Greg Jones received a 2017 Julie Harris Playwriting Award for his comedy-drama All Save One. He holds a B.A. in drama from Catholic University and a M.A. in English from Salisbury University. He studied cinema with William K. Everson at NYU and playwriting with Lucas Hnath.
The class you are teaching this fall is “Eight Plays Everybody Should Know” and you have a background in theater arts. How did you become interested in it? What have you done in that field?
I am a proud example of the Maryland/DC/Baltimore area’s commitment to theater arts. I started acting when I was 10 years old. I took a drama class in the summer sponsored by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, and a woman named Flo Ormond taught us kids. It really lit the match to a lot of us in terms of our lifelong love of theater. We put on a play at the end of the summer, and we loved it so much that Flo kept it going for about three and a half to four years. We did a Christmas play, then we did a spring play, a summer play…some of the kids with whom I performed back then are still my very close friends.
I went from there to Bowie High School where I had an amazing drama teacher, Elizabeth Barnes. To give you a sense of how unusual it was in terms of drama class, in addition to Romeo and Juliet, You Can’t Take it with You, and things that seemed natural for high school drama groups, we studied Stanislavski and method acting. And because we studied Stanislavski, she said “Okay now we’re going to do Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.” The Cherry Orchard is one of my favorite plays to this day. She was teaching teenagers that it wasn’t just a fun after school activity. She was also taking it seriously enough that she was teaching us the fundamentals of good acting, so much so that then I went to Catholic University in Washington, majored in drama, and did plays there.
Meanwhile, because of these extraordinary people in my life, I started actually getting paid to act when I was a teenager. All during college I was performing, and then I moved to New York. So it all started really with the teachers who inspired me and truly just a large group of my friends all still are pretty seriously involved in theater. I owe it all to them.
I often say that when I lived in New York, the only time that I worked was when I was sent out of town. I did a few productions in New York (this is off-off of Broadway). I was 25, living in Manhattan, and I was coming back to visit my parents in Bowie. I had been a typical struggling actor, doing showcases and those kind of things, but I didn’t have my union (equity) card. I visited my parents, saw in the Washington Post that Ford’s Theater was auditioning for their annual A Christmas Carol. I went down and auditioned there and got my union card. So my first ‘professional’ union job was back in DC at the Ford’s Theater. From there I had a good run of a year and a half or two years where I went from show to show. I did a lot of dinner theatre (which was big back then), and would go on the road. One of my fondest memories was during a season of summer stock where we did five productions in eight weeks. We would rehearse the first show and open it, rehearse the next show and open it, and then for the rest of the summer do all five shows. You’d wake up in the morning and say “What’s today? Is today Camelot? Is today Arsenic and Old Lace?” which is great training.
That lasted for a while, and then I started writing material for other performers to do in cabaret acts. Through one of those connections I was hired by A&E, the television network, to write a bunch of stuff for them – not television shows, but promotional material and that sort of thing. Slowly that was something that became my full-time job, partly because I liked not wondering where my next meal was coming from which is what actors generally worry about. After a while I was mostly just working in television as a television executive before we left New York.
What do you think some of the key takeaways from your course are?
One of the goals that I have in preparing the class is that regardless of what you bring into the class you will key in to something. There are major aspects that I try to cover that hopefully accomplish that goal. Number one is “Why does this story still resonate with modern audiences?” For instance, with something like Oedipus the King which is thousands of years old, why is it still produced and what can you get out of it? If you walk into this class thinking, “an old Greek tragedy, I don’t know what I would get out of it,” well what you get out of it if you see or read it is that this is the story of a well intentioned man who makes one mistake and has to pay the ultimate price for that one mistake. I think a lot of times people think it is very esoteric or cerebral, but I still am very moved when I read that play because I think we all can understand that one mistake or one twist of fate can really affect our entire lives. So, the goal there is that whoever you are, you can key in to the universal truth of that story.
Number two is that I really do think that we live in an age where it is still important to have a sense of cultural literacy, in the sense that the average educated person of any age kind of knows what Oedipus the King is about, or kind of knows that My Fair Lady was based on a play called Pygmalion. Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw, is not a light frothy musical. It’s funny, it’s funny as all get out, but it’s got a much stronger social message.
The cultural literacy part of this, and it’s important to note that in academic circles it’s gotten bad press so-to-say, because the sense of it is it might be relegated to the patriarchy or the white majority. There’s truth to that, but I think there are certain touchstones in literature and theater that a person would be better knowing.
Outside of theater and teaching, what are some of your other hobbies and special interests?
Speaking of the pandemic, I never thought I had much of a green thumb, but I have become a little bit of a deck gardener. I have coaxed plants back to life and I have coaxed roses to bloom. I don’t know how I’ve done it but at this stage of life after never really being much of a plant guy I find it very soothing and also something you can actually do during this time. That’s something that is a new discovery for me.
In terms of other things, my pleasure is also my work. I don’t have a lot of other hobbies so to say, because I’m so lucky in that I spend my day getting paid for something that I truly love to do. I’m writing plays, and so to me, what one gets out of hobbies I tend to get out of my day to day work.
Do you have any words of wisdom given our current times? How have you approached the current situation?
I think one of the things that is true about this forced isolation is that you have to wake up in the morning with a to-do list already made. I think that isn’t just about the pandemic, either. I use the example of my father, who is long gone, but my father was a stereotypical male of his generation—meaning that he defined himself by his job and defined his role in our family as the provider—and when he became retirement age he didn’t want to retire because he didn’t have a to-do list so to say. My mother did for him, but he derived so much of his self-identity from the job he got up and went to everyday that he was afraid to retire. In fact, when he did retire, he—like many retired people—had a stretch where he didn’t know what to do with himself. It’s very stressful, and very depressing. I think it’s true with people of any age now in this pandemic: if we don’t get up in the morning and know that we have to get something done every day, I would say that is the road to ruin. Here’s the thing, it can be “I want to clean behind the refrigerator.” The joke during this pandemic here is that we’ve all organized our junk drawer twice, but there’s something to that. The reason we’re organizing our junk drawer or cleaning behind the refrigerator is because when we finish, we know that our day had meaning. The other piece of that is to alternate that with something that really does bring you personal joy, even if nobody else understands it.
It’s just like exercise or something like that, if you’re reluctant to do it, that’s fine. But if you don’t do it in some manner or fashion, I think one regrets not doing something that improves either their mind, or their health, their community, or their family on a fairly regular basis even if they don’t really want to. But balance that with something that nobody else understands that you love. I hate to sound like a walking protestant work ethic, but I do think that we do have to force ourselves to do some things. It does make us better. It makes us better human beings, it makes us healthier, and it makes us better citizens I feel.
Do you have any text, music, or literature that you have turned towards?
I don’t mean this to be a shameless plug, but I do believe that these eight plays are exactly that. They open us up to something every time we read them. I’ve read Death of a Salesman and I’ve taught it a hundred times. I was in Death of a Salesman too, but every time I prepare to teach it, I reread it or re-watch it. I’m being completely honest with you when I say I get something new every time because it is a masterpiece. That play has everything in it: when you read it when you’re eighteen, you identify with the sons (my father wants me to be this and I don’t want to be, why doesn’t my mother stand up to my father, etc.). If you get married, you’re like “Why is my husband not listening to me, or why don’t I love my wife as much as I think I should?” Then, when you’re in the working world, he’s a salesman who is a failure but can’t admit it. There’s all these things at all these different stages of life. I don’t mind dipping into it again because I’ll think about something new that I never noticed before.