It's no secret that working in live theater isn't a very lucrative business. Stories about struggling actors, writers and directors who survive by working one or more other jobs to keep their passion alive are common.
But a trio of playwrights has found a model that seems to be working for them, and although Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten are not household names, their work is among the most produced on stages across the country. In fact, in sheer numbers of productions, you could equate their success with that of writers like Shakespeare and Neil Simon.
That's because they have unapologetically tapped into a market that dominates the American stage: community theater.
All three had been actors and/or screenwriters for TV, and Jones had co-written a popular stage comedy often performed in community theaters, Dearly Departed, which was later adapted to the big screen (by Jones and co-author David Bottrell) as the 2001 movie Kingdom Come starring Whoopi Goldberg and LL Cool J.
Jones and her pals Hope and Wooten had been looking for a way to get back into the art form they loved most, theater.
"One day I got a lovely royalty check in the mail from that old chestnut Dearly Departed," Jones says. "And I walked over to the boys and said, 'Look at this. We could be doing this.' Then I dropped it, but a few months later they came over and said, 'We have two words for you: Dearly Beloved.' That's how this started."
The trio wrote Dearly Beloved , and like Dearly Departed, the play quickly became popular in community theaters across the country, especially in the South, as it, along with their other comedies, features Southern-fried characters and scenarios.
That was followed by other comedies like The Dixie Swim Club, Southern Hospitality, The Hallelujah Girls, 'Til Beth Do Us Part and The Red Velvet Cake War. They also had the good sense to get into another aspect of community-theater popularity: Christmas shows. Enter Christmas Belles and Dashing Through the Snow.
Mama Won't Fly and Rex's Exes came in 2012, in keeping with the writers' ambitious work ethic of two plays a year. Their first new play of 2013, Always a Bridesmaid, has its world premiere this weekend at Grapevine's Runway Theatre. The writers will be in attendance opening night. Their second, for which the title and theater haven't been announced, debuts in Flint, Mich., in the fall. They are already lining up the two premieres for 2014.
"When a theater is in line to do a premiere," says Wooten, "and we decide they want one and they've earned it, and because we have to set them so far in advance, we tell them: 'We have no idea for it and we don't have a title, [but] we can tell you a title by this date and a description by this date and have a full script by this date, and we promise you it will be clean and won't offend anybody, and you have to do it exactly as written.' And they go, 'OK.'"
In less than a decade of writing these plays, JoHoWo, the nickname they're now known by, say there have been 2,300 productions of their work around the world. They say 450 of those were in 2012 alone, their best year yet.
Jones was born in the tiny Texas panhandle town of Dimmitt and raised in Dalhart, and ended up in Austin at the University of Texas. That's where she met Hope, who was born in Melbourne, Ark., but raised in the East Texas town of Center. He was on staff at Austin's now-defunct Center Stage, with which Jones became involved and eventually ran. They moved to New York in the '80s to pursue theater careers, and then to Hollywood.
She found work as a TV actress, making guest appearances on shows like the sitcom Designing Women. Hope soon met Fremont, N.C., native Wooten, another screenwriter, who had The Golden Girls on his résumé. The three became fast friends.
Considering that all three were Southern, their comedic sensibilities were grounded in the region, which they found little desire for in Hollywood.
"The one thing we were most frustrated with in our years in Hollywood," Wooten says, "is that we were continually thwarted at our trying to get Southern stories thrown in in any way. We had all these rich Southern characters we wanted to bring to life, and no one would let us do anything."
There was also the reality that it was hard to find work writing roles for characters who were older than 35, despite the fact that Designing Women and The Golden Girls were two of the most successful sitcoms of the '80s and '90s.
"What we have found with our audiences, they're looking for real wit and not just a repetition of lines that are being said in common parlance of the moment," Jones says. "Have some wit, some humor and good jokes, and not necessarily at someone's expense or to belittle another person or [that is] based on a dirty scenario."
Julie Crawford, executive director of the Fort Worth-based American Association of Community Theatre, adds that there are other key reasons these shows are attractive to producers.
"First, their casts include a lot of women and not many men, and many community theaters have far more men than women audition," Crawford says. "They are comedies, and audiences are more likely to attend comedies. But I think the biggest thing is that the characters are fun and, like Southern hostesses, they make people feel at home."
"Their characters are very identifiable, and people relate to them," says Linda Lee, executive director of Fort Worth-based Texas Nonprofit Theatres.
Do the hustle
Like other playwrights who have been popular in community theaters, such as Neil Simon, Alan Ayckbourn and to a lesser extent Ken Ludwig, JoHoWo is prolific. Two plays a year is no easy task.
"Let's put it this way," Jones says. "If you're going to live on royalties from community-theater productions, you better hustle."
Naturally, the trio isn't about to divulge how much they're making from their plays, but to offer an idea, Dramatists Play Service, the publishing company in charge of most of their work, might charge $75 in royalties to the writers, per performance. So, Runway Theatre's Always a Bridesmaid for instance, has 12 performances in this run, which could mean $900 for the trio from this one production. Divided by three, that doesn't seem like much, until you multiply that by 450 performances in 2012. And those are lowball estimates; the royalty rate is also correlated to the number of seats in the theater, and community theaters typically have between six and 20 performances for each title.
The writers believe that their collaboration has been key to their success.
"We do everything together, believe it or not," Jones says of the writing process. "One or two of us will come up with an idea and we all start pitching on it. We pitch until we've fleshed out the story, or we dump the story and go onto a new idea. We pitch and pitch and then we start plotting points on the computer, as in what the scenes are going to be like, how long are they, who the characters are, what their names are, and then we lay out the dialogue and we start refining it."
They all moved to New York in 2012 (for Wooten, it's his first time living there), where they commit to writing on an almost-daily basis.
"We have a lovely computer setup where we hook the computer into a big flat-screen TV so we can be anywhere in the room and we're not all hovered over one tiny glowing screen," Wooten says.
To which Jones adds: "We can sit further apart so when we try to slap each other, it's more difficult to reach."