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Meet Rolin Jones, the Guy Who Ripped Off Shakespeare in the Mod-est Way Possible

Rolin Jones

Rolin Jones

Rolin Jones got into theater for the girls. He’d been kicked off the basketball team his freshman year of high school and was wandering around without a sixth period class when he stumbled into a rehearsal for Pippin.

“I did the old eyeball scan and was like, dude, there’s a lot of hot girls and a lot of gay guys. I should look into this,” says Jones, who will turn 43 in September. “I got the bug. [I was a] drama nerd.”

Though he’s eased back in a chair, manspreading, Jones finishes sentences with exclamation points, as if little Roman candles constantly are exploding in his head. He talks exactly like he writes, stuffing every tale with a ton of self-deprecation and real-life LOLs. If he’s a nerd, give us more nerds, please.

Then again, labels, schmabels. You can just call him “successful.” The domino effect started around 2004, the year he graduated from the Yale School of Drama. He was named playwright-in-residence at Yale Repertory Theatre, which staged his already-buzzing play The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow. After that closed, he was asked to become a staff writer for Showtime’s television series Weeds. Meanwhile, Jenny Chow, which is about an adopted girl who builds a flying alter-ego to find her birth mother, was named a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. In 2009, he worked on Friday Night Lights, writing an episode (“The Son”) that earned him an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Dramatic Writing. He just wrapped up his film adaptation for American Idiot, the Green Day musical that rocked Broadway, and These Paper Bullets!, his mod adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, with songs by Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong, was named one of the top 10 reasons for theater-lovers to leave New York by TIME. Oh, and in his spare time, he recently started a theater and TV- producing company, New Neighborhood.

Jones with Vic "The Brick" Jacobs
Jones with Vic “The Brick” Jacobs

It all works because while Jones got into theater for the girls, he stayed for the fun.

“We had a balls-out time in New Haven making [These Paper Bullets!]. We hired a lot of clowns, a lot of ‘Off-Broadway broken toys,’” he says. “I went off to go do a pilot at AMC — an eight million dollar pilot, and our post-production facility was right off London’s Carnaby Street so I kept thinking about what a good time I had in New Haven.”

AMC producted the hell out of the pilot, he says, but it didn’t get picked up, and Jones told his agents to poke around and see what he was worth. That resulted in a two- year pact with 20th Century Fox Television, and Jones promptly asked his brother, who is an accountant, how much “new play” money he had. He convened with Jackson Gay and Keira Naughton at a bar and said, “Let’s have the worst conversation in the world, the ‘let’s start a theater company ‘ conversation. We talked about how starting a theater company was the dumbest thing in the world, and we did it anyway.”

Jones’ history with Much Ado About Nothing can be traced almost as far back as his time in theater in general: He played Dogberry in his high school’s production.

“I was a hammy, shitty, look-at-me actor,” he says. “I was not long for this acting world.”

He grew up in Woodland Hills, CA, and did most of his undergrad at California State University at Northridge. He switched his major from film to English when he read a straightforward Dylan Thomas poem and realized he had no clue what it was about. Diving into literature and eventually “weaseling” his way into a graduate poetry class, he discovered he had a knack for it (though if you ask him, he says he just was a “really good mimic”).

“You learn a couple things in poetry — mostly how to turn on a dime. Write something funny or interesting and then in a line, devastate. It was very dynamic,” he says. “[But] if I had worked really hard, I would’ve been a first-rate, sixth-rate poet. So I started thinking about writing screenplays and plays.”

A “terrible, terrible” play he wrote was produced (“eternal apologies to Peter Grego,” he notes), and despite the fact that he knew it was “crappy,” he dug the lifestyle. Yet he was still “chasing chicks all over the place” and bouncing from one dead-end job to another (his resumé includes a pizza delivery boy and a classical music buyer for a Tower Records).

Luck, he claims, played the biggest part in Jenny Chow at Yale. “There were people in my writing program who could write circles around me,” he says. Besides launching that play, Yale also brought him together with Jackson Gay. “She’s super fun, she’s super unpretentious, and if this fern were to walk into a rehearsal and have a better idea than she did, she’d say, ‘Do what this fern said,’” he says. He hasn’t worked with another theater director since.

As much fun as Jones has had working on These Paper Bullets!, it was a baby born out of necessity, not love. There was a slot open at Yale Repertory Theatre for a Shakespeare comedy, but neither he nor Gay was a big fan of Shakespeare comedies. Basically, they threw together the idea with a “bottle of vodka to the head.”

And then there was the writing part, which was decidedly not fun.

“This one sucked because you’re stuck with this play with a plot that I would never plot that way. There’s some shaky dramaturgy in there. And there was a lot of problem solving. That was most of the headache,” he says.

Listening to early Beatles songs while writing, however, put him in a good mood, and it hit him that they fit in perfectly with the plot. He’d been working on the film adaptation for American Idiot, and found Green Day’s songs to be hooky and tuneful. Though he figured Billie Joe Armstrong would never agree to write the songs for These Paper Bullets!, he happened to catch Armstrong at a time when he was itching to do a side project.

“I’d say, ‘I need this,’ and bing, two days later a new song that Billie had written and played the drums, bass guitar, lead guitar and sung backup and lead vocals, all at his house, would arrive on my laptop. He’s super talented,” Jones says.

Massive as the production was — 19 actors, eight songs and a huge design team — they pulled it together in nine months, even with Jones shipping scenes to the designers willy nilly. The production wound up winning four Connecticut Critics Circle Awards, including Best Production of the Year.

But who cares about accolades when the bottom line of These Paper Bullets!is that it is, to use Jones’ favorite word, fun?

“If there’s any problem with me as a writer, it’s that I’m crippled by, ‘Oh, I don’t wanna bore them!’” he says. “Mostly, it’s fun. There’s no other reason to do it. Nobody’s getting rich off it. So you want to have some fun, drink with some actors after, make sure one or two of your cast are having sex with each other. You wanna have created some love.”

No doubt Shakespeare would agree.

These Paper Bullets! begins September 8 in the Gil Cates Theater at the Geffen Playhouse. To purchase tickets, please click here.

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