Friday, July 7, 2006
OU alumnus makes headlines in New York
By Rebecca Wyatt, OU Web Writer
Kenneth Jones’, CAS ‘86, love for the arts came at an early age. Too shy to be an actor, he pursued arts journalism, where he could still be a part of the arts and write — another one of his passions. His career choice has taken him from a freelance entertainment reporter for the Oakland Press, to chief theatre critic for The Detroit News, and now to New York where he writes for Playbill.com. In his free time he writes lyrics for musicals and plays.
“When I was in high school, I wanted to be a playwright, but was fearful I would starve, so I chose journalism with an aim for arts journalism as a happy medium,” said Jones. “I suppressed my wish to write plays and musicals. I regret I didn’t start creative writing sooner, but was programmed, I think, to not be a starving artist. I had no creative role models growing up.”
However, that all changed when Jones transferred to Oakland University in 1984 from Grand Valley State College, now Grand Valley State University. He served as writer and editor for The Oakland Sail, which is now known as The Oakland Post.
“I wanted to be close to a metropolitan area with major newspapers and I thought being at a Detroit area university would connect me to major daily newspapers where I could get internships and make contacts,” said Jones, who interned at the Oakland Press in 1985 and later freelanced for the paper, reporting and reviewing theatre, television, movies, concerts and restaurants.
Roberta Schwartz, a professor in the communication department, inspired Jones to be a better and more curious writer, which had a lasting impact on his career.
“She told me to look at stories through many lenses, not just through my past middle-class suburban lens,” said Jones, who was raised in Beverly Hills, Mich. “When my writing was good, she encouraged it. Criticism is valuable and important, but encouragement provides hope, which is vital fuel when you are young.”
There were many other professors who inspired him. Dolores Burdick, who taught cinema, encouraged his search for a deeper meaning in films. Yolanda Fleischer in the theatre program, taught Jones’ theatre history class, and is still a friend today.
“She encouraged my arts writing, took my goal of being a theatre critic seriously, and urged me to read and see as much theatre as possible,” said Jones.
Jones’ journalistic career began in Michigan and so did his playwriting career.
“There were only a handful of Michigan playwrights working in the Detroit area at the time, and still are, but no one would call Detroit a hotbed of new playwriting or new musical theatre writing. I had no clue whom to ask about collaborating on a show,” said Jones.
Long before the Internet made connecting easier, Jones posted an ad on a bulletin board at the University of Michigan in the late ‘80s looking for a composer, but he received no response. In the early ‘90s, while attending a musical at the Birmingham Theatre, Jones struck up a conversation with composer Roger Anderson. The two have collaborated over the years on a number of small projects and are hoping to work together on a Broadway-aimed show called “Flying Tigers.”
In 1985, Fleischer invited Jones to be on a panel judging one-act plays by OU students. She introduced Jones to fellow panelist and theatre critic for The Detroit News, Ed Hayman, who became Jones’ mentor and still supports him today. With Hayman’s help, Jones sold his first review to The News in 1989 and became interim theatre critic after Hayman left. He was named chief critic and reviewed and reported on theatre in the metro area from 1995-1998.
However, Jones had the desire to flex a different writing muscle and he packed his bags and headed for New York.
“This has been a great start to the second act of my life, and if it works out right, my income will come from my creative writing in the coming years,” said Jones.
After 13 years of reviewing theatre in Detroit, Jones landed a job with Playbill.com, a Web site devoted to theatre news, in 1998. Jones is able to stay close to the industry and continue writing while he explores playwriting, and he isn’t reviewing anymore, which he finds liberating.
“I like that we get to express the goals of the producers, writers, actors and other theatre practitioners by letting them explain their processes and hopes. Armed with that information, the reader decides if it’s a valuable piece of art,” said Jones.
Just weeks after moving to New York, Jones was accepted to the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, a free workshop that matches composers and lyricists and creates writing exercises for them, along with offering moderated criticism of new songs. At the workshop, Jones met several future collaborators and stayed with the program for three years. Tony Award winning composer Maury Yeston was among the workshop moderators and Jeff Marx and Robert Lopez, two of his classmates, recently received a Tony Award for “Avenue Q.”
At the workshop, Jones started “Voice of the City,” which had a reading at off-Broadway’s York Theatre Company in 2004 and will be part of a two-week workshop at the Human Race Theatre Company in Dayton, Ohio this October.
Outside of his work at Playbill.com, Jones is currently working on four musicals and a play. He is in discussions about working with Anderson on “Flying Tigers,” a musical set during World War II, which will have a book by William Luce.
Jones, now 41, is living his dream. He wishes he had listened to his inner voice earlier in life, and encourages students to do what they are passionate about.
“If you are a writer, you need to write. You need to do it every day. If you are a creative writer, you must shut out all of the negative voices—the voices of parents who fear you will starve, critics who say you are no good, friends who don’t understand your work. You have to write for you first, and hope that the echoes of your voice will reach ears that understand.”