Jason Woods is a name you may not recognize yet, but soon you will. This talented Floridian Theatre impressario is quadruple threat: writer, actor, director, and music composer. He has developed a singular kind of buzz in the medium sized metropolis that serves as his homebase, creating theatre productions that are often described as 'Disney Level" and attracting national attention to his work..
Tony Alligretti, the former Executive Director of the Cultural Council of Jacksonville, spoke about Jason Woods in no uncertain terms.
Michelle Tompkins conducted an in depth interview with the Florida theatre-maker for StarsAndCelebs.com about his life and suddenly hot career.
Michelle Tompkins: Now, where are you from?
Jason Woods: Originally, born in western Kentucky, currently living in Jacksonville, Florida.
MT: Tell me about your childhood.
JW: In high school, I participated in speech and debate tournaments. One of my coaches, when I was competing, is William E. Brown. He was in There’s Something About Mary. He played the brother, Frankenbeans. He was Dan Dority on Deadwood, as well. So he was one of my coaches in Kentucky. A great actor. I had some success in speech tournaments thanks to him and my coach Larry England, but career guidance in high school was lost for me.
When I was a teenager I didn’t really pursue my passion. I didn’t opt to go to New York or Hollywood and didn’t really know what good it would do to study in western Kentucky, study theater or what have you. I stayed in college for a little while, and then left there and explored a few other things, and, eventually, got married soon after and became a family man for a long time which I certainly don’t mean to paint in a bad light that I had a heart attack [laughter] years later.
MT: Well, families can be stressful [laughter].
JW: Yes, families can be stressful. I've been married now though over 27 years.
JW: Yeah, well, I didn’t do it alone [laughter]. I went through a lot of regular jobs, survived a heart attack and eventually, I just came back to what I love to do, and it’s led me to some lovely things and I hope to continue and continue to grow and here I am talking to you about it!
MT: Now, sorry to ask, but I have to. How's your heart now?
JW: My heart is great now and it’s 11 years older.
MT: So glad to hear that.
JW: Yeah, which is a good thing. And I have two children.
MT: You have two children?
JW: I do. Hannah who is 20, a sophomore at college studying philosophy, and she’s just brilliant. And then my son, Boston.
MT: Is that where he was conceived?
JW: HA! Great question. No, the truth is far less interesting, but practice makes perfect. No, I did some research on the name and I always wanted him to have a name that sounded strong. His nickname is Boss, and he’s a smart guy with amazing endurance and a brilliant mind. I'm very proud of him.
MT: Oh, well, that's good, and he probably likes to hear the shout-out from his dad. That's good. No, I did the conception joke because it comes from a Ron Howard joke that he made a while ago. He said that each of his kids has the middle name of the city where they were conceived, except [laughter] for one of the children who has a normal middle name because he didn't want to give them the middle name Volvo [laughter].
JW: Well, that’s good, and I would hate me if I had named one of them 'Paducah' or 'Mayfield'.
MT: Now, what jobs did you have before you returned to your passion?
JW: Retail. I was a carpenter for several years; instead of college, it was on-the-job training carpentry and plumbing and all of these other things that gave me the skills to help create theater in these years. When I did Saint George and the Dragon. I had just seen War Horse on tour through Jacksonville and I was stunned. I saw how much they did with so little and I thought, “I would I just love to have a 20-foot dragon on stage; one that uses that simplicity. What I built could never compare to what they did in War Horse. But the spirit of that was there. I would go to antique stores and craft stores and find little bits and chunks to make kind of steampunked inspired dragon that was more mechanical and kind of bound together with magic instead of trying to make it ultra realistic. And I think War Horse really inspired that for me a great deal, but it’s just so magical. I’m sure you’ve seen War Horse at some time in your life.
MT: I did. One of my former roommates was actually one of the swing players in it at Lincoln Center.
JW: Well, yeah. Well, it picked me, for sure. It was staggering to me. I’d been working as an independent director/contractor at a church, which is where I did St. George and an adaptation of Peter Pan. Inspired by War Horse, I built a 20-foot dragon puppet that was operated by four puppeteers and I voiced it. I would love to stage that one again. I will one day. But the magic of War Horse inspired the magic of St. George and the Dragon and Peter Pan.
MT: All right. Tell me a little bit more about your theater work.
JW: I began at nine years old; miserable and bullied by kids, and had no idea, really, that theater existed. I was at a ball game and I heard these people cheering and clapping and it wasn’t for us because we had just lost! It was night, and hot outside and we walked in the park towards our car and checked out what these people were doing. They were all clustered together with these lights shining on other people. They were doing an outdoor performance of Peter Pan. There was a kid on a wire flying and there were pirates and people laughing and clapping. I dropped my ball glove and I said, “That’s what I want to do.” And so my mother took me to auditions and took me to rehearsals and within a year, I was in another show and I was played the lead in Oliver! At Murray State University in western Kentucky when they performed it in fall of 1980. That’s how it all started. Shakespeare and Speech competitions in high school.
That never left me. Fast forward a few decades; when I lost my job in 2012 on my birthday, a parish in town wanted me to direct the spring musical for them. And I told my wife, well, there’s no way I’m ever working in a church again. And months later, I was there working because we like to eat regular meals and sleep indoors [laughter]. I did a show and they really enjoyed it and they asked me to come back that fall and they had never done a fall show before. They asked me what show I thought would be good and I gave them a few ideas and I said, “This is what I think I can do with it.” We did Charlotte’s Web, but I did it in a unique way. I didn’t dress people in animal costumes and I didn’t have barns and things like that. It was abstract and conceptual. And Charlotte’s Web, the play, doesn’t have a score and I’m also a composer, so I put some music to the play just to help. I felt it needed a lift in that way.
I directed Wizard of Oz and the fantasy aspect of it and the response was so overwhelmingly positive, they wanted something immediately like that to follow. And that’s where Saint George & the Dragon came from. And I spent a good deal of time adapting the myth of Saint George and then eventually it just became something else where a wizard had talking books, an imposter was pretending to be Saint George and a witch who has trouble with her magic trying to wreak vengeance upon a village. And her spell misplaces a dragon up in the hills who happens to be a good-natured one who loves poetry. The essence of the story is from the Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon how people perceive the dragon as a threat because he’s different or looks dangerous or stories have been told. I thought it was very timely; exclusion, racism, all of these things. I felt that the themes were there yet it was very magical.
The next spring I was told we were going to do The Sound of Music and was just going to be a job, honestly. But through an administrative error, they didn’t have the rights to it and they couldn’t secure them because it was going on tour and all of these people had auditioned. When they learned they couldn’t do SOM, they said: “What are we going to do ?” And I said, “Well if you’ll give me 24 hours and let me think, I’ll see if there’s something that I can do,” which thrilled me because I do love to create but most of the time it seems like it’s under duress in situations like this. But I proposed to them, Peter Pan. I said, “I have a script from years ago I’ll have to really tighten up and it doesn’t have enough songs. There’s no way I can create 17 songs that are quality.” I ended up I think with maybe eight songs for the whole show so it was more of a play with music. And it was just a scream. It sold out. And it was magical and beautiful and fit in the space and they were beyond amazed.
And then my last venture was this past spring when the selected show was Once Upon A Mattress. But there just wasn’t enough interest and not enough men to do the show during auditions, and the show requires men. I saw the writing on the wall that they were either not going to do a show or they needed another one. I had an adaptation of The Wind in the Willows and I said, “Well, this is not the kind of spring I was envisioning, but I can do this.” And they ultimately said, “Go for it.” Everyone was thrilled with doing something new after having experienced the whirlwind way Peter Pan came to be. It was at a level people weren't used to, St. George and Peter Pan. There was a lot of imagination in the execution of all three shows. Mr. Toad is based on The Wind in the Willows. I felt that the title, The Wind in the Willows, would put people to sleep. I find the book to be very pastoral, very calming. It’s one of my favorite books.
MT: That may not have yielded the desired outcome. All women playing in that particular show for a conservative church audience.
JW: Exactly [laughter].
In fact, I really don't understand what their thinking was. And one person, in particular, who's supportive of the program just said, "Forget it. I'm out. If you're not going to do Once Upon A Mattress, I'm out." Well, I don't know what I'm telling you but I just feel like it's interesting. But it became this political thing for them and it really showed the colors of the fact that it's a church, not a theater. Although there are dynamics that are the same and largely with people. It was a real opportunity to do some work that people were excited about. There was a lot of imagination. Mr. Toad is based on The Wind in the Willows. And I felt that the title, The Wind in the Willows, would put people to sleep. I find the book to be very pastoral, very calming. It's one of my favorite books.
MT: It's the dullest ride in the history of Disneyland.
JW: Truth! But everybody knows the ride. And so instead of calling it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, I called it Mr. Toad’s Wild Expedition because it had a ring of familiarity to it and it sounded more fun. And it took a minimalist kind of Off-Broadway approach with it, too, and created the woodland scenery that moves around with duality because we were very restricted at the time on space. I wrote some more music and songs for the show, and just had a ball doing it. I even replaced the lead actor as Toad one night.
Since I’ve been in Jacksonville I started adapting a few stories from books, public domain material. The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, A Christmas Carol. Now here’s the interesting thing about A Christmas Carol – When I was let go from my job five years ago, I started looking for work immediately and just couldn’t find any. I had this idea to adapt A Christmas Carol into a play where I could play multiple parts because I’d heard years ago on Broadway— that Sir Patrick Stewart did a version. I thought it would be a challenge as an actor I couldn't get anywhere else and I loved the story anyway. And the more I read it and re-read it, the more I really, truly loved it and I saw how cinematic the writing really was which kind of then formed the way I would interpret it. So I took about a year to develop A Christmas Carol and write the score, develop 20+ unique characters and create a 90-minute theater piece which, later in December when I was performing it, I was saying, “What was I thinking [laughter]?” It continues to challenge and reward me without fail. And the response has been overwhelming for me. People always ask "How's he going to do that?" When it's over, they say "How did he do that?" I'm so grateful. It’s a 90-minute solo-stage performance, and my favorite piece of work I’ve created so far.
MT: Now what are you hoping? Are you hoping to get it picked up on Broadway, are you shopping it around?
JW: Absolutely. I’m open to opportunity. I’ve had lots of encouragement from people.
MT: Do you have any other ideas or are you going to keep those secret for now?
JW: I do have another idea and some secrets!. I actually have a working draft right now but I haven’t begun to truly develop it. I think I have to get through A Christmas Carol before I sit down and start developing them. I’ve had a few other ideas talk to me, but I’ve also been working on auditioning for projects in Atlanta with some television. I’m in Jacksonville but I have an agent in Atlanta auditioning for film and television there. So it’s not only A Christmas Carol, it’s whatever other opportunities I’m right for that align I’m certainly open to.
MT: Now what is your dream career trajectory from this point on?
JW: Well I’m an actor at my heart, that’s what I want to do. I want to do work that honors the heroes that have inspired me. That’s an interesting challenge for me, I don’t live in an entertainment capital. You know you fight those things about what your age is and every day I get reminded by someone that that doesn’t matter and really the drive is unstoppable, I just want to keep going, it doesn’t matter where I am; I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing and just be ready if the opportunity comes.
MT: Well, when you're not working and seeking out new projects and being a good Daddy, what do you like to do for fun?
JW: I collect some vintage toys from the 70s, my childhood. I don't get to do that all of the time, but one project I just took on was a little bit of woodworking for A Christmas Carol, actually. I work on voiceover things and auditioning. Right now I'm in the middle of a big marketing push for A Christmas Carol, but on the weekends, I've been working on a lectern that I actually built for the show. So something that requires creativity, but doesn't involve work is what I'm learning to do at this age. Something that's not associated with the stress of earnings, just something for me. Learning a little bit after a heart attack and some other health issues, learning the value of self-care and certainly with my son's sickness, just trying to be available and open to them. And we're considering strongly starting up an Ultimate Frisbee game on Sundays, so just things that create engagement. And the last thing I'll tell you that I'm actually doing is I'm developing a card game—for about a year, I've been developing a fun card game, that I've had people over about five times in the past year to test with me, and my hopes are to put it on Kickstarter and get it funded just to get it out there because I love the engagement that it creates with people.
JW: Yeah, it's fun.
MT: Now, what are your social media handles?
JW: Well, Facebook is just Jason Woods. Instagram is @mrjasonwoods. My website is www.jasonwoodsactor.com.
MT: Well, what's next for you?
JW: Hopefully something magical! We’re strategizing right now what would make the most sense for us as a family and for my career, and my wife’s career.
MT: Well, I'm glad you're factoring her in. That means the marriage will hopefully last another 20 years [laughter].
JW: She has done a lot, so I want to see her succeed, for sure. I want to see her satisfied, and she would say the same thing of me. She knows that I stopped for a long time to be a family man and- I don't know, Michelle, it was a challenge. At one point, I thought, "Well, I could've been a family man or an actor and I chose to be a family man. Maybe that ship has sailed." Somebody actually told me that. They said, "Your ship has sailed," and that was before I decided to do A Christmas Carol, and so I don't let that stop me. I can't. I can't help it. I can't let it stop me.
MT: Well, there are many actors though who've started really late. After a career or two. Denis Farina…
JW: Michael Emerson, yeah.
MT: The woman who played Mrs. Landingham on The West Wing, Kathryn Joosten did that. She had a whole career for years and then one day at about 45 said, "I think I want to be an actor." I mean, the trajectory is a little different for people, and sometimes a later start means you're not competing for the ingénue and young, hunk role. So it might be a good time.
JW: I think you're right, and I think that's the perspective, honestly, the demon that I've—that might be one of the last demons that I have to choke. I think regret, which is a theme in A Christmas Carol, regret and remorse- I think that's something that has to completely be gone. It's like the universe wants that to happen for me. For all of that to be gone and to celebrate the fact that if it happens at this stage of life or a little later, that's a great thing. And I really appreciate this perspective you just gave me there on who you're not competing against. That's absolutely right, so there's a lot more to be optimistic about, and I don't think I would've said that five years ago.
MT: And also something not related but I'll just hand it out there to you is that you're working on stuff like Charles Dickens, and he was the first serial writer of the cliffhanger. The story would all of a sudden end and wait until next week. So what's the next step? There's always a next chapter with him. You have a good muse in Charles Dickens.
JW: Indeed. It's true. I know the truth. It's that good writing makes all the difference in the world. And I adapted the book and did my best to edit it down to 90 minutes, and it is largely Dickens, except for a few things that I felt would just be too difficult for today's audiences. His language is like magic. It's just like it appears and if—everybody has this experience of seeing it transpire on stage. They see the same person, but they all see something different. And there's a magic there that I just can't define, and the only thing that I've been able to attribute it to is Dickens' language, so yes, you're right. He's the muse. I owe him a great deal. And to be affiliated with him in this small way, or just be touched, I suppose, is the better way to say that, it's just always been incredible to me. I used to like the movie as an adult, and I found out that it was really the story that I really love.
MT: Where can people find out more
JW: They can find out more on my website jasonwoodsactor.com. You have all kinds of information there.