Theater Around The Bay: Colin Johnson Is Creative

Our next show, The Creative Process, opens tonight at Theater Pub! We took a moment to chat with Colin Johnson, the playwright, about the show, making theater, and looking like a chump.

Colin offered no comment, just this cheese ball photo.

Colin offered no comment, just this cheese ball photo.

No, but really, who are you? 100 words or less.

I am Colin. I make theatre and movies and write and produce and act and sell books. I enjoy hiking and chronicling human misfortune in both comedic and horrific ways. I’ve been around the Bay since 2008 and have dabbled in every form of art and storytelling i could possibly taint. I’m currently involved with SF Playground, SF Shotz and SF Olympians, along with co-running my own small production venture, Battle Stache Studios.

And what is this show about? Like really about?

The show is about all the internal and external bullshit that goes into creating anything. The insecurity, the masking of insecurity, the spontaneous inspiration, the yelling, the overwhelming compulsion to be the center of attention and to be validated, the willingness (or refusal) to sell out, the desperation, etc.
We, of course, will wrap these themes into a ridiculous and entertaining format of three short plays, all loosely tied together through character and content. We will also include a live band in our attempt to shove as much art as possible into the experience.

Yeah, but why should I come see it?

First of all, the environment. Pianofight. Where else will you be able to drink, eat, see outrageous comedy and listen to a live band all on the same cabaret stage? Also, anyone who has ever created or produced art will identify with the scenarios we’re exploiting, and will hopefully enjoy the absurd lengths we go to in sketching out the eternal struggle of the artist.

Tell me about your creative process- how do you come up with ideas?

I have trained myself to pull ideas out of any and everything, often to the detriment of my social and romantic life. After conception, my process usually revolves around slight reorganization of my environment, pre-production (I’m big on pen-and-paper prep), and ruthless, energetic optimism. As someone who does a lot of film and theatre production and who recognizes the differences the two formats require, I relish the fact that every project requires a different approach and a different style. Whatever works. Creation isn’t a set menu, it’s a buffet.

And then what?

And then the key is making sure everyone you bring on board is just that: on board. If you surround yourself with amazing people who have faith in the product, the finish line will appear out of even the darkest moments.

What’s your favorite part of the creative process?

Collaboration. I love getting friends and colleagues in the same room and jamming. Creating the perfect creative environment where everyone feels free to experiment and express themselves is the best workplace I could imagine.

What’s the part that makes you want to tear your eyes out?

That’s a multi-tiered answer with a nifty little twist. The final run-up. In independent production, you can be damn sure that Murphy’s Law will rear its ugly head sooner or later. And those obstacles usually show up at the WORST POSSIBLE TIME. Also the occasional bad attitude that sneaks into projects. There’s nothing worse than a morale vaccuum roaming free on set or in rehearsal. Thirdly, the maddening lack of funds and/or production assistance the average independent project has to deal with. These days, there are so many odds stacked against you when you launch a project or a show. The culture is saturated. However, I see this problem as an exciting challenge and an opportunity to forge ahead with new ideas and new presentations. If stress is a motivator for you, if you thrive under the gun, look nowhere else to get your kicks.

How do you know when something is a bust and just isn’t going to happen?

For me, as someone who is enticed by even the smallest projects and has a hard time saying “no”, the realization that something will bust comes early in the process. If the energy isn’t there, if the core idea takes more than 3 minutes to describe, if you find that people in creative roles aren’t condusive to your own process, or, as I’ve just begun to learn, if there’s nothing in it for me, ideally in terms of compensation but more realistically in networking, If I know I’ll not be able to give it all my energy and won’t take something new and valuable from the experience, I’ll move on.Once that perpetual snowball starts rolling, though, I will finish. Even if it becomes something it was never intended to become, even if cast members drop out or the venue catches on fire, once I have concrete work done and have decided to finish something, I will finish it.

How do you know when something is finished?

When I’m content enough to walk away with a modicum of satisfaction. Nothing will ever be perfect or exactly the way you envisioned. The trick is letting it go and moving on. There’s always another opportunity to screw everything up.

Who are the artists who you respect the most and what about their process do you identify with?

I have major respect for artists who can swing back and forth between multiple formats and styles. I’ve been waiting to see what lands on top, theatre or film, for 10 years now and it’s turned into a constant back and forth. My immediate interests at the moment are finding ways to combine the two in organic, innovative ways and enhance certain types of stories. People like Martin McDonaugh, Clive Barker, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Orson Welles, just to name a few, all move seamlessly between multiple forms of expression, from film to theatre to music to books to radio to painting to everything in between. I guess basically I’m trying to say that someday I hope to EGOT. A fella can dream.

Don’t miss The Creative Process, starting tonight at PianoFight at 8

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Long Dark Night of the Tech Rehearsal

Dave Sikula on the perils of tech.

Over the past few days, I’ve been listening to a podcast focusing on Orson Welles’s “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

For those of you who don’t know the history and background of “Ambersons,” it was Welles’s follow-up to “Citizen Kane.” Nowadays, it’s a movie most noted for being one of the most frustrating film productions in history.

When Welles came to Hollywood in 1940, such was his reputation on Broadway and in radio that he was given a contract that granted him the unheard-of right of final cut; that is to say, no one at the studio could supersede what he wanted the film to look and sound like. (The contract was so iron-clad that, in the 80s, when Ted Turner thought of colorizing it, the terms of Welles’s contract prevented him from doing so.)

“Kane” was taken by many to be a barely-disguised expose of the life of powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst and his mistress, actress Marion Davies. Welles always denied the claims – and an examination of the film and screenplay show him to be correct – but Hearst did all he could to suppress the film before and after it opened (there were even rumors that MGM head Louis B. Mayer offered RKO – the rival studio that produced “Kane” – a substantial amount of money to destroy both the film and the negative before it opened). Fortunately for posterity, RKO refused – but the Hearst organization refused advertising for the film and did what it could to prevent its distribution. In a perfect world, “Kane” would have made a ton of money, swept the Oscars, and led to Welles being given continued creative freedom. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world, and “Kane” was considered a box-office flop. It did win Welles and Herman Mankiewicz an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, and has come to be considered the greatest film ever made (“Vertigo?” Seriously? It’s not even Hitchcock’s best movie.)

In the wake of “Kane’s” “failure,” Welles’s contract was renegotiated, and his right of final cut was removed. Under normal circumstances, this might not have been a problem. Even if Welles didn’t have final approval, he and the studio could have compromised on the final version of “Ambersons,” his second film. “Ambersons” was based on a novel by Booth Tarkington, and traced the way in which the genteel traditions of 19th-century were overrun by industrialization, as reflected in the downfall of a once-influential family. Welles had completed the film and an initial first cut of 148 minutes when World War II broke out. The Roosevelt Administration convinced Welles that he could help the war effort by traveling to Brazil and making a movie to help relations between the US and South America. Even though he wasn’t completely finished with his “Ambersons” edit, after RKO agreed to let him edit it while working on the other film, Welles agreed to the proposal – a decision which proved to be all but fatal to Welles’s career in Hollywood.

Before he left for Brazil, Welles cut “Ambersons” down to 131, the length at which it was previewed in Pomona, to an audience that mostly hated it. (To be fair, a good portion of the preview cards indicated a belief that it was better than even “Kane.”) Because of the change in contract and Welles’s absence, the studio butchered the film, moving scenes around, shooting new footage, and cutting it down to 88 minutes, eventually releasing at the bottom half of a double bill with (and I am not making this up) “Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost.”

The podcast (remember that? I mentioned it way back in the first sentence) – which, at four hours, is about three times the length of the movie itself – goes into great detail about how the movie was compromised, what Welles’s original intentions were, and how – had it been left alone – it might not only have been a greater film than “Kane,” it might have ultimately allowed Welles and other directors to express their creativity without compromise or interference from those higher up.

So, where is all this going? Well, to this, I guess. I sat through a long, long tech rehearsal tonight. I mean, ultimately, it wasn’t that long: I mean, the “long” part was only 3 ½ hours, and I’ve been through techs that were far longer and less productive. (In the late 70s, I was in a production of “Follies” that featured an all-night tech – for reasons I can no longer fathom. At one point, I fell asleep in the house for about an hour and, when I woke up, we were actually at a point earlier in the show than when I’d fallen asleep.) But tonight’s tech was so long because the director was determined to get the cues he wanted, without compromise.

That made me think of all the times where I’ve had to sacrifice the way I saw or imagined a moment, or a set piece, or an effect. Now, in many cases, the sacrifice led to something good, if not better than my original idea, but it was no longer my idea. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? I don’t know if I know. I know that if the production of a play is an opportunity to present the conceptions of one single person, it usually “fails.” (By that, I mean, there are too many other factors – designers, actors, stage managers – for a single individual’s vision to overwhelm [though there are exceptions – but even then …]) Film is a far better medium for one person’s vision to be paramount.

I also know that stubbornness can be a virtue and that sometimes it’s worth sticking to your guns in order to maintain the “perfection” that one imagined. If I have an idea that a production is based on or is an important part of what I intend for a production, I’ll fight for it. A choreographer friend of mine recently had a prolonged legal battle with the director of a show they had worked on. The two of them had worked on a very successful show that the director had also written and produced. The issue was over who had originated the business involved with the choreography. Was it the choreographer, who conceived and staged the numbers? Was it the actors, whose movements and characterizations inspired what could be done? Was it the director, who had the overall vision? My friend, who had traveled across the country – and even internationally – to restage the show, was forced to cede her rights to future royalties because the issue was so muddy. There was no real way for her to prove what was hers and what was the work of others.

But, on the other hand, I also know that there are things to be gained when artists collaborate. Some of the best things that I’ve had happen in shows are the result of my being open to the ideas of others.

In spite of my (to be frank) boredom and frustration at the long, long rehearsal, I was willing to wait because I knew that, were our positions reversed, I’d appreciate people waiting while I got the exact effect that was important to me. Ultimately, it’s the production that ultimately benefits, and that’s the most important thing.

Hi-Ho The Glamorous Life: We & Orson Welles

Marissa Skudlarek ponders a quarter life crisis in prestigious company.

The fact that Orson Welles was 25 years old when he wrote, directed, and starred in the most acclaimed movie of all time is enough to give anyone a quarter-life crisis. I turned 25 this year, and am curious to know how Welles achieved so much at such a young age (while keeping in mind that the remainder of his life is a cautionary tale about early success). Plus, I have a major weakness for ‘30s theater and ‘40s cinema. So I’m currently in the midst of reading Simon Callow’s biography of the young Welles, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu.

Though people are inclined to consider Welles a filmmaker foremost, he achieved his earliest successes and learned most of what he knew from working in the theater. (Citizen Kane was his first movie, the bastard.) Reading this biography, I can’t help comparing the theater of Welles’ time to that of our own, wondering if such a meteoric rise to fame could happen nowadays, and seeing if his story has any lessons for young theater-makers of the 21st century.

Well, in terms of Welles’ rise, it certainly helped that he was a tall, striking, charismatic young man with a beautiful speaking voice. At the age of 17, he traveled to Ireland, finagled his way into an audition at the Gate Theatre, and won the second-biggest role in their current production, portraying a character over twice his age. While it’s hard to imagine any theater today hiring a teenager to play a dissipated 40-year-old Grand Duke, I can easily picture a contemporary theater having trouble filling that role. In 2012, we’re always complaining that the pool of “leading man”-type actors is too small, and it seems that in the 1930s, the same problem existed. If the teenage Orson Welles showed up on the scene today and auditioned for one of our shows, we’d probably still go crazy for him.

In the ‘30s, people really did go crazy for Welles – such a talented actor and director, so hugely ambitious, so skilled at self-promotion and creating a stir. (His penchant for rehearsing at odd hours and the tough demands he placed on his design team, meanwhile, drove people crazy in a different way.) Again, it’s hard to imagine anyone following Welles’ trajectory today: directing large-cast plays in New York at 20, starting a repertory-theater company on Broadway at 22, making a Hollywood movie at 24. Things take longer these days; the theater places more of an emphasis on professional credentials and is wary of entrusting a big job to a newcomer. Our attitude toward the theater has subtly shifted – while it has gained some dignity and respectability as a profession, it’s lost the sense of being a playground for eccentrics and visionaries.

Yet even in the ‘30s, it wasn’t like just anyone could have achieved what Orson Welles did. Most obviously, Welles was a white male in an era far more racist and sexist than our own. In 1941, the 26-year-old Orson Welles got four Oscar nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Citizen Kane; in 2012, the 26-year-old Lena Dunham has four Emmy nominations for writing, directing, starring in, and producing Girls. I’m not claiming that the playing field is completely level these days, but I am saying that blanket statements like “The barriers to entry in the arts were much lower in the ’30s” ignore the reality that, for the majority of the population, the barriers to entry are lower now.

Welles also had many other advantages in his youth: he came from an upper-middle-class, arts-loving Chicago family; he traveled extensively before he was out of his teens; he went to a liberal private school whose headmaster basically let him take over the school theater and do whatever he wanted. It’s a good reminder that a lot of success is due to one’s external circumstances, or to being in the right place at the right time. (Similar points can, and have, been made about Dunham’s privileged background.)

Even so, the crucial reasons for Welles’ success came from within: his chutzpah, his energy, his ruthless drive. Simon Callow’s biography of Welles makes some guesses as to the psychological factors behind Welles’ enormous ambition, but in truth we will never really know what lit the fire in his belly. This book is never going to teach me how to replicate Welles’ success and become a 25-year-old world-famous genius; if a book could teach that, we’d all be famous already. Instead, this detailed exploration of Welles’ high-flying early career is actually a cautionary tale for any theater artist. I’d heard of Welles’ groundbreaking work at the helm of the Mercury Theatre — a classical-repertory company that enjoyed astounding critical and popular success from the get-go — but what I hadn’t realized is that the Mercury nearly fell apart within 12 months of its founding, due to Welles’ egotism, disorganization, and lack of consideration for his fellow artists. Welles’ motivations for becoming a quadruple-threat writer-actor-director-producer may still be mysterious; the reasons for his quick flameout, though, are depressingly obvious. And while the American theater could use a jolt of Wellesian ambition and energy, I’m not sure that we need all of the other, less positive qualities that often accompany those virtues.

Marissa Skudlarek is a journeyman playwright toiling in obscurity at the age of 25.