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

Claire Rice’s Enemy’s List: What Theatre Needs

Claire Rice gives us a list of wishes…

You don’t have to tell me that if wishes were fishes we’d all be very good at making our own sushi. Still, there are things I wish existed that I really think would be awesome. And I know that some of these things are in my grasp. Like a bike, for example. I could make that happen. Black Widow getting her own Avenger’s movie, on the other hand, is not exactly in my control. I mean, I can write the screenplay and I can film it and I can hire the lawyers to protect me from Disney and Marvel…but it just wouldn’t be as satisfying as if Mark Boal wrote it and Catherine Bigelow directed it. Sometimes I think it’s OK to just send things out into the universe and wish.

But none of these wishes are going to be for more money. All of the wishes I have below can be gotten for more money, but “more money” as an answer is boring. You will always want there to be more money. You will always want things to be more equal. You will always want things to be more fair or to work in your favor.

This isn’t that kind of list.

So, I wish…

1 – Ashland Everywhere
This past Monday I was sitting in the lobby of Berkeley Rep listening to a pre-show discussion with a few of the playwrights featured in this week’s Monday Night Playground. When, as part of a general discussion about the arts and funding, Jonathan Luskin asked “Why can’t every state have an Ashland?”. I’m sure I’m among the many who, after returning from their first trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, felt a deep longing for the utter immersive theatrical environment that is OSF. The dream of spending nine months living and breathing live theatre. It’s hard not to romanticize it. But, before OSF alumni comment on the thrills of seclusion in Ashland and the joys of months upon months of self important tourists, let me say that I know that it can’t be perfect. But, I also agree with Jonathan, why can’t every state have it’s version of Ashland? I don’t mean the paint-by-numbers three month runs of Oklahoma!, or the unscrupulous and shady touring productions (like a certain production of Peter Pan that blew through a few years ago.) No, I mean forward thinking, risk taking, creative, invested caretakers of the American theatrical ambition. A place where the artists and craftsmen are treated as both employees and artists. A place to be introduced to theatre for the first time, a place to live theatre for a week, a place to relive favorites, and a place to discover new voices. And, yes, employers. Great behemoth employers where the young train, the up and coming to hone their craft, and the established relax into 401k plans.

2 – Nerdy Trade Magazines
Oddly specific and full of the best and most up to date information on trends, topics and news. How many theatre companies prefer to use Meisner Technique in their rehearsal rooms? Meisner Today knows (or it would if it existed.) I know, I know. Print media is dead!!! We’re playing a wishing game here. I want to open my mail box and have piles of glossy news items fall out. Yes, I get American Theatre Magazine and Theatre Bay Area and both are great. I don’t know about you, it get’s exhausting looking at all the ads for graduate schools in American Theatre Magazine, surely there is someone else willing to advertise in there that will make reading it feel more adult. There will never be a day when Howl Round or 2amT will come monthly and glossy, and I don’t think it should…oh but I kind of wish it did. I’m not going to lie. I want a theatre version of Rollingstone. I want it to be that stupid, that gossipy, that hero worshipping, that controversial and that entertaining in itself.

3 – Legitimate coverage
I don’t want to wait for Vanity Fair to cover Tracy Letts because Meryl Streep is in an adaptation of his play. I want every entertainment magazine, newspaper and entertainment broadcast to devote a little space to theatre. Not just major catastrophes like Spiderman, but the fact that cool stuff and terrible stuff is happening all over the country all the time. I want Vanity Fair to talk about theatre so much that around the time of the Tony’s they have a big Annie Leibovitz theatre spread where they name everyone and give little descriptions (I love those!) I want AV Club and Jezebel to roll their eyes at Vanity Fair and write article after article about “real” theatre stars, accomplishments and pitfalls.

4 – Conventions and Trade Shows
We never called it cosplay – we called it costuming. And,no, it isn’t fun to dress up as the family from Death of a Salesman, but you can’t tell me there wouldn’t be a million Rent heads there all to see the panel with the original cast. Vender booths, sneak previews of Broadway hits before they open, tech fairs with the latest in lighting and sound and projection equipment, costume parades from our favorite designers (LIKE FASHION WEEK!), season announcements from big regional theatres and…oh goodness. It would be terrrible and wonderful and fun.

5 – Comfortable Seats
The older I get the more I dread going to see theatre at certain venues. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter how good the show is. If my ass has fallen asleep, my spine has started to tingle from bad lumbar support, and my hips (my lovely wide American hips) have finally had enough of being squished beneath the arm rests I may just walk out.

6 – More Broadway in Las Vegas
This is like the Ashland wish, only this theatre is way more commercial. Yup. Hoaky, touristy, loud show offy and commercial commercial commercial. I want more of it. I want a Rogers and Hammerstein Theatre on the strip doing shows in rep. I want brilliant musical directors, singers, actors, set designers and crew to cut their teeth and earn retirement fund there. I want the type of people who wrote Urinetown to have an edgy big theatre there too that does crazy new works with big budgets. I want a sketch comedy troupe with multi-media know-how to do their thing there.

7 – More Poaching from the Lower Ranks
I want the big regional companies to look below them and think about moving whole shows up from the small independent companies. When I see a cool show at Crowded Fire, I want to get excited when I see that the next season it’s at Marin Theatre Company.

8 – Less Excitement about Seeing it First, More Excitement about Seeing it Next
I want a new play to premiere at Kitchen Dog Theatre and I want to know for sure that in the next few months I’ll get the opportunity to see it too. I want there to be a ripple of excitement spreading across the country. The New Play Network and it’s rolling premiers are doing a good job and I want more! I want little black box theatre franchises all over that will open a show all in the same season. I want a big broadway show to open on Broadway AND in Los Angeles. I want previews for shows just like movies. I want them all in a single place so I can watch them all. I want to share them on Facebook and I want to say: “Man, I can’t go to Dallas right now but I hear that Playhouse will do the show in June!”

9 – Away with Curtain Call
I just don’t think they are necessary. It’s a false kind of pageantry that isn’t necessary. It’s hoaky. It breaks the mood. It wastes time. It’s a form of begging. I want the audience to feel like it’s a special treat to see the actors without the makeup or the character. The curtain call has become pro forma. It’s lost it’s magic. I don’t need it any more.

10 – A Powerful Politician and The Owner of a Media Outlet
I want friends in high places for theatre. Loud ones.