The play's his thing
Artistic director Jon Jory is happy to talk theory. But he learned
To look into Jon Jory's life story is to read a history of the American theater. Mr. Jory has had a long and distinguished career as the artistic director of the Actors Theatre of Louisville (ATL), one of the most innovative regional theaters, which develops new plays and talents every year.Skip to next paragraph
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During his 30 years at ATL, he has seen many changes in the American theater.
Not all of them have been good.
He has seen how television, for example, has altered theater by making plays shorter. Performances used to run 2-1/2 to 3-1/2 hours. Now, he says, two hours is long, and 90 minutes is the norm.
On the other hand, he has seen fascinating experimental works enter the mainstream. Playwrights David Mamet, Richard Foreman, Anne Bogart, Robert Wilson, and Tina Landau have altered the way we think about theater.
Jory's parents, Victor Jory and Jean Innes, were stage stars who became important character actors in the movies. And since he loved being with his parents, he spent every minute he could from early childhood on watching them work - and learning their craft. He had an Actor's Equity card by the time he was six years old.
"The great untold story in American theater," Jory says, "was the 40-week stock companies that went from the late teens until the advent of the talking film - they would do 40 plays in 40 weeks, and there were 1,400 of them across the United States." His parents played leading roles in several different companies - during which time they did 280 plays in seven years.
"When the talkies came in, these stock companies were lost - all 1,400 of them - in about four years.... This whole generation of stock-company actors went out to Hollywood and became that incredibly brilliant group of American character actors from the late '20s to the '50s."
But even while they made their splash on the big screen, those who had come of age on stage - among them Dana Andrews, Robert Preston, Lloyd Nolan, Victor Jory, and their wives - formed a group called 18 Actors in Los Angeles. "They did four or five plays a year, very often classics, and they would sell out for the year in a day. They rehearsed in their homes, and we had the best living room for rehearsals, so I would sit in my jammies on the stairs and watch them rehearse Strindberg and Ibsen and Chekhov, and other popular plays of the day, hugging my teddy bear. It never even occurred to me that I would do anything else."
His teacher? The theater
By age 13, the young Jory was already directing. Over the years he would direct his parents in nine plays, all of them American classics. The theater educated him, in addition to feeding and housing him and supplying meaningful work. "I always had a bit of a hard time in school," he says. "I've really been educated by the theater - which is a great educational institution...."
Jory attended the University of Utah, dropped out to follow his acting career at the Cleveland Playhouse, then went into the Army, where he continued to direct. (The Army, he says, produces more plays than any other entity in the country.) After his Army service, he went to Yale University to study playwriting and helped start the Long Wharf Theatre company in New Haven, Conn. Then he made his way to a struggling young company, Actors Theatre, in Louisville, Ky.
He found his real home at Actors Theatre, where he built a fine resident core company of eight actors. "I was directing [plays] around the country a little bit, but then I just couldn't get out of here!" Jory says. "It always just stayed interesting enough that there was no way to leave."
Actress Adale O'Brien met Jory at the Cleveland Playhouse 40 years ago, when they acted together in several productions. Ten years later, he invited her to become a member of the Actors Theatre during his first season, and she has lived and worked in Louisville ever since.
With true resident companies all but fading from American cities, her tenure is as unusual as Jory's.
"I think of him as a 'reluctant visionary' because he simply doesn't want to admit to that," Ms. O'Brien says. "But ... there's a whole bunch of ways to be a visionary. Anne Bogart is a visionary on one level, and Jon is a visionary in another. What he has done building a theater is a very pragmatic, realistic vision. But it's a miracle, too. We have here, possibly, one of the best theaters in the world."