‘To have more diverse audiences, you need more diverse plays’

Playwright Somebody Jones on representation in theatre, LA vs Lewisham, stringent visas – and her advice for aspiring playwrights

Somebody Jones explores diverse themes through her storytelling. Pic: Shanine Salmon

The plan was to leave as soon as her visa ran out, after her Dramaturgy and Writing for Performance Masters from Goldsmiths University of London was complete. But like many things in Somebody Jones’ life – and writing – the plan turned into something unexpected… something even better.  

Today, the 30-year-old LA-born lives, works and dreams in London. Scroll through the list of her star-studded plays, and accolades punctuate nearly every production. Look further, though, and a common theme of challenging stereotypes, celebrating the beauty of the mundane, and of storytelling that appeals to a wide range of audiences comes forth. 

Her stories are varied and vivid, speaking to subverted tropes, such as the present Black father or featuring videogame developer protagonists. One of her plays, a coming-of-age story called HOW I LEARNED TO SWIM, was a finalist for The Women’s Prize for Playwriting. The Guardian called her pandemic-inspired play Black Women Dating Black Men, “engaging, funny, blunt and thoughtful”. 

It’s a fitting description of the playwright as well, as she opens up about how difficult it is to diversify theatre audiences, and recounts her personal journey in becoming a celebrated, award-winning playwright and dramaturg while navigating the competitive Global Talent Visa pathway

Crucially for Jones, the coverage of her work by critics in the field was pivotal to amassing a body of evidence for the Home Office to grant her visa status as a leader/potential leader in the arts and culture space. She says successfully attaining that visa was one of the most unique and challenging things she’s ever done. Since then, she’s been helping develop other diverse talent – and even helping her friends with their own mountains of paperwork for similar visa applications. 

HOW I LEARNED TO SWIM is a coming-of-adulthood story exploring Black people’s relationship to water. Pic: Shanine Salmon

To Jones, diversifying the theatre landscape begins with the playscripts. Storytelling, Jones says, must be reflective of wider realities. “To have more diverse audiences, you need more diverse plays,” says Jones. Attracting – and retaining – diverse audiences is an ongoing process. Something as seemingly prosaic as the comfort of theatre seats can drive how welcome audiences feel, Jones explains. 

“You need to make a welcoming space. [It’s] about the seats and it’s not just about the seats. It’s about many other things,” says Jones, “I think the first hurdle is getting people in, and then the second hurdle is making them want to stay.” 

On longlasting diversity, she says: “I feel like the thing about playwrights and plays is, if you come from a certain background, it is more likely that people from that same background will come see your play, but that doesn’t mean that they will continue to go to that theatre, which I think is really interesting.” 

Writing reflective stories is a passion that was kindled during her time at Goldsmiths, but has evolved in the creative process. “I feel like with each year, my process changes and I refine it or experiment,” says Jones. These days, she dedicates Mondays to writing: “I would say my process really involves one whole day to write – and lots of tea and coffee.” 

On other days, she has a robust and exciting range of side projects, she says. In 2022, she worked as an associate artist with Nouveau Riche in 2022, a company now presenting Doughnuts & Ice Cream. Regarding future productions, she says, “Keep your eyes out! I can’t announce anything just yet, but I might have some big news soon!” 

Her biggest advice for aspiring playwrights? Networking. “I would guess 90 per cent of the opportunities I’ve had are because of networking, knowing someone who knows someone,” Jones says. And as someone who has moved from LA to London, she has a healthy network of connections on both sides of the pond. 

“The first place I lived when I came to London was Lewisham, so it will always have a special place in my heart,” says Jones. But she proudly carries her LA roots: “I love LA and am very proud to be a Californian. I always find LA stereotypes to be hilarious because they’re not actually about people who are from LA. Transplants might be superficial, but people who are actually from LA are warm, love being outside, and are big foodies. Which definitely describes myself!”

From LA to Lewisham, this playwright is making waves. Pic: Somebody Jones

In Lewisham, she found comfort in the abundnace of smaller local theatres. “Theatre is almost non-existent in LA,” says Jones. “There’s only about six theaters that are operating, which feels wild when you think about [LA] as [an] actor’s town.” London, she says, by virtue of grassroot theatre’s ubiquity, makes producing plays a more tantalizingly palpable reality. 

“We can all come together and create a show – it just seems so unique and so vital. I think that’s what makes the London theatre scene so special and something that I hope that we can continue to foster and retain,” says Jones. 

Was that the reason why she fell in love with London and stayed beyond her degree? 

“Well, I fell in love with someone and then stayed,” says Jones. She met her partner, to whom she is now married, two months into her studies at Goldsmiths. “I’ve been here ever since.”  

Read the rest of ‘The show must go on’, ELL’s three-day series on local theatre, here.

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