The most striking quality about O-Lan Jones is her supreme self-confidence.
"It had to come from my mom," says the spirited actress-singer-composer who is producing the quartet of modern operas "String of Pearls," currently playing to raves at the Met Theatre. "That was her huge gift to me. I had it on good authority that I could do anything. And her training was so thorough that I've never questioned it. I've had nasty reviews, sure. But that was her other gift: [teaching me] the relative unimportance of outside opinions."
It was not, she admits, the most conventional of childhoods. When Jones was 15, her English-born mother, Scarlett Dark, gathered her and her 4-year-old sister Krissy and trotted off to New York. That social fearlessness was clearly passed on to Jones: At 18 she married icon-in-the-making Sam Shepard; at 19 she gave birth to their son, Jesse (now 25).
"I come from this strange matriarchy of wild, independent women who kind of jobbed in men and had kids," she notes gaily. "We grew up amazingly poor, in charming ghettos across the nation. Didn't go to high school. Junior high? Most of it. But I had a lot of experience in all the things I do. My mother is this great woman who knows no boundaries. It turns out to be a big advantage when you're growing up, to have someone with a conscience, amazing intelligence and no respect for artificial rules."
Or conventional art. "I've acted in something like 80 plays, and I think two of them were not new plays," says Jones, whose local stage work includes many Shepard plays. "I've always gathered around me people who have experimental natures, because I'm truly not interested in trying to re-create what someone else did."
"Pearls" is the latest effort of her 10-year-old production company, Overtone Industries.
"We [the creators of the operas] experimented a long time, putting music and acting together," explains Jones, who wrote music for one of the pieces. "The form of the musical is always so iffy, 'cause there's that horrible moment when a person goes from talking--then their eyes glaze over and they start to sing. So if you're singing from the get-go, you don't have that horrible moment. Also, if you're putting words and music together, it gives you access to a different kind of language that's legitimate to sing: that heightened area where poetry and big themes live."
The "Pearls" quartet, all based on myths, includes J. Raoul Brody and Merle Kessler's "Goddess of the Hunt," Beth Custer and John Pappas' "Modesto," Jones and Tim Schmolder's "Herakles and Hydra," and Richard Marriott and Kathleen Cramer's "Happy Hour Becomes Electra."
"People come with reservations," Jones allows. "But what they consistently say [afterward] is how thrilled they are, shocked to be in a situation with real live naked voices right there, and real themes. Especially here in Hollywood, the only feeling you usually get from art is sentiment; it hardly ever goes any deeper. That's why opera is a great form: because you can go straight at the feeling."
"Pearls" was birthed six years ago from what Jones calls "the spoils of 'Edward Scissorhands' " (she acted in and composed music for the 1990 film). Feeling financially flush but creatively starved, she put out a form letter to 30 writers soliciting myths; 15 responded.
"It's been a huge project," she says with a sigh, "like putting a town together: 18 singers, eight musicians, a musical director, four directors--and everyone has an opinion. Sometimes they conflict with someone else's good opinion. So as the artistic director, I've had to learn a new skill--diplomacy."
It doesn't seem to have interfered with her innate frankness.
Jones moved to Los Angeles from San Francisco five years ago, she says, "to seek my fortune. Why does anybody come here? There are a lot more jobs for actors, and that's how I make my living. And I'm ambitious."
Her screen credits include "Natural Born Killers," "Shelf Life" (which she co-wrote with Paul Bartel) and "Beethoven"; on TV, she was a series regular on CBS' recent "Harts of the West." If those commercial credits seem at odds with her experimental roots, Jones offers no apologies: "I don't think it's a question of their being compatible. I don't have much of a choice. I must pursue them both."
What does make her truly uncomfortable is any discussion of her marriage to Shepard, which ended in 1983.
"I know people are interested in Sam," demurs the actress. "But I'm not an expert on the subject anymore. I see him every couple of years. I had a great time with him, I'm having a great time without him. I guess I'm not prepared to have a conversation about him." She laughs uneasily. "Everyone always asks, so I should have something to say. Sorry, I don't."
"String of Pearls," Met Theatre, 1089 N. Oxford Ave., Hollywood. Thursdays-Sundays, 8 p.m. Closes Oct. 15. (213) 957-1152.