Alumni: Evan Johnson

I graduated from Dell’Arte (PTP) in 2006. Inumeral fundamentals from training at Dell’Arte have stuck with me over the years; keeping me inspired and engaged with making work.  I made my latest solo show “Pansy” with a strong intent to connect with the place where I live (San Francisco) because Dell’Arte instilled a passion in my heart to make “theatre of place” which I am forever grateful for. Without a doubt, the trajectory of my creative process has been “effort, risk, momentum, joy” and I am thrilled to be presenting “Pansy” (to la famiglia!) at Dell’Arte’s 40th Anniversary celebration.

 

INTERVIEW WITH PQ MONTHLY

In August 2014, “Pansy” traveled to perform 7 shows at Post5 Theatre in Portland, OR. Sections of the following interview (between Johnson and staff writer Leela Ginelle) were originally printed in PQ Monthly. Here’s a link to the original article.

Inspired by Johnson’s childhood connection to Peter Pan, “Pansy” follows the character Michael Darling in modern day San Francisco, as he discovers a time capsule-like cache of materials relating to 90s gay club kid Peter Pansy, a discovery that leads him to explore the similarities and differences of gay life in the city during those times.

We spoke to Johnson about his inspirations, gay theater, and preserving the stories of the previous generation.

PQ: “Pansy” engages with J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” and ts mythos, while being set against the ’80s AIDS epidemic. It’s a striking contrast. What were some of the insights that came out of that combination for you?

Evan Johnson: I had hit a block and began a series of interviews, which got me inspired to write again. To begin, I focused on the span of years 1985 to 1993: my first 7 years of life. Turning 7 was a big deal for me, I came to San Francisco to see Cathy Rigby fly on a wire as Peter Pan. I identified with her characterization so much it became a part of me. I wanted to exhibit as much freedom as Peter did and lead others to do the same. The origin story of my life as an actor was the first impetus for writing “Pansy” I guess. I was interested in what my make believing had become (as an adult) and why Peter Pan had captured my imagination so. The city itself became a substitute for Neverland with it’s lure to escape and transgress the status quo. With many of the AIDS stories I was told there was a very Neverland-like desire to stop time. I thought about the ticking crocodile and Peter Pan’s line, “To die would be an awfully big adventure.” I wanted to be moved and educated and connect to my queer lineage, like Peter Pan’s shadow getting sewn on. As I spoke with more and more locals about what drew each of them to San Francisco something clicked. This project became a way for me to fuse facts with fiction and that became very exciting.

PQ: “Pansy” grew out of a one man show you developed about Michael Davies, one of the children who inspired J.M. Barrie in his writing of “Peter Pan.” How did the show evolve to its new setting – modern San Francisco – and how much of Michael Davies do you think remains in “Pansy’s” protagonist, Michael Darling?

EJ: “Pansy” was developed at New Conservatory Theatre Center through their Emerging Artists’ Program and involved several key collaborators. Ben Randle (Director) was very instrumental in the writing and refining process, as were two dramaturgs Louie Jenkins and Steve Yockey. Barrie and Michael Llewelyn Davies had a fascinating relationship. Davies’ letters to Barrie often ended with “Signed, Your Peter Pan.” Eventually, he suffered great turmoil and drowned himself in a lake tied to his lover Rupert Buxton. Posthumously, in the earlier draft, Michael ventures to Neverland where Captain Hook and all the pirates attempt to lure him into alternative their way of life. The lower decks of the Jolly Roger (pirate ship) resembled a Leather bar, bacchanal sex and heightened masculinity. During a work-in-progress showing, I realized this direction wasn’t connecting immediately to the place and people who make up this particular theatre’s audience. The setting felt too far away…1921? Why now? Why here? So, I shifted directions. It’s a different show entirely now but many of the themes and questions I had are still in there. The new Michael character isn’t clinging to a lost childhood (or afraid of sex, or suicidal); he’s trying to find his footing in this new place and belong.

PQ: In “Pansy,” Michael Darling discovers a cache of VHS tapes, audio cassettes and fliers about Peter Pansy, a 90s club kid. Is the 90’s club scene a subculture that interests you? What parallels do you see between that setting and Barrie’s Neverland?

EJ: (San Francisco) nightlife institutions like KLUBSTiTUTE, Club Uranus and The Stud were big inspirations for Club Neverland, SF bands like Pansy Division and Tribe 8 really defined a new genre of queer music that was all about possibility and divergence. There was a flash of Harvey Milk’s “hope” springing up creatively in San Francisco, even amidst all the darkness. I’m very interested in collective nostalgia. Today, VHS and cassette tapes are kind of kitschy because, I think, we’re all starting to long for a time before smart phones. I’m very interested in nostalgia. I liked the idea of a dusty box waiting to be opened, a lost (albeit recent) time capsule of queer history.  This box-gets-opened device became our way of weaving the past and present together. Making Neverland a nightclub helped me envision how we could layer some of Barrie’s original metaphors with new ones. Pixie dust and “flying high” became other things entirely. Tinkerbell does make an appearance (sort of) as a flashlight on Michael’s cellphone.

PQ: You’ve done another one-man show, “Don’t Feel: the Death of Dahmer.” What is it about the format that you enjoy?

EJ: The queer solo show as we know it today really flourished as an art form during the 80’s/90’s as AIDS and other pressing political issues inspired performances that felt immediate and vital. Since then, I think we’ve become a little cynical about solo theatre with Will and Grace’s “Just Jack!” and other spoofs. In “Pansy” and “Don’t Feel” there are these heightened moments of solitude and vulnerability that are enhanced by the fact that I’m performing by myself. In each piece I leave my characters hanging, I dangle their dilemmas in front of the audience, highlighting the fact that there is no where to run, no one else who can help me (the character). I also like to leave the show (the problem) in the audience’s laps, like it’s theirs to do something with. I play with actor/audience dynamic a lot in the Dahmer piece; he’s the desperate, lonely monster against them/the world. In the script, Dahmer just stops himself mid sentence or mid action and has these animal-in-a-zoo moments, suddenly aware that he’s being watched and judged. The 2-way relationship with the audience is always exciting. Before I begin a solo project, I like to ask: Can I justify that this is a solo play? Does it need to be told this way?

PQ: “Pansy” explores two different generations. In an interview about this show, you lamented that there are few opportunities for people in your generation to interact with the generation before it. What do you think you gained by exploring the previous generation, and taking the effort to dramatize it the way you have?

EJ: I think the real gain from performing this show is that it invites conversation. It might be opening a can of worms but my one attempt is to connect, to share. I have had some wonderful conversations with audiences of all ages and backgrounds and that’s been a real joy. I feel deeply indebted to Ed Decker at New Conservatory Theatre Center and to Ben Randle my Director who both stuck with me over the course of the past 4 years!

Photo:  Cabure Bonugli. Evan Johnson in Pansy. 

Photo:  Cabure Bonugli. Evan Johnson in Pansy