Today we launch a new semi-monthly guest blog by Bay Area writer/actor Evan Johnson, who will be chronicling his process as he brings his new show, Pansy, to life at the New Conservatory.
I must’ve known already, at least on some level, that the Boy Who Never Grew Up was actually a middle aged woman with a pixie haircut, strapped down breasts and a pouch full of plastic glitter confetti. But it was 1993 and I was 7 years old and that whole “suspension of disbelief thing” still really worked because I clapped harder than anyone during Tinker Bell’s near-death scene; it was my clapping, I felt, that helped save her life.
PANSY opens in June. 3 years in the making. It’s the most ambitious project I’ve ever worked on. What started as an investigation of the queer shadow aspects of Sir James M. Barrie’s Peter Pan story has eventually transformed itself into something more immediate, more local and more magical. I have been working with the ingenious Ben Randle, a local theatre director who was introduced to me by Ed Decker, producing Artistic Director at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, where PANSY has been in development since 2010.
Ben and I were set adrift, making this script, on our metaphoric raft of make believe, escape, sex, shadows, time and growing up. On these themes we rode till we arrived at the second star from the right.
Peter Pan was the first play I ever saw. I spent years after first seeing Cathy Rigby fly above my head, bent over lit birthday cakes and wishing for one thing only, as I extinguished each little flame: to fly. It was cheesy, impossible and sensationally sentimental. That was my childhood, though, hours and hours of playtime spent making myself believe in things beyond all doubt. I was Peter Pan and everyone else was everyone else. I deluded myself on purpose, for what purpose?
I grew up in the shadows of giant redwood trees, where I’d chase moving specks of light in the forest as a favorite pastime. I was lucky to have a truly gorgeous palette of colors to amuse and inspire me, rich earthy browns with green moss and ferns everywhere.
THE GAY 90’s
In the same “wrinkle in time”, also in San Francisco, as I was being sprinkled with confetti pixie dust, a lot of people were dealing with loss on a scale so horrific I can only imagine. Hidden from me of course, as a child, somewhere in the shadows, AIDS deaths were severely on the rise globally; reality for many was a tangled mess of pharmaceutical legislation and social stigmas.
Also in 1993, exactly 20 years ago now, queer punk fashions, music and culture were in full swing. Pansy Division, a local sex-positive “queercore” band, had just released their first LP. Parties like Club Uranus and Klubstitute provided escape and revelry to “femmes” in black leather jackets. Drugs, sex and music were escape from the harsh realities of funerals and fundraising for survival. Punk and club-kid aesthetics gave a lot of newcomers to the city a new community to be proud of.
Fast forward to the present. And to my play PANSY. See, I’m 27 years old and still writing plays and playing make believe.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary describes “Juxtaposition” as “the act or an instance of placing two or more things side by side; also : the state of being so placed.”
In crafting PANSY, I’ve created a “2-character/split-timeframe solo play” in which a modern day lost boy homosexual connects with a deceased lost boy homosexual via artifacts left behind on VHS tapes.
Actually my elevator pitch is this: “In Evan Johnson’s new solo play PANSY shadows stir in modern day San Francisco when Michael discovers a time capsule in his basement. As Michael looks through VHS tapes, audio cassettes and wrinkled party fliers, parallels begin to emerge between his life and that of 90’s gay club kid Peter Pansy.”
The script, to put it simply, has gone through quite a few changes or “stages of development”. And my mind of course, has been plagued with doubts and reservations. Is this too big a project for me? Am I getting it right? Will the work be flimsy or stale, overwrought or under-researched? I guess THAT’S WHY IT’S TAKEN SO LONG – in case you’re thinking, “3 years, geez! I could write a play in 3 years!” It is however now (mostly) finally complete in a very polished-feeling “rehearsal draft” and we will be putting it up on it’s feet- in front of a real paying audience- in a short matter of months. 3 months to be exact.
I THINK I CAN, I THINK I CAN
Early in the writing process, I was driven by a nostalgic fascination with Peter Pan and by my own feelings of “stunted growth” both internally and externally. The gay community and places like the Castro seemed to be stuck in a state of deep freeze. I had to take stock of these feelings, we made lists and I wrote rants. I wrote “from my generation’s point of view.” Which was weird. But that’s what happened. I mean, we recycle the same liquor sponsored rainbow banners each year in June and we march with our various interest groups. We aren’t as angry as the queers were in the past, hell, maybe we aren’t even as liberated! It feels like we’re all Peter Pans, trying to stay young forever, just acting selfishly out of our own best interests. This was all great fodder for conversations about the piece we were making; so, with my rambling notes and whatnot, off we went to go write a play!
At first, I sought out intergenerational connections and would-be lost bits of insight. I wanted a greater sense of time and place. I wanted to grow up and feel connected to this place as a home.
I felt a tugging and personal sense of responsibility to say something meaningful, anything at all, which might speak to that initial feeling of being stuck in PAUSE mode.
The origins of this piece included also a newfound sense of realism around making work. I guess I had been influenced by my peers, by performing friends of mine who were moving away from making “theatre”. There was a general drive away from making narrative work or work which was dubbed “populist.” People I knew were becoming increasingly preoccupied with performance as public act or witnessed act or contextualized theory. And, to be honest, I was bored at those shows, I was feeling frustrated and I wanted to see and feel something else.
The solo shows from the 80’s and 90’s, for instance, were seeping with cultural significance, that was back when “queer theatre” was radical and vital and images of survival and protest were necessary to our community’s growth and solidarity.
The desire to do so much with this project has at times weighed so heavily on my heart that typing one single line of text became next to impossible. It was too big and I was too small. I think this sense of being dwarfed by all of history and time was desperately wanting some stage time also. So that’s how some of the other threads became full on components of the piece.
THINK HAPPY THOUGHTS
Since June of 2010, we’ve hosted two official work in progress showings at NCTC, I have interviewed 17 local queer history keepers about “San Francisco-as-Neverland” and I have worked with two guests dramaturgs, Louis Jenkenson and Steve Yockey, respectively. I have many people to thank and a lot of people I am indebted to.
I will be writing weekly on this blog to chronicle the remaining 3 month process which will culminate in our big fancy World Premiere production. You can look forward to hearing all about how we (Ben and I) get our PANSY baby to fly!
I hope you’ll join me by reading this blog and seeing PANSY in June at NCTC. It should be an awfully big adventure.