Today, I ramble on with my good friend and accomplished playwright David Johnston.
David Johnston’s plays have been performed and read at the New Group, Moving Arts, Rude Guerrilla, the Neighborhood Playhouse, Henry Street Settlement, and Ensemble Studio Theatre. He was named one of Time Out’s Playwrights to Watch. Recent regional productions include The George Place at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre. New York productions: with Blue Coyote Theater Group, Conversations on Russian Literature Plus Three More Plays, a new adaptation of The Oresteia, Busted Jesus Comix (GLAAD nominee 2005), and A Bush Carol, or George Dubya and the Xmas of Evil. With director Kevin Newbury, Candy & Dorothy (GLAAD winner, 2006) and The Eumenides. Publications: The Eumenides, (Playing With Canons, published by New York Theatre Experience, Inc.) Leaving Tangier , (Samuel French, produced by Blue Coyote). Awards include Theater Oxford, Turnip Festival, Playwright Residency at the University of Cincinnati, Berrilla Kerr Foundation Grant, Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and the Arch & Bruce Brown Foundation. Education: College of William and Mary, Circle in the Square. Member: Actors Equity, Dramatists Guild, Charles Maryan’s Playwrights/Directors Workshop.
ANTHONY: Welcome, David! Thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions.
DAVID: I’m thrilled to be on the show today, Anton!
ANTHONY: MOTHRA IS WAITING is described as being about “Two Showgirls. One giant moth. A comedy of redemption and sequins.” Can you tell us a bit more about the story?
DAVID: It’s about two sisters, who have spent years doing their musical act in a seedy club in Bridgeport. One is convinced that a giant moth will come and rescue them from their lives of showbiz obscurity. The other wants to move on. It combines my love of two things: tawdry backstage drama and Japanese monster movies. And I threw in some drag queens.
ANTHONY: MOTHRA started out as a short play, correct? Where was it first produced, and what was the audience reaction like?
DAVID: I wrote the short play about seven years ago, after seeing a revival of “Mothra” at Film Forum. I found the movie very beautiful and oddly moving and it made me cry. Which I discovered in not considered an “appropriate” response to a monster movie at Film Forum.
I just wondered whatever happened to the two little Japanese women in the film, who do all the cheesy musical numbers so I wrote the play. Rather quickly too, it just popped out. It won an award, and was produced at a theater in Mississippi, Theater Oxford. I went down to see the production and they did a wonderful job. It had readings here in the city, and then Blue Coyote Theater Group produced it on a bill with three other one-acts of mine in early 2009.
Audience response has always been all over the map – surprising. To some people, it’s a movie about holding on to dreams. Other people think it’s about growing up. Some just love monster movies so they think the play is neat.
ANTHONY: How did the movie deal come about?
DAVID: It’s all Kevin. Kevin Newbury, who I’ve worked with several times in the past and he’s a wonderful director. We always have a great time working together. His opera career has been taking off for the past few years, but he was hankering to do a movie. Both of us love movies – we’re always emailing each other with OH MY GOD YOU HAVE TO SEE SUCH AND SUCH. So, he optioned a screenplay from me two and a half years ago. We’ve just been waiting for a break in his schedule so he could do it.
ANTHONY: It’s not often that playwrights (or novelists!) get to adapt their own work for the screen. What was the process like for you, turning the play script into a movie script?
DAVID: This one was painless. The play is pretty short and straightforward. One room, two actresses, ten minutes. I opened it up a bit, but Kevin also wanted to keep it short. He dug the compactness of the piece. We went back and forth on a draft four, maybe five times and then he said, “Great. It’s ready.”
I’m not by any means an experienced screenwriter, so it’s all been a big learning experience for me. I just discovered, hey! I don’t have to have a half page speech. We can show the scene she’s describing! The character doesn’t have to say what time it is – we can just show the clock! Movies are great.
ANTHONY: Did you make any major changes to the narrative once you started the adaptation process?
DAVID: The narrative is still very much the same. Two sisters who love each other very much, and they can’t keep going in the same way. Something has to give.
ANTHONY: Let’s talk about the movie itself: who’s directed, who is in the cast, and how many of the cast and crew were involved in the play production?
DAVID: Well, there’s Kevin, of course, and it’s his first film. Kevin’s a genius at bringing people together, getting them excited and getting great work from them. We have a great DP, Simon Pauly, who’s coming over from Berlin. Nell Gwynn is an actress both Kevin and I have worked with several times. She was in CANDY & DOROTHY in ’06, which Kevin directed. She did readings of this one several times, and she was also in my adaptation of THE ORESTEIA at Blue Coyote in ’07. Amy Staats, who’s playing Dot, is an actress I’d seen in readings and really liked her. Matthew Principe, our producer from CANDY & DOROTHY is on board. Vita Tzykun, who’s this fabulous art director and production designer. Paul Carey, our costume designer. The designers work a lot in opera and are all having a field day on this short weird film. They’re giving the piece a really out-there look, kind of David Lynch-y crossed with 70s John Carpenter, Euro music videos and sad small town bars with mooseheads on the wall. We have some songs by Todd Almond, we have a disco remix of Betty and Dot’s act. Kevin has really put an amazing group of artists.
ANTHONY: How far along in production are you?
DAVID: We’ll start rehearsals and shooting next week. It’ll take about ten days.
ANTHONY: People can donate to help complete the film, right? How and where can they do that?
DAVID: Yep. We’re a fiscally sponsored project with Fractured Atlas. You can donate at this link. And you get a tax deduction!
ANTHONY: Let’s go back to discussing writing. I personally live by Christopher Durang’s comment that “the Protestant work ethic is something we Catholic boys don’t have.” What’s your writing work ethic like?
DAVID: I love Durang, but he’s full of shit with that one. James Joyce was Catholic, and had about the most fiendish work ethic of any writer ever. These days, I’m lucky to steal four to five quiet mornings a week to write. If I’m really busy on a project, I’ll write in the evenings as well, but mostly it’s in the morning. At ungodly hours.
ANTHONY: What projects are you currently working on?
DAVID: As soon as we’re done shooting, I’ll come back to New York and we’ll start pre-production for CONEY, which is the new full-length play I’m doing with Blue Coyote. That opens at the New Ohio Theater in late October. Gary Shrader is directing – he’s directed a bunch of my plays for Blue Coyote, and also up at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theater up in Cape Cod. I’m in rewrites for that now. Actually I just sent a new draft to Gary today. It takes place on one day in Coney Island, with about a dozen different characters.
ANTHONY: The last time we saw each other, we half-joked about an anniversary revival of your play BUSTED JESUS COMIX. Have you given any further thought to that?
DAVID: Ha! I should mention that to Gary. He directed that twice. None of us can believe it’s been ten years since we did that piece. And it’s since had other productions, one in London. But I agree. It’s time to do that one in New York again. Unfortunately – in many ways – it’s not dated at all.
ANTHONY: And my usual closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
DAVID: That’s a tough one. I could come up with a different answer every day. But today I’ll say my favorite is Joseph Mitchell’s UP IN THE OLD HOTEL. It’s a collection of his essays and profiles from the New Yorker, most of them dating from the forties and fifties. Gypsies on the Lower East Side, bearded ladies, the old Fulton Street market. Mitchell could write about anything and make it endlessly fascinating. He was funny and tough and his prose style was just perfect. You can’t improve on him. Joseph Mitchell wrote the way Armstrong played the trumpet. It’s alive and human and gorgeous and it looks and sounds effortless.
You can also find David at his blog, THEATRE, CULTURE, POLITICS & STUFF I LIKE.