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Cap T Interviews TREVOR creator Nick Jones

6 June 2016

Cap T Artistic Director Mark Pickell was lucky enough to get a chance to interview TREVOR playwright Nick Jones.   In the interview Nick Jones shared some insight into the origin of TREVOR as well as his current role as writer and producer for ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.
MP: Can you share with us a little about the origin of TREVOR?  

NJL I was instantly obsessed with the story of Travis the Chimp. It wasn’t the tragedy that grabbed my attention though, but the details inside the story. Here’s a woman who lost her family and now lives alone with an overgrown chimpanzee. They reportedly took baths together, drank wine from long stemmed glasses, and the chimp was even allowed to drive the car a few times…what?? Later on, some of these details have been questioned, but they jumpstarted my imagination at the time. It was a few years before I came up with a notion for how to put it all in a play. I was at Juilliard as a Playwriting fellow, and had just re-read Death of a Salesman and I suddenly saw how I could do it. I would just steal the structure of Death of a Salesman. Which is what I did, quite blatantly.

There are obviously a lot of parallels between TREVOR and the story of Travis the chimp who mauled a woman in Connecticut.  When writing the play how difficult was it to tell a story that was similar but was the story you wanted to tell? 

Well, I never wanted to tell that exact story. It’s too horribly sad and real for me to assume the responsibility of telling the official story, and I wanted to do something more, I guess, whimsical? Some of the details I originally planned to appropriate were discarded as I wrote the play, because they didn’t help me achieve the right effect. For instance, Sandra and Trevor/Travis bathing together, which I just mentioned, was originally how I planned to end the first act, but it ended up feeling too sexual and icky, which I thought would detract from the story of a chimp and a woman as a mother and son, or even friends. Another detail that I decided not to include was that the real Sandra had a daughter which she lost to a car accident, before her husband passed of cancer. This was a detail that I felt wouldn’t necessarily add to the experience of the play, except to add time with exposition, and possibly gild the lily of tragic circumstances. And finally, I made significant changes to the ending in order to end the story on a note I hoped was more noble and epic feeling, than merely gruesome, and to sidestep any events that would throw our sympathies entirely to one side or another (human or chimpanzee) in the final climax.

What are some of the changes that came to the script during the development process?

During the LA production, I revised the final epilogue scene. There’s always been a few critics who have bemoaned this scene, for essentially being a cool-down after the climax. It is, in a way, but that’s the point, and in following the lead of Arthur Miller, who followed the lead of the Greeks. I want a moment to reflect and meditate on the ideas of the play before people turn their phones on. But I had continued to adjust it to make the transition less jarring. Oh, also because there used to be a clothes line that needed to come out in the earlier version and that was always a huge pain in the ass and took too long.

What playwrights do you feel have been most influential to your playwriting style? Why?

I came to playwriting through writing for puppets in the circus, so if I tell you what playwrights influenced me it would give a false impression of where I come from. Obviously, Arthur Miller is THE influence that allowed me to write Trevor, but it’s all the playwrights of our time who I grew up with in New York that taught me how to write. So I have learned from Carly Mensch, Annie Baker, Jonathan Caren, Marco Ramirez, Liz Flahive, Rachel Shukert and Steven Levenson as much as anyone. Stylistically, I probably skew more absurd than most of this writers (except for Rachel Shukert). Over the years, I have tried to ground my absurdity so that it can also be leavened with pathos. I would say Trevor was born at the intersection of those influences: where Arthur Miller meets the circus.

What has surprised you the most about TREVOR in actual production?

Oh, I don’t know. That it works? At all?

You have enjoyed a lot of success contributing to writing and producing ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.  How did you start working on the successful series and how has that level of exposure changed the trajectory of your career?  

It’s changed everything. I can buy food now. I can write for a living, without supplementing my income gardening, waitering, dealing drugs, etc. Also, it’s continued my education as a writer, getting to work with a whole new set of brilliant minds and learn a new medium under the tutelege of a brilliant nurturing mentor (Jenji Kohan). It goes without saying that it’s helped me learn to write for a huge range of character voices, most of whom are women.

The play is full of ‘show biz’ talk that pokes fun at the entertainment industry.  As a performer and writer for both theatre and television what is your current level of cynicism of ‘the business’?

Well, I wrote Trevor before I worked in television. Honestly, I’m more optimistic about television than theater at this point. I think theater is in general super unambitious, and fearful. You can do whatever you want in television. My experience (at least with Netflix) has been one where creators are given an unparalleled degree of trust. They want artists with voices and vision who don’t think like them. Theater doesn’t feel like that to me. Theater seems to reward the “mirror” above all – audiences want to see themselves reflected, and are judging based on verisimilitude and “authenticity.” That’s important, but that’s not my main interest, or the thing I value in a piece of art. I more value originality, and the actual experience. Did I ENJOY IT, for instance? To often that feels of secondary concern. Anyhow, that wasn’t really your question. The point is I’m having fun in Hollywood.

What’s up next for you?

I have started on a new television show for Netflix called GLOW, about women’s wrestling in the 80s. I’m in heaven. I’ve also been developing a musical television series about prostitutes with Jenji Kohan and Rachel Shukert for Showtime.

What would you like audiences talking about when they leave the theatre after a performance of TREVOR?

Communication. The fact that we’re all in separate stories, that only intersect at moments. Those moments are magic. We should savor them.