12 Q 4 Christine Jones: Creating “Theater for One,” Designing “American Idiot”

American Idiot and Theater for One make Christine Jones the designer of one of the biggest–and one of the smallest–shows on the Rialto.

12 Q 4 Christine Jones: Creating "Theater for One," Designing "American Idiot"It takes an original mind to think so far inside a box that the whole concept of theater gets turned on its head until it finds itself right side up. And it takes an unusual designer to create a stage space that doesn’t allow room for many design elements.

Scenic designer Christine Jones’s Theatre for One goes way beyond usual definitions of intimate theater, allowing a single spectator to experience the work of one performer in a tiny space. On May 14, the project comes to Times Square, where about 300 ten-minute performances will occur.

Not that Jones is a stranger to large scale projects. She was recognized with Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle nominations for her first venture on the Rialto, Julie Taymor’s The Green Bird. She also created the Tony-nominated design for Spring Awakening and is in the process of adapting her design for American Idiot, on its way to Broadway from the Berkeley Rep for a March 24 opening. See a trailer for the Berkeley Rep production here. [Update: Christine Jones took the Tony on June 13, 2010, for American Idiot.]

Jones juggles her design career with caring for her two small children–actor Dallas Roberts, their dad, is sometimes away on location–as well as with teaching at NYU, where she studied with John Conklin. That, she says, means she must limit projects to those that deeply interest her.

After assisting Tony Walton for a time, she began designing at major regional theaters, including the Hartford Stage Company (Mark Lamos discovered her), the Guthrie in Minneapolis, Center Stage in Baltimore, the McCarter in Princeton, the Yale Rep in New Haven, the Seattle Rep, the South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa, the Wilma in Philadelphia, and the American Rep in Cambridge, where I first enjoyed her imaginative and whimsical designs. She’s also designed Off-Broadway and for opera companies.

In an interview with David Johnson, editorial director of Live Design magazine, Jones said she works from the text, beginning with how characters will use the space she is creating. She does research to enhance this understanding before she begins model building. She told Johnson she wanted to be a dancer before she got involved with a theater company in Montréal, where she grew up, and before she started studying literature at Concordia University there.

When we spoke a few days ago, she was excited about doing a big show on Broadway and a tiny show on Broadway. “I’m enjoying the juxtaposition of doing these two shows,” she said. I asked her a few questions about each.

Thinking Inside the Box

12 Q 4 Christine Jones: Creating "Theater for One," Designing "American Idiot"
Photo by Danny Bright

DN: Theater for One would be less surprising to me if an actor had come up with the idea. But designers, well, designers usually want a larger canvas. What draws you to it?

CJ: Ultimately it all comes down to the relationship between the actor and the audience. I’m interested in exploring the relationship in its most pure form. Any staging and design happens to support and enhance that, but at its core, that’s what at the heart of a theatrical event. The idea of taking public events and making them private is compelling. A relationship is hard to achieve when you’re dealing with the ratio in a typical 500 seat or 1,000 seat theater. There’s no question that both people are dependent on each other for the piece to live. I love getting back to what we do and why we do it. We go to theater to experience something outside of ourselves and to connect with a story or piece of music. My goal in any theater is to try to make it feel like it’s being created for each spectator.

DN: That’s an amazing idea. How did you come up with it?

CJ: I was at a wedding, and a magician performed a magic trick in close proximity to me. I had been thinking about sacred spaces, and that was the light-bulb moment. I felt what a charge it is to experience something you would normally witness in a public arena in a more private and intimate way.

I’ve continued to experiment. What happens if you perform music? What kinds of texts lend themselves to this? I have a toy pianist and a magician. I’m also working with excerpts from books. In Times Square we’ll have literature, poetry, music, dance, and theater.

DN: What sort of theater?

CJ: I’ve asked playwrights to write new pieces for particular performers. The more I do this, the more I am interested in the idea of it being a kind of gift exchange. The playwright writes for a performer who passes that gift on to an audience member. The more personal each part of the process is, the more palpable the energy.

DN: And they’ll write monologues?

CJ: In a way, they’re dialogues. There’s no need for the other person in the booth to say anything, but the other person becomes a character. It happens without you realizing it…The playwrights also have to imagine that Times Square may be buzzing in the background. The booth is not fully soundproofed.

DN: It sounds like Times Square might not be a perfect venue?

CJ: Putting Theater for One into a theater is easy. You have a dimmer system, an audience waiting area, a backstage for performers to wait for their turns….I see this as something that could be put into the lobby of a theater…..This is an opportunity for me to learn a lot of the other areas that go into making theater. It requires reaching out to writers and performers and asking anybody I know who knows anything about theater how you sell tickets, how you raise money.

DN: Are you a one-person production team?

CJ: I have a great stage manager. Maybe I’ll have my dad come and help me man the booth.

DN: And you’ll be projecting the performances from the booth so that passerby can see them, too?

CJ: A part of me was feeling I had this responsibility to open it up, but it’s best to honor what it is, so we’re not going to do that. Projecting it is such a pale version of what the live performance is. Someday, I hope we’ll have multiple booths or a booth up for a longer time. For now, it will be there for ten days.

Moving through Time on Broadway

DN: There’s a lot of buzz about Green Day’s American Idiot. The band won two Grammys forthe rock opera and a nomination for a new release,

12 Q 4 Christine Jones: Creating "Theater for One," Designing "American Idiot"

American Idiot at the Berkeley Rep

21st Century Breakdown, that also figures in the show. People are predicting a long run for this production, billed as the story of young Americans struggling to find meaning in a post 9/11 world. You’ve done two other Broadway musicals. What draws you to this one?

CJ: It’s largely the same team of people, (as Spring Awakening) and it even feels thematically like there’s a kind of connection between the two. Spring Awakening is the story of youth trying to find a voice in the late 1800s, then fast forward to 2002, not exactly the present but almost, and again a story of people trying to find a way within society and find a voice. The lead character is played by the same actor. We left him in 1871 and pick him up again. Working with the same lighting designer (Kevin Adams) and director (Michael Mayer) makes it feel like we’re creating the next chapter.

Also, relationships develop with a technical director and scene shops and props people-it’s great to continue working with people I have such a good time with.

DN: The show originated at the Berkeley Rep. Are you bringing the scenery in or doing something new in New York?

CJ: We did it there, and they were amazing. They did such a phenomenal job of creating the set we have brought that set with us. It’s at Hudson Scenic and its being tailored to fit into a different theater. I worked with them for The Green Bird and Spring Awakening, so it’s my third go-round with them.

DN: What is that set like?

CJ: It’s a unit set that has that has pieces that fly in and fly out and move within the set. It’s an extremely kinetic environment. The concepts of the room are active, even though the room doesn’t shift.

I got excited about doing theater in Montréal, after seeing a lot of the French companies that combine multimedia work and dance. This is one of the most physical productions I’ve done.

DN: How does that physicality affect the design?

CJ: All the furniture pieces are on wheels, and a scaffolding piece is on a rolling ladder. Performers rolling around on things and climbing interact in an extremely choreographed way with furniture elements in the room. We have people flying at a couple of different moments.

DN: What sort of changes has the design been going through since it left Berkeley?

CJ: Basically, we added a few scenic elements for particular numbers and made some adjustments in some of the video and lighting. It’s an organic process. We let ideas reveal themselves and then we know we need another element to come in.

Because this is a group of people who know each other, there’s a real flow of communication, and it’s a really generous process. It’s a big show, a challenging show. It doesn’t have a book, so we’re working extra hard to tell the story through design and staging.

Some people may say there’s not enough of a book, and some Green Day fans may say it’s too much like a musical, but nobody can deny the sheer force of energy that’s coming off the stage.

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Interested in how American Idiot got its start at the Berkeley Rep? The theater’s managing director, Susan Medak, told me about it here.

Davi Napoleon is a theater historian and journalist who writes widely about the arts. Schoolbiz, her column on theater training, ran for four years in TheaterWeek, and her features on design have been ...read more

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