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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Sunday Feature: Christine Jones, Tony-winning designer

A video clip from the current Broadway production of American Idiot with Christine Jones' Tony-winning work in full evidence

The Little Montrealer That Could
"...there are a thousand ways to have a life in the just have to find your tribe."

David King

In the 1980s, Christine Jones was a bored English Lit student at both Marianapolis College and Concordia University. American born and raised in Montreal, she found her thrills assisting Marianopolis theatre professor Victor Garaway with design, set building and scenic painting at the college. It was Garaway who suggested she apply to Concordia's Theatre Department and become a scenographer.

"A stenographer?" asked Jones. "No, a 'scenographer,'" Garaway told her.
Interviewing at Concordia with a primitive portfolio and a prayer, Jones landed herself a spot in Concordia’s Design For the Theatre Program, where she graduated in 1989. Hugely self-critical of her own work, says Eric Mongerson in a recent interview for Concordia University Magazine, Jones eventually found her path with the constant encouragement of mentors like Mongerson and [professor] Ana Cappelluto.

Twenty years later, Jones is the recent Tony-winning designer for the Broadway smash hit American Idiot (she lost another Tony for design on Spring Awakenings to Disney's Mary Poppins). Jones first moved to New York post-Concordia for a Master's degree in design at NYU, at a time when little to no grad programs in design existed in Canada. A dual citizen fully backed by her professors (Mongerson and Cappelluto have been particularly helpful with getting students into MFA programs over the years), Jones quickly found herself lost in New York.

"It was a huge transition. I felt like I was going to Mars."

"It was a huge transition," Jones recalls. "I felt like I was going to Mars. No one I knew had done it at the time. I packed up a U-Haul and drove to the West Village in this off-campus apartment, knowing no one. It was daunting but classes were intensive, like medical school, so it was really all I knew for three years. When I graduated, it was like waking up all of the sudden asking, ‘Oh my God, did I just move to New York?’ I loved Montreal so much, but it was so hard to make a living in English theatre, and by then I had made so many contacts.”

Today, Jones teaches grad-level set design at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, the same university she attended when she landed in the Big Apple. Currently assisting an intern from Concordia, there’s been a full revolve in her life, and she mentions she just spoke with another Concordian designer doing grad studies in Austin. It's a Montreal-linked network that wasn't available to her in her early years, and as a Montrealer at heart, Jones is quick to ask how our English theatre scene is shaping up these days, hoping to one day guest design on top of family visits.

"When I was still at school in Montreal I remember checking out Carbone 14 and being blown away," says Jones. "The production really helped me decide what I wanted: a kinetic energy between space and performer, that the actors would have that kinetic space for themselves."

Jones isn't your typical musical theatre designer, and she’s well aware that Disney isn't going to be calling her anytime soon. Whether it's the multi-level, Green-Day pumped, raw video and pop culture collage of her American Idiot or her exciting mix of period and punk for the youth revolution that is Spring Awakenings, there's a brash sophistication in Jones' work that one might attribute to her earliest inspirations in ‘La Belle Provence’. A mother of two kids ages three and five, her partner Dallas Roberts is conveniently around to help describe the aesthetic (if any) that best defines Jones' work.

"It's about creating in an architectural space," says Roberts, "or putting unrelated objects together for an energetic space that suits the play". "Yeah, that's it," laughs Jones, “did you hear him?”  

"Even when I'm designing a Broadway show I'm trying to create for an audience."

Last May in Times Square, Jones embarked on her own “Green Day” - an experimental two-week project of her own called Theatre For One, or ‘T41. Remounted for a festival later in the summer, the collaborative project between Jones and architectural colleagues mounted a low-tech, portable theatre space in the city’s busiest location with only one audience member at a time in mind.

"Even when I'm designing a Broadway show I'm trying to create for the audience," stresses Jones, "so for one person it's no different. Obviously a venue like that in the middle of Times Square is difficult to financially support with one audience member, but I'm hoping it is essentially a performing arts space that could also have a full season like any 300-seat theatre."

As Jones develops the interior aesthetic of Theatre For One, she's about to jump on board the design for American Idiot's tour and Tony Kushner's The Illusion at Signature Theatre. Signature entirely devotes each of its seasons to the work of one playwright, and Kushner's translation and adaptation of Pierre Corneille's l'Illusion Comique (many considered him the founder of French tragedy) is the perfect material for Jones' mastery in blending period and contemporary design. In an atmosphere of productions like Kushner's The Intelligent Homosexuals' Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures, Jones' MontrĂ©alais tastes couldn’t be more than satisfied.

"A student recently called me a 'minimal maximalist'," laughs Jones, "because I'm sort of known for these unit sets that are more environmental. I just love creating a room at home, building a home for these plays. I work in collage when I'm developing - three-dimensional collage during the process – and trying not to stay bound within the period here. But every project is different".

As her Tony sits on the shelf in Jones' East End apartment, the once self-critical designer still can't believe "Broadway" happened to her, but on the other hand, she’s been too busy to send the award in for her name engraving. Professor, designer, mom; Jones’ advice on how we all might find that balance in seems to reflect all three of the “hats” she wears.
"On some level what you make is reflective of your DNA," Jones wisely observes. "No matter how hard you try your voice is going to come out. I always like to say 'Do the Hokey Pokey' - put yourself in - the more you love what you do, everything else sorts itself out, and there are a thousand ways to have a life in the theatre."

"It's about what you do and the people you do it with that matters," Jones adds. "You just have to find your tribe".

- American Idiot: clips available on YouTube and at

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