Judson Jones is an actor, Director, and the co-founder of Theater East, a New York City establishment that has a mission to bring new works to the stage that shed light on modern-day issues from a human standpoint.

Jusdon was born and raised in Texas where he initially began his theatrical career before moving to New York. As an award-winning performer, director, and producer, Judson now boasts an impressive resume of working with an array of performing arts projects off Broadway. He is an active member of the Actors’ Equity and SAG/AFTRA and continues to serve on the Board of Directors for Texas Dramatists.

Moreover, Judson is a professor at the Kanbar Institute of Film & Television which is part of the lauded Tisch School of the Arts of New York University (NYU). He also teaches classes at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Judson recently discussed his experiences working in the theater industry and more via an exclusive interview.

Theater and the performing arts

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you discover your love for acting and how did you break into the theater industry?

Judson Jones (JJ): I've always loved storytelling. As kids, we used to gather at my great-grandfather’s feet and listen as he'd regale us with stories of him hoboing the rails during the Great Depression, or traveling through the foothills of Oklahoma in a covered wagon.

I found it magical, and I would be spellbound for hours. My parents were also performers, albeit mainly in the church. My father led the music, and my mother was in the choir. In fact, most of my family is either a preacher or a music leader, so I grew up around performance. And my parents also made sure my brother and I had a steady diet of theater, which wasn't easy in rural Texas, but we would find a high school musical or even drive to Dallas to see a show.

I'm so incredibly thankful for that.

Regarding how I broke into the industry, while I feel like we often break into it a couple of times, what immediately comes to mind is Subterranean Theatre Company in Austin, Texas. Christa and I had toured around the following college, but after about a year on the road, we grew tired of living out of suitcases.

So, we decided to move to Austin in 1998 to continue acting, and Austin had (and still has) a thriving theater scene. Not long after moving there, I was able to audition for Ken Webster. Long story short, he cast me, and that opened many doors for me. In Austin, Ken Webster is kind of like the gatekeeper of Emerald City. If he opens the door, other doors will follow. And Austin was a very important period of growth for me as an actor. I was able to work with so many phenomenal companies. The Rude Mechanicals, Hyde Park, State Theatre, Salvage Vanguard, Austin Playhouse. This is also where Christa and I first started producing, and Austin truly helped us establish our aesthetic.

MM: What inspired you and your wife to open Theatre East and what were the challenges of getting it off the ground?

JJ: We truly thought we had left producing behind in Texas. We moved to New York solely to focus on our acting careers. I was cast in a show with Alchemy Theatre Company; a beautiful new play called “Haymarket” written by Zayd Dohrn. At some point, the Artistic Director found out Christa, and I had to produce backgrounds and asked us to come on as producers for their next show. This led to a couple of wonderful collaborations including working with Christopher Durang on the New York Premiere of “The Vietnamization of New Jersey.” A couple of productions later the company closed its doors, and we thought again we were done with producing. Actors and designers and audience members then began coming out of the woodwork urging us to continue.

After much discussion with various folks, we agreed.

MM: What kinds of plays does Theater East most seek and how many have you produced so far?

JJ: There are a couple of qualifications we like a script to meet for us to consider producing it. We love new plays. Therefore, it must be either a New York or World Premiere. The other qualification is that it be a work of social relevance. We also tend to lean towards those plays that truly celebrate what theater can do versus other mediums like film or television. “Petie” will be our 7th main stage production.

MM: You don't shy away from plays with socially relevant themes, so how do you think the performing arts can help people see issues from various sides?

JJ: The short answer is it fosters empathy. The theater arts demand that we enter someone else’s life: to see what they see, to feel what they feel, to believe as they believe, to endure as they endure…to even suffer as they suffer. For the duration of the performance, we are given the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. By doing this, we may come to understand another’s perspective. We like to focus on the gray area of social issues because this is where people live. The black and white is for political punditry, and it often makes people take up arms. We’d rather disarm folks to pave the way for a much deeper discussion.

MM: Can playwrights send scripts directly to you for consideration?

JJ: Scripts have come from an assortment of places. Staff members, people outside the company who are familiar with our work, and yes, playwrights. We aren't accepting submissions at this time in our season. However, we will post the information on our website when we are seeking submissions. Plays are then read to see what possible program they might fit into. Many of the plays we’ve produced began as part of the Neighborhood Reading Series. This series, which runs quarterly throughout the year, is where we present plays in a casual setting in the upstairs at O’Lunney’s Times Square Pub. We celebrated our 30th public reading last season and have some wonderful new plays we’ll share this coming season.

Plays, acting, and the future

MM: Of all the plays that you have produced, have any been especially powerful and/or memorable?

JJ: That’s a tough one. Each one has offered unique challenges and rewards. Our inaugural show, Eye of God, comes to mind. Getting to work with Tim Blake Nelson on that production was an incredible experience.

MM: What is the staging and rehearsal process like?

JJ: Magical. Sacred. Earnest. Glorious. Liberating. Full. Collaborative. We believe artists should be championed and we seek out directors that feel the same way. No two processes are alike. Every director has their unique way of doing things, and as producers, we don’t want to define how anyone must work. We want to support the vision of the director we’ve hired and do whatever we can to get the show there.

MM: Do you feel being an actor helps you run a theater more efficiently?

JJ: In some ways, yes. In other ways, perhaps not so much. I guess it depends upon how one defines, “efficiently.” Often being an efficient producer is about the bottom-line and a healthy return on investment. When I’m looking at a budget, I’m not asking how little can we get away with paying, but how much can we afford to pay. Some would say this is not efficient. But when an actor, or designer, or director, or playwright, or electrician, or carpenter, or anyone involved is thoughtfully taken care of, protected, cherished…they tend to come back. And that fosters efficient work. That’s our return on investment, and I do believe much of this comes from being an actor.

MM: As an actor, what roles do you most enjoy playing and what would be the role of your dreams?

JJ: I love the deeply flawed characters, I feel so much for them. I believe they are the most reflective of who we are. Again, it’s the gray areas I find most fascinating. As for the role of my dreams, I’ll be openly selfish here…I’ve always loved Tilden from Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child.” My heart just breaks for him.

MM: How do you envision Theater East evolving over the course of the coming decade?

JJ: Our Board has committed to moving into a new agreement with Actor’s Equity, and we’re starting discussions about what contract might work best. Our Tenth Anniversary is approaching, and we’d like to be in a new agreement around that time.

This would greatly increase how much we pay our artists along with how long shows might run. The goal has always been to produce more plays. There are just so many stories that need to be told and so many playwrights we want to work with. New plays are the lifeblood of what we do.