Interview: Meet the Playwright of ‘House.’ at Laurel Mill Playhouse

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The new year brings the opening of the original play by Daniel Johnston, House., to Laurel Mill Playhouse in Laurel, Maryland. House. is directed by Susan Brall – a reviewer at DCMTA – and produced by Maureen Rogers.

This production has very clear ties to DCMTA. In the spring of 2016, Joel Markowitz sent both Susan Brall and Kay-Megan Washington to review House. at Howard Community College. It was produced by the Howard County Arts Collective. House. was written by a local playwright, Daniel Johnston, who also directed that production. Joel was always excited about new playwrights and wanted to encourage local talent which is why he sent two reviewers. That rarely happened. Brall was so impressed with the play she thought more people needed to see it. With a reality star then knocking at the White House door she later approached Johnston about having another local theater produce the show. Brall went to Rogers and they agreed to do the show in the winter of 2018. This was already the summer of 2017 and we had our reality show star as president. Brall was not a reality show fan but felt the play explained the contestants and what made these shows so popular with the public.

Fittingly, the show is dedicated to DCMTA’s late editor, Joel Markowitz. Brall and Johnston wish he could have been in the audience, but feel he will be watching.

We sat down with Johnston and had him explain his background and inspiration for House.

DCMTA: What inspired you to write House.?

Daniel Johnston: I’ve always been a huge fan of reality television, but as I got older I started to learn more and more about how staged it really can be. I would read testimonials that the show’s producers would have their players amp up their stereotypes, i.e. “act more gay” or “act more black.”

It was only then that I noticed that there really are stock archetypes on most reality shows. So, my purpose for House. has become more about showcasing how these television programs endorse stereotypes as opposed to my initial love for reality TV.

Are you a fan of reality TV?

Admittedly, I will always be a fan of Survivor which seems to be one of the only reality shows I have found that doesn’t purposely utilize harmful stereotypes for shock. They have even dedicated entire seasons to proving that race, gender, etc. don’t matter. Survivor will also initially segregate the contestants based on different variables, like age, gender, or even race, only to ultimately prove that those factors are in no way important or necessary for successful gameplay.

Which shows do or did you watch?

Mostly Survivor and Project Runway, but I’ve seen seasons of Face Off, Big Brother, and Ink Master.

Are any of the characters based on people from those shows?

Every character in House. can be found within the many seasons of Survivor, but yes. For any Survivor fans out there, Elaine was inspired by Parvati (“Fans vs. Favorites”), Liston was inspired by Cirie (“Fans vs. Favorites”), Peter is a failed Russell (“Samoa”), and the rest are inspired by various characters that show up on every season of nearly every reality show. Some even represent certain reality shows as a whole, i.e. Carlos and Andrea represent phony “showmances,” from shows like The Bachelor, whereas Andrea also represents unnecessary aggression that you’ll see on shows like Inkmaster and The Real Housewives, or even how characters like Gordon Ramsay act. Christine is a representation of “celebrity editions” of reality shows in which the celebrities will compete for charity. Micky represents the underdog that appears on every season of any given show, and Lucy is representative of how some people will sacrifice any, and all, of their integrity for fame and popularity.

How old were you when you wrote it?

I wrote House. in my early 20’s in around a week’s time. However, I spent about five years editing it, changing characters’ names and ages, going back and forth about who should win, and ultimately adding in an audience participation segment towards the end. The show has to evolve as reality television evolves. Part of me wonders if it will ever actually be fully complete.

What inspired HCC’s Arts Collective to produce it?

My friend and employer, Susan Kramer, joined me for a private reading of the show with some friends and confidants, just so I could hear it out loud. She fell in love with the show, and as Producing Artistic Director of Arts Collective at HCC, she was able to provide me with the backing to direct its premiere.

You not only wrote it then, you also directed it. How is that different than the roles you have now?

Having the opportunity to direct it felt entirely necessary for its premiere, because I was able to ensure that all the intended jokes were hit and that the pacing was perfect. It set the bar for how the show should be done. The current director, Susan Brall, saw my version and, like with any show that’s had previous performances, has used that as a jumping off point for her own creative interpretation.

You are doing the costumes for this show. Why did you want to take this position?

Besides making a name for myself as a playwright, I thoroughly enjoy costuming and am trying to gain some recognition within that field as well. With this show specifically, the characters are color-coded to make them even more identifiable to the audience, and that was something I wanted to try again after having costumed the premiere at HCC.

How does this production differ from the one at HCC? (Without giving away too much.)

No character is a mirror of the original cast, and I think that’s the most enjoyable thing for me as a playwright. These marvelous actors were forced to pull from their own interpretations of the characters and the script, and I think the original cast would be proud of how varied their interpretations are.

How are they similar?

Besides having the same winner, the show is actually quite different.

Did any of the same cast audition to reprise their roles in this production?

No, and if they had, I would have strongly suggested not casting them. They were all great to work with, and I love them all dearly, but it was important to me that this cast be a sea of fresh actors, ready to tackle the production as though it were a premiere for them as well. And in a way, it is. I have been in contact with the original cast, and they are very excited to come and support.

Did anyone from this production see the HCC version?

Director Susan Brall saw the show. The show really seemed to resonate with her, and she almost immediately reached out to me to direct her own version. I believe some of the cast has seen it, but I’m not entirely sure which actors specifically.

How did you feel when Susan asked you to allow her to do the show?

I was floored. Having the premiere at HCC was an amazing accomplishment, and it was the perfect safe place to incubate the original mounting, since I’m so comfortable there as an actor, director, and employee. However, having an outside company interested in the show was extremely gratifying because it could only be based on their experience with the production. It was a major confidence boost for me as a playwright, director, and costumer.

Since you live in Laurel, did it mean more to do it at Laurel Mill Playhouse? Why?

I was just happy to have the show done. It is nice to have a considerably shorter drive some days.

Have you ever had any theatrical experience at LMP before?

I saw a production of And Then There Were None but I think that was like ten years ago. Otherwise, I had had no experience working with them.

Would you like it to continue to be performed in other venues? Where?

I absolutely intend to take the script to other venues after this production closes. I have high hopes that its high ratings will be maintained, and I intend to use those positive reviews to encourage other companies to mount the show.

Have you written any other plays?

I am currently working on a parody of murder mysteries, as I believe satire is my forte. I have one satirical horror movie accomplished, available for free streaming on Vimeo.

What other areas of the theater are you interested in or have experience in?

I am currently making a name for myself as both a director and a costumer. I got my theatrical start in acting, and learned a tremendous amount through osmosis, but as I move forward in theater, I intend to leave the stage and work almost entirely behind the scenes.

One final question, why is there a period at the end of the title?

Sometimes reality shows have an air of pretentiousness and drama. I felt like that period was pretentious and dramatic, LOL.

House. plays through January 21, 2018, at Laurel Mill Playhouse – 508 Main Street, in Laurel, MD. To purchase tickets, call (301) 617-9906 or go online.