Debbie Jones is a New York City artist who writes award-winning plays, has a production company with her three daughters (one being the magnificent improv coach, Samantha Jones, who was just recently featured on the L&W blog), has a collection of short stories coming out, wrote an independent film that is touring the festival circuits, and now writes for television. In short, she is what every artist imagines themselves to be at the height of creativity: an evolving human being.
L&W- When did you know you wanted to be doing what you are doing now?
Debbie Jones- I grew up in a farming community in New Jersey, and there was a big old hill in the back of the town called Turkey Hill. You could see Manhattan from there, and I knew I was coming here. I think when I was 18 it hit me, but all my life I was reminded by old chums who used to live on the block with me that I was putting on shows when I was five years old in Susan Peters’ garage. So I think it was always there but I didn’t face it until I went to college. I was very fortunate there because I ran into this old nun who was about 4’10” and close to 90 years old at the time, and I guess she recognized a fellow thespian because she gave me an enormous amount of attention and opportunities in the theater. I directed probably around 100 shows in my 20’s. That’s when it really started, I would say. That really got the ball rolling for me. I lived in the Lower East Side when I first arrived, where my daughter Samantha is doing a lot of her work.
L&W- How has the Lower East Side changed from the time you first arrived?
DJ- I’ll tell you, it’s almost the same as it was when I came here in terms of the neighborhood and culture. It has enormous freedom for artists. Artists can get lost there, and not have to play by all the rules. They can do all the pure work they want to do there. My daughter Samantha is now directing a one-woman show for her friend Penny, and it’s an extraordinary piece of work that perhaps might not be seen if it weren’t done on the Lower East Side. The community seems willing to take in and allow productions to happen. That has been alive for decades. It’s a place for people who want an opportunity and a chance, which we’re losing in New York City. You used to be able to come here and get an apartment and be comfortable enough while pursuing your art, and that really isn’t true anymore. But there is still some of that left on the Lower East Side, which is so important. There’s a lovely irony in the fact that all three of my daughters do some of their work there.
L&W- You have a production company called Dora Mae Productions with your daughters- when did you all decide to create that?
DJ- When my girls were little- my twins were in sixth grade and Samantha was in high school- it became a necessity because I really wanted to go out and do theater. They would work on the shows with me, working the door and props, and they did a good job in those years. So even though the actual production company wasn’t officially formed until 2002, we had years and years of experience working together, and now we’re full partners. We made our independent film, “The Last Christmas Party,” together, which my daughter Jeannine Jones and I wrote. We did “The Breezeway” together- a play I wrote- and we did another play I wrote called “Jeremy Rudge,” which was produced at The Mint Theater Company. Austin Pendleton and Becky Baker were in it, both of whom are brilliant actors, and I was so happy to have them. We worked on a television pilot that I directed called “6:03,” which is by Ato Assundoh. Samantha was in it along with Chuck Bunting. My other daughter, Rebecca Lally, and I collaborate on treatments for television together. Samantha and I predominantly work as director/actor. She was in “The Breezeway” and also “The Last Christmas Party.”
L&W- What projects are you working on now?
DJ- I’m putting out a collection of short stories right now. They were kind of in the shadow of my life. When I was raising my three daughters, I used to write from about 11:00 at night to about 3:00 in the morning, because that’s the only time I had. Sometimes a short story would slip out, and I realized at one point that I had a whole collection of them that had never been edited or taken care of. So that’s what I’m doing right now. We’re calling it “Tales of Wonder from the Garden State,” because they’re stories that I guess you could say have “earthy magic”- some have a Twilight Zone feel to them, and some are simply character studies. My palate is predominantly working-class people. That’s where I come from, and that’s who I write about. I would love to see “The Breezeway” on Broadway. We won some awards, and got it produced, and it would be great to see that happen. I directed “The Last Christmas Party” that is currently out on the circuit. It was a really good experience- we shot it in about two weeks and part of it was improvised and part of it was scripted. Samantha produced and acted in it, Jeannine co-wrote and co-edited and Rebecca was director of photography and co-editor. We just decided to take some of the shorter plays that Jeannine and I had written and incorporate them into this script, and then do a documentary of this party that we do every year. We couched the plays inside of the documentary, and it worked well.
L&W- When will “Tales of Wonder from the Garden State” be available?
DJ- We’re working to get agent interest, but we’re willing to publish it ourselves as well. I think when you start out in this profession you can have an idea about what you want, but I’ve gotten to a point where I understand my own work and I’ve shaken out all the notions of waiting for someone else to do it for me. I can get my work out on my own, if I can’t get it done in more formal or traditional ways.
L&W- That is very inspiring for many artists to be reminded of, and the fact that you do it so successfully is so admirable. What would you say is the most moving moment you’ve had so far in your artistic life?
DJ- Getting “The Breezeway” produced was very important to me. The play really works, and seeing audiences respond to it touches me a great deal. There’s a monologue in it that talks about the character’s brother Joey, and Samantha played that part. When she did that monologue, it really knocked me out. It moved me, because it’s a good monologue and she’s brilliant, but also because it’s about my brother Fred, essentially. In every work I always believe there is a character who is the artist, and that character was me at a certain age. The viewpoint was expressed in that character through my daughter’s efforts. That was probably the most moving moment for me.
L&W- Do you enjoy writing for film and television as much as you enjoy writing plays?
DJ- I think that the evolution from being mainly a playwright, into writing for film and now television has been a very good transition. My daughters encouraged me to make that transition and I’m pleased that I did because I used to think that writing for film meant giving up good writing. I thought it lacked language. But I see now that I can do great writing for film, and it translates so beautifully. So I’m happy about that.
Visit Dora Mae Productions