Theater Around The Bay: An Interview With Colin Johnson

In honor of STICKY ICKY, opening May 23rd, we’re interviewing writer/director Colin Johnson about this latest joint.

received_10154233015265139 copy

Give us your elevator pitch for yourself- WHO IS Colin Johnson?

CJ: It depends on how long I had in the elevator. If we went all the way to the top floor, I feel I’d have enough time to do an interpretative dance displaying my many passions for film, theater, storytelling, writing, directing, performing and editing, and my experience with many notable enterprises, including SF Olympians, SF Playground, SF Fringe, SF Shotz, San Diego and New York Comic-Con, Image Comics and Awesome Theater. The dance would be tasteful but provocative; informative but challenging. If we were only going up one floor, I’d just reach my hand out and say, “come with me if you wanna have a great time making some weird art”

And this isn’t your first time at Theater Pub, is it?

CJ: I have been playing with the good folks at TP for the past three years or so. Or maybe 4. When was the last Pint-Sized at Cafe Royale? That was when I started. I’ve done like 5 or 6 shows in various capacities.

What keeps you coming back?

CJ: The challenge of setting a piece of theater amidst an open, functioning, busy bar. It’s harder than it looks, and a great many types of shows that would flourish in a traditional venue have struggled with the format. It forces you to be blunt, loud, fast and not rely on tech elements or, to a degree, audience engagement. I tend to go into a show as if I’m entering a combat field with my platoon, but like in elementary school, where the imagination was running wild and role-playing was cool (because that’s what we essentially still do, we are the role-playing holdouts from childhood). X factors will be flung at you left and right and you have to duck and dodge to pull it together. Theater Pub harkens back to the days without polite theater etiquette, where performers and crew members need to be on their toes to overcome any and every obstacle that the outside world will throw at them, from passing sirens to drunk idiots at the bar. It keeps them present and focused, but also flexible. They also let me do pretty much anything I want.

Tell us more about Sticky Icky- what can we expect?

CJ: You can expect a loud, fast, funny romp through classical zombie-film tropes and tireless research from my years of being a high-functioning pothead. We got the archetypes, we got the paranoia, the in-fighting, the snacks, the doomsday radio broadcasts, the external menace, and even a couple original songs.

What’s got you most excited about this project?

CJ: The idea of uncoordinated, easily-distracted-yet-dangerous and relentless antagonists was too funny to pass up. It was actually developed as a feature-film several years ago in Eastern Washington State, a place where you either smoked or you HATED THOSE DIRTBAG HIPPIE NO-GOODNICKS. It was originally much more violent and dealt with marijuana legislation and its respective sides. Over the years, it has remained on the back burner, mutating into whatever avenue suited it best. When I was asked to come back to Theater Pub this year, I wanted to make a serious, intense play. But then I remembered my dormant idea for Sticky Icky and giggled the way a selfish blowhard laughs at his own shit.
Needless to say, it’s a play now, and although it doesn’t try to take itself seriously anymore, the overriding themes of both sides of the debate being equally stupid for different reasons is still very much there.

Marijuana has a colorful history as a subject in film and theater- any influences you wanna point to?

CJ: Most of the direct references come from the horror genre — John Carpenter (The Thing, Assault on Precinct 13, Prince of Darkness) and, of course, George A. Romero were major influences, as were numerous smaller, stranger zombie movies (Shaun of the Dead, Pontypool, 28 Days Later, Undead). In our play the weed is used more as a catalyst in the style of Danny Boyle’s genre-busting classic, only instead of blood or saliva transmission, it’s second-hand smoke (invisible of course due to indoor smoking laws). That said, it’s much closer in tone to Reefer Madness or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (I love idiots screaming over each other). The plot is horror, the dialogue and performances are comedy.

Should or should not people show up to this stoned?

CJ: It definitely wouldn’t hurt if folks got a bit blazed. Unfortunately, there won’t be an intermission to “freshen up”. I promise no one will be bored. We want to create the illusion of chaos, so stoned lightweights should maybe sit a bit farther back from the action.

Let’s say they do- what food served at the bar do you most recommend?

CJ: I’m a devoted pulled-pork guy. And the fries are perfect to keep you going when you’re rocking a long day.

And for the non-stoners in the house- what beverage?

CJ: I’m a pretty no-frills drinker. I like beer and whiskey. My little brother turned me onto whiskey-gingers, those are good. If I’m working I’ll drink the Kolsch or Tecate (the classy stuff). If my wits are not needed as much, I’ll usually go for an IPA.

Any shout-outs for stuff going on in the Bay Area?

CJ: Be sure to check out the SF Shotz shows, performed (usually) the second Wednesday of each month at Pianofight. Six new five minute plays, fully produced. Good rowdy fun. Also Loud and Unladylike has a great lineup this year! As does Olympians! And Best of Playground! Also Saturday Write Fever is always a good bit of creative cardio! The Circus Center is doing crazy cool stuff in their Cabaret Series and various showcases. Jaw-dropping. So much good stuff. All the freakin’ time. Very alive and well. (insert uplifting San Francisco song. Maybe the Foxygen one)

And what’s next for you?

CJ: I got a full slate coming up. I wrote a new show for Longshotz (the one-act offshoot of Shotz) that’s opening in early June. I will also be guest-producing the regular Shotz performance on June 8th. I have a few original short plays being published in August. In October I’ll be directing Terror-Rama 2: Prom Night for Awesome Theater at Pianofight. And I’m lobbying for a big directing gig in December that would expose me to a whole new style of performance. Fingers crossed. I’m also currently producing a web series in collaboration with the new Clown Conservatory. My partner in that endeavor and Director of the Conservatory, the immensely talented Sara Moore, is featured in Sticky Icky as the salty barfly Donelda.

Don’t miss STICKY ICKY- opening at Theater Pub on Monday May 23rd!

Advertisements

In For a Penny: You Can’t take it With You

Image via Universal Pictures

Image via Universal Pictures

“[I]t’s a form of alchemy, of magic. It’s very appealing. I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated because the very earliest people who made film were magicians.”
– Francis Ford Coppola, Academy of Achievement interview, 17 June 1994

When I think of Aaron Sorkin, I’m reminded of Christopher Buckley’s address to Yale’s 2009 graduating class. In a self-deprecating speech, the author and former George HW Bush speech-writer implores these supposedly-future-captains-of-industry to reject the very shameless materialism they’d supposedly been encouraged to embrace. “[Do] you really want to model your lives on characters in a Tom Wolfe novel?” he asks. “I always wanted to be Tom Wolfe, but I never wanted to be Sherman McCoy.” I’d rather be Aaron Sorkin than Will McAvoy, but that may have less to do with wanting to be a celebrated writer and more to with my wanting to date Kristin Chenoweth.

As regular readers of Theater Pub know, Sorkin is a polarizing figure, partly by design. His instantly recognizable prose adds an electric energy to his story and characters. Still, the subjects he covers are filtered through his own unapologetically myopic bias. He began as a playwright, but he’s become the polar opposite of the Coen Brothers’ eponymous Barton Fink: he’s somehow gotten the Hollywood machine to bend to his will, rather than the other way around. That’s why I found it fascinating when he first announced his screenplay for Steve Jobs would essentially be a three-act play on film.

I’m not here to review the film (which I saw back in October), but I will say that I can see why it’s been recently nominated for several awards. Having said that, I watched the film wondering if maybe Sorkin’s approach was, well, too successful? Is it possible for a film to somehow be “too theatrical”?

Allow me to explain: as I watched the film, I was fully focused by Sorkin’s story and characters, but I didn’t find the film to be inherently cinematic. I know director Danny Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler shot the three acts in three different formats (16mm celluloid, 35mm celluloid, and 24-frame digital, respectively), but there was still little about the film that made it, well, a film. With the exception of a few short flashback scenes, the staging and transitions – particularly those depicting the passing of years – were all the sort of thing one could see in a local black box production. Rather than thinking it was like a play, I asked myself why they didn’t just make it into a play.

I’m not saying that it needed wall-to-wall special F/X, blinding explosions, and seizure-inducing editing, but film is a visual medium first and foremost. Theatre is, on a rudimentary level, about standing in front of people and commanding their unwavering attention. Film is a technology that just happened to be eventually adopted by storytellers, most of whom came from theatre. As much as writers like to believe their words are sacrosanct, a screenwriter knows that his/her words should always be in service to the manipulated visuals rather than the visuals adhering to the words on the page.

Those horrible visuals.

Those migraine-inducing visuals.

Which isn’t to say the two things are mutually exclusive, just that you should know what works best for the medium you’ve chosen for your story. Nearly every actor who’s appeared in a Terrence Malick has described his scripts as the best they’ve ever read; those same actors lament how Malick himself will toss aside those scripts just to capture a shot of a butterfly landing on a flower. At least with the Qatsi films, you know they’re montages without anyone being mislead into thinking there’s a traditional narrative.

Similarly, I’m all for theatre productions incorporating various technologies, such as projectors. Yet there are some productions that rely so heavily on projection technology that you get the impression the creators are just frustrated film-makers pissed off that they had to “settle” for doing theatre instead of the format they wanted. (And the tiny violin orchestra begins.)

When all is said and done, I have an appreciation for playwright who made his voice so prominent in a production (and format) where said voice is a secondary concern, if at all. He made his words the central focus of a project that included award-winning visual stylists and recognizable extras. As I said, I’m not here to review the film – and I have plenty of positive and negative things to say in that regard – but it may be the best compliment I can give to say that I’d rather see this performed live than as a collection of flickering images.

But I say that as someone who, to put it one way, goes to a restaurant to enjoy the meal, not because the chef is a celebrity.

Charles Lewis III is currently compiling his list of the best films and plays he saw in 2015. He promises not to include the ones he was in.

Working Title: Broadcast This!!

This week features Will Leschber’s fall preview…but not the kind you were expecting You want Theatre? Well, go see this movie!

This is the time to look ahead. It’s Fall preview, so lets jump in while it’s cold. The theatre offerings coming down the autumnal road are plentiful. For a beautiful cross section taste of what’s coming, I’d recommend checking out (or rereading) Claire Rice’s recent post “Get the Fuck off the Couch“. BUT if you are looking for related entertainment in a different vein read on. Film Festivals and live theatre broadcasts may be the change of pace you are looking for.

Film festivals are a unique way to merge intimate audience engagement and the distance of film. Often these films have creators in attendance which can add a live spark to a viewing experience. So you want to keep it local (ish) and experience something more distinct than the multiplex fall fare…check these out.

Latino Film Festival

Sept 19-27th

The Cine+Mas SF Latino Film Festival showcases the work of emerging and established filmmakers from the US, Latin America, Spain and Portugal. It is a celebration of the latest work coming out of 20+ countries.

Mill Valley Film Festival

Oct 3-13

The festival site self-describes in this way, “Each year the festival welcomes more than 200 filmmakers, representing more than 50 countries. Screening sections include World Cinema; US Cinema; Valley of the Docs; Children’s FilmFest; a daily shorts program; and Active Cinema, MVFF’s activist films initiative. Festival guests also enjoy Tributes, Spotlights and Galas throughout.”

Known as a filmmakers’ festival, the Mill Valley Film Festival offers a high profile, prestigious and star-studded environment perfect for celebrating the best in independent and world cinema. Screen International named Mill Valley one of its top 10 US film festivals.”

mill_valley_film_festival copy

Sacramento Horror Film Festival

October 10th-12th

It may be less local than we’d like, but if you are looking for something to infuse seasonal scares into your spine, the Sacramento Horror Film Festival maybe be your trick or treat. The film site boasts, “The SHFF screens more films over fewer days than any other horror film festival thus providing a greater chance for exposure for the horror filmmaker. We have a profound dedication to the horror genre. The festival screens all things horror including features, shorts, documentaries, music videos, trailers, and animations.”

If sitting in a darkened movie theater for days on end isn’t your jam, perhaps National Theatre Live is the ticket. For those unaware, National Theatre Live is the National Theatre’s groundbreaking project to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world. Upcoming shows include: The Young Vic’s highly acclaimed production of the Tennessee Williams masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, with Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby; A new potent version Euripides’ powerful tragedy, Medea; A live broadcast from London’s West End of David Hare’s Skylight directed by Stephen Daldry and featuring Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan; and last but not least National Theatre Live’s broadcast of Frankenstein returns to cinemas this fall. Audience demand has been unprecedented for this broadcast. Directed by Academy Award®-winner Danny Boyle, Frankenstein features Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller alternating roles as Victor Frankenstein and his creation.

frankenstein copy

A Streetcar Named Desire
Captured Live:
Century 9 San Francisco Center- September 16th
AMC Bay Street 16-September 16th
Encore Performance:
Sundance Kabuki- October 13th & 18th

Medea
Encore performance:
Sundance Kabuki Theatre: October 6th & 11th.

Skylight
Sundance Kabuki- October 25th, 27th

Frankenstein
Encore Performance:
Rialto Cinema Cerrito, October 15th, 20th, 27th 29th

The National Theatre Live website lists additional productions and additional participating movie theatres.

Sources

O’Niell, Nikki. Mill Valley Film Festival. N.d. Photograph. http://www.mvff.com/Web. 19 Aug 2014.