Inventing a World, One Note at a Time

Diane Haithman is a Times staff writer

Life is tough for an American teenager in the Yucatan jungle. O-Lan Jones discovered this at age 15, when her free-spirited mother decided to relocate the family to a hut in a remote community of about 80 Mayan Indians.

Food was cooked in a separate hut, over a fire in a hollowed-out rock that also served as an occasional home to scorpions.

"I had no peer group, it was like, in the wild--and it turns out it's not a comforting feeling," Jones, 50, observes during a recent conversation, breaking into a characteristically zany laugh. "Whatever little rug I'd put together was whipped out from under me. I was only there for six months, but it felt like years and years. It changed my life--if it wasn't changed already.

"I was so deeply unnerved by being there, I started asking my mother if we could go someplace normal," she continues. "And she said: 'Well, we can go wherever you want--but I don't think it's going to be normal.' She was never one to mince words."

In retrospect, says Jones, artistic director of Overtone Industries, being so profoundly unnerved during her formative years was perfect preparation for a career that calls for inventing new worlds. It was a necessary skill for the theater company's most recent effort: "The Woman Who Forgot Her Sweater," a "mythical chamber opera" in one act that creates its own parallel universe. It opens Saturday at the John Anson Ford Theatre complex and runs through April 22.

The production, supported by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and A.S.K. Theater Projects, tells the simple story of a woman summoned to the side of her dying mother. She arrives too late--only to find herself transported to a fantasy world populated with lion goddess-queens that loosely mirror the demons inside her. The show is the final offering in the second season of the (Inside) the Ford Hot Properties New Play Series.

"I think that basic stripping away of what I had known up until then has had a lasting effect, but in a good way," muses Jones, a native Angeleno whose childhood also included residencies in neighborhoods she cheerfully describes as the ghettos of Inglewood, Chicago, New York and London. Jones' mother, Scarlett Dark, named her after the character O-lan in Pearl S. Buck's 1931 novel, "The Good Earth." The "O" part, Jones said, means "profound," and the "lan" means "wildflower." Her mother, ever an original, chose to celebrate the wildflower part with a capital L.

"My mother was never one to accept the rules of the day, and I think that helps a person to think for herself," Jones continues. "Although, at the time, I would much rather have just had shoes like everybody else." Jones--who composed the music for the production, describes the encounter between the woman and the lions as "something that everybody experiences in a time of crisis--the lid comes off and you see the whole can of worms, and you get to know and love each worm," Jones says. "You can't deny it, you can't help but accept it.

"We've always wanted to be funny and deep and to look at the unseen things," Jones says of the mission of Overtone Industries, a company that has existed in various forms for 20 years. When it comes to describing "Sweater," she prefers myth over fairy tale because "myth reverberates with the huge forces at work inside--it's an enlargement of the demons that move around inside an individual, or a culture."

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Jones' roots go deep into the experimental theater communities of New York and San Francisco in the '60s and '70s. She is the former wife of playwright Sam Shepard, with whom she has a 30-year-old son, Jesse, a writer, sculptor and carpenter who also serves as caretaker of 60 acres of land in Northern California wine country.

She doesn't talk about her marriage to Shepard much--not because of bad blood, but because it ended almost 20 years ago. "My ego just gets so rubbed the wrong way and slurred by other people's projections," she says. Besides, there's a new man in her life, Halldor Enard, who has a dual career (photographer and handyman) and a dual nationality (French and Icelandic). "Standing next to him is like being at the spa," Jones says appreciatively. Jones can also boast a career in Hollywood, including cameo roles in "The Truman Show," "Mars Attacks!," "Edward Scissorhands," "Natural Born Killers" and the upcoming Lucas Reiner-directed film "Gold Cup," as well as regular and guest appearances on series TV.

In "Scissorhands," Jones' character, Esmeralda, "the religious fanatic organ-playing neighbor," is required to play a hymn on the organ. Jones could not play the hymn they gave her, so she composed her own. That composition earned her membership in BMI, a performance rights organization.

She described the roles usually offered her as "the weird waitress from Mars." "You'll often find me in the food service industry," she observes. "I think I get cast as those characters because they are bring-your-own, whatever. I don't fit easily into some of the categories Hollywood provides."

But Jones remains most comfortable in experimental theater, an arena without boundaries. Three years in the making, "The Woman Who Forgot Her Sweater" is the result of a workshop process. Jones composed the music, with libretto by Kathleen Cramer. It is directed by Roxanne Rogers, a founding member of the nationally recognized Padua Hills Playwrights' Festival, founded by playwright and teacher Murray Mednick in 1978. The festival nurtured a generation of playwrights including Jon Robin Baitz, John Pappas, Kelly Stuart and Michael Sargent.

Jones is a veteran of Ben Krywosz's Playwright-Composer Studio, sponsored by A.S.K, a grueling two-week program that tours the country and requires composers and writers to team up to create an original aria every few days. She has little formal musical training and can't remember exactly when she learned to notate music. Composing, she says, is just something she's always been able to do.

Jones compares her compositions for "Sweater" with the style of world-music ensemble Zap Mama--an all-female a cappella group that, Times music reviewer Don Heckman wrote, "uses every imaginable form of vocal expression, from grunts to sputters to shrieks and gorgeously lyrical singing." Jones says she chose to use a more formal operatic style in the songs for the woman and a more direct style for the otherworldly lions--"not a rock 'n' roll or blues vernacular, but just plain singing," she says. "It's five women's voices, including one with a baritone voice, very low. And it has a lot of percussive qualities to it."

Director Rogers suggests Jones' notes hail from another world altogether. "Everything you hear is nothing you've ever heard before," Rogers says. "She creates her own context with almost every note--you never hear a melody you've heard before. They're from her own mind, from scratch--and yet they feel very organic."

Other creative forces behind this highly collaborative project include music director John Ballinger; costume designer Lun*na Menoh, who brings to the set her wearable sculptures (Menoh's mother-in-law is knitting the sweater of the title; the garment makes an appearance as part of the drama); choreographer Gina Angelique, artistic director of San Diego's Eveoke Dance Theatre.

This new universe called for newly invented musical instruments. Jones sought out Bart Hopkin, designer and builder of acoustical instruments and publisher and editor of the quarterly journal Experimental Musical Instruments. One he calls the Forked Dipping Chimes--a huge set of wind chimes split at the top like a tuning fork in order to achieve a wider mode of vibrations, and suspended over a pool of water that can slow or "bend" the note when the chime is dipped into it.

Another new instrument is the Weighted Cordophones, which Hopkin describes as a set of strings suspended from the ceiling with a big weight on the bottom. "Instead of a tuning peg, tension is just provided by the weight on the string--and the appealing thing about that is that since the weight is always the same, the string can never go out of tune like a traditional stringed instrument often does," he says. The sound of the string is amplified by a large, lightweight shield pressed against the string by the musician like the slide on a slide guitar. In this case, they're using the lids from plastic foam picnic hampers.

Jones is thankful that despite its gestation in several workshops, "The Woman Who Forgot Her Sweater" is receiving a full production before being workshopped to death like so much new theater.

"The horrible thing that happens now is, people just do readings, instead of productions--and in many places, they just crush people's work in the name of clarity, destroy the intelligence of what's going on underneath," she says. "It makes it impossible for it to be seen in its raw, real condition.

"I've heard it said that 'Death of a Salesman' would never make it past the dramaturge these days."

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"THE WOMAN WHO FORGOT HER SWEATER," (Inside) the Ford, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood. Dates: Opens Saturday. Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Closes April 22. Prices: $15-$20. Phone: (323) 461-3673.

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