In Part 1 of a series of interviews with the Playwright/Director and cast of Arts Colective@HCC’s play House, meet Playwright/Director Daniel Johnston.
Joel: Please introduce yourself.
Daniel: My name is Daniel Johnston, and I’m the director/playwright for House. Wow, writing that is just as surreal as saying it! This entire process has been like a dream because it is something I’ve desired for many years. I have been with Arts Collective at HCC since 2008, which is actually the same year that I took genuine interest in theatre. I’ve only ever been an actor, with some light experience stage managing and co-directing WIG, AC’s improv group, but that’s a very different process. I’ve always wanted to be renowned and respected for my writing, but it wasn’t until I joined forces with Arts Collective and began acting that I realized scripts were where my passion really lies.
How was your first play brought to Arts Collective’s attention?
My friend and Producing Artistic DDirector at HCC’s Arts Collective, Susan Kramer, permitted me to hold a private reading of House. for the sole purpose of hearing my play read out loud during the spring of 2015. Her response to the reading was so positive, and she believed it would fit well with the 2015-2016 Horowitz Centers theme (Year of the Woman), and to be a part of Arts Collective’s 21st season.
When did you first realize you wanted to become a playwright?
In 2002 I read my first Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None. I was so inspired by how much the book challenged me and intrigued me that I decided I wanted to become a writer, too. I wrote short stories until 2008 when I got into acting and realized scripts are much more my forte. I personally feel my strengths lie in dialogue as opposed to imagery.
What was the inspiration for writing House?
I’ve been watching “reality” television my entire life. I’ve always enjoyed “meeting” a group of people and seeing one fight their way to the end. That being said, there are plenty of reality television shows that don’t involve any sort of elimination. I’ve always liked the idea of “confessionals,” and thought there was a comedy goldmine to be found in the format of a confessional.
How long did it take you to complete it?
I was on a week-long vacation with my family in 2009 and I started and completed the script that week. It has, however, been constantly re-read, re-worded, adjusted, and edited over the past seven years. As reality television evolved (i.e. hash tags, viewer polls, etc.), I felt it necessary to evolve the script.
What are some of the themes in House?
There are many different themes within House. I feel certain themes will only reach certain people, but the theme I feel is most universal is the direct parody of reality television clichés.
Tell us about the audition process? How many actors auditioned?
The audition process was stellar! We had a tremendous turn out of around 50 people; I was surprised at the size of the crowd considering it’s a workshop production. Everyone who attended arrived ready to work and most had a clear understanding of the play. They were all focused and flexible, and everything moved very smoothly. Not just on account of the actors, but the crew that was there to help me (Sue, Shannon, Linwood, and Lisa).
What have been the biggest challenges being playwright and director?
Surprisingly, I didn’t find this to be necessarily challenging at all. I went into the audition process with my original character concepts as a playwright in mind, but they were immediately extinguished by all the creative and out-of-the-box interpretations delivered by the actors. The hardest part about casting the show was deciding which character choices worked best together. Not a single character that you’ll see in this version of House. is the same character that I intended when I wrote it.
As a writer though, this is reassuring because it tells me that the characters are versatile and I’m excited and hopeful that if other theatres decided to mount this show on, it will have a whole new set of character choices. So to wrap up a long answer, I’ve only really been a director in this process.
What have been most fulfilling for you during this process?
I’ve only ever been an actor, so my approach to directing has been “I only know what worked for me.” Some things that have worked for me as an actor in the past have been extensive character work and character-based improv. This cast has embraced character work and improv and have really surrendered to their characters and made them into really real people. It’s been an absolutely surreal thing to see them being their art instead of showing it.
What have been your most challenging moments during the rehearsal process?
The crazy winter weather.
What have you learned about yourself as a director and playwright during this process?
I feel fulfilled, and if at all possible, I would love to do this for the rest of my life, whether it’s for a paycheck or not.
What, if any, changes have you make to the script since you started rehearsals?
Since this show is a workshop production, the intention has always been about focusing the acting and direction, as opposed to “bells and whistles.” I’ve encouraged the actors to do in-character ad-libbing when entering and exiting scenes. As they’ve got to know their characters, they’ve been able to create some of the best new lines in the show. The only other changes that we’ve really had to make are to lines that describe a characters aesthetic if it’s different from that of the actor I originally wrote.
What do you hope the actors will learn during this experience?
I’ve always believed so much in the power of character work. Actors know how to memorize lines and study their blocking, but I believe through the activity of journaling in character, and doing character-based improv (making memories is what I call it!), that they will then be able to connect real-life to their characters. To be able to call upon an actual memory of the character helps them to stay in character and surrender.
What do you hope the audiences will have taken away after having seen it?
It’s my intention to have written something both unseen and wholly relatable.
House plays on March 11-12, 2016 at Arts Collective @ HCC performing at , at Howard Community College’s Studio Theatre – 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, purchase them online.
Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House’: Part 1: Playwright/Director Daniel Johnston by Joel Markowitz.
Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House’: Part 2: Cast Members Gabrielle Amaro, Alex Becker, Courtney Branch, and Jordan Colea by Joel Markowitz.
Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House’: Part 3: Cast Members Brandon Furr, Chaseedaw Giles, Warren Harris, and Wesley LeRoux by Joel Markowitz.
Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House’: Part 4: Cast Members Chania Hudson, Tom Matera, and Christian Preziosi and Crew Member Taylor Purnell by Joel Markowitz.
Behind the Scenes of Arts Collective @HCC’s Workshop Production of ‘House’: Part 5: Cast Members Colin Riley, Iris Shih, and Sierra Young by Joel Markowitz.