O-Lan Jones is hardly a household name, yet one readily recognizes her face. Named after the main character in Pearl S. Buck’s classic, China-set novel The Good Earth, Jones is a veteran of Tim Burton’s popular films Edward Scissorhands (in which she played the kooky, God-fearing neighbor Esmeralda) and Mars Attacks! She has also appeared in such non-Burton hits as The Truman Show, Natural Born Killers and Married to the Mob.
In addition to her film and TV work, Jones has an extensive theatre background. She began her professional acting career in New York when she was 16. While performing off-off Broadway, she met and soon married playwright-actor Sam Shepard (they divorced in 1983). According to Jones’s bio, “Of the more than 80 plays she has acted in, only two have been performed prior to her involvement in them.”
Now living in Los Angeles, Jones has been the driving force behind a bold new theatrical project, Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands. Described as “a large-scale, genre-bending contemporary opera,” it will be performed July 8-July 18 at a vacant, 25,000-square foot former car dealership in Culver City, CA.
The unorthodox setting is appropriate for this community-created, green-minded production. Seven years in development, Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands features sets and costumes, designed by Snezana Petrovic, made out of recycled and re-claimed materials by local artists. It also boasts a cast of 20 and a nine-piece live orchestra under the direction of David O.
Jones is a delight to speak with as well as a visionary director. “I was musing with friends one evening about songs and dances about real lands,” she told me regarding the initial inspiration for her new project, “and I got to thinking about what would be the indigenous songs of people from imaginary lands?”
As she reflected on this further, she came to define such places not so much as fantasy worlds like Narnia or Oz but rather stages of life forgotten, feared or idealized, including “lands of childhood, adulthood and old age.”
The show’s two lead characters, Tom and Sue, have lost their identities and must travel to 21 different, imaginary lands embodying the pivotal moments in their lives to find themselves again. Their quest is played out on a variety of fantastical sets, and Jones promised excitedly that audience members will play an interactive role during each performance.
No less than 21 librettists and 11 composers collaborated to create the opera’s musical structure. “The big thing is for me is how it holds so much meaning, these songs and dances,” Jones said. When I spoke with her, she told me “The rehearsal process is going so fast; once (the production) was all cast, I felt like I got injected with rocket fuel!” Jones also said of rehearsals, “We’re learning that the in-between times are as important as the song and dance numbers.”
Jones has had an unusual number of highly-regarded directorial mentors in her career. In addition to Tim Burton, she has worked as an actress under Jonathan Demme, Peter Weir, Oliver Stone, Philip Kaufman and the late gay director John Schlesinger. I asked Jones which of them has inspired her the most in developing her own directorial approach.
“Tim Burton’s fantastic,” she replied. “The most important thing I’ve learned from him is his amazing intuition. There is something very inspiring about how he uses his intuition. Jones also praised Peter Weir, who directed The Truman Show and received an Oscar nomination for it. “(Weir) was great at creating and maintaining the atmosphere. He also respected each member of the cast, including the extras, and had expectations of all of us. That impressed me, how he included everybody in the process.”
Since her current undertaking attempts to represent and draw in all members of the local community, Jones is openly supportive of the GLBT population. “Gays and lesbians are a particular community, and there are gay and lesbian members of this project who are helping to inform how we all connect,” she said. “Connection is the main idea here.”
If Songs and Dances of Imaginary Lands is successful during its Culver City run, Jones and company plan to take it on tour. She spoke giddily of the prospective road show as being “like the circus comes to town to an abandoned building near you, like Circuit City!”
For tickets and additional information, please visit the Overtone Industries website.
Interview by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Orange County and Long Beach Blade.