful Managing Director, Yurie Ann Cho, and an enthusiastic Board of Directors with know-how who are helping to close that gap.

Where did you get your inspiration for ICELAND?

I came across a CD of Emmett Tinley’s by chance, and was so impressed by his songs - the way they all seem grounded in a real experience but also have a mysterious reach into the unknown parts of life. He's a wonderful singer, too, and his songs can just break your heart -- an important service to the world! When I was driving along in my car one day listening to a CD of his called Attic Faith, a song called "Come To Life" was playing and it sort of collided with a song I had written with someone many years before called "Cold Breath," and a whole outline appeared in my mind. When I got home I wrote it down, took a careful look at whether or not it had “legs” and then I thought, maybe he’d like to write songs for this. Since it was inspired by something he’d written I figure the subject matter it brought up would be in his wheelhouse – and thanks to the internet I tracked him down and sent him the outline to see if he’d be interested, and he was.

What was it like working with him on ICELAND? Have you collaborated in a similar manner on any other projects?

All collaborations are different. When I worked on SONGS AND DANCES OF IMAGINARY LANDS, I was overseeing the collaborations of twenty-one writers and eleven composers. It was a long, rambling process because I wasn’t clear on the result I was looking for and had to catch it as I recognized it. Just wrangling that many artistes was quite a feat! I’ve worked with Kathleen Cramer on several pieces, most recently THE WOMAN IN THE WALL, and we’ve known each other so long there’s a lot of shorthand. Since Emmett lives in Denmark, most of our conversations have been in e-mail or Skype, but when I went to Iceland last December, to soak up the dark times, he was able to visit Reykjavik for a few days and we had a chance to hammer out some details for this first section that’s going to be presented at REDCAT.

What were your expectations for this project? Do the results align with their origin?

Hmmm, I am so in the thick of directing it right now that it’s just about impossible to get any distance on it – but what I’m noticing is there’s a very rich texture to the whole thing, and even though there are two different writer/composers, the music is very complementary and the difference isn’t jarring, it gives a depth.

How is ICELAND different than other projects you’ve worked on?

ICELAND is different than other projects because in a way I feel the vision of it at the start was clearer, a whole story appeared out of the blue! Well, an outline -- and the process now is fleshing it out, illuminating themes that show up, being available for all the discoveries that a strong basic idea will present. And it’s going faster! Like lightning! We’ve only been working on it a year. I also had an idea pretty early on that it would be a contemporary story permeated by timeless mythic beings.

Though you are a writer, director, and composer within this project, being behind the scenes has not always been your theatrical role. What was your favorite play in which you performed? And do you have any upcoming projects (on stage or on screen) in which you will be performing?

Well, it’s always the most recent play that is my favorite. I just did Edward Albee’s A DELICATE BALANCE at The Odyssey where I played Claire, the impossible alcoholic sister. It was a big hit, but we had to close at the end of June because some of the actors had other commitments. A movie called Child of Grace is coming out pretty soon. I played Ted Levine’s wife. And we both played normal people!!!