BWW Interview: Matthew Jones of SHREK THE MUSICAL at Lyric Opera Theatre
"You can't run away from what you love."
Matthew Jones, donning a baby blue Adidas polo shirt and a cap that reads: "Zimbabwe," imparts his newfound wisdom, casually sipping an iced coffee. An assortment of wristbands dangles from his left wrist, and he flashes a charismatic grin that reads as genuine rather than sleazy.
He relates the story of how he tried to quit theatre. Once a high school athlete, who broke social norms in his New Jersey high school to sing in the choir and act in the school plays, tried to push away his passions in pursuit of a sensible degree at Arizona State University. He joined a fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, which he feared would shun him for following his creative talents. Rather, the opposite happened--his brothers, and everyone in his life he thought would discourage him, came together and became the support and foundation he needed to succeed.
While Jones may seem like the typical, cliched tale of the Athlete/Frat Boy who found his true self through theatre and the performing arts, Jones is anything but average. He relays his backstory with ease, with the kind of calm rare for an actor his age. But his laidback nature should not be mistaken for complacency--every word Jones says is calculated and purposeful. This is a young man who knows his words are important, and knows the art of storytelling extends even off the stage.
Jones, a freshman at Arizona State University, is only in his second semester of college and has already landed a lead role as Donkey in Lyric Opera Theatre's Shrek The Musical--a role he previously played in high school.
In fact, Jones said he never intended to work with Lyric Opera Theatre as a business communications student, until he stumbled upon a flier advertising Shrek auditions.
"I thought, 'Well, I could audition for it.' I didn't know if I wanted to," Jones said. "I didn't see any business students doing it, I didn't see any non-[musical theatre]majors doing it. I just gave it a shot, and it kind of worked out."
And indeed it did.
However, Jones, not used to the natural order of the Lyric Opera Theatre audition process, did not know he was supposed to bring a headshot and resume to the audition.
"I ran up to Hayden library and printed a makeshift resume of what I already had, and just put in the shows I did, and brought it to the audition," he said. "So I was pretty nervous."
Amidst all of that, Jones landed the role--much to his own surprise.
"I was so nervous. I was hanging out with my friends, saying, 'Oh the cast list comes out today, the cast list comes out today.' And when it finally came out, I could not believe my eyes," Jones said. He was determined to play the character to the best of his ability--he knew the stakes were high.
Even so, Jones was careful not to fall into the trap of mimicking the mannerisms of the previous actors who played Donkey. In fact, he puts his own unique spin on the character, utilizing a Jamaican accent in the show.
"It was Matthew's (Matthew Wiener, director) decision, he wanted to spice things up a little bit," Jones explained. "During my audition, Matthew told me during my monologue I started to have this weird Jamaican accent. He asked me if I was from Jamaica, and I said, 'No, it just happens when I'm really nervous.' And he said, 'Well, I like that. So if you could, you could do Jamaican Donkey?' And I said, 'Yeah, I could,' never thinking he'd actually let me do it."
Although a newbie in the college theatre world, Jones is no stranger to unorthodox methods. When it comes to his process, he has a few unusual ways to get into character.
"I always wear wristbands--I do that for my normal persona," said Jones. "I'm so used to having them on me, shaking around, and I'm like, 'Okay, I'm Matthew Jones.' When I take them off, I don't feel like myself, and it's easier for me to become a different person."
Jones compared his peculiar way of getting into (or out of) character to the methods of any other actor.
"Some actors will say they don't feel like their character until they get their props, well these are my props. These are my Matt Jones props," he said.
When asked if being "Matthew Jones" was akin to being a character, Jones chuckled and elaborated on his sense of self.
"I'm always doing some kind of theatrical thing. Sometimes, I'll go over my lines and rehearse when I'm walking. But then I'll see something [on the street] happen, and think, 'Well, what if it happened this way? What if he said this, or what if she said this? And how would I react to that?' And so I'm always acting in a way. It's just something that I do."
A lot of times I'm not looking to be someone else, but I have a very theatrical personality. I think theatre is a great way to communicate with people, and being able to rehearse what you're going to communicate makes you a better communicator."
Jones, although already creating a presence for himself at ASU as a freshman, is by no means short on humility.
"I want to make it apparent that I wouldn't be where I am, or as confident as I am today without my family and friends, especially my parents and Brothers and Sisters who always motivated me to do things," he said. "I wouldn't be here without them. I am so grateful to have them. Not a lot of people have others to motivate them to do what they love."
Jones said he had a few wishes for this particular production.
"There's all the other Shrek The Musicals," Jones explained. "I want people to remember ASU's production distinctively... because that's originality, that's what great art is."
At the heart of it all, Jones's story comes back to his passion for performing. Jones, like so many artists, wants to create beautiful art that somehow connects with the audience. Although Jones's future remains up in the air, one thing is for sure: he is done running from what he loves.
Lyric Opera Theatre's Shrek The Musical runs April 20-23 at Arizona State University - ASU School of Music, 50 E Gammage Pkwy, Tempe, Arizona 85287. Tickets can be purchased at https://asuevents.asu.edu/content/lyric-opera-theatre-presents-shrek-musical or at the door.