By writing and producing dramatic productions to perform for schoolchildren, University of Iowa playwriting graduate Anton Jones aims to make the world a better place one audience at a time.

Empathy. Resiliency. Self-control. Advocacy. Accountability. These are the themes Anton Jones plans to address with his next round of original stage productions for Climb Theatre, a Minneapolis-based theater company that tours schools in the Midwest addressing topics like bullying, the environment, and diversity.

As the company’s artistic director and CEO, Jones guides its programming to inspire and propel audience members to improve themselves and their community.

“You can bring a lot of unlike minds into the same room, people with different perspectives and opinions, and create a venue where everybody’s opinion has some validity.”

Anton Jones
Artistic director and CEO for Climb Theatre

“We focus on social skills,” says Jones, who earned an MFA in playwriting from Iowa in 2005. “If we can strengthen these skills, we know social ills will decrease.”

The company, which employs nine staff members and eight full-time actors, was founded in 1975 to provide arts education to the special needs community but has grown to serve people of all ages and abilities. Throughout the school year, small groups of actors visit multiple schools a day, reaching an average of 600 students per performance—and some 100,000 students annually through its plays, classes, and other creative works. Schools can choose from a selection of 40-minute plays centered on the five themes but Jones will customize content based on individual school needs.

Although the plays are performed with the intention to inspire and educate, Jones says he learns from audience members and considers each play a work in progress with the ultimate goal of helping schools address their concerns.

“I may have 30-plus more years of life experience than a kindergartener, but the five years they’ve had are valuable,” he says. “I’m not here to give the answers. I’m here to provide a catalyst for the search for answers.”

Before being named Climb Theatre’s artistic director and CEO in 2017, Jones had worked for the company conducting workshops, directing plays, and leading its Performance Company. He had plays developed at Minneapolis-area theaters such as Pillsbury House Theatre, Penumbra Theatre, and Pangea World Theater butsays he was drawn to Climb’s educational mission.

“I always wanted to be in the arts, and I always wanted to use education as a tool for social change,” he says. “Theater works well in this regard because it’s one of the few areas where that’s truly objective and subjective at the same time. You can bring a lot of unlike minds into the same room, people with different perspectives and opinions, and create a venue where everybody’s opinion has some validity. Theater is at its best when I can get people who are politically opposed to see that one play, engage in that same piece of work, and see the same hope within it.”

Creative work enthralled Jones at an early age, and he began writing short stories in grade school at Longfellow Elementary in Iowa City. (He lived in Iowa City while his mother, Tisch Jones, completed graduate work in theatre arts at the University of Iowa. She returned to campus in 2000 to join the faculty and now is a professor emerita.)

Jones graduated from high school in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and earned an undergraduate degree from Grinnell College in theatre, sociology, and American studies. He says he felt destined to return to Iowa City, however, to attend the University of Iowa, where he knew he could hone his writing skills in the Iowa Playwrights Workshop.

“I was the third generation in my family to do graduate work at Iowa. It was the only school I applied to, and I got in,” he says. “The University of Iowa has one of the best playwriting programs in the country. I had three years to find out how I wanted to live the rest of my life and use my craft.”

Jones says the time he spent as a University of Iowa student informs his work today.

To learn more about Climb Theatre, visit climb.org

“At Iowa, I realized that I was not alone in my worldview, but also that my worldview wasn’t the only worldview that exists. The variety of perspectives I was exposed to helped shape my career,” says Jones, adding that the experience he had as a teaching assistant on campus was invaluable. “Working with students allowed me to get a sense of how I can work with young professional artists.”

Jones would like to mentor college students interested in theatre arts and even hire them at Climb. He has worked with the UI Department of Theatre Arts to encourage internship applications and arrange auditions, and he aims to build even stronger ties to the university and to the state.

“My dream is to have a larger footprint in the state of Iowa,” he says. “Over the next three years, we hope to bring Climb to Iowa as frequently as we do to Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, and Illinois.”

Jones acknowledges that social change takes time—and that he is a patient man.

“I’m not going to change education over a year, over 10 years, or over my whole career. But I will see incremental change. I’ll see the two steps forward and one step back,” he says. “As long as I see those two steps forward, the challenge of one step back is worth it.”

Produced by the Office of Strategic Communication
Writer
Sara Epstein Moninger
Videographer/photographer
Clarity Guerra