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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Cowan Palace: Zombies: Can’t Live With Them, Can’t Live Without (Killing) Them

We’re starting a new dramaturgy column where Ashley Cowan, local actress, director, writer, gets to regularly ruminate on whatever we’re putting on this month. She kicks off her column today with some thoughts on Zombies, what makes them tick, and why we can’t get enough of them.

It’s a zombie paradise these days. From AMC’s “The Walking Dead” to Brad Pitt’s upcoming “World War Z” to Theater Pub’s very own “Love in the Time of Zombies” by Kirk Shimano. The pool of zombie-themed films, books, and games released within the last decade would probably take at least two zombie lifetimes to swim through; in fact, on IMDB alone there are nearly 1,000 zombie titles.

It’s a curious development to harbor such an obsession with creatures that are by definition, brainless. What is it that we feel so connected to these undead little rascals? Where does the fascination come from?

Well, for one thing, zombies are a monster for everyone. They don’t need a full moon to shape-shift or a superhuman thirst for blood matched with impossibly sparkly skin. They’re just ordinary folks who have suffered an unfortunate nibble and developed into hungry, mindless, wanderers. They’re pretty simple.

Simplicity is something of a luxury in these complicated times. Life for us non-zombies hasn’t exactly been a piece of cake. Our economy is like a fifteen year old without a license: prone to crashing. Jobs, money, and even basic survival needs can be a struggle. Somehow, along the way, visions of an idealized future appear to have halted and without that sense of personal development and advancement, a preoccupation with the undead seems almost natural. While our surroundings become complicated by technology advancements, new means of communication and abundant social media there still remains a sense of brutal desolation coinciding with modern emptiness. When you consider the uncertain, politically divided, and frightful mindset that governs most of the world, why wouldn’t you want to escape to land of simple necessities? A Zombieland, perhaps?

But when did the preoccupation begin? Well, some believe things started centuries ago. Derived from African and Haitian folklore surrounding voodoo doctors, the word “zombie” came from those who were thought to have the ability to resurrect the dead into brainless shells so that they could then be sold as slaves. These voodoo-practicing doctors would dispense a potent drug to bring people into a near death state and then after they were thought dead, they would be buried and later dug up to resume a life as a servant. Pretty pleasant, right?

Historically speaking though, one of the oldest documented examples of the undead comes from the “Epic of Gilgamesh”, a 2,000-year old poem. Within this seasoned text, Ishtar travels to the underworld and promises, “I will raise up the dead and they will eat the living.” Ah, a lady ahead of her time.

While colorings of zombie qualities have painted their way throughout the canvas of history, the masses have been acquainted with zombies mostly via film. The first zombie film, Abel Gance’s “J’accuse” graced the silver screen in 1919. Described as an anti-war melodrama, the piece featured soldiers who rose from their graves to invade the lives of the survivors. Political reactions were often reflected in films following “J’accuse” as movies were regularly used as a place to reflect the devastations of war, which progressed the zombie film genre.

George Romero’s “Night of The Living Dead,” released in 1968, became another example of an iconic piece of the zombie history. Things are grim, a sense of claustrophobia haunts each shot, and the undead are looking for a party. And by party, I of course mean human flesh. Like other films of its kind, the concept is basic: kill the cannibals who can only be stopped by a blow to the brain or join the masses.

The wonderful thing about zombie dramas is that they can represent any number of societal nightmares. Worried about atomic weapons? A zombie could help channel that. What about genetic modification? Sure, zombies eat that up. Racism? You, got it. Consumerism, violence, death? Obviously. You get it. Zombies provide a tangible scapegoat: a force to destroy hidden within these apocalyptic shadows.

With zombies comes the promise of a new existence. Life would have the excuse to change. There would be no government or bills to pay. No boss to report to or morality to uphold. Everyone would have the chance to be a hero and change the rules of humanity; even the underdog would have a chance to win. All you have to do is survive the zombies. Fight the fear and forge ahead. Hoping that perhaps we could be one of the select few to survive the impending apocalypse.

Whether it be through film or play, book or comic, video game or fantasy world, there’s something almost romantic about the idea of zombies trying to take over. So embrace this entertainment trend and enjoy “Love in the Time of Zombies”. Because when the zombies attack, it’ll be nice to know that the Theater Pub gang is prepared and ready to make a new paradise of plays and beer for both the living and the undead.

Ashley Cowan is a writer, director, actress, and general theater maker in the Bay Area. She’s got lots of stuff to say, most of it pretty entertaining, so follow her here at https://twitter.com/AshCows.

Playwright Kirk Shimano Talks About Love In The Time Of Zombies

We took a moment to chat up Kirk Shimano, the mastermind behind our October rom-zom-com, Love In The Time Of Zombies. This show is actually a first for Theater Pub: a fully produced full length play that isn’t based on prior material (like Boar’s Head and Measure For Measure were), and it turns out it’s not just a first for us…

Kirk Shimano looks nice enough… but his mind is a twisted play-pen of the Devil.

This your first full length to get produced?

Yes it is!

How does that feel?

It’s hard to know where to start! It’s exciting, for sure, but also intimidating. Watching the cast assembling the story in rehearsal has been a little surreal – watching these scenes that have only existed inside of my head being played out by real people. So in a word, it’s exciturrealidating.

Tell us about this play. Like… what is it about?

It starts with four survivors of a zombie apocalypse piling into an abandoned cabin in the woods. But while they’re prepared for the standard finding-love-while-running-from-zombies scenario, they’re not prepared for a mysterious woman who challenges their whole concept of what it means to be human. Lives are changed and people get eaten, but ultimately it’s about how our strongest emotions can either hold us back or propel us forwards.

How did it end up on the Theater Pub stage?

The first incarnation of this story was a one act that was presented by the Playwrights’ Center of San Francisco back in the spring of 2009. I was encouraged by the connection the audience made with the characters, so I decided to expand the story, shifting the focus and adding two more characters to the mix. Two years later, the full length version of this play was presented as a staged reading by Wily West Productions. It was paired with Juno En Victoria, written by Theater Pub artistic director Stuart Bousel. Originally that led to this play being added to the No Nude Men season, but when that fell through the zombies found a new home at Theater Pub.

What’s the process been like so far?

It’s been amazing collaborating with Claire Rice, the director of the piece, and watching her work with the actors. I always find myself surprised by how much there is to fill in – even though all of the dialogue is already on the page, the actors have to construct a convincing reality from moment to moment. I’m fortunate to be working with a director and a cast who see the story in the same way that I do.

Originally, this play isn’t set in a bar, so what have you had to do to make this play doable at Theater Pub?

The biggest change has been to make the audience an active part in the play. The bar environment makes everyone more aware of the other audience members around them and we wanted to use this to help build the atmosphere. We’re having the audience play the part of the zombies surrounding the cabin. It fits right into the story, and hopefully the audience will enjoy the play even more when they get to make zombie noises throughout it!

What is it about zombies that we’re so interested in?

Zombies are the monsters that are closest to humanity. You can tell your friends, “Man, I was a total zombie at work today” and they’ll know exactly what you mean. Try inserting “swamp monster” into that sentence and it just doesn’t work the same. Zombies are people who are just a little more brain-hungry.

I think the closeness is also what makes them terrifying. The person who you trust most in the world could go zombie and turn on you in a second, and you’d understand why they were eating you while being entirely powerless to do anything about it

Can you think of any other zombie plays or movies that might have influenced you?

There wasn’t anything that was a direct influence, but I’ve definitely enjoyed a bunch of zombie things which I’m sure have affected me in one way or another. I like 28 Days Later for proving that there were plenty of new ways to approach zombies and Shaun of the Dead for injecting fun without losing any of the crucial elements of the genre. I really enjoyed The Walking Dead (the comic more than the TV show) for asking the question: “You’ve survived the initial outbreak. So now what?” Also Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive / Braindead for going way over the top and making it work.

What’s your favorite zombie related thing of all time?

I’m going to go with something a little more recent and say the trailer for the video game Dead Island. I never actually played the game it was advertising, but the trailer is really a masterful three minutes of storytelling that provides an emotional wallop. If you haven’t seen it: www.youtube.com/watch?v=lZqrG1bdGtg

Runner up: the dinner scene from Dead Alive.

Who wins in the undead show down- zombies, mummies, vampires or ghosts?

Ghosts are too insubstantial and mummies just don’t want it bad enough. I think a vampire could take down a zombie in a one-on-one cage match, but not being able to go out in the sun is a HUGE handicap. The vampires could pull it off if they have the right leadership, but if even one of the Twilight crew is involved then zombies all the way.

In the event of a zombie outbreak, what is your plan?

Costco.

Don’t miss Kirk Shimano’s Love In The Time Of Zombies, directed by Claire Rice, playing October 15, 16, 22, 29, 30, only at the Cafe Royale in San Francisco.