Jara Jones Interview: Ghost on A Stick in New York

Full disclosure: Jara Jones has been one of my best friends for over a decade. 

Fuller disclosure: Jara was one of my roommates during the time period that his one-man show roughly portrays. I also worked at the haunted attraction he depicts alongside him. 

Fullest disclosure: Having been around actors, writers, artists, etc. for most of my life, I tend to think I know some talented folks. Jara makes a strong case for being the most talented. 

Jara's aforementioned one-man show, Ghost on A Stick, which he wrote and is starring in, premieres next month in New York at he Gene Frankel Theatre as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity. So, I interviewed him about it. 

Photography by Mark Kinch
BL: So, what is this show, and why in the hell should we see it? 
JJ: This show is a solo horror-drama about my semi-autobiographical experiences while working on a haunted ship in my twenties. 

It's about a brutish man making fear for a living who stumbles into a deep abiding love for the first time, and what happens when he loses control. 

 You should definitely see it because it's the perfect blend of a love story and a horror story. A terror borne from the small tragedies we shoulder day following day. 

What did you do on this haunted ship? 
I performed in a thirty five minute interactive attraction recreating ghost sightings and historical events on the ship. 

At what point do you get a sense that this is a one-man show waiting to be performed? 
Around 2002. I was filled with a great deal of guilt for some of the terrible things I did while working the job featured in the show. Started writing to make sense of that behavior, that mental illness. Wrote it off and on for years, and as my personal life fell apart in my late twenties, I began incorporating that into the show as well. 

Wasn't until I moved to New York and showed the script to a friend that I seriously considered mounting the show. I've always been a late bloomer, and I've got a habit of writing projects and sitting on them out of doubt and fear. 

Was there any difficulty in altering the material to make it play better on stage while staying true to the source material, being your life of course? 
There was a huge difficulty at first when I started writing the show. I was trying to make it super artsy and one hundred percent true, with poems added to the piece. But I started to re-imagine it in a more theatrical sense. 

I enjoy watching solo shows where there's a clear sense why someone is driven to speak. With this version, a man is handcuffed to a table in an empty room. He is beaten and bloody. And the audience immediately starts to wonder: who is he and why did he get there and why is he so savage? 

Finally, I gave myself permission to add more fictional elements to the show when they made sense thematically. One of the weakest defenses a writer can make is the retort "but it really happened!" I'll take compelling fiction over clumsy truth any day. 

There's a bunch of years between when the first words of your show will be spoken on stage and when they were written and even more years from when they were lived. How has that time changed your perspective on the story? Was the amount of time necessary to separate yourself from the material? 
The time apart on each level was absolutely necessary. Plot points you think are vital and urgent in time become unneeded. My greatest change in perspective in writing the story was in narrowing its focus. Prior drafts had a kitchen sink feel to them. As I aged, I trusted myself more to use less details to guide the narrative. 

How is it working with a director on something that is so close to you and personal? What's the process of establishing that trust between you and the director? 
Working with Megan Jeannette Smith (the director) has been a warm, engaging process. I've privately shared with her what's real and what's heightened reality within the show. I think what makes our dynamic work is total, unabashed honesty in the rehearsal room. If she's not clear on a moment I've written or an acting choice I'm making, she'll let me know immediately. 

And, the best part about working with a fertile mind like hers is discovering all these overtones and elements to the show I hadn't even considered when first writing it. 

Photography by Mark Kinch
Have there been any surprises in the material once you got it, started rehearsing it, and played around with it?
There was one key moment, which I won't spoil, that I originally wrote near the end of the show. Megan came back to me during pre-production and said: "Why don't we do this at the top?" Her idea was that, if this guy pulls off something so audacious and bloody at the beginning of the piece, than he could say anything and it would be infused with such restrained, palpable terror. It was a stroke of genius! 

What are the acting challenges of playing yourself, or at least a version of yourself? 
The hardest part is not being able to hide. I'm a character actor. I play weird people. I do an Off-Broadway show once a week and I play seven people in 45 minutes. Lions and beavers and fawns and such. But this is just me, saying some terrible, embarrassing, extremely vulnerable thoughts. And that's been tough. Especially since I made sure to capture the voice of my twenties, this brash, cocky, selfish guy. 

Many of the thoughts and actions he does in this show I find abhorrent today. But I was guilty of many of them, and part of the challenge in doing a memory play of sorts is reconnecting with the valid reasons why I made those choices over a decade ago. 

Is there any concern for you about the reaction of any of the real people dramatized in your show on how they were portrayed? 
At first, I was worried about how the real-life individuals would react to the way they were dramatized. But, for the most part, I sent them prior drafts of the script, and took pains to change slight details as well. The saving grace is that no one comes off looking well in the show, including me, which is the point. Every single character in GHOST ON A STICK is dealing with unchecked mental illness in their own way, and the play's a cautionary tale about what can happen when one doesn't seek treatment or care. 

Is there a sense of this show being proof that you've lived to tell the tale of a particular period in your life? 
In some ways, yeah. I'm a hell of a lot more sad, but by no means wiser. Finally took up the courage to take myself more seriously as an artist. Moved to NY two years ago, and have been working steadily since. And, despite some of the terrible conditions and mental abuse which occurred during that time, I also met and further developed friendships with a handful of people whom I still cherish to this day. No small part of that comes from a shared survivor's experience. 

So, ghosts. Are they real? 
Me at 22 (before working the job in the show): No way! That's stupid and absurd. 

Me while working the job in the show: There are some strange, unholy things inside this ship. I don't know what they are, but I don't like them. 

Me now: They might be the existence of ghosts, but I doubt it. The human brain is far too frantic about trying to make sense out of partial stimuli for there really to be ghosts and not just a trick of your senses. 

Can you share a story from this job your show is based on that didn't make it to the final script? 
Here's a story that was cut which occurred during the time period of the show. There's talk about the elevators, and how dangerous they were in the attraction. A rumor was tossed around that, in an effort to rush the inspection of these new elevators in time for opening day, the contractors sent the elevator inspector a gift. A prostitute. Which worked, as the elevators were approved despite former statements to the contrary.

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Ghost on A Stick, written and performed by Jara Jones, plays from June 8th - June 22nd at the Gene Frankel Theatre in New York City. Click here for show and ticket info.

Visit www.ghostonastick.net for more info (coming soon!).

For more information on the show, visit the show's Facebook page or follow it on Twitter

Finally, visit Jara's personal blog, http://21stcenturynonsense.blogspot.com 

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