Writer Arlitia Jones races to the end of a remarkable year with a new play

mdunham@adn.comOctober 19, 2013 

  • COME TO ME, LEOPARDS will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through Nov. 17 at Cyrano’s, 413 D St. Tickets are available at centertix.net.

Few playwrights can boast of three premieres in the course of 12 months. But Arlitia Jones is on a streak other writers dream about. Her short piece "Tornado," produced by New York's Blue Roses company this summer, won the Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival. Her full length "Come to Me, Leopards" opens Friday at Cyrano's. Another full length work, "Rush at Everlasting," will debut in Anchorage via Perseverance Theatre in February.

The Anchorage poet/playwright is taking time off from her day job at her family's meat market thanks to a Rasmuson Fellowship after wrapping up a summer stint in an elite play development lab at Lincoln Center. Earlier this month she was selected for a two year Writer's Group residency with the Seattle Repertory Theatre.

"I'm having this year," she said. "I don't know what changed in the universe, but ... holy cow!"

The play premiering at Cyrano's concerns an Anchorage women's running team -- the Leopards -- preparing for a big race in Italy. In the midst of their training, Jones said, "Their coach comes up missing and we never really find out what happened to her."

The coach, it seems, has vanished from the very trails where the other women train. The character was inspired by Samantha Koenig, the Anchorage barista abducted from a coffee kiosk and murdered in February, 2012. Jones has dedicated the play to her.

"When something like that happens, there's a huge hole in us forever. What do we do?" Jones said. In the case of the women in her play, "The way they deal with their loss and grief is through running."

(The Busseto Giuseppe Verdi Marathon is real, by the way. Opera singers croon at various points along the course, which includes a leg through the composer's villa. Jones says she's always wanted to do the race.)

To prepare for their roles, Jones has her actors working out, building up their endurance to sustain a higher heartbeat while on stage. "In the play they're more or less on the move all the time," she said.

Jones previously had actors lugging boxes of lunch meat up stairs and standing in a freezing meat locker to get into the character of prisoners in Siberia for "A Gulag Mouse" by Arthur M. Jolly, which she directed last winter as the inaugrual production of Toss Pot, a company she founded with theatrical friends.

To get the cast thinking about the claustrophobia and terror of the camp, she brought spiders to a rehearsal. Her husband had captured them and put them in a box that she set in the middle of the tight performance space prior to running through some improv scenes with the performers.

"Finally one of them asked me why the box was in the center of the room and I told them it was a box of spiders. The change in their bodies and their attitudes was immediate and startling." Jones admits the she, too, "was crawling with the heebies."

The rehearsal resumed with a notably enhanced degree of edginess, people reading their parts but preoccupied with thoughts of the arachnids next to them. Eventually one actor "exploded against the fear and took it out on the box by kicking it across the room. I was able to call that up several times during rehearsal. Every time one of them was too close to the Masha character," (a particularly vicious prisoner in the play), "I could ask. 'Would you really be that close to a spider? No way.' "

Their service to theater complete, the spiders were returned to a favorite basking spot outside. Jones confessed that there were only four in the box, but she didn't tell the actors that. "In their minds there were 80. It was pretty effective."

This time around Jones has the actors running in local fun runs and training along the trails around Hilltop Ski Area, "which is basically where the play is set."

Not all of the performers are runners. "They're not real thrilled," Jones said. "But I think they had fun."

Jones herself is a runner as is actor Jill Sowerwine, who had a major role in "A Gulag Mouse."

"We've been running partners for several years," Jones said. "We did the Mayor's Marathon last year.

"The idea of running with a partner is such an intimate thing. You get used to their rhythm, what their breathing sounds like. When you run with someone else, it's kind of weird. That's why the women in the play have such a challenge to keep going without their coach."

Jones has juggled preparations for "Come to Me, Leopards" in Anchorage with a couple of East Coast opportunities over the course of the summer. She was one of eight playwrights from around the nation selected to take part in the Directors Lab at Lincoln Center in New York City. As the name suggests, the project focuses on stage directors -- about 50 of them. The playwrights are brought in to provide fresh meat, so to speak, in the form of new and previously unstaged plays. Jones brought her Alaska-themed script, "Bear's Map of the Bottom World."

"You're in a room with one playwright and four directors. I got all the attention for a week. It was fabulous," she said. "We did mock rehearsals, talked and discussed. It was a chance to dream big and for each director to say how they would produce it."

Winning the Samuel French Festival was especially sweet. It was the third year she'd entered. The win includes publication and licensing of the piece by the French company, the largest publisher of stage works in America if not the world.

The titles of "Bear's Map" and "Tornado" are a bit different from those of Jones' plays that have received major local productions. "Sway Me Moon," "Make Good the Fires," "Come to Me, Leopards" and "Rush at Everlasting" can all be read as imperative statements, commands rather than descriptions.

"It's a poet thing, I guess," Jones said when asked about the titles. "It comes from my love of the verb."

Jones began her rise as a published author as a poet. Her collection "The Bandsaw Riots" received the Dorothy Brunsman Poetry Prize for writers living in the western U.S. in 2001, by which time she'd also won the UAA/Anchorage Daily News Writing Contest and served as a judge of the statewide competition.

Poetry and drama share similar traits; both come from the tradition of spoken language rather than words read in silence and historically incorporate mythic themes and archetypes. Yet Jones initially shied away from writing for theater "because it was too hard." But Alaska thespian Dawson Moore talked her into participating in the "Alaska Overnighters," a writerly equivalent of a runner's marathon in which authors are given a topic and must create a script from scratch in 12 hours.

The experience got her hooked, she said, and she became a regular attendee at the Last Frontier Theatre Conference in Valdez. There she met Blue Roses director Erma Duriko. Her first full-length play, "Sway Me Moon," was seen at the alternative Out North Art House in 2008.

At the start of October she began a four month sabbatical, courtesy of the Rasmuson fellowship. "That really changed my life," she said. "I haven't had four months off since graduate school. Even having a few extra hours a day is unusual for a writer."

When she does go back to work in the meat business it will be part time, she said.

If there's a mudhole on her fast track right now, it's the loss of a home for Toss Pot Productions. The plan was for Toss Pot to be a resident company at Out North. But Out North closed in July and shows no sign of resurrecting.

The shuttering has left the Toss Pot group without a place to stage shows Jones and her colleagues had begun to plan. When asked where the company might go, she didn't sound optimistic. But she did sound determined.

"We aren't a building. We're a vision of what we want to do in theater," she said. "We'll have to find another place. So we will."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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