Syl Jones is the author of 60-plus plays, including Black No More, produced by the Guthrie Theater and Arena Stage and winner of the Kennedy Center Award for Best New Play of 1998. He is the only playwright to win the Mixed Blood Theater Versus America and the Penumbra Theater Cornerstone awards in the same year. He began his career as a journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio at the age of 14. In 1980, his historic interview with physicist William B. Shockley appeared in Playboy and has since been anthologized in The Best of The Playboy Interviews, Vol. II. Mr. Jones writes an editorial column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and is the author of Rescuing Little Roundhead: A Childhood In Stories, published by Milkweed Editions in 1996. Playscripts, Inc. publishes two collections from Mixed Blood Theatre that contain Mr. Jones's plays Sacrament and Wooden You?.
What inspires you to write (plays)?
I believe that theater has the ability to enchant, to entertain and to teach audiences, and so I write because of the impact I think a good/great play can have on people. The world is starved for insight into the human condition. What we as playwright's do (without actually talking about it) is create situations that allow audiences to gain an understanding of what it means to be human. To me, the greatest drama and the greatest comedy have one thing in common: both show characters attempting to soar beyond the gravity that keeps us rooted to the earth. Whether they succeed or fail -- and how they do so -- determines the level of enjoyment an audience receives from a play. Finally, I write because I truly love it.
Who helped you along the way, as far as your playwriting career?
I learned to write plays by reading plays, especially Shakespeare, Shaw, Brecht, LeRoi Jones, Ed Bullins, and a host of others. I learned about theater as literature before I learned about it as a performance art. I started writing at the age of 14 and had a one-act play produced in high school. At the time, I set a broad goal for myself of writing plays as one form of communication that I would master. I never set out to be just a playwright. Life is too uncertain to set such narrow goals. Then, I had my first play produced professionally in 1972 and since then I've been writing plays for many different venues and audiences. I would not be honest if I ignore the fact that in my lifetime as a playwright I have received many grants, commissions, and awards that contributed to my financial success, which is no small thing in the realm of theater.
What play are you most proud of and why?
I would have to say Black No More which won the Kennedy Center New Play Award. It is an adaptation of an obscure novel but the comic twists and turns in that script were primarily my own and they really moved audiences. It is the play most people remember. But I am also proud of Kirby, Cincinnati Man and Shine! But I'm also working on two new scripts that may be the best I've ever done. We will see!
What advice would you give up and coming playwrights?
My advice is to write constantly and read, too. Storytelling is an art that can be mastered in the doing of it and not by thinking about it. Also, insist on finding a collaborator who is willing to work with you on producing your work. No one is successful alone. We all need partners who believe in us and are eager to help us.
Were you involved in theatre in high school or college?
Yes, I actually thought I was destined to be an actor. I had many great roles in high school and college. But I learned that despite being a reasonably good actor, I often came away from a show saying to myself, "I wish I had written that." When those feelings became strong enough, I began to write steadily and never stopped.