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.

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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!

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Theater Around The Bay: The Great Blog Recap of 2015 Part II

Today we bring you three more annual round ups from three more of our core blogging team: Ashley Cowan, Will Leschber, and Dave Sikula! More tomorrow and the Stueys on Thursday!

The Top Five Thank Yous of 2015 by Ashley Cowan

1) You’re inspirational, Molly Benson
Aside from the incredible PianoFight mosaic we all continue to marvel at each time we’re in its proximity, you’ve managed to continue bursting through the creative scene while balancing parenting a small child (which I’ve personally found to be an incredibly difficult thing to do). You’re acting, you’re lending your voice to various projects, you’re making art, and you’re out there inspiring me to keep trying. So thank you and please keep it up!

2) You’re so great to work with, San Francisco Fringe Festival
2015 was the second year I had the chance to be a part of the SF Fringe Festival alongside Banal+ with Nick and Lisa Gentile, Warden Lawlor, Dan Kurtz, Tavis Kammet, and Will Leschber. (And this year, Eden Davis and Katrina Bushnell joined the cast making it even stronger!) Now, I always love working with this dynamic bunch but this time around, I was returning to the stage after a two year hiatus and straight off of having a baby and returning to work full time. Thankfully, everyone was so flexible and kind that when I had to leave a show immediately after my performance (skipping the other pieces in the lineup and curtain call) to relieve our babysitter, I was greeted with support and understanding. It made all the difference so thank you again.

3) You trusted me to be a 90’s (Rose McGowan inspired) teenager, Anthony Miller
Last year when I had to back out of TERROR-RAMA, I was pretty crushed. I don’t totally know how I lucked out in getting a second chance with this October’s reading of TERROR-RAMA 2: PROM NIGHT but oh, man, I loved it. After feeling a bit rusty and uncomfortable in my post baby body, Anthony Miller and Colin Johnson let me play this sexy queen vampire 90’s teen. And I had the best time. Anthony’s script is truly hilarious and under Colin’s direction, the reading was a great success. But I was also left with that electric, “yes! This is why I do this!” feeling after I had the chance to be involved and for that, I’m super grateful. Thank you, Anthony. And thank you Rose McGowan.

4) You Made Me Love Being an Audience Member Again, In Love and Warcraft
One of my theatrical regrets from this past year was not singing praises or appropriately applauding creative teams when I had the chance. In this case, I didn’t really take the opportunity to give a shout out to all involved in Custom Made’s recent show, In Love And Warcraft. I was unfamiliar with most of the cast but, wow, they were delightful. The script was smart, sweet, and funny (and totally played to my nerdy romantic sensibilities) and the whole thing came together into such an enjoyable theater experience. I had such fun being in the audience and invited into a world of warcraft and new love. Thank you, thank you.

5) You Make Me Feel Tall and Proud, Marissa Skudlarek
In our two part Theater Pub blog series, Embracing the Mirror, Marissa and I uncovered new heights. Or, really, uncovered the heights that had been there all along and allowed us to kind of honor them. I’m so thankful that Marissa suggested this collaboration because the topic allowed me to reconnect with tall actress friends from my past while reevaluating my own relationship to my height. Plus, getting to do it with Marissa was a treat in itself. So thank you, Marissa for continuing to positively push this blog forward and allowing me to stand next to you!

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Top Five 2015 Films That Should Be Adapted Into A Stage Play by Will Leschber

Hi all! Since I spend most of the year trying to smash together the space between theater and film, why not just come out with it and say which bright shining films of 2015 should end up on our great stages here in San Francisco. So here are the top 5 films of 2015 that should be adapted to a San Franciscan stage production…and a Bay Area Actor who’d fit perfectly in a key role!

Now, since my knowledge of the vast pool of Bay Area creative performers isn’t what it used to be, lets just get fun and totally subjective and pull this recommendation list from a single show! And not just a single show… a single show that Theater Pub put up… AND I was in: Dick 3… Stuart Bousel’s bloody adaptation of Richard III. Yeah, talk about nepotism, right? Booyah… lets own this!

5) Room
This film adaption of the acclaimed book by Emma Donoghue would fit easily into a restricted stage production with the cloying enclosed location in which most of the action takes place. It’s a moving story dictated by creative perspective and wonderful acting, things that shine onstage. Brie Larson owns the film’s main performance but it if a bay area actress could give it a go, I’d love to see Jeunée Simon radiate in this role. Her youthful energy, subtle power, and soulful spirit would kick this one out of the park.

4) Steve Jobs
Regardless of the Aaron Sorkin lovers or haters out there, this film is written like a three-act play and would work supremely well on stage, as it does on screen. It’s talky and quick-paced as long as you keep up the clip of lip that the script demands. The perfect pairing to tackle this towering role of Steve Jobs and his “work wife” Joanna Hoffman (played respectively by Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet) would look excellent cast with Jessica Rudholm as Steve Jobs (Jessica is an unbelievably powerful performer and can command any room she steps into…perfect for Jobs) and Megan Briggs as the Joanna Hoffman character: resourceful, smart and can stand up to powerful chest-puffing men. Done!

3) Mistress America
This buoyant film by Noah Baumbach follows a New York pseudo-socialite, Brooke, embodied perfectly by Greta Gerwig, who has to fall a bit from her idealized youthful 20s phase of life towards something a bit more….self-realized…aka adulthood. At times a situation-farce houseguest comedy, and other times a story of searching for self discovery, the themes would read equally beautifully on stage. The second lead in this film is a bright-eyed, I-know-everything-in-the-world college freshman named Tracy, who befriends our beloved Brooke character. It’s a dual journey. Allison Page has more confidence than all the college freshman I know. She’d play the crap out of that! And for the main Greta Gerwig part… this is a hard role to fill with quirk and empathy, so I’d say let’s give Sam Bertken a shot at it! Sam as a performer has the whimsy of a confident yet lost late-20-something, but the charm and determination to persevere with her/his quirk intact.

2) Spotlight
This journalistic procedural which chronicles the story behind the Pulitzer-winning newspaper story of sexual abuse and the Catholic Church would be a heavy sit. But the story is powerful, the characters are true, and the setting lends itself to small scale theater. To play the stalwart Spotlight department newspaper lead editor, played by Michael Keaton in the film, lets go with Carl Lucania who’d give the role a nice imprint. AND to boot, the Mark Ruffalo character (who is the shoulder of the film, in my opinion) would be handled wonderfully by Paul Jennings. These two have the exact performing skills to juxtapose unrelenting determination and quiet, frustrated fury which fit perfectly for this story.

1) Inside Out
Now I hear you…animated films with complex imaginary landscapes and vistas filled with old memories might not immediately scream stage production. But if The Lion King, King Kong or even Beauty & the Beast can do it, I know some insanely talented set designers, costume designers and lighting specialists could bring this world to life. More importantly, the themes of passing away from youthful phases of life, how hard and lonely a childhood transition can be, plus learning that life isn’t simply divided into happy/sad/angry/scared memories. The complicated reality is that our selves and our memories are colored with a mad mix of many diverse emotions and characteristics. Coming of age with this palette of imagination would be glorious on stage. And who better to play the central character named Joy, than the joyful Brian Martin. He just adorable…all the time.

Five Things I Learned on My Last New York Trip by Dave Sikula

1) “Traditional” Casting Is Over
Well, not totally, obviously, but as Hamilton showed (among so many other things), anyone can play anything. I’m old enough to remember when musicals had all-white casts, then, little by little, there would be one African American male and one African American female in the ensemble, and they always danced together. Gradually, you began to see more and more people of color in choruses, and they were now free to interact with anyone. Now, of course, pretty much any role is up for grabs by any actor of any race or gender – or should be. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see an Asian female eventually playing Hamilton himself. Whether this – and the other innovations of Hamilton – percolates into more mainstream fare remains to be seen, but it’s certainly to be hoped.

2) A Good Director Can Make Even the Most Tired War-Horse Fresh and Vital
For my money, there aren’t many major playwrights whose work has aged more badly than Arthur Miller. Yeah, Death of Salesman is still powerful, but the rest of the canon isn’t faring so well. Years and years ago, I saw a lousy production of A View from the Bridge, and even then, it struck me as obvious, tired, and dull. Ivo van Hove’s production, then, had a couple of hurdles to overcome: 1) it’s a London import, and 2) it’s, well, it’s A View from the Bridge. Van Hove’s 2004 production of Hedda Gabler (surely one of the worst “important” plays ever written) was enough of a revelation that I wanted to see what he could do with this one, and boy, did he come through. Tough, powerful, and visceral, it’s nothing so much as what we hear Greek tragedy was so good at. It was so good, I’m anxious to see his upcoming production of The Crucible, and see if he can make another truly terrible play interesting.

3) Even a Good Director Can’t Make a Tired Old War-Horse Work
In 2008, Bartlett Sher directed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a show I’d seen too much and from which (I’d thought) all the juice had long since been squeezed. By digging deep into the text and back story, though, Sher and company were able to make it vital, exciting, and relevant. Flash forward to last year and the reunion of some of the band to remount The King and I, another show whose time has all but passed. Despite breathtaking sets, more delving into two-dimensional characters by very good actors (Hoon Lee and Kelli O’Hara are doing superb work in the title parts), and marvelous staging, it just sits there. The problem to these tired old eyes is that musical dramaturgy of today doesn’t always fit well with that of the early 1950s, and the show itself just has too many fundamental flaws to work anymore. It’s a pity, because a lot of time and effort is being expended in a futile effort to make the unworkable work. In the words of Horace, “The mountain labors, and brings forth … a mouse!”

4) There Is No Show So Bad That No One Will See It
We’ve dealt with the awfulness of China Doll before. Despite barely having a script and offering audiences little more than the chance to watch Al Pacino alternately get fed his lines and chew scenery, it’s still drawing people. Sure, that attendance is falling week by week, but last week, it was still 72% full and took in more than $600,000. Running costs can’t be that much (two actors, one set), but even with what imagines is a monumental amount being paid Mr. Pacino, it’s probably still making money. If I may (correctly) quote the late Mr. Henry L. Mencken of Baltimore: “No one in this world, so far as I know – and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me – has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

5) It’s Still Magical
Despite the heavy lifting of New York theatre being done off- and off-Broadway and regionally, there’s still something that can’t be duplicated in seeing a really good show on Broadway that has a ton of money thrown at it – especially one you weren’t expecting anything from. I went into shows like An American in Paris or Something Rotten or – especially – Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 knowing next to nothing about them and came out enthralled and invigorated by what writers can create and actors can do. In the best cases, they give me something to shoot at. (And in the worst, multiple lessons on what to avoid … )

Ashley Cowan is an actress, playwright, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area, alongside writer/actor husband, Will Leschber. Dave Sikula is an actor, writer, director and general theater maker in the Bay Area who has been in plays with Ashley and Will, but never both at the same time.