Tom Jacobson is arguably LA’s most prolific living playwright, with close to 80 productions of his full-length plays produced nationwide, most of them premiering in Southern California. He also has penned short projects such as A Vast Hoard, which he wrote as part of Chalk Rep’s upcoming Gallery Secrets — a collection of four plays, by four playwrights, set in four different time periods. Secrets opens Saturday at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles in Exposition Park.
Jacobson has a lot to be happy about and he’s not afraid to show it. Affable, outgoing and curious, he’s an active member of the Lutheran Church of the Master in West LA, which not only inspired his Cherry Orchard adaptation, The Orange Grove, but which also served as the venue for that play’s site-specific production in 2005. “We just have so much fun at my church,” he says. He has choir rehearsal later.
He’s a fan of many great playwrights: Shakespeare, Moliere, Tennessee Williams, Kushner and Carol Churchill — “Cloud Nine changed my life,” Jacobson says.
He could likely succeed at a number of professions. He looks perfectly comfortable in a slate-gray suit and tie, his feet propped up in an office of dark wood with walls dedicated to books. He could be a law professor — a very cool one — or any professor.
But only playwriting is his “great passion and pleasure” — the one thing he would do, no matter what the paycheck. Unfortunately, many playwrights learn that paychecks, even small ones, are hard to come by. Jacobson earned his MFA in playwriting from UCLA in 1985 and — rather than head back to Chicago where he completed his undergraduate degree at Northwestern — he has stayed in Los Angeles. And unlike some playwrights who look to more lucrative writing jobs in order to support their playwriting, Jacobson has found a way to balance a successful career outside the theater that dovetails into his creative slant on life.
“I found after I graduated that I couldn’t write because I was anxious about money,” says Jacobson. “I was always wondering where the next temp job was going to be.”
That led Jacobson to the UCLA job board. He answered a posting for a secretary at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and after a year became a grant writer. He continued to work his way up, eventually becoming LACMA’s director of development. Then, after 15 years at LACMA, in 2001 he was hired by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and in 2007 promoted to his current position as the senior vice president of advancement.
Jacobson not only became good at fundraising over the years, he kept writing plays — developing a sound process for finishing scripts while feeling inspired by the creative world surrounding him in his day jobs, first at LACMA and then the NHM.
He credits LACMA as the source of inspiration for his LA Weekly-awarded “best new play” Ouroboros (2004), packed with art history and characters inspired by fellow LACMA employees. And more recently, House of the Rising Son (2011) drew its inspiration from a particular entomologist at the NHM.
“Of course, I’m always trying to be better at fundraising,” says Jacobson. “But I’m always learning new things here. I’m really proud of the museum. And the things I do during my day job influence my writing and give me topics.”
It’s been a big year for the NHM. Several updates include the recently opened Nature Gardens, the revamp of the Dinosaur Hall and the new permanent exhibition Becoming Los Angeles. 2013 also marks the museum’s 100th anniversary with a $135 million fundraising campaign — its largest campaign to date. Jacobson has had less time to write than usual. The museum’s mission to “…inspire wonder, discovery and responsibility for our natural and cultural worlds” has been a priority for Jacobson this year.
But because he’s at a museum he also describes as “audience-focused,” Jacobson rarely feels removed from a creative life or even storytelling while he’s at work. “What does the research matter,” Jacobson says of the museum’s collections, “if it doesn’t reach the public in some way that they can embrace and understand?” This could also describe how Jacobson hopes audiences might experience his plays. Known for writing dramas and comedies that challenge historical norms and ask audiences to re-think what they might understand about art, politics or the inter-personal relationships of family, Jacobson also hopes his plays wrangle subject matter in the best possible way to reach an audience.
Whether he is telling the museum’s story to a potential donor or experiencing a new exhibition about the origins of Los Angeles, Jacobson straddles his professional and creative worlds fluidly. What’s his secret to productivity in spite of his enormous professional responsibility?
“I’ve always had a day job for my entire writing career,” says Jacobson. “So I have to be really efficient with my time. The thing that’s easy to do — that you don’t need [long] blocks of time — is writing outlines.”
Much as a scientist gathers specimens or excavates a dig, Jacobson gathers ideas, notes and even snatches of dialogue for various ideas. He collects and organizes his ideas until he feels a critical mass has assembled with one particular story. That will (usually) be the story he will start to outline into a 10-12-page document for a full-length play.
“I aim the completion of my outline for a holiday weekend. A three-day weekend,” says Jacobson. “Then I have the pleasure of spending that first weekend getting the bulk of the play down because the structure is already done.”
Jacobson has found this system not only efficient but also extraordinarily helpful in crystalizing his story ideas before committing valuable writing time to script pages. And, while there are still timeline variables depending on the play, the balance seems to be working.
Many of his plays — Bunbury (2005) The Twentieth-Century Way (2010) and The Chinese Massacre (2011) along with the previously mentioned Ouroboros, House of the Rising Son and The Orange Grove — have received awards and/or critical praise.
The Friendly Hour (2008), based on more than 70 years of meeting minutes of a 1934 ladies’ club in Beresford, South Dakota, was recently adapted into a short film which then served as inspiration for a feature film, Wild Prairie Rose (penned by a different writer). Principal photography wrapped over the summer. Jacobson credits many of these plays’ successes and longevity to his process.
“So many people resist outlines,” says Jacobson. “But what they don’t understand is they make your life so much easier. And it means you are less likely to abandon something part way through because you know where it’s going.”
Jacobson has seen most of the premieres of his work at LA venues — Road Theatre, Circle X, Theatre@ Boston Court, Cornerstone, to name just a few. He’s looking forward to a collaboration with Son of Semele Ensemble, currently in the planning stages.
“This is the best place in the world to put on a play with no budget,” says Jacobson. “We have the best acting pool in the entire world. We have more theaters than any city in the country. We now have great directors. And, of course, the 99-seat theater plan that allows you to do a lot with a little.”
Chalk Rep might agree. As a theater company specializing in site-specific performances, Chalk first worked with Jacobson at last year’s similar collaboration (The Flash Festival) at the Page Museum, which is the La Brea tar pit-located satellite of the Natural History Museum. As happened last year, writers for this year’s Secrets were given a space within the museum, learned some details about the space and the artifacts contained therein, then wrote a short play utilizing the specific location of the museum. Completed plays were cast and rehearsed to create a full night of theater telling four distinct stories.
Last year’s Flash Festival was deemed a success by the artists and museum, alike. But this new take on the event offers some lessons learned to create a better theatrical experience for audiences. A smaller pool of four writers participates — Ruth McKee, Zakiyyah Alexander, Boni B. Alvarez and Jacobson — as opposed to last year’s 20 playwrights performing 20 different plays in rep. Jacobson believes this alone has helped focus the evening and provided some room for themes to echo from play to play.
“I’m also developing an aesthetic about site-specific work, which is Chalk’s specialty,” says Jacobson. “I think you really need to use the site as what it is.” He describes some of the pitfalls he’s seen in non-traditional performance spaces, where a play might be simply “set” in a gallery but not necessarily dependent on that space to exist. Jacobson is looking for a relationship between the space and the story.
“They’re all separate plays [in Secrets] but there are some themes that have popped up that the museum inspired,” says Jacobson. “All three plays are very much inspired by what’s in the space. All of them reference objects. I talked a lot to the group about the notion of collecting — collectors collecting, what’s the role of a museum in a city and in a culture.”
Each play runs simultaneously four times a night with an actor “guide” taking each audience from one gallery location to another. The production pace has been fast and furious with a performance space that is open to the public for the bulk of the day. And, although the programming is not family-friendly for young audiences (primarily due to language and adult content), Jacobson thinks these stories are an exciting way for both those who are familiar with the museum and those who have never been to experience the recent improvements.
“One thing I love about working at the museum,” says Jacobson, is that “I’m always learning new stuff. It’s also a place that is learning about itself and transforming itself.” But he also hopes that his work continues to tell good stories based on relationships as much as they draw on facts and philosophies.
“I think plays have to be emotional experiences because [when it’s] purely didactic you don’t remember it,” says Jacobson. “Mostly you want to kill yourself during the performance. But if you have a learning experience that’s coupled with an emotional experience, it will become part of your memory. And it’s a lesson that you’ll learn in your bones rather than just in your brain.”
Gallery Secrets, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, 900 Exposition Blvd., Los Angeles 90007. Opens Saturday. Sep 21, 22, 27, 29; Oct 5, 6, 11, 13. All performances at 7 pm. Tickets: $25/$20 NHM members). tickets.nhm.org or www.chalkrep.com. 213-763-3499.