Building Bridges with Jason Odell Williams

It’s not every day that the Los Angeles Times describes a playwright as “a post-modern Clifford Odets.”

Meet Jason Odell Williams. His plays have been performed Off-Broadway at New World Stages and Westside Theatre as well as theatres across the country. He has received numerous accolades for his work, including an Emmy nomination for his television writing and producing. He is also a dedicated member of FST’s Playwright Collective, developing brand new plays with the theatre’s artistic team for FST’s stages.

We sat down with Williams to hear more about his experiences with the Collective and his latest work in progress, an interactive theatrical experience called America In One Room.

You’ve been a member of FST’s Playwright Collective for some time. How would you describe your experience so far?

Jason Odell Williams. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Is it too cheesy to say it’s been “a dream come true?” Because it has. It’s given me a creative boost exactly when I needed it – when we all needed one, I think. And it’s allowed me to push myself creatively to places I hadn’t gone before in my writing. Everyone at FST has been so supportive and encouraging during the process. It’s such a creative and safe space. I love it! 

You are currently working on a brand-new play called America In One Room. Tell us more about the inspiration behind this new project.

I read a story in the New York Times about an event that took place in fall 2019, shortly before the primaries for the 2020 election. A non-profit, nonpartisan group gathered 526 voters from across the United States – of all races, genders, and political persuasions – to discuss the most pressing issues facing our country. The theory was if you could get groups of people to actually talk and listen, then maybe there’d be some common ground to be found and less bitterness and anger.

The play focuses on one small “breakout group” from the conference – eight participants and one moderator – and follows them over the course of the weekend. The play is less about the formal political discussions and more about the small conversations where they learn about each other’s personal lives. That’s what the play is exploring, in a fun, humorous, and exciting way, I hope!

America In One Room has a strong element of audience participation. What does that entail and how did it come about?

The audience participation has taken different forms over the various drafts. Sometimes, the moderator asks everyone – actors and audience – whether they agree or disagree with a statement. There are also moments in which audience members are called upon to ask questions about various issues, and there are other opportunities for audience participation that I’m still playing with.

Playwright Jason Odell Williams chats with FST audience members about Handle With Care.
Photo by Sarah Haley.

But no matter what form the participation takes, I wanted the audience to feel like they were included in the conversations and discussions on stage. I wanted them to see how their responses lined up – or didn’t – with their seat-mate’s or the person (literally) across the aisle. The play is about fixing our broken democracy, and the major takeaway is that if we want to fix it, we all have to be active participants.

 Were there any challenges or surprises you encountered while working on America In One Room?

Every new draft surprises me. The characters have begun to take on a life of their own and take me down paths I never expected.

The biggest challenge is crafting a play with nine, sometimes ten, people on stage at the same time. How do I track what each character is thinking and feeling even if they’re not speaking for several pages? But that’s also been fun and new for me. Most plays I write have smaller casts, knowing they are easier to produce. But Richard Hopkins (FST’s Producing Artistic Director) encouraged me to think BIG with this project, and a bigger cast suited this play really well!

You have also done a lot of recent work for Netflix and other television companies. Has writing for television ever influenced your work in theatre?

Yes, absolutely – and my TV writing is influenced by my theatre experience, too. It’s fun to steal a theatrical device – like breaking the fourth wall and dramatic lighting shifts – and use it in a TV script. It’s also been fun to use TV tricks, like quick cuts and music cues, and apply them to theatre. While working on America In One Room, I’ve found a lot of ways to “cut to the chase,” which you can easily do in TV and film. It helps the play move faster and keeps the audience on their toes, too!

What are your hopes for the theatre world when everything can fully re-open?

My hope is that theatre sees a boom in business as people flock to live performances again. My hope is that theatres have used the shutdown and time off to develop new work – like FST – and open doors to more diverse artists, both on stage and behind the scenes. My hope is that theatre helps heal the country and brings us together like no other art form can. My hope is that theatre becomes more vibrant, inclusive, exciting, and profitable than ever. Is that too much to hope for?

Anat Cogan and Marina Re in FST’s production of Handle With Care. Photo by Matthew Holler.

Jason Odell Williams is an award-winning playwright and Emmy-nominated television producer based in New York City. His plays include Church & State and Handle with Care, which FST produced as part of its 2020 Season. He is currently developing America in One Room and is co-developig a new musical exploring his wife’s (Charlotte Cohn) Dutch Jewish heritage.