August’s “Actor Stealing the Spotlight” (ASS)

Why, hello, there.  Welcome to a new feature at TBO.  Each month, we’re going to highlight an Actor who is currently Stealing the Spotlight (or, the ASS).  This is someone from our community who particularly stood out for their performance or body of work the previous month (obviously from the shows that we actually reviewed).  We thought it would be fun to shine some light on those who continue to make the Baltimore theater scene just fucking great.

AND THE ASS FOR AUGUST 2014 GOES TO:

Poplar_Trees_02

JUSTIN JOHNSON

I thought that Rosemary Frisino Toohey’s Under the Poplar Trees at Fells Point Corner Theatre was one of the best pieces of new theater I’ve seen in Baltimore this year, and one of the best thing’s in it was Justin Johnson.  Here’s what I said about him in the review:

Justin Johnson is a performer that I will be watching for years to come.  I reveled in his performance, I savored it.  He gave Josef so many layers, layers of desperation, of hope, of joy, of, yes, of course, yes, of fear.  He was absolutely striking.  The moments between he and Zelenka were the heart and soul of the play.  There is a scene near the end, right after the poplar trees, where Zelenka and Johnson ascend to an almost spiritual level that broke, broke, broke my heart.  

I conned Justin into an interview, so here’s what she said:

Hey, Justin, how’s it going?  What are you doing?  You said that you were the mascot for Natty Boh and you’re getting ready for an event, right?

Hi, yeah, I am the mascot for Natty Boh.  I actually have an event to do at the Old Bay festival, which I didn’t even know existed, from noon to six today.

So, do you like, dress up? 

Yep, I’ve got a Mr. Boh big head, gloves, and a tux.  I go around to events and take pictures with people.

Huh.  Well, in an awkward segue:  How did it feel to spend August in the bunks of Dachau?  What on earth did you do to prepare yourself physically, mentally to prepare for that?

It’s funny, prior to Under the Poplar Trees, I had just closed a show at Vagabond called The Exonerated, which was six true stories about people on death row for crimes that they didn’t commit.  I played a lot of random supporting characters in that one: evil, corrupt lawyers, bad cops.  So, to go from that to this, from accuser to accused, was really an interesting transition.  It was a rough summer, a lot of rough topics, all of these true stories.  Both casts were really welcoming, which really helped.  The Exonerated cast felt like a family and then Miriam [Bazensky] and Jeff [Murray] and Annette [Wasno] were also in this show.  I got to work with people I trust, there was a camaraderie there.  That was important because it was also a rough summer personally.  I lost not one but two of my grandparents and then we had to put one of our dogs to sleep.  I didn’t do a whole lot of preparation, you know, I read articles and looked at pictures, I watched a few films.  Life is Beautiful provided some of the inspiration for Josef but I didn’t want to take too much from that.

How did you think Under the Poplar Trees compared to other works on this subject?  The Holocaust, I mean, Holocaust survival.

It’s interesting, you see a lot of stuff on the Holocaust, but you don’t see a whole lot of plays about it.  What you do see is mostly things that are so down, that focus on the darkness of it.  Under the Poplar Trees was different, there was that sense of hope, of life in the dark.  That’s why I had to do this show.  I read it at the Baltimore Playwright’s Festival readings and I thought “This play has to be made, it needs to be made.  It’s a good reminder that, no matter how bad things get there is hope and life and a reason to continue living instead of tying a noose around your neck.”  I hope it gets picked up across the nation, even the world.

What did you use to build up Josef’s incredible resilience in the camp?  Were you digging deep for that, deep into your past or your life?  I love asking sort of inappropriately personal questions in these.  

I did have to dig a little bit but a lot of it was just trusting Rosemary’s [Frisino-Toohey] words.  And also me and Karim [Zelenka] trusting each other.  I did dig into my past a little.  I looked at where I’ve been in the ten years after high school and I actually saw a lot of Meyer there.  I was way more angry, bitter, cynical about everything.  I suffered from depression at one point and almost took my own life.  But having theater and my spiritual life, finding a church, a good church and being in that community, gave me a reason to continue living.  I was more and more like Josef, more a person who looked for the reason to keep on going.  It was a combination between these experiences and what Rosemary wrote that created Josef.

Talk to me about the last scene.  It was one of the most effective scenes I’ve seen on the stage in quite sometime.  How did you and Karin prepare for that, what did you do? What was rehearsing it like?

Yeah, that last scene, that was a rough scene.  The first time that Karim and I did it was mostly figuring out the choreography: how he would carry me on and lay me down, tie my wounds up, all of that.  It was difficult, I had to have a lot of patience.  We made some line cuts to make the whole thing flow faster, but even the first time we did it, with me sitting half up and the pages of the script all over the floor, reaching for our lines, it still made Miriam cry.  That’s how powerful Rosemary’s words were.  I don’t know, something really did just click on a spiritual level the more Karim and I got to know each other.  The emotions just spilled out.  It got better every night.

What was the audience like for this?  Did you pack the house or did people find the theme too heavy for August?

Audiences were…August is such a weird time.  All of the summer shows sort of wrap up in June and July and the theaters are focused on the next season starting in September.  That’s where BPF really shines because they put on their shows in August.  Audience was small in the beginning but we packed in more in the last weekends.  Me and Annette and the others posted all the reviews, really put it out on social media and finally the word did get out.  All the audiences we had were super responsive, though.  There were even some standing ovations.  The show meant so much to people.  People who knew family who had survived the Holocaust, they were crying.  There was one night that Mandy Gunther, you know, DC Metro Theater Arts, was there to review it and she was the only one in the audience and we could hear her crying.  It really touched people.

Do you personally know or did you talk to anyone that survived the Holocaust?

I personally did not, no.  Opening weekend, though, there was a man who came who was a friend of Rosemary’s.  He’s French, he lived in France during the Holocaust.  He told me some stories about how the Nazis had raided his home.  He escaped but they trashed his house, burned it down.  I talked to him after the show.  I had no words.  I didn’t know what to say, I was speechless.  It was so humbling to talk to this guy, to hear what he had to go through.  He wasn’t a prisoner but he saw so many of the horrors first hand.  Just humbling.

What was it like working with Miriam Bazensky?  She and Rosemary [Frisino Toohey, the playwright] have been close for quite some time, is what I understand.  Did that give her a unique sense of the friendships and relationships in the play?

I’ve actually worked with Miriam a few times.  She directed me in the 10 x 10 play festival.  We have a running gag that every time I work with her it’s always something involving Nazis – last time it involved me as a Jewish shoemaker and David Shoemaker played a Nazi where they did this cat and mouse game.  I’ve never worked with a director who has really gone so far to push me to my limits.  To be honest, I’ve flat out hated working with her at times.  I’ve hated the scene we were doing, I didn’t know what she wanted to get out of me, and I got frustrated.  I’ve stomped my feet, practically had a tantrum.  But it was only because she wanted to get the best out of me and she’s always patient.  So I calmed down and we worked it out.  I’m thankful for those frustrating times.  Our stage manager, Sharon [Weaver], was almost an assistant director.  She also helped push us to give nothing but the best.

What the hell did you think Desiree was?  Was she a fantasy?  An angel?  An allegory?

That’s probably one of the most frequently asked questions about this play – Desiree is a conundrum.  Those scenes were some of the most frustrating for me, making them relevant.  For myself, I believe Desiree was Josef’s dream girl, his perfect paradise.  When Meyer and Josef are in the camp talking about the chicken, Josef asks Meyer to imagine the woman of his dreams – I think that’s exactly what Desiree was.  She was kind of subservient to him, but also wouldn’t take a lot of his shit.  Beth’s [Amann] interpretation was similar, not that Desiree was an angel or an allegory (some people sort of thought she might represent Claire in some way, but I think that was reading too much), but that she was simply his dream.

What is the best theater in Baltimore?

I’ve been in the Baltimore theater scene for four years, and I haven’t worked with every single theater, but from the ones I have, I would say Glass Mind.  I worked with them on their very first show on their first season.  They aren’t afraid to go out of the box and they love to tell good stories regardless of the budget or the costumes, or blah, blah, blah.  When I did A Midsummer Night’s Dream with them, we were going to perform it at Load of Fun and then that space shut down.  Glass Mind just decided to keep on going and thankfully, through the kindness of other companies like the BROS, we did the show.  They bring the art back to theater, not just the spectacle.  The people there are amazing.  Single Carrot, Iron Crow, Stillpointe Theater Initiative.  The innovative renegade stages that are becoming the heartbeat of theater in Baltimore.

Wanna talk some shit about anyone in the cast or crew and have it attached to your name forever on the internet?

I’m not the type of guy who likes to talk shit, especially forever on the internet.  I really don’t have anything to say about anyone in the cast or crew.  No need to burn bridges!

Anything you’ve been dying to say to the Baltimore theater scene? You can wag your finger if you want, everyone always loves that.

I would say keep doing what we’re doing.  Keep telling good stories.  I would also say, to some theaters in the area, stop using the same actors over and over again.  Give others a chance.  I understand that there’s camaraderie and loyalty, but there is one theater in particular who always casts within their own ranks.  I wish Centerstage would use more local actors, I will say that.  It’s union, of course, but I wish they would utilize more actors trying to get their union status.  To the actors in Baltimore, I would say keep doing it, no matter what.  Do it because you want to, regardless of not getting hired.  Write up a script and perform it in someone’s house for free.  That’s how a lot of companies get starting, someone saying “Let’s do a show!” and putting it on in someone’s basement.  Keep doing what you’re doing and the scene will thrive.

What’s coming up next for you?

Unfortunately you won’t see me anytime soon – I just got a job working for Norwegian Cruise Lines on the Pride of America.  They do all four islands of Hawaii, so I’ll be gone for at least six months.  It’s actually good, I’m looking to transition into doing voice acting, it might be a good foot in the door.  It’s good for me to get out of Baltimore and Maryland for a bit, learn more skills.

Wanna kvetch about anything?  My blog is great for that.

I’m going to Hawaii, what do I have to bitch about right now?  Drink more Natty Boh.  We do pint night at bars over the summer, if you buy a Natty Boh you get to keep the draft pint glass it comes in.  Support your local beer.  We love you at Natty Boh.

Got someone you’d like to nominate for next month’s ASS? E-mail me at emailthebadoracle@gmail.com.

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