In Conversation with Dallas playwright Jonathan Norton
Updated: Jan 16, 2020
Dallas playwright, Jonathan Norton, has a new play opening next week at Kitchen Dog Theater. Having it's world premiere as Kitchen Dog's 29th season opener, a love offering, tells the story of nurses’ aid, T’Wana Jepson, who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients. After T’Wana is attacked by a patient, the bonds of trust and friendship are strained, and the play reveals the pain of healing and care taking. Dallas Art Beat spoke with Norton about the development of the play, his approach to the writing and rehearsal process, and how he became a playwright.
I would love to hear about what inspired the play. Was it a personal experience with dementia or Alzheimer's or was it something else?
As far as the play it was my mother and the ladies that my mom used to work with. My mother worked in a nursing home for many years as a nurses’ aid. My Junior or Senior year of high school she started working the graveyard shift because it was just an easier shift because people are mostly asleep. This meant that I was home alone at night throughout the night. And sometimes I would get really freaked out and nervous and scared about being home alone at night. Even though I was like 16, 17 years old, you know. So, I would ask if I could go and hang out overnight at nursing home with my mom. Mostly I just hung out in the break room and talked. People would come in and I would just be listening to the conversations that were happening.
I had really no experience with Alzheimer's or dementia. The only experience I had with it was watching my mother and her coworkers interact with some of the residents who were really old. It was hard work, what those ladies did. I remember at times my mom would come home from work and there might be a scratch, or she might have a bruise. And I'd be like, “what happened?!” And she'd be like “oh so and so pushed me into the wall.”
[At my mom’s job], there was also an interesting kind of hierarchy. It was really uncomfortable for me to watch and experience. It was almost entirely African American women working in these nursing homes, but the residents were almost entirely white. My mom would talk about the likelihood that many of her residents - when they were babies and young children - they had African American caretakers, nannies, cooks, and maids. It was a really awkward, strange sort of “from the cradle to the grave” - black women taking care of white people. And that was just a really unsettling thing to wrap my head around. Did writing the play help you process any of those feelings?
I think if anything in terms of writing the play, it helped me to be okay with those feelings. When I was in high school, I was feeling these things but also being ashamed of it. That caretaker piece of it, and the really honest truth of what these ladies actually do. It’s very low pay work, and gross work at times, you know?
How did you get started in writing? Do you do any other writing outside of playwriting? I've tried - I took a short story writing class at SMU once. Basically, all my short stories were really just long monologues disguised as a short stories. But I love dialogue and I love character development. And the thing I'm not interested in is the kind of very detailed nuance or description of the world, story of the environment, or trying to explain what’s going on in someone's mind. The hard facts without actually someone speaking it. I'm not the person that's going to give you a detailed description of what the sky looks like.
How did you find your voice as a writer? When I was 15, I was cast in the production of Joe Turner's Come and Gone at Theatre Three. Written by the late, great August Wilson. I had the opportunity to speak this amazing language, and also had the opportunity to sit in the green room during the run of the show and listen to this beautiful language. Eight times a week for four weeks. I started getting into the habit backstage of writing small scenes and monologues to pass the time. Then I started recruiting cast members from the show to read and act out my scenes.
One of the actors in the show, Laurence “Larry” O’Dwyer (who passed away a couple of years ago) ran a children's theater at Theatre Three. He commissioned me to write my very first play. Well, now I've got a short play for their children's theater company. The group was called Tumbleweed Theatricals. The stage manager at Theatre Three at the time was Terry Tittle Holman, and she would let me borrow plays from her office. I had absolutely no knowledge of plays or playwriting whatsoever. I just picked plays based on the title. And that was such an amazing education. Through that I became aware of George C. Wolfe, who is one of my heroes, and Douglas Turner Ward. Their work had a really strong influence on me. And then the next year I started taking play writing at Booker T.
Can you give us some insight on how you approach the rehearsal process? How involved are you?
I was there for the first week of rehearsal for table work, which involved quite a bit of conversations with the cast, conversation with the director about the work, and also with my dramaturg, Haley Nelson. Kitchen Dog invited different people to sit in on the first table read and that was really useful because afterwards you have a friendly, informal conversation about the play. What I learned from that was incredibly useful. Just getting a sense of how the play washes over an audience, or how this version, this draft of the play, washes over an audience. During that first week I brought in some new pages based on conversations that were happening in the room, questions that I had, and questions that the rest of the team had. Then, I try to come back in when it's a run through. Haley, my dramaturg, is also there as well. The great challenge in a rehearsal process for the playwright, is to remember that for the actors, for the director, they're still working. They're still finding the play. It’s not at 100%. So, you have to fight against that urge to think that whatever you see, that might seem to not be working - that you need to fix it with the writing. I think it's really good to give the cast and the directors space to work on the play and find the play without you staring at them. And, I'm one of those weird playwrights who actually loves tech and dress rehearsals and all that technical stuff. I love that. For me it's exciting seeing the physical world of the play come alive. It's really fun. It's slow and what have you, but yeah, but I love it.
How do you feel when you see the designers’ work? I don't believe in being very detailed about it [in my writing]. Yet in my mind, somehow, I have this very specific picture of things. But I never actually write that into the play in terms of design. So, it's always really fun to see how a designer interprets that. And 9 times out of 10, it's much better than what I had pictured.
Was a love offering developed specifically for Kitchen Dog Theatre?
I wrote the play back in 2013. In 2014, Dennis Raveneau reached out to me and asked if I had anything of interest. If I wanted to try and do a workshop of a new play. I sent him a love offering and he loved it. We ended up doing it at the Margo Jones Theatre as a stage reading. Matthew Tomlanovich was in it - it was just a great experience. Then we were trying to figure out other things to do with it. And a couple of years passed and nothing really happened. I think Dennis handed it to Tina Parker at Kitchen Dog Theater. She reached out to me because Kitchen Dog is part of the National New Play Network, and their “cross pollination program” -- three NNPN theaters partner together to develop the work of playwrights in other cities. A theater in Philadelphia, InterAct Theater, did a workshop of a love offering in Philly. That's when I started working with Tina – at the InterAct workshop. It’s funny because she kept hinting around that Kitchen Dog was interested in producing it. But I wasn't catching the hint. Finally, in May of 2018 she just came out with it: “We would like to produce the play. Are you interested?”
Did Tina direct the workshop in Philadelphia?
It was directed by Kittson O’Neill. She is a Philadelphia area director, actress, and dramaturg. Tina was kind of an observer - interesting thing about the “cross pollination program” with NNPN - they try to make sure that there would be someone from the playwright’s community with them. So, Tina was there in that capacity. She was a voice in the process, and an observer.
Prior to that, Katherine Owens at Undermain Theatre invited me to be part of their new play festival, Whither Goest Thou America? They did a workshop of a love offering at Undermain in their new play festival in April of 2018. Dennis Raveneau directed it. The really cool thing about the workshop at Undermain that was very unique was we had four readings. Normally with readings, you might have one, maybe two – never four! So you have four opportunities to sit and listen and experience the play with an audience. That was incredibly useful. As a result of that there were some big changes I made in the play. I changed the setting of the play. Also, when you see the play now there's the character Mr. Turner. He is the father, the resident in the home who has Alzheimer's. He was not in the play when we did it at Undermain. You had all these stories about him, but he's not actually in the play. When I had the chance at Undermain to sit through four readings of the play, I think somewhere towards the end of the rehearsal process I had kind of an “Aha!” moment and I thought to myself, “wouldn't it be interesting if somehow or another the father was actually in the play?” I had the chance to sit every night and examine the play with the thought in mind: how would this moment would change if the father was in the room? How would this moment would change if instead of being in this sterile conference room, we were in a resident’s room, with all this life and history? So, as I watched the readings each night, I was able to track through and take these ideas and super impose them on top of what I was watching in real time. And you know, you never get that opportunity. It was incredible.
I took that to Tina, and to Kittson at InterAct, and they were really excited about it. So, I made those changes and when we got to Philadelphia we had a brand new script with a brand new character. I don't think that particular discovery would have happened had it not been for the Undermain opportunity.
It sounds like it’s been quite a process. How are you feeling now that it’s almost time for audiences to see it? It's finally happening. I had a long road on it, the way that the play came to life. Remember how I told you I was writing plays in high school? Well, in high school I wrote a play called I Love You, Miss Georgia. I tried to write a play, thinking about a single mother who worked in a nursing home, you know, and just about her kids. I started writing this monologue where she comes home [looking like] she’d been in a fight, and she’s explaining to her son what happened. I thought that’d be an interesting thing to write a play about. I took that idea from high school, and that was the seed for a love offering. And the funny thing is that Miss Georgia is actually a character in the play now. And I wrote the play really fast – so, yeah, I’d say wow, it’s finally happening. I’m excited.
a love offering opens on Thursday, October 3 and runs through Sunday, October 27.
Trinity River Arts Center
2600 N. Stemmons Fwy, Ste#180
Dallas, Texas 75207
Performances are Thursday through Saturday evenings at 8PM, with additional performances on Sunday at 2pm (10/6, 10/13, 10/20 and 10/27).
Please note: this performance contains some adult language and racial slurs.
For tickets and more information, please call the Kitchen Dog Theater box office at
214-953-1055 or reserve online at kitchendogtheater.org.
Kitchen Dog Gives Back: Kitchen Dog is proud to partner with the newly formed nonprofit The Bonnie Jean Foundation. The Bonnie Jean Foundation was created to honor the legacy of Bonnie Jean Stoner, a longtime supporter of many area theaters. The Foundation’s mission is to continue her passion in exposing the youth of Pleasant Grove to theater. The benefit night will take place on Friday, October 18 at 8pm. $10 of every ticket sold for that evening’s performance will be donated back to the Foundation.