With Tongue of a Bird, Cherry Jones is trying to overcome her fear of flying. For someone who's been flying high on the wings of an unparalleled career on the American stage for the past five years, she's long overdue.
But Jones has a bit of a control issue. "I like being on the ground on my bicycle," she admitted. Perhaps not the best fit for Maxine, the search-and-rescue pilot Jones is portraying in Ellen McLaughlin's dark drama currently playing at the Mark Taper Forum. But this isn't the first time McLaughlin has forced the actress to confront her fear of flying.
When McLaughlin, who is herself better known as an actress than a playwright, had to leave the role of the Angel in Tony Kushner's Angels in America on Broadway, Jones was selected as her replacement, a part which required her to be flown 30 feet above the stage through much of the show.
"Ellen has said that she was never happier in her life than when she was up there swooping around," said Jones. "But for me, I never got comfortable enough with the harness and everything to feel confident with my flips. I like being on the ground."
Of course, it's Jones' ability to stay grounded that makes her the perfect choice for the role of Maxine, as well as those of Catherine Sloper, Hannah Jelkes, Mabel Bigelow, Liz Morden, and all the other memorable roles she's played to critical acclaim in recent years on Broadway and beyond, making her one of the only performers in America whose name can actually open a show on the Great White Way (and she's never had a major role in a feature film).
The reason for this is that Jones is simply the best‹and simply is the right word. Whether transforming from a 90-year-old women to an eight-year-old girl before the audience's eyes in Pride's Crossing or conveying the shift from cowed innocent to ruthless conqueror in The Heiress, Jones chooses the simplest, most direct way to achieve her goals, physically and emotionally. And the key to great acting on stage has always been simplicity. It's what makes Jones unique today among actors of her generation‹her purely theatrical mind.
Whether this simplicity in style is due to her training, first at Carnegie-Mellon, then as a founding member of the American Repertory Theatre, or from her upbringing in rural Paris, Tenn.‹Jones' hometown, which boasts itself as the birthplace of the actress, the site of the World's Biggest Fish Fry, and little else‹is hard to say. Jones is the type of person who would just as soon quote her own mother as Andrei Serban. Said Jones, discussing the constraints of blocking: "It's what my mother always used to say about the Methodist Church: "Structure gives you freedom. It doesn't rob you of freedom.'"
One way or the other, whether by the nature of her upbringing or the nurture of her early years onstage, the fact remains that today Jones is at the height of her craft, and riding a crest of works by great American writers. Jones sat down with Back Stage West during previews of Tongue of a Bird to discuss theatre's simple things‹rehearsal, training, character, movement, and fear.
Back Stage West: It's widely accepted among young actors today that it's unreasonable to expect to make a living in the theatre. Is this true?
Cherry Jones: Of course [laughs]. No, really the answer is yes and no. I have gotten by very nicely in the theatre by living quite simply‹riding a bicycle instead of taking a cab or subways and not having children. But even with my low expense level, there is the issue of retirement, and that's when you realize you've got to occasionally land a small film role or do a voiceover or something to subsidize your theatre living‹that is, if you want to have anything to retire on. Because an Equity pension just ain't going to cut it. You can get by for many years doing just theatre, but there comes a point in your life when you realize subsidy is mandatory. If you have children, that comes a lot sooner.
As far as making a living goes, I'll tell you the thing that frustrates me the most right now for young actors: Graduate programs now in this country seem to be the best way for a young actor to get a calling card into this profession. That's where the agents go to find their talent, and we all know that you have to have an agent in this profession. So these kids are paying $30,000 a year for grad school, which means they come out with debt, unless they're landed gentry, in excess of $100,000. And there is no way you are ever going to be able to retire that loan in the theatre. So these are people going to theatre programs in schools that then force them to run to Hollywood and pray they get a sitcom. There's something very wrong about that. And I don't know what has to happen in restructuring this.
Where I have the greatest trouble with graduate programs is that they've gotten so damn greedy. They take so many kids. You'll see first year classes of 40 or 50 kids, and that's a sin, because there's no way that all of those students are going to have a profession in the theatre. You're robbing them blind. I don't mean to start off so negatively, but it's something that really bothers me.
Then you have regional theatres that have started their own conservatories to supplement the casts, basically to have more spear carriers on stage. So these kids are paying $30,000 a year to carry a spear at a quote-unquote conservatory. At American Repertory Theatre as a 23-year-old, I was a member of the company. I graduated from Carnegie-Mellon, I came to New York, I scooped ice cream, I somehow managed to get a job at Brooklyn Academy of Music Theatre Company, and from there I went to the ART in Boston. And I was paid to work. Now a 23-year-old at ART is paying $30,000 a year just to be on that stage. I got my training with my senior peers, learning from them onstage as a full-fledged member of the company‹an apprentice to my craft, certainly, but as a company member. Because it's a guild; acting is a guild.
It's so hard for young people today, because by the time they're allowed to start acting and getting paid for it, they're 28 or 29 years old. I don't know what has to change, but something does. I keep saying to kids in these graduate programs, "Those of you who are rich, take all your friends and start your own company. Just take the money you pay to Columbia or wherever and go start your own company. Do daring, brave work."
BSW: Obviously, certain things can be frustrating about having to live simply, but aren't there positives also, in terms of practicing your craft?
Jones: Oh, it's incredible. I always tell younger actors to live as simply as you can, because then artistically you are free as the breeze. You're never beholden to your rent, never beholden to your car payments, never beholden to anything so that you have to take that schlocky whatever-it-is that you're embarrassed to even be associated with. Instead, you can take something that's daring and strange and challenging and pays $200 a week.
BSW: It's interesting to see these two directors‹Richard Jones (Titanic) and Lisa Peterson (Tongue of a Bird) with productions currently at the Music Center. These are two artists who 10 years ago were considered "avant-garde," outside the mainstream. This year also saw commercial successes for Paula Vogel and Andrei Serban, two avant-garde artists with whom you also have a history. Have things opened up more for radical work in formerly conservative houses, or is it merely a cycle?
Jones: It's a cycle. Some of the theatre that was being done in the '70s, some of the avant-garde work, became the work that was being done for and appreciated by a larger audience in the '80s. It's cyclical. It's also just the coming of age of this group of theatre professionals who've been trained in regional theatre, where audiences are much more enlightened and well-educated.
Nevertheless, Broadway is in a much more exciting place now in terms of the legitimate stage. For many years, it was offering up a lot of pabulum‹entertaining pabulum, but pabulum nonetheless. But the regional theatres, consistently, for the last 30 years, have been challenging their audiences and educating their audiences to see the stuff of Lisa and Ellen McLaughlin and Michael Greif and Tony Kushner and all of these people who are pushing things to the limit. These are Yukon days we are experiencing now. And hopefully with the NEA drying up for regional theatres, the corporate sponsorship and private sponsorship will remain strong even when the market starts to fall. Because if that dries up, well... I don't think theatre will ever die in America, but it will die as a professional stage for perhaps many years or decades‹until again, it is reborn out of the flames.
BSW: Did your training at Carnegie-Mellon mesh with your work at the American Repertory Theatre?
Jones: When I was at Carnegie-Mellon, there were four different acting heads the four years I was there. It was in turmoil, I think you could say. Every year, a new regime would march in and tell you that they were the one way, the only way, the true way. Which you can imagine created some rather jaded seniors by my fourth year. We'd gotten good at putting them through the mill, actually, I'm embarrassed to say.
So we were constantly being taught very different styles and techniques, but through all of that we had a consistent movement program that was directed by a man named Jewel Walker. It was imperative to my training to have had Jewel for those four years. I remember these exercises that we would drill over and over and over, and I would think, What possible good will this ever be to me in the theatre? And I remember older, wiser seniors saying, "Years from now, you'll know what this was all about." And, to put it quite simply, it was about the power of the completed movement‹the importance of telling the story effortlessly through your body.
Without going to extremes, it is possible to tell almost any story through your body. And then have brilliant language put on top of that. To finish a movement gives an actor such grace and power onstage and eloquence with their body. That's something I realized I got very strongly from Jewel.
When I came to the ART, the mentor there was Andrei Serban. That's who I learned the most from. He's astounding and infuriating and the devil himself, but he's brilliant at challenging the eye and the mind and the soul and one's sexuality and one's emotional state. I mean, he just knows how to push all triggers at once. He's like having a drug in your veins. He is so committed to whatever the project is that you and everyone around you give their all, even when you want to murder him. You're giving everything you've got and that kind of focus and energy does something to the creative juices. I've been in stagnant, slow, stale rehearsals where everyone just sits around and talks‹nothing gets stirred up, nothing gets done. But if you've got a madman with vision leading you into a rehearsal process, the hairs on the back of your neck are erect from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day. You're doing interesting work because the focus is so tremendous.
I sometimes think that because I've worked with so many strong directors, I'm too dependent on them. I'm able to take their vision and expand on that, but I sometimes find that when I'm with directors who don't have a lot of really strong, brilliant ideas, I'm not as helpful to them as I should be. I'm trying to work on that.
BSW: After ART, how did you apply your two phases of study to the professional world?
Jones: It was funny, because I'd done so much classical work at the ART‹all that tremendous language: Shakespeare and Shaw, Chekhov and Brecht, the big guys, the big guns. But when I came back to New York, I found myself doing almost exclusively contemporary work. I didn't quite know how to fit in. I didn't know how you made that theatrical. I felt that I needed to do contemporary work, because I realized that I had somehow overlooked that in my training.
And then I met Paula Vogel. On the page, Paula's lines are the most pedestrian things you've ever read in your entire life; it's the structure and the story that is so haunting and remarkable and theatrical. Suddenly I had a wonderful partner to learn from. Here was this pedestrian language that I had to learn to wrangle with, and yet she gave you wings structurally. So it was interesting finding who I was going to learn from in the contemporary world.
BSW: It seems that recently women writing about women have had more success than ever before in the theatre, and you've worked with most of them‹Vogel, Tina Howe, Timberlake Wertenbaker. And today you have a production like Tongue of a Bird, which has all women, production- and performance-wise. Is this as an encouraging trend?
Jones: Paula's off and running. She's got the Pulitzer, she's had a big commercial success Off-Broadway with How I Learned to Drive. Tina is a funny one: Pride's Crossing was quite successful, when you look back at the reviews for it. Unfortunately, Ben Brantley of the Times wasn't very fond of the play, but other critics just adored it and appreciated what she had done. Yet we couldn't seem to move it, partly because there wasn't a theatre to be had on Broadway last season at this time.
Things are evening out for women, but what's frustrating is that there are so many English imports now. As an American actor, I don't mean to sound bitter, I know they're good‹the plays are good and the productions are good‹but we've got some good ones here, too, and I wish that producers on Broadway would start to really beat the bushes and to give the American theatre a little more attention than they seem to, because there's some great American theatre out there now that's being neglected.
Back Stage West: Ellen McLaughlin talked about your character Maxine's dual impulses to isolate herself and to connect with the world. Is that something you relate to as an actress?
Jones: To play an emotionally isolated character like Maxine, I keep thinking of her as sort of a guy gal. I keep thinking of her as a World War II vet, like my friends' daddies that I grew up with‹the strong, silent father type who wouldn't talk about the battles. Maxine's sort of that way, as a woman. She's sort of a guy gal. And I don't mean by that that she's butch or even gay. I think of her as... not asexual, but it's just not happened for her, because she's so shut down.
Diane Venora's character is dealing with this tremendous loss [her child is missing and presumed dead]. And without that plot development, Maxine could not emerge from her years of darkness, without that need to care for that other person. She's not particularly good at it, but it pulls her out enough that she must try to do all she can for this other human being. These are both two pretty shut down, isolated women.
That's the other thing about this play that I respect so much. These are very strong women who are survivors and yet they are incredibly flawed. Ellen has not turned them into feminine icons. They are flawed human beings, flawed by virtue of the hand that fate has dealt them. The things that make us all flawed.
On the page, this is such a magnificent play. It's a poem. And the challenge is to try to dramatize the poem. Ellen's given us a great structure, but it's still an unbelievable challenge to try to figure out how to make it dramatically active. But I haven't read language like this ever, certainly not in this century. It's so bold.
It's the darkest, most disturbing play I've ever worked on in my life. The responsibility to do it honestly and as purely as you can is greater with this play than anything I've ever worked on. The play I think is a meditation on loss. Not just natural loss, but cataclysmic, catastrophic loss‹through war, through suicide, through violent abductions‹and how you continue... not just continue, but continue as much as a full person as is possible.
There are people in that audience who have lost a child to suicide, who will have lost a mother because someone broke in and banged her on the head‹people who know this stuff that I as the actor trying to portray it do not know. And it makes you feel, when you're being less than honest, like such a fraud. It's almost evil to take an audience to such a dark place unless you can take them there honestly and, at the end of the evening, offer them some kind of release or resolution. Ellen is able to do that in the play. And I hope we are able to do that in the production.
But it's terrifying to go out there every night, because the stakes are so high. I feel that with every play, but never as strongly as I have with this. We're losing a lot of people every night. We had our third preview last night, and we're way behind where we need to be in the production itself, technically, and for those of us onstage, with our work. We just have so much to do yet. But Lisa's great because she never gives up. She's so optimistic. I don't blame the people who leave, and I thank God for the people who stay.
BSW: Maxine's journey is very different from yours. Is there a role you've played in which you felt very similar to the character? And does that make it easier or more difficult?
Jones: I don't think there's anybody I've played that's close to me. I always feel so dull and normal and boring in my own life, and everybody I play is at such an interesting crossroads in their life. It's all so exaggerated, too, what my characters are going through‹either I have a wretched, horrible, mean old bad dad [The Heiress] or a brother who's just died of AIDS [The Baltimore Waltz].
Hannah Jelkes [from Night of the Iguana] was one of the hardest roles for me, because when you play someone who's so much more enlightened than yourself, you think they have to act differently and have a different voice and everything, because you think you couldn't possibly pull it off as you. So I built her a little home: I built her a physical home with my body that I tried to make as authentic as I thought she deserved, and then I hoped that she would move in. And I feel that eventually she did.
BSW: What's something new that you've had to contend with in this production that you've never had to in any previous show?
Jones: Overcoming the relentlessness of the tragedy of this play to be able to also play the comedy. I'm so beaten down by the storyline of this play and by what the circumstances are at the top of the show that I cannot rise above the tragedy to play the more normal scenes, of which there are a few.
I have a surprisingly literal mind for somebody in the arts. You're not supposed to be so literal. I don't know if it's my good Southern upbringing, but I'm linear and literal. And it's something that I've struggled with as an actor to let go of. I think that's what makes me an interesting heroine, because heroines are like an arrow shot out of a bow. They don't necessarily know where they're going or what even the goal is. But at the top of the evening, they are shot from the cannon, and they just have to blow through every obstacle that the play gives them. And it's kind of a lonely course, because everyone else onstage is, more often than not, an embodiment of those obstacles. The literalness sometimes helps, but it can be a hindrance when I need to be more human and realize that even in tragedy, there is tremendous laughter. BSW