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Laist Interview: Janet Dulin Jones and Paul Lazarus

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L to R: Janet Dulin Jones and her dog Warren, Charles Dickens, and Paul Lazarus.

Writer Janet Dulin Jones has been working on a screenplay, now a play, about the life of Charles Dickens since 1990. Director and co-writer Paul Lazarus has worked with her for the past 3 years. Now they've collaborated with the Antaeus Company, Los Angeles's classical theatre ensemble (Pera Palas, Mother Courage, Chekhov x 4) to bring Dickens to the stage. This weekend, for five performances only, Los Angeles audiences finally get a chance to sneak a look at this mysterious story - an tale of Dickens' own life and his investigations of murder, treachery, and skullduggery in 1830s London.

LAIST can't recommend this show highly enough. We first saw a shortened workshop version of the play over a year ago, and it had the audience floored. If you like murders, Brits, or Dickens, this is a unique theatrical opportunity - and you've only got five chances to see it. A Tale of Charles of Dickens will perform at the Skirball Cultural Center, October 26 through 28 at 8 pm, Saturday, October 29 at 3 pm and Sunday, October 30 at 4 pm. Tickets are $45-$20. (Yes, it's worth it!) Student discounts available. For reservations and information, call the L.A. Theatre Works Box Office at (310) 827-0889 or go to www.latw.org.

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If you can't make it to the Skirball, each performance is recorded to air on L. A Theatre Works' radio drama series, The Play’s The Thing, which you can hear every Saturday night from 10 pm to midnight on 89.3 KPCC, and is streamed live on the KPCC website (www.kpcc.org) for one week following each broadcast.

Laist spoke to Paul and Janet last week about Dickens, the writing process, Los Angeles theater, and whether there's room for a two-part play in an age of film.

Age and Occupation:
Janet: I am a writer and as any woman will tell you, I am not nearly old enough to brag about my age.

Paul: A theater director in LA never gives his age.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?

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Janet: I was born in Los Angeles in Hollywood. I moved to Glendale after college, then, as soon as I found a place, I lived in Hollywood right under the Hollywood sign. The next move was West Hollywood, then Beverly Hills, a bi-coastal stint between Beverly Hills and New York before I finally traveled as far west as I could without living on a house boat.

Paul: About 16 years. Venice for 2. Mount Washington for 14.

Why do you choose to live in Los Angeles?

Janet: I often think if I hadn’t been born in L.A., I would have ended up here or New York because of my love of film and theatre. To sit in the Palisades Park and watch the sunset or come out of an early morning yoga class on 2nd Street and see the fog lift is something I never tire of seeing. I love that I can head downtown (not at rush hour) or to Monterey Park for some of the best Chinese food this side of Shanghai, go ride a horse at the Equestrian Center or shop for Thai chili’s in east Hollywood – and still be in L.A.. Plus, being a native, I know all the short cuts. I can have my herb garden year round and grill in January if it’s not raining.

Paul: I like dogs and gardening. You can ‘t really do either very well in New York City.

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When did you first start working as writers and directors? How did you get started?

Janet: I started writing stories at age four and never stopped. My first mentor was Waldo Salt, one of the truly great screenwriters who ever worked in Hollywood. We met in a buffet line at a large dinner party when I was just out of college. He became a great friend and was my inspiration to pursue a career as a writer. In fact, the play is dedicated to him on the last page. I always put a thank you to him at the end of every script I write.

My first feature job came to me from the screenplay from which A Tale of Charles Dickens is adapted. A woman named Deb Newmeyer read my original script, Dickens & Crime and sent it to a producer friend. He loved it and hired me to adapt a book. Dickens and Crime was probably my seventh spec script. The producer, Jonathan Zimbert, had a huge impact on my life by giving me a break. His saying “Yes” put my life in a whole new direction.

Paul: Have been directing in the theater since I graduated college, a long time. Writing is a more recent occupation. Started directing at Dartmouth then was very lucky to get an appointment as an apprentice to the Royal Shakespeare Company in England. Got my start doing a lot of off-off-Broadway in New York. First professional job was directing a play called Gray Spades at the Actor’s Studio. The lead was played by the wonderful Michael Jeter who is tragically no longer with us.

When did you begin working with the Antaeus Company, and on what?

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Janet: Eleven years ago, Jeanie Hackett, now the co-artistic director of Antaeus, read "Dickens & Crime" and loved it. She insisted they do a table reading of the entire script: 187 pages. We had a great time. At the end of the reading everyone said I should adapt it for the stage. I thought it would be a huge task and wasn't sure how to even begin.

When I later decided it was time to make Dickens into a play, I was recovering from a very serious illness. I knew that I had to write something that meant the world to me. About two years earlier I had sent my friend, Paul Lazarus the screenplay to read. He read the script again. Paul and I met up for post-theatre dinner one night and Paul said, "Let's do it." We promised a commitment to work several times a week. We both said we knew people who would possibly like to be involved with us as we wrote the project and made phone calls.

We called the same person, Jeanie Hackett. Paul knew Jeanie from his theatre days and as I learned later, had taught some special master classes for Antaeus. Again, it seemed like synchronicity that we both went to the same person independently. Jeanie spoke to her board and Antaeus about how much she loved the underlying material and we had a workshop home. To hear your new pages read by such talented people week after week is a great tool for a writer. This company gave us a tremendous gift by saying "Yes."

How did you begin to write the Dickens Project, now titled A Tale of Charles Dickens? What was the inspiration? Was it always about Dickens' own life?

Janet: On May 1st 1990 I went on my first trip to London. I fell in love with the city. I felt like I had been there before and made my way around the streets with out a map much of the time. I wanted to visit Charles Dickens House. I think it was due to my fondness for Dickens from Junior High. My favorite English teacher, Mr. Townsend introduced me to Charles Dickens, and Dickens' work made me an avid reader for life.

I went by myself to Russell Square and found Dickens's house. I was amazed by the display of his works; his prolific output. I poured over the manuscripts, the illustrations, the pages from his sketches, essays. I left the house in a daze, "Who was this man? What made him Charles Dickens? Who was he as a young man?"

That was the birth of the idea that became Dickens & Crime. I knew I wanted to put Dickens in a Dickens type of mystery. As it worked out, the audience would find out about his life as he journeyed through the story. As Dickens traveled the streets of London, he would find himself in locations that had great meaning from his childhood. The locations would bring on the flashbacks. The characters in the fictional story would be the "real" people Dickens met, that would "inspire" some of his greatest characters. I sketched out the entire outline of the story on a paper place mat at a restaurant in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Then I started the research.

I read every novel - except "The Mystery of Edwin Drood," every essay, and all the Sketches he wrote under the pseudonym, Boz. Dickens's autobiography, "My Early Years" gave me a glimpse into the aspects of his youth that he would commit to paper. He never completed an autobiography.
It took me a year to write the first draft. It was 220 pages long. I revised it over the next six months down to 187 then 144 pages. That is the script that went out to the studios. You can imagine...no car chases, no ships to sink and the main character is English? I gave Paul the 187 page script to read and that is the draft we used.

Paul: I had been very inspired by the RSC's production of Nicholas Nickleby. Many actors in the original company of Nickleby had been the actors I had met in England as a young apprentice to the company. So, I had always had this idea to do an epic version of a classic American novel and have it last two nights in the theater but I could never find the right book.

I was telling my good friend, writer, Janet Jones about this quest to do an epic adaptation and she suggested I read her screenplay about Charles Dickens. I was reluctant because I didn't want to do an English piece that might be compared with Nicholas Nickleby but when I read Janet's screenplay I realized she was right, that it would make the basis of an interesting and very large-scale theater piece. Then, Antaeus agreed to help us workshop the project. What really attracted me to Janet's great idea was the sweep and scale of the story. I'm tired of an American theater where all we have is two-character, single set plays because of the difficult economics.

What is your favorite Dickens book, and why? Have you read all of them?

Janet: It is impossible to pick a "favorite." Each book has it's own purpose and personality, and they are such a joy to read, if pressed I would put the books in order of times read; Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, Great Expectations, David Copperfield and Dombey and Son are the novels I have read three times or more.

Paul: Haven't read all of them but now I'm working on it. Favorite is Oliver Twistmainly because as a kid, I played the title role in the musical. Pathetic, but true.

A Tale of Charles Dickens is a mystery. Were you inspired by The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, or was another one of Dickens' novels more central to the writing of the play?

Janet: Drood is one of three novels I have not read. No one novel was a primary source of inspiration. Dickens's own autobiographical material and historical facts about London in 1834 gave me the structure. The voices, dialogue and characters were inspired from; Dickens' own life and letters published in various biographies, Sketches by Boz, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit, The Pickwick Papers, Old Curiosity Shop, Nicholas Nickleby, A Christmas Carol, Tale of Two Cities and Hard Times.

Dickens' books have been adapted for stage and screen multiple times, and Dickens himself performed them aloud. Do you have a favorite adaptation? What about Polanski's Oliver Twist and the musical version of Oliver? Is Dickens better suited to film or stage?

Janet: Like Paul, my favorite film adaptations are the black and white masterpieces by George Cukor and David Lean, David Copperfield (1935 version) and Oliver Twist respectively. Paul found a riotously giddy version of "Pickwick Papers" that we watched during a marathon work session up at his family home in Copake, New York. I haven't been a huge fan of the more recent adaptations, as they always seem small and less enthralling than the earlier film adaptations. I admire Polanski as a filmmaker and I think he captured certain aspects of Dickens' work, but I wasn't as moved by his work as I was by Lean's. The musical is a classic.

Paul: I like the David Lean black and white movies (Great Expectations, Oliver Twist) and there's this really quirky film version of The Pickwick Papers adapted and directed by Noel Langley that's very engaging.

What did you originally envision the piece as, and how long did you think it would be? Was music always an element?

Janet: We loved the idea of a play in two evenings, a real event...and Dickens seemed like a subject worth the length. However, we wanted to shape the play to be our own, and we reworked the over 240 pages. We thought it would be five hours or longer.

Music is an integral part of everything I write and Paul has a huge background in musical theatre, so we originally used the source songs I referenced in the screenplay. Music is a writer's best friend. I always play music when I am working. Dickens was also a terrific performer. He sang at the drop of a hat. One of his favorite ditties was "The Dandy Dog Meats Man" a piece we had to cut when we cut down the length of the play. Jan Powell, the musical director for Antaeus, was a great help in finding melodies for the songs and unearthing some real gems that we have incorporated into the play. The Anteans are a very musical company and their voices give the show some wonderful, vibrant moments.

Paul: The play version was originally envisioned as two full evenings in the theater. And we did that as our first draft. The Antaeus Company performed it with great success. But, that version was really inspired and frankly, an homage to the RSC's Nicholas Nickleby production. Now, we're trying to tell one story: How the young Charles Dickens became a novelist, not so much put a Dickens' novel on stage. We always wanted music to be a part of the experience. And we started to find this great period stuff with the help of Jan Powell, our music director and the Antaeus Company.

Talk about the collaboration for the play as writers. How did you revise? How did you share the process of writing?

Janet: From the beginning we have worked several times a week sitting side-by-side. Sometimes I write up new takes on scenes at home then send them to Paul. We would meet and work on them together the next session. We have gone over ever comma, adverb and noun together for the past two years and ten months. It has passed quickly and seems quite natural that we should be doing this together. I usually write alone, but there is something about this material and turning it into a play that really took the two of us combining our knowledge, passion and love of the material and theatre to make this stage worthy. I would never have attempted to make this a play on my own. It is really impossible to explain the process. It continues to be a great experience for me as a writer and we have a lot of fun.

Paul: We had Janet's original screenplay to start out. Then, lots of discussion about turning it into a play, hard work, sitting at the computer together and slugging it out. Almost three years at this point. Lots of talk about structure and story. Janet's great at keeping it true to Dickens and has a wonderful knowledge of all things Dickensian. I try to keep my eye on economy, dramatic structure and making our piece as theatrically vivid as possible. We've been uniquely fortunate to have the Antaeus Company read us our new pages all the way along. But, the bottom line is a lot of time writing and rewriting.

What was the hardest thing about working on this piece?

Janet: What to cut. Like taking off a limb. There is delicious material sitting in files on our laptops.

Paul: Getting it shorter. Our first version was over six hours long.

About rehearsals: Janet, did you remain involved once the actors came in? And Paul, what was it like being a writer and director at the same time? Did rewrites ever happen in the rehearsal room?

Janet: This is the theatre; the writer is involved from beginning to end. I love that about the process. I am at every rehearsal and reading. This is a very full collaboration. We make notes during read-throughs. Actors have questions or suggestions, Paul and I sometimes make a suggestion on the spot, it all depends on the scene and what is up. Rewriting usually happens the next day or next writing session.

Paul: Rewrites happen all the time. Before rehearsal, during rehearsal, after rehearsal. It's not that difficult wearing both hats when you have a fantastic group of actors to write for and direct. However, even when I'm wearing the director's hat, I find myself keeping a sharp eye on the text.

Why did you decide to cut the piece in half and perform it on one night instead of two? Do you like this version better, or is the long version still the favorite?

Janet: We loved the idea of a play in two evenings, a real even and Dickens seemed like a subject worth the length. However, we wanted to shape the play to be our own, and we reworked the over 240 pages. Because we want the play to have a life in the world, making it a one-night event also made sense. While our one night is longer than a traditional play (we have 58 characters, a plot to solve and give birth to a great writer) we feel we earn our length.

Of course there are many, many things we love about the longer version, but I like to say that we will put it in the mini-series version. The story is really about Dickens own personal journey, the journey to find his voice and purpose, and we have served that story on every page.

Paul: There's no question that there is a fondness for the scope of the long version. You get the feeling of inhabiting a Dickens' novel - only Janet and I made it up. But....we want to see this play done in a lot of places and we don't want to be accused of imitating Nicholas Nickleby. For those reasons and more, we've decided to see what it would be like to focus the storytelling on the Charles Dickens character. We're trying to fictionally imagine and dramatize why and how the young journalist started writing his first novel. I find that the more work we do focusing the tale on Dickens himself, the more satisfied I'm feeling about the dramatic experience. Every day our piece is less like a novel and more like a play.

Is A Tale of Charles Dickens "finished," or are there more changes ahead? Would you like to see it done as a fully staged production, or do you think that radio is the best medium for the story?

Janet: Nothing is ever finished, you just stop re-writing at some point. The old and valid joke among writers is "Writing is just re-writing." We are not at that point, yet. There is more to plunge from Mr. Dickens's world. While we are thrilled to turn "A Tale of Charles Dickens" into a radio play especially for LATW, as I said above, this is a play for the stage and that is our goal.

Paul: After three years, I'm convinced that it will never be finished. We'll just stop rewriting at some point. Absolutely, we want to do it as a fully staged production. That's why we've put in all this effort. We're very grateful to LA Theatre Works for producing this radio version but we wrote this play to be performed in a theater. Hopefully, on a big outdoor stage with 20 actors and a small ensemble of musicians.

What do you think are some of the challenges and unique facets of the LA theatre scene? What is the audience for theatre in LA, especially classically themed, literary theatre such as Antaeus performs and you write?

Janet: Paul I know, has more experience with the problems of LA from a director's stand point, so I can only answer as a theatergoer. For me, a big problem in Los Angeles is traffic. To go downtown or Hollywood for a night of theatre, I have to plan my trip around rush hour and show time. (The two magically conflict.) I would love it if we had light rail on the west side that connected the west and east side of the city.

There is not a real theatre center in the city, there are pockets on Melrose, downtown and Venice, but that covers a huge area. And there seems to be a poor stepchild attitude about theatre in LA that does not exist in New York or London. It's a shame that such a large and colorful city can't create more synergy for live performance.

I think the audience is anyone who likes a good story and wonderful performances. There isn't a real category. If you start to label your audience in narrow terms you have just limited your own thinking. There are programs to get children and teens into the theatres and for companies like Antaeus to go into the community and take the theatre to the schools. The support for these programs is so hard to come by. But letting young people find ways to express themselves is a way to cure a lot of ills in our society.

Paul: I think that the LA theater scene is very rich and varied but I'm not a big fan of the Equity waiver system. There's a tendency to treat theater as a sideline, a thing you do in between TV and film work. Also, people talk about a "sold out" run in a 40 seat theater in LA. More than 40 - 99 people should be gathered to see a play. It's a great art form and deserves better. It breaks my heart when I go see some group's excellent effort and there are only a few more people in the audience than on stage. We need more mid-range theaters in LA (200-300 seats). The work that's being done is good. We need to build the LA theater audience and get people out to the theater in this town more often. And not just to see stars in showcases.

What's next? What other projects are coming up?

Janet: We will keep working on Dickens as it finds it's first home for a full production. I am working on an original film script for Diane Keaton, have just finished an adaptation for an independent feature and have a film about the romance between Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning getting ready for production next summer in England. I have a couple of new ideas for plays.

Paul: Continue to rewrite "A Tale of Charles Dickens" until we get our first full production. Directing "Jake in Progress" for ABC. Building a house and trying to have a baby with my wife, the lovely and talented choreographer, Kitty McNamee.

Will you ever leave Los Angeles? Is there something about LA that makes this work possible, or could it take place anywhere?

Janet: We have a great rent controlled apartment, I don't think we'll give it up. We tend to divide our time between here and staying for weeks at a time in New York. If I left, I think I'd always have a little place here, it's home. I can work anywhere, so that's not the reason I stay.

Paul: Don't plan on leaving soon (note "building a house" above) but the idea of living on a farm in Vermont or New Hampshire is very appealing.

How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?

Janet: Never. The auto industry and oil industry tore up the red car system that connected all of Los Angeles in the early 60's. So there is nothing to use on my side of town. If there were a subway system, I would use it. I really am over driving. I use the subway in New York all the time.

Paul: Rode the subway in New York everyday. Have never been on the MTA subway or light rail but I'd like to give it a try.

What are your favorite movies or TV shows that are based in LA?

Janet: The obvious suspects are Chinatown, L.A. Confidential, Sunset Boulevard and The Graduate. I also love Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice (with John Garfield), all the Chandler adaptations, Shampoo, Kiss Me Deadly, The Long Goodbye, The Player, and Crash. No TV show leaps out, even the police and legal dramas didn't really catch L.A. and Entourage is to inside and not really about the city.

Paul: Films: Anything by Buster Keaton (most of them, if not all, were shot in LA). Liked LA Confidential very much and Day of the Locust. Chinatown is an amazing movie. TV: I used to enjoy directing Melrose Place. Very trashy, but fun.

Best LA-themed book?

Janet: Elroy, Chandler, Cain, all murder stories, interesting. But they all caught an aspect of LA at that time.

Paul: Guns, Germs and Steel. Oops, that's not about LA. Big fan of architecture and love books about the LA modernists like Neutra, Quincy Jones, Schindler, et al.

In your opinion, what's the best alternate route to the 405?

Janet: Anything...don't want to give all my secrets away. But Sepulveda Blvd. can be a much calmer alternative unless there is a terrible accident in the pass, then don't even try.

Paul: Is there one that works? Somebody please tell me.

What's the best place to walk in LA?

Janet: My favorite walk is along the Palisades Park in Santa Monica all the way to the end, the around and down into the canyon. You can walk under PCH and come out on the sand. I love it. The Canyon is a wonderful place to explore. It's great because people are always out and you actually meet and talk to strangers.

Paul: Mt. Washington has amazing trails. Great for taking a walk with my two labs, Augie and Jesse.

It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?

Janet: Probably walking up Berkeley around the hill with Dexter, our toy poodle. Or, we've driven to 4th street to walk by the Palisades and get a gelato to share on our way home. Or at home, watching a dvd and not writing.

Paul: Usually still working in my home office or coming home from rehearsal.

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?

Janet: Definitely the 20's or 30's. I love the architecture of that era, the glamour of the time, the fashion, the art; everything about the period attracts me. My grandfather drove from Chicago to LA in 1931. He used to tell me stories about the orange groves, the fact that you could park your car right outside your hotel, the glamour of Hollywood Boulevard, he said he never wanted to live anywhere else after that trip. I think being in the hey-day of the film business when the studios were churning out films and all the great directors were cutting their teeth would be electric.

Paul: Preston Sturges owned a restaurant and he and his friends would put on plays in the downstairs room. I'd have liked to have been a part of that crowd. Or in the early part of the century when Keaton and Arbuckle were cranking out two-reelers. I have this romantic image of LA back then. Now's ok too.

What is the "center" of LA to you?

Janet: As a native I don't think of LA as a city with a center. There are a lot of little centers around neighbors. For me, the third street area around Santa Monica is our center. I know that geographically Beverly Hills is the center of the "city" area. The big arts center is of course downtown with the symphony hall, music center and museums, but it is not a central point for everyone who lives in our sprawl.

Paul: Downtown, MOCA, Disney Music Hall, Chinatown, Phillippes for a double-dipped sandwich. LA's moving East.

Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do you find it challenging to make new friends here?

Janet: That has never been an experience of mine. You get what you put out. I have a tremendous circle of friends; spanning new friends from the last few months, to friends from years ago.

Paul: It's the car problem. You have to make an appointment two months in advance just to get a group of friends together for lunch. That's my least favorite thing about LA, no social spontaneity and no late night places to eat, drink and gather.

What is the city's greatest secret?

Janet: There are many wonderful treats tucked away in LA...downtown you have the Bradbury Building, Chinatown and the train station which has a great restaurant inside. In Hollywood the Garden of Oz off Beachwood Canyon, the Beachwood Coffee shop, and Hollywood Cemetery which is becoming some type of scene-graveyard and the Hollyhock House. In Beverly Hills the Franklin Canyon Park. On the Westside the walks through the Santa Monica Canyon are superb and of course, the Apple Pan on Pico Boulevard is my favorite joint.

Paul: The aforementioned walking paths of Mount Washington. Slippery shrimp at Yang Chow in Chinatown. Don't tell anybody.