In 2008, Ars Nova, a small theater and development space on the far west side of Manhattan, staged a pirate/puppet rock musical called Jollyship the Whiz-Bang. The play was given a limited run, but was extended several times, revived in 2010's Under The Radar festival, and shot its co-creator, Nick Jones, into the peculiarly theater notoriety of someone who's been praised in The Times for "demented brilliance." First disclaimer: I was friendly with some Ars Nova people, and have a deep, weird love for puppets, so volunteered to spend a day helping paint puppets for Jollyship. Second disclaimer: I eventually saw Jollyship, I think, five times. Third disclaimer: I was working at an off-Broadway theater at the time, one that had no idea what to do with this sort of wonderful weirdness, but I ended up reading some of Nick's other plays. One was a musical about an architect that falls in love with his building (or maybe it was vice versa). There was also Straight-Up Vampire, a story of vampires and the American Revolution, set to the music of Paula Abdul.
Luckily, other institutions knew what to do with these plays. Lincoln Center produced Nick's play The Coward, in 2010, under the auspices of their new-plays-by-new-playwrights venture. Set in 18th-century England, the play follows the misadventures of a falsettoed coward unwisely committed to a duel. Next Tuesday, January 17th, Joe's Pub will host a staged reading of Nick's latest project, Grizzly Adams, a musical performed by bears which he's writing with the musician Corn Mo. We spoke by phone.
Jaime Green: So how are rehearsals going?
Nick Jones: We had our first read-through on Sunday with the whole cast and with songs, playing through everything. I had rewritten the second act based on a sort of notion I had. There’re a lot of historical figures who show up in the play, and I found out about another animal tamer who worked around the same time, who ended up inheriting Grizzly Adams’ animal menagerie when he died, and who also started out as a shoemaker, like him. There’s all this amazing, weird history that I can’t resist. So I wrote in this new character and a monkey. I was pretty convinced that I had ruined the second act—there’s only so much you can fit into one play—but it seemed to go really well.
How does doing a performance at Joe’s Pub fit into the development trajectory of a piece that’s still in process?
Well, that’s a thing I want to do more of. I worked through Jollyship for years, in all its different iterations, which I think ended up being really useful because we developed our language for the theater that we were making, and we became very good at knowing what would land show to show. It became very easy to create a show that would work. Whereas with some of the other play experiences I’ve had, you work for three weeks in a closed room and then you unveil it, and you’re like, let’s see what happens! And in some cases it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars—or, on a Broadway show, millions of dollars—and it's we’ve all just been in closed rooms, but let’s hope for the best. Why not just do a soft opening? No one’s really paying attention. It’s not going to create bad hype about the show. And I just like the idea of developing a show in front of audiences. It’s more fun, and the pressure we put on ourselves to get the show together for a performance in front of a paying audience is much greater than the last day of a three- to seven-day workshop or whatever. I mean, the show is done now. It’s gonna change, but we have a musical now. And we didn’t have one a few weeks ago.
You had a… not your traditional playwright coming-up experience, right? You were working in circus and puppetry and other… weirder, nonstandard theatrical things?
Yeah, yeah, but I mean, I decided I wanted to be a playwright when I was in college. I had a very loose definition of what that was. I was writing plays that were actually inspired by spoken word poetry and were more performance art than stories with narratives. So then when I came to the city I couldn’t for some years really figure out how to do what I had done in college, and it was during that time that I was working in the circus – helping out with the circus, rather. Raja [Azar, co-creator and bandleader of Jollyship] and we did some puppet shows that people liked, so that was just a foot-hold, of, oh, this is something we can do and develop, and so we did. But I didn't manage to get a non-Jollyship play up anywhere before 2007. I was doing more music and variety arts related things for my first five years in the city.
Were you seeing a lot of plays?
I was not seeing a lot of plays.
Do you see a lot of plays now?
Now I see a lot of plays. I see plays every week, and I think, what was I doing for five years? But no, no regrets.
I thought it was interesting, after your success with Jollyship, all the attention you got for this brilliant, strange thing, that I heard a little while later that you were at Juilliard. Was that about your craft as a writer, or was it a step toward productions and getting people to say, “oh, he’s the pirate puppet rock guy, but he’s at Juilliard”? Or was it about changing how you write?
I mean, why not go? It’s a great, prestigious program. That’s reason enough. I guess I did want to establish myself as someone who could do more than a puppet show. I always thought Jollyship was a particular project, not What I Did, so I did write a couple of things consciously trying to write straight plays. Now I’m sort of more at peace with myself.
If there’s any method to what I do, or the ideas that are appealing to me, I want to do shows that are based on ideas that would be easily be rejected, and it gives me great pride to try to succeed to create a show with bad ideas that transcend the stupidity of themselves. It’s not that formulated; I am actually just writing about the things I’m interested in, but I have very high standards for them, and I do want them to be appealing to as large a group of people as possible, but the seeds of the ideas have nothing to do with the themes or politics that are appealing to most mainstream older white audiences.
Speaking of themes or messages, how did you end up writing a musical about Grizzly Adams? Was it the interest in the historical story, or is it a parable? Are there themes in it, or were you just like, "Grizzly Adams was awesome and insane, I want to write a musical about him?"
Well, I was talking to Corn Mo, the composer, who I actually know from those days working with the circus people, because he’s a circus person—I've known him for ten years, and he’s a great, great musician and I think in a lot of ways he’s a great inspiration to me (and Jollyship—I think he basically taught Raja to play the accordion) and we had been talking about Grizzly Adams. I don’t remember what it started with. I think originally it was going to be a story about Grizzly Adams working for Barnum, and Barnum accidentally opens up a portal to hell and with some ancient relic, and some children who were there for a children's performance get sucked into hell, and Barnum tells Grizzly Adams to go into hell after the children, and there was this whole descent-into-the-underworld thing, with Grizzly Adams wrestling demons. I think that was the paragraph that was the seed of it. But then I started reading about Grizzly Adams, and his life is so insane, the actual facts of his life are much crazier than that.
One thing that was very useful and nice about Jollyship was that the band had a narrative double function as the crew of the ship. There was a nice metaphor there. When the crew was mutinying you also sort of realized that it was a band not getting along. In a very relatable, fantastical way, it brought it down to earth. And with this, the idea that we came upon was that Grizzly Adams could have a band of bears, similarly. And we had a model to work from, with the Country Bear Jamboree show, in Disneyland, which is a bunch of animatronic bears that play country music. I think it’s always nice to have a form to subvert. It’s a way to make the thing seem familiar, yet also exciting at the same time, because you realize that it’s not what it pretends to be.
Anyway, the idea is that it’s like the Country Bear Jamboree, except these bears, in the final incarnation, are gonna look like real, realistic grizzly bears, and they’re not going to speak, and they’re going to go out of control a lot, during the musical numbers. Almost right from the start, the bears go out of control and are attacking Grizzly Adams.
My last question was going to be about bears, because The Awl is kind of obsessed with bears. Any final thoughts on bears?
Well, I’ll give you an anecdote that I love. When Grizzly Adams showed up in New York City, he rode down the Bowery on the backs of his bears.
I wanted all of the musicians in the show to have beards, but I don't think that’s going to happen. But there are going to be a lot of beards on stage.
Interview condensed, edited and lightly reordered.
Jaime Green hopes you'll still take her seriously with as much as she loves puppets.