Rolin on Life’s River
Playwright Rolin Jones, and the modest ambitions of his These Paper Bullets!
By Maureen Lenker
The archetypal American playwright is a man mired in alcohol and existential angst. You might expect a guy who has written for dramas, Friday Night Lights and Boardwalk Empire, and appears to have an almost exclusively navy blue, black, and grey wardrobe, to fall into this stereotype.
Yet, Rolin Jones, quickly upends expectations when he sits down with a glass of ice cold milk and a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie. The pie along with his wry smile and sharp sense of humor is disarming. Before I can ask him a question, he inquires after my health and a medical procedure that delayed our meeting.
The guy is as feel-good and sparklingly fun as his latest play now playing at the Geffen Playhouse, the mod musical romp, These Paper Bullets!, which transfers Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing to 1960s London.
It’s clear that others in Jones’s life recognize the warm person he is – he grew up here in Southern California, in Woodland Hills, and when he sits down, he cannot wait to share a text that he just received from his high school drama teacher expressing how much she’s looking forward to seeing his show. He pulls his phone out and reads out the entirety of the message, a tenor of affection and excitement in his voice.
He calls her “a savior,” explaining how she took him in to the high school theater program after he was kicked off his basketball team. His initial intentions for joining were less than noble: “There were a lot of gay guys and attractive girls in there, so I thought the odds were really excellent.”
But he soon found that “thespians were like a big, old second family.” He’s bursting with memories about his high school drama experiences at El Camino Real, including his frequent participation in the Drama Teachers’ Association of Southern California festivals (a rite of passage for all SoCal drama kids including this writer).
Wandering into the Writer’s Craft
. . . “It was a terrible play,” he says, “It was really awful. But I sat in the audience and for the first time wasn’t filled with regret and nerves and all that stuff and was like ‘eh, I did my part, they tried to do theirs, and it stinks.’ And I felt okay about it, which was a real sign, ‘Oh, maybe I should try that.’” . . .
Jones wandered from acting to directing until he found his eventual calling as a writer. “I was a really hammy, shitty actor,” he says. “Not a great scene partner, [I] was constantly looking for attention and affection from the audience instead of generosity from my scene partner, and somewhere along the way, I kind of recognized that.” Next he tried directing, but he says that “made [him] particularly miserable.”
Bouncing around various universities, Jones studied poetry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for a time — then, he was planning on becoming a film director. Somewhere in the midst of all this, he wrote a play. “It was a terrible play,” he says, “It was really awful. But I sat in the audience and for the first time wasn’t filled with regret and nerves and all that stuff and was like ‘eh, I did my part, they tried to do theirs, and it stinks.’ And I felt ok about it, which was a real sign, ‘Oh, maybe I should try that.’”
Eventually, Jones would study playwriting at Yale School of Drama and become a playwright-in-residence with Yale Repertory Theatre. While there, they produced his play The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow that would make him a Pulitzer Prize finalist (it premiered at South Coast Repertory here in Costa Mesa). After the success of Jenny Chow, Jones was invited to become a staff writer on Showtime’s Weeds, and he’s primarily remained in Hollywood since.
These Paper Bullets! is another production Jones wrote for Yale Repertory. Jackson Gay, who directed Jones’ Jenny Chow at Yale and on Broadway, was asked to direct a Shakespeare play at Yale Rep, but was less than thrilled at the prospect of directing a traditional comedy. Jones explains, “We just spent two nights in a bar drinking a lot, thinking about all the plays, [and] kind of came up with this dumb, generic idea. It’s not four princes, it’s four lads from Liverpool.”
Jones decided to merge The Beatles and the fashion world of early 1960s London with Much Ado About Nothing and the idea blossomed from there. It was a lot to take on—adapting a Shakespeare play into a Beatles-esque musical and mounting it all in nine months. As Jones puts it, The Beatles and Shakespeare “are two people who probably won’t be topped and are two people who should never be approached to recreate or rewrite, so we did it anyway.”
Jones wasn’t worried about ripping off Shakespeare since the Bard of Avon was notorious for rewriting plots himself: “He gave me license to do it because that’s the way he did it, and he had some rollicking comedies and I tried to approach it the way he would. Let’s make a massive entertainment, let’s keep it light on its feet, and then let’s occasionally try to land it in some place.”
Jones also got a rock star of our own time to take on the music of the most iconic pop stars of all time. He was in the midst of finishing the screenplay for the film adaptation of American Idiot and decided to pitch These Paper Bullets! to Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Much to Jones’ surprise, Armstrong agreed and within a few days started emailing Beatles’ songs he’d written and recorded by himself in his home.
Though Jones found many of Shakespeare’s plot devices frustrating, he relished the chance to improve upon the problematic aspects of the play, particularly the unmotivated villain and the convoluted slut-shaming conclusion.
As Jones says, “If anything screams of ‘Hey Bill, we’ve got people coming here in two days, you’ve got to write something up’ it’s that horrible plan that the reverend comes up with. I think Much Ado gets done a lot and gets favorably remembered because there’s these great Beatrice and Benedict scenes. And one of the reasons I think they stick out as really great scenes is because, I have no problem saying this, the rest of the scenes really suck. They’re really dull.”
Jones wanted to be sure to maintain an equal power dynamic between Beatrice and Benedict, which required a glamorous career for Beatrice to match Ben’s new role as a rock star. She’s now a fashion designer inspired by Mary Quant, who was instrumental in developing 1960s Mod styles and the youth fashion movement.
Lowering Expectations: Let’s Just Have Fun Together
. . . “Sometimes you just get far removed from why you’re doing it all, and it’s still kind of a touchy-feely human endeavor that doesn’t pay well in a world that is supposed to not respect artists in a healthy way.” . . .
While talking to Jones about These Paper Bullets!, it’s clear two things are of primary importance to him – making sure audiences have a good time and the value of group dynamics.
For Jones, it’s about returning to his high school theater kid roots: “You have to get over yourself and about trying to do art. The text from my drama teacher was so meaningful. It’s like all of us are sons and daughters of our parents, who would all be . . .so thrilled to see us doing this, being creative and all that . . . Sometimes you just get far removed from why you’re doing it all, and it’s still kind of a touchy-feely human endeavor that doesn’t pay well in a world that is supposed to not respect artists in a healthy way.”
Jones finds value in removing pretension and lofty artistic goals from the process. “When you lower the expectations, when you’re not trying to change the world with a play,” he says, “you can actually get . . . why you do it a little bit quicker because there’s a lot less ego involved.”
Coming from a television background, Jones is used to the camaraderie of the writers’ room, and he says he “feel[s] the presence of a company” in Shakespeare’s writing.
Jones has founded his own company, New Neighborhood, that he intends to use as an umbrella to produce theater, film, and television projects. The group arose out of his experiences on Paper Bullets at Yale Rep: “We got on really well in New Haven, and we drank a lot and had a lot of famous nights and had a good time on stage. And it felt the closest to what my high school theater troupe felt like, and I was like, I miss that a lot.”
That sense of camaraderie continues in the Los Angeles run—after meeting with me, Jones is heading to meet his cast for drinks on their night off.
Enjoying Good Company
. . . “we’re not particularly intellectually rigorous, we’re not super smart people, we’re a lot of feelers. So I think it’s going to have a populist slant to it, a lot of feel good.” . . .
New Neighborhood is part of Jones’s new overall deal with Twentieth Century Fox TV. It features writers, designers, directors, and more, all of whom are mid-career theatrical artists with impressive credits to their name.
Though the company started in New Haven, Jones hopes it will find its life in Los Angeles “because it’s the best city in the world and it’s my city that I love.”
“There’s less competition out here and just as much acting talent,” Jones says. “So how to harness that, how to make theater right for Southern California” is one of the driving forces for New Neighborhood.
Still, it’s simpler than that – “we just kind of wanted to hang out some more with each other and that’s all it is.”
Despite the impressive track record of New Neighborhood’s members, Jones says, “we’re not particularly intellectually rigorous, we’re not super smart people, we’re a lot of feelers. So I think it’s going to have a populist slant to it, a lot of feel good.”
Ultimately, that feel-good slant is what Jones hopes audiences take away from These Paper Bullets!: “I want them to see a comedy that they laugh at and that they are surprisingly moved by. That’s it. Really simple.”
Considering that a combination of humor and thoughtfulness permeates the way he carries and expresses himself, it actually might be — really simple, that is.
These Paper Bullets! is performing at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood; Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. & 7 p.m.; Through October 18. (310) 208-5454, geffenplayhouse.com. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.