A deal under the 20th Century Fox TV banner is oiling the wheels for a souped-up new theater company, in an unusual pact that could become a new model for producing live theatrical entertainment in a variety of venues.
Playwright and TV writer-producer Rolin Jones (“Weeds,” “Friday Night Lights,” “Boardwalk Empire”) inked a two-year pact in January with 20th TV to develop projects for network and cable under the shingle New Neighborhood.
But in a departure for Hollywood deals, Jones’ group will also create theater projects with a virtual company of artists from across the country, coming together in real life at various sites as projects demand. The troupe will co-produce with interested regional theaters, offering fresh product, talent, energy and some enhancement dollars.
“It’s all about storytelling,” says Jones, pictured above left with fellow New Neighborhood company member Jackson Gay. “We envision it a lot less like theater company and more like a rock indie label.”
Its most high-profile project is Jones’ “These Paper Bullets!,” a puckish pop-music mash-up of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing” set in swinging ’60s London. Billie Joe Armstrong, frontman for Green Day, supplied eight original pop tunes in the Beatles mode for the show, which premiered last year at Yale Repertory Theater in New Haven. (Connections help: Jones is also penning the screenplay for the film version of Broadway’s “American Idiot,” now in its second draft.)
The Yale Rep production was enthusiastically received, winning top honors from the Connecticut Critics Circle, and under the New Neighborhood banner is now headed to L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse and Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company this fall.
Also on tap is the July world premiere of Suzanne Heathcote’s play “I Saw My Neighbor on the Train and I Didn’t Even Smile” at the Berkshire Theater Group in Stockbridge, Mass., in a production directed by Gay. The director also staged “Bullets!” and is a key figure in the theater company.
Music and design are major parts of the New Neighborhood’s edgy aesthetic. The cartoonist and graphic novelist Seth created the group’s burning-down-the-house logo; Ryan Kattner of the cult group Man Man and the “doom-wop” band Mister Heavenly is writing the live music for the Berkshire work, a bizarre romantic comedy starring Keira Naughton, another central figure in the group. (With New Neighborhood, Naughton is also developing “The Petersons,” about a fictional family surrounding a dysfunctional rock-pop band that will perform a kind of pop-up theater in bars during the runs of some Neighborhood shows.)
Jones also said his offbeat, eclectic and geographically widespread company will do other site-specific work, including a cross country theater piece on Amtrak. Reflecting the just-for-fun spirit of the company, Jones says he wants it to own a race horse and buy a bar in New Haven.
As the theater arm of New Neighborhood launches this weekend with a party at Louisville’s Humana Festival of New American Plays, Jones, 42, will now step back and focus on the first show he is developing for Fox, “Dependable Dittmers, We Sell Cars,” inspired by an episode on NPR’s “This American Life.” Prior to New Neighborhood, Jones was attached to AMC, where he co-wrote and executive produced the pilot “Knifeman” and was co-executive producer on “Low Winter Sun.”
Of the 33 New Neighborhood members, more than half are associated with Yale and the “These Paper Bullets!” production. Jones had a playwriting degree from the Yale School of Drama, and his “The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow” was produced at Yale Rep in 2002. It went on to be a Pulitzer Prize finalist.
According to company member Jennifer Kiger, who is also the Rep’s associate artistic director and director of new play programs at Yale’s Binger Center for New Theater, the group is under the fiscal sponsorship of an umbrella not-for-profit organization so it can fundraise tax-free dollars.