BWW Interviews: Ora Jones on MATILDA

BroadwayWorld San Francisco spoke with Matilda's Ora Jones about her childhood and adult influences, from Shakespeare to Frederick the Mouse. Learn what Frederick and Shakespeare have to do with Matilda when you read our interview below!

Hi Ora. Thanks for taking the time to speak with BroadwayWorld San Francisco. We're looking forward to seeing you in Matilda. You play the librarian, Mrs. Phelps, who has a larger role in the musical than the film. Tell me about your character.

First of all, the book and the film are pretty different. If you get an opportunity to read the book, I would start with that. Of course, things are going to be different between the film and the stage version, but there are some bigger differences that you do get when you read the book.

Mrs. Phelps, she does have a little bit more to do, which is kind of nice, for me anyway. She considers Matilda to be almost like one of her contemporaries. She's very aware that this is a child. She's also very aware that this is an extraordinary child. She does not, however, go out of her way to show Matilda that she's aware of that. She helps Matilda find books that would be of interest to her. She gives Matilda a place to be in the world where Matilda can basically just be herself. Nobody is amazed with her. Nobody is horrified by her. She's just a little girl in the library. The fact that she comes in often alone is not of a great concern. She's clearly a very self-possessed young person. So, her relationship with Mrs. Phelps is different from anybody else in the show in that they speak on a much more even level. There's nothing that Mrs. Phelps actually needs from Matilda. She doesn't need any help. She doesn't need to learn any lessons. She loves Matilda because tells incredible stories, and Mrs. Phelps loves stories, which is why she works at a library. But her life is pretty well set and she's very happy with her life.

Matilda visits Mrs. Phelps at the library throughout the musical, telling her pieces of a story with each visit. Without giving away too much, how do these stories reflect where the characters are at as the show progresses?

There are moments that do seem to correspond with her story. What we learn from Matilda over the course of this story that she tells is that she uses influences around her. If her parents have said something mean to her, she puts that in the story. If something happens with one of her teachers in school, she put that in the story. She picks up these moments. I think that's something children do all the time. Playing with their dolls or their trucks or whatever, they do have a tendency to recreate the world around them in their own world. We laugh all the time when little kids start talking like adults, and they start saying things that adults say just because they've heard them. But if you see them creating their own world, they will take influences from their experience that's around them. Matilda does quite a bit of that. She just wants to incorporate her experiences so they make sense to her. And she puts them in a very exciting story.

How many kids are there in the show?

It looks like millions. I think there are three Matildas. Including the swings, and we have two child swings, I want to say there are 13 kids in the show. There are two very talented young children who are the swings, and they come in and out. They know almost all of the tracks for all the other children on stage.

We don't spend a lot of time with them because the director has made it clear that they want these children to have as normal and balanced a life as possible. The girls have their own dressing room. The boys have their own dressing room. They have several supervisors, child wranglers whose job it is to make sure that they're dressed, make sure that they're ready to go. They lead them from the dressing room to backstage to get them ready for whatever scene they're doing, and when they're finished they go back to their dressing rooms. They don't hang out in the green room. They rarely come into our dressing rooms. And then at the end of the performance, they do not come out the stage door with us. They do not sign autographs. They have another door, and they have their parents or guardians waiting for them.

Mrs. Phelps and Miss Honey really encourage Matilda to use her mind and imagination. Did you have anyone growing up who served a similar purpose?

Just about everybody I knew growing up. My parents loved to read. I had teachers who were very encouraging about that. When I was a child, that's all you did. You had to read. You were constantly writing reports, constantly giving oral reports. It was just encouraged. You must keep reading. And also, my parents were in the Air Force. We traveled enough that you had to keep reading because you had to get to know where you were, you had to get to know about the city where you are, the country where you are, and the people and that sort of thing.

What are some of your favorite books?

I don't necessarily have favorites as an adult because there's so much out there now, especially with electronic books now, that you can read almost anything, anywhere. I do like some histories. I'm not very good at it, but I do like to read about quantum physics. Not a lot of it sticks with me. I don't read novels as much. I kind of like biographies.

When I was growing up we had tons of children's books. One of my favorite books of my childhood that I still read from time to time, as a great book for anybody no matter what your age is, it's a very short book called "Frederick the Mouse." A wonderful story about how everybody has something that makes them unique, a gift that they've been given that is wonderful and is also very helpful for being a part of a community. That is one of my favorite books.

I wind up reading lots of plays, because this is what I do for a living. I read a lot of scripts, which are their own special kind of story, and sometimes more exciting because it's a lot more active. There are voices that are speaking now.

You have a strong background in Shakespeare and classic theatre. How does that inform your appreciation for a show like Matilda and your work in that show?

I have been fortunate enough to meet people who teach classes in how to approach the language of Shakespeare. No matter what style of acting you enjoy, or what stories you like to tell as an actor, if you can learn how to tell those stories and pick up information in how those plays are written, it will always help you tell a story somewhere else. With something like Shakespeare, the punctuation is very much there for a reason, and if you can learn how to read Shakespeare and use the punctuation that has been given, it will help you with anything else you read. That's very helpful in how to tell the story.

With something like Matilda, transferring that to Mrs. Phelps' love of books, that's very easy to do. The real thing about all of this is having to be present on stage. Classical theatre can sometimes be frustrating for an audience because they feel like it's not their native language or it's not how people talk now. So your job as an actor when you're doing any kind of theatre is to be as present as possible, to be as real as possible. That's what doing things like Shakespeare helps me do in this story. This is a very fast paced story. It never stops moving. All of a sudden there's a song. All of a sudden there's a dance number. And then you're back to story.

The great thing about playing Mrs. Phelps is that Matilda and I just talk to each other. There are times when you just want to hear language, and you want to hear what is actually happening. And working with children you must be present. You cannot just expect that they're going to do whatever it is you think they're going to do. They're children. They're very imaginative. They're very creative. And each of these Matildas has a different delivery, personality. I do have to remain present for all of that.

The script, music and scenic design for this production are a bit unique in their own storytelling. How would you describe the creative elements of the show?

I find all of this to be very exciting. Challenging as well. One of the reasons I took this was because it was unlike anything I had done before, or anything I had done in a long time. I have done musicals, but I am not a dancer. I sing, but I don't do musicals very often. And to be with something with a story that's put together the way this is, it never stops being a challenge. Even for the people who are veteran singers and dancers, this story is a particular challenge. The choreography is incredible. For someone who is not a dancer, it seems triply hard to do. The music never stops being a challenge. We are so grateful for these beautiful melodies and for our orchestrators, our choreographers.

You can never stop reaching for it. You always have to reach as far as you possibly can to tell this story. You can never lay back. You can never say, "Oh, I'm a little tired. I think I might take it easy." You can't. This story will not allow you to do that. Even in the quiet scenes, when there's just one person, you're always on the balls of your feet. You're reaching for the clarity. You're reaching for the heart of it. And you're reaching to interpret this story through the song, through the dance, through the lights, even the props and things that we use, we have to be constantly aware of what we're doing, otherwise, this story will fall apart. It's delicate and it's a monster. You must reach out to the audience at all times. Just because it is - and this happens too often with stories that are for children, is that people tend to gloss over things. People think that you have to talk down to them. You don't. This is a very challenging story and the people who come to see it are very intelligent, and that includes the children.

What do you want audiences to take away from the show?

We kind of hope they don't get up to some of the tricks that Matilda uses to get back at her family. I think if you ask as many people as there are in the show, that's as many answers as you're going to get. But for myself, I think what anyone should take away from this is how important family is. If you're going to have a family you have to embrace it in every way possible. You have to acknowledge every single member of your family. You have to know that every member of your family has something special, something beautiful about them. And while you may not understand all of their gifts, you have to know that they have them. I was very lucky. My mother often did not understand my interests as a child, but she did absolutely everything she could to see to it that we got exposed to whatever we thought was of interest us. For me, that is the biggest takeaway as an adult. Love your children. Stay interested in them. Go home and love your children and get curious about them.

Matilda plays SHNSF's Orpheum Theatre July 15 - August 15. Visit for tickets and information.

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