Jason D. Johnson – Heavy is the Head:
Jason D. Johnson made his first appearance at The Warehouse Theatre fourteen years ago as the bald and blue Moon in Roy Fluhrer’s production of Blood Wedding. Since that time, he’s inhabited a number of character roles on our stage including Frog in Catfish Moon and most recently, the shell shocked Vietnam survivor David in Strange Snow. A member of Actors’ Equity Association, Jason is proud to call The Warehouse Theatre his theatrical home. We recently got him to spill his guts about a few topics concerning his performance as Richard:
WHT: So you know we love the training question. Give us the details, will you?
Jason: I have an MFA in Theatre Performance from the University of Southern Mississippi and a BS in Theatre and Speech Communication from Troy State University. Yes, yes, I know it is now called Troy, but it will always be TSU to me.
WHT: And were you originally from that area of the country?
Jason: I grew up in the country near a small town called Leesburg, Georgia.
WHT: And since you arrived in the Upstate, you’ve spent a lot of time at The Warehouse, yes?
Jason: I was involved in the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 seasons and then I took a long break from theatre. I came back in 2009 and have been privileged enough to make regular appearances since that time. Starting this season, I also became a full time staff member to boot! The place has become dear to me as an artist.
WHT: Do you have a favorite production that you’ve been physically involved with?
Jason: I’ve said it a ton: I could have done Eurydice for years. Working as a Stone with Finley and Stephanie was an absolute joy. You had “double” Tromsness on the show. Anytime you work with Matt Reece, you know you are going to get his best and have a good time. And then when you toss in two actors that are as careful and professional with their craft as Prentiss Standridge and Chris Onken…what could go wrong? The show was low stress, great fun, and as the Stones…we could explore whatever we wanted organically…and hide behind a ton of makeup. It was a beautiful joy.
WHT: Favorite experience in the theatre? Anything come to mind? Could be as an actor, tech, audience member.
Jason: Many moons ago, I saw Big River at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. I’m not fond of musicals, but I left my seat at the end of Muddy Water I was so moved. So did everyone else in the house as the place ripped open with applause and shouts. It was killer. And it was the total theatre combo that did it…the special effects of the raft, the lighting design on the river, the set, and the actors. The most memorable performance all the way around though was the University of Florida (and this Georgia kid hates the Gators, but…) performed Einstein’s Dreams at the American College Theatre Festival one year. It defined the word beautiful.
WHT: What’s your favorite part of being an actor?
Jason: The collaboration with the other artists. That’s why I love rehearsal even more than performance, I think. The exploration and choices you get to make along the way, as the group finds emotions, attacks, points, words, etc. is just a powerful thing to be a part of. As much as audiences get a great show in front of them in the end, so many great moments happen in rehearsal that they never see because they get weeded out for one reason or another. Rehearsal is that sacred place where you get asked to push yourself and make mistakes over and over again. It’s glorious when you are working with wonderful and talented folks.
WHT: Is there someone else’s work you greatly enjoy? Or admire?
Jason: Locally, there’s quite a few. We’ve got an excellent hub of talent here in the Upstate. Of fame and fortune…I have long loved Robert DeNiro. I was so happy a few years ago when he made Silver Linings Playbook because we got to see him at his best again. In my opinion, there is no finer piece of acting than him in Raging Bull. Outside of the acting realm, I have been heavily influenced by metal guitarist Zakk Wylde in my later years. The man gets arts and business right. They can exist in a beautiful, enterprising way, but it takes a ton of sweat and blood to make it work. Here’s a guy, despite being one of the greatest guitarists in the world…electrically and classically…he still gets up in the morning…pours himself a hot bowl of java and runs scales. Every day. Then he goes to work on the business end of things. He’s inspiring for a working artist. He should teach at our Conservatory.
WHT: Is there anything you do, like a ritual or something, that has to be done before you are able to perform each night?
Jason: You better pour yourself another round for this long answer. I grew up in the Deep South. And I grew up playing baseball, the most superstitious sport there is. Those two things make me a tad superstitious. And when I was in high school, Pearl Jam’s TEN record was a hot number. When we were traveling to compete at the One Act Play Festival, one of my friends and cast mates Ryan Tindell played that album on the drive over. I hated Pearl Jam at the time simply because of their popularity, but it got everyone stoked and focused. We crushed the festival. Then went to State and played well there, too. The next year, Pearl Jam released the album Vs. My friend Steve and I were up late drawing and painting the Homecoming run-thru for the pep rally. He’d snagged the Vs. album that day and stuck it in the tape deck in my parent’s garage. It was all over for me at that point. They became my favorite band and have been ever since. So every night, since high school, before I go on stage, I have a playlist of their songs that gets played. It always includes a live version of Corduroy, a live version of Untitled and must end with Alive. Sometimes I’ll add a song or two appropriate to the show (like I used Fortunate Son in Strange Snow), but mostly it stays the same. It gets me focused and gets my mind clear.
WHT: Is there someone who greatly influenced your work as an actor?
Jason: It starts with Robby Davis, long time theatre director at my High School. Still one of the smartest theatre minds (literary minds) I’ve ever met. I owe my life in theatre to him. Along the way, Francis X. Kuhn taught me how everything should be driven by what you do to affect others. Roy Fluhrer taught me how to use touch and the awareness of the environment to better my scene work. Jack Young kicked my tail non-stop for like eight days straight and in the end, I came away with better uses of all my senses in a role, the ability to functionally cold read a text, and the desire to always get better, do better, and make others better.
WHT: Is there a person you haven’t worked with yet that is on your wish list?
Jason: I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really wonderful people over the years. Two are top of mind right now though, since I haven’t worked with or seen them in a while. Patrick Torres and Thomas Torrey. Patrick and I were in graduate school together and he directed my thesis project, Martin McDonough’s The Lonesome West. But we’ve yet to work together professionally and I hope that changes at some point. He is such an insightful and gifted director and he really knows how to dial in an actor. Thomas once worked for and with me as a cinematographer and filmmaker at our old company and he’s used me in some supporting character stuff in his film shorts. I’d like to get the opportunity to dial up a lead for him one time. He’s doing some great, great things with his storytelling. He’s always had a knack for that.
WHT: How many Shakespeares do you have under your belt now?
Jason: If I am not missing one, I think I have six. Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, Two Gentlemen of Verona and now, Richard III.
WHT: What is your favorite thing about working on Shakespeare’s plays?
Jason: It is humbling. Very humbling. It is a bit of a mental cage match with the verse, the heightened language, and the feeling that someone somewhere is always going to tell you…hey, your scansion stinks on that line. And all the blessed listening you have to do as an actor. I know there are nights when Kerrie is thinking to herself, “Geez, I wish Richard would shut his trap.”
WHT: This show focuses more on the action and less on the historical elements of Richard III. What was that like to experience a rather well known text in a bit of a different light?
Jason: I think it helped me to attack the role more truthfully. In one of the early rehearsals, I made a decision that in the next rehearsal I’d dial back the emotion. I tanked in that rehearsal. At that point, I just went at it like the boar Richard is. Whether people respond well to the emotion or not, it is coming from a very honest place.
WHT: Is there a moment in this show that has changed dramatically for you from the beginning of rehearsals until now?
Jason: First one that comes to mind is the scene (we call it the press conference) right before the intermission. We’ve made several sweeping tweaks to that scene as we went along, but nothing really stuck. Then we literally made changes to it on Sponsor Preview Night and all of a sudden, it clicked and sang like a bird. The audience probably left with it being one of their favorite scenes. It definitely opened up for us to what it could be right there in front of an audience. It was awesome to experience that with Justin, Michael, Miranda…and somewhere in the ether behind me…Matty. Now Justin gets to take them to “church.”
WHT: Any words of advice for audience members coming to Richard III?
Jason: This one has much to offer both the well-versed Shakespeare patron and the one who doesn’t care as much for Shakespeare but loves a good story. And fights. And feeling like they are a part of the action and drama unfolding on stage. We just finished doing the two previews and opening night and being able to look those folks in the eye…many from a foot away…and share the moments…and see some glow coming back…is a wonderful communal experience.
WHT: Once Richard has been interred, what’s your next gig?
Jason: Nothing on the horizon. This could be a bit of a hiatus period for the kid here. But I have some buddies in Atlanta that have been itching to make some music, so it might be time to dust off the strings again and spend some time in the studio. Who knows?
See Jason D. Johnson as Richard in Richard III playing through May 2nd!