Playwright amplifies unspoken moments

Everett Evans
Houston Chronicle
Sat, 02/01/2014

Catastrophic Theatre playwright-in-residence Miki Johnson (link is external) admits to having a split personality, theoretically speaking.

“I have a frivolous side, and I have a grim side,” Johnson says.

Of her two works previously premiered by Catastrophic, the mocking camp musical “Fleaven” clearly represented the former; “American Falls,” a brooding portrait of small-town desperation, the latter.

And what of “clean/through,” which premieres Friday?

“In simplest terms,” she says, “this leans toward the bluer side.”

Well, yes, since it depicts the relationship of a semi-famous singer-songwriter and his longtime girlfriend, bedeviled by drugs and illness. The play begins with the pair returning home after a disastrous, potentially career-ending concert. The star was wasted, with the audience all too painfully aware. Once home, the couple have a confrontation about their circumstances. As “clean/through” follows the couple through the aftermath of this crisis, it looks at fame and fortune – and their absence.

Can love ever be enough to fix that which is profoundly broken? That is the question.

“It is a love story,” Johnson says. “And while it’s pretty dark, it’s also very experiential, impressionistic, with aspects of magic realism. It has different rules – along with its heavy, dark side.

In telling a story in which drugs figure prominently, she says, two issues come up that are flip sides of the same coin – “recovery and inability to recover.”

The writing was sparked by Johnson’s (link is external) interest in the life and music of singer-songwriter Elliott Smith (link is external).

“I like that he is so unabashedly sentimental and poetic,” she says. “His work is painful and beautiful. And he was a junkie and committed suicide. I started with that idea, to write about a comparable figure. But once you start writing, then it becomes personal and becomes your invention.”

She calls “clean/through” more lean, compact writing than her past works. “There’s much more white space. I want to empower the actors to breathe in things of their own.”

“Miki never writes the same play twice,” says Catastrophic artistic director Jason Nodler (link is external), who is directing. “This is very different from her works Houston audiences have seen so far. It’s an unapologetically emotional play, yet also a spare one. A lot of the writing in this case is about nonwriting, what’s not said. Much of the magic, the poetry, is in unspoken moments. The changes made since we started rehearsal have largely been stripping things out of the script. She recently cut the first five pages – what was exposition leading up to an explosion – so now it just starts with the explosion.”

“What goes unsaid in this play lets the audience draw their own personal associations,” Nodler adds, “so the story can be about them as much as about the characters.”

Partners offstage as well as collaborators, Johnson and Nodler say their relationship never gets in the way of their work, and vice versa.

“It’s a complicated and a great thing,” Johnson says. “Working together is one of the most dynamic and vibrant parts of both our lives. We complement each other. I tend to catastrophize, and he is more upbeat. He’s much more a problem solver, and I’m very much a problem finder.”

Johnson has been spending less time at rehearsals for “clean/through,” than during the company’s preparation of her past plays.

“In this case, I decided to step back a little, so they can make their own choices and mistakes. I look in occasionally, but it’s almost as if I’m out of town.”

“While it’s a great advantage having the author on hand as you rehearse,” Nodler says, “it can keep the actors and even the director from trying things. In this case, Miki has been out of the room more often, because she wanted us to live with the play and make discoveries – rather than being intimidated by the writer’s presence and trying to ‘get it right’ in her eyes. As a result, the times that she does look in and give her opinion have a lot more impact. I think this will be our most successful collaboration.”