Ghosts, magic shoes and Law & Order: Miki Johnson discovers life in American Falls

CultureMap spoke to Johnson about the inspiration for the play and the advantages of being an actor/playwright.

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In Miki Johnson’s world premiere play, American Falls, seven characters convene on stage to tell their stories. At least one is a ghost, another an Indian shoe salesman. Four of the characters appear to tell their stories to the audience, while three, in a bar, tell tales of childhood traumas to each other.

What could they possibly have in common besides living (or dying) in the small town, American Falls?

The play, billed as an Our Town for our times, certainly does have similarities to the Thornton Wilder classic, but after viewing an early rehearsal of the Catastophic Theatre production which opens tonight at DiverseWorks Art Space, I found its atmosphere and subject matter, though not setting, reminded me of a comic twist on Southern Gothicfiction, what might have happened if Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner wrote a play with lots of Law & Order: SVU and Housereferences.

CultureMap spoke to Johnson about the inspiration for the play and the advantages of being an actor/playwright.

CultureMap: This play is being described as a kind of post-modern Our Town. Were you inspired by Wilder’s play while writing?

Miki Johnson: That never entered my mind. I see the connection because it’s about a town, and about Americans, and it’s about how we connect to each other, to our neighbors. But I never made that connection consciously.

CM: Who made that connection?

MJ: Jason [Nodler], the director.

CM: I see that connection especially at the end of the play.

MJ: Yeah, the parallels are definitely there.

CM: This is your debut play. Have you been wanting to write a play?

MJ: I wrote when I was young, in college, but then I got into graduate school for acting, and the writing fell away because I was doing a lot of acting. I’ve been wanting to get back to it. I think it’s taken a while because I’ve been so focused on acting.

CM: But you didn’t write a part for yourself?

MJ: No. The truth is that I’d really like to switch to the other side, to be a writer and act sparingly. I have really bad stage fright. I have a lot of anxiety when I do a play. This causes a lot of anxiety too, but to me it’s a much more manageable kind of nervousness than acting. It’s just worn me out. I’ve done 100, 150 plays in my life and it’s just exhausting. I want a different adrenaline rush for now.

CM: Because of the amount of people involved in creating a play, playwrights seem to have less control over the final product than other types of writers. Is it difficult giving the work up to other people?

MJ: In this particular case, no, because we are a intimate group of people, very open and friendly and familiar with each other. So with this particular process it’s been amazing to give the play to these extremely capable actors. It’s been really exciting. There is a certain degree of relinquishing. Yes, you let go some of the music in your mind, but it’s often replaced with something better.

CM: Do you know where the play came from?

MJ: I really don’t. I sat down to write something else, something contrived. I wanted to write a play about jug band music, so I wanted to write a play about Jesus Christ playing in a jug band, but it was too contrived. That’s what I wanted to do at the time, experiment in jug band music, I guess. I was at the computer. I was writing, but then I let go of all that contrived nonsense, and all of a sudden I was writing something that was just more honest, that was in my own voice.

MJ: That’s good to hear, first of all.CM: Did you start with a story about how the characters are related or did you begin with characters first and then weave the story together? I only saw an early rehearsal, but for me it seems like a kind of a puzzle piece, so that the play and audience work together to put the characters into a whole picture.

The order you hear it in right now is the order I wrote it in. I didn’t even think about it. The first character that I wrote was Billy Mound-of-Clouds, the Indian character. And he is the narrator, so in a way I gave myself an easy way in because I made one of the characters a storyteller. But I didn’t set out for it to be a mystery or for it have that puzzle quality, which is really cool to hear it has that. I didn’t set out for it to be about childhood trauma which it ends up being about. I didn’t set out to write a play about sons or ghosts. It just happens. I just became enamored by this town name in Idaho. I just really like the name of the town.

CM: Time is interesting in the play, too. You’re not sure when the play’s present is.

MJ: Right. Clearly, it’s not linear. Clearly, it’s theatrical. The time is left a little shapelessness, I suppose.

CM: Four of the characters don’t seem to interact with the others, but instead tell their stories to some listener. Do you know who the characters are talking to?

MJ: It is so clearly about storytelling, so in many ways they are unabashedly speaking to the audience. Although there is room for them to be speaking to each other from time to time in indirect ways, they’re speaking to the crowd.

CM: So you wrote this over the winter holiday, and then brought it in and said, “Hey, I've got a play” to Catastrophic?

MJ: I’m in a lucky position to be so closely associated with this theatre company, and my works suits the sensibility of the theatre company so well. I’m really lucky in that way. I wrote with a lot of these actors in mind because we know each other and I know their work. So that’s all very fortunate for a playwright to have all that in their backyard.

CM: Does being an actress help you write for the stage?

MJ: Yes. A lot of it is about rhythm to me, and then a lot of it is about characters that have needs from other characters. Then during the rehearsal process, I think one thing that helps being an actor, stepping into being a writer, is that you can hear when the language is sitting wrong in a good actor’s mouth. You can really hear it, so then you can say, “Ah, I have to change that.” I’m in tune, in that way, to what an actor’s going through, when the path of a character doesn’t make sense or the language doesn’t somehow make sense all of a sudden.

I know what it is to struggle with sections in a piece in a play. . .In fact I don’t know how playwrights write unless they’ve been directors or actors. I know a lot of them do it, but that would be tough to have an ear for language when you haven’t been an actor.

CM: A lot of the comedy in American Falls comes from the many pop cultural references. Why was it so important to weave those in?

MJ: No idea. Not intended. I will tell you right now I’ve seen like 800 episodes of Law & Order. I watch a lot of TV. That’s the bottom line for me. I’m really low maintenance. I was probably referencing all those TV shows because that’s what I actually think about in my daily life.

CM: And to put those references in the mouth of a character like Billy Mound-of-Clouds is very funny.

MJ: That’s who he is, just a guy who watches a lot of TV, has magic shoes.

Audiences can meet Billy and his magic shoes thorugh June 9 atDiverseWorks ArtSpace.