Tag Archives: San Diego

Phil Johnson, Master of the Comedi-verse

Phil Johnson to teach a master class on comedy

“I think about comedy all day and all night.”

Phil Johnson, most recently seen this summer as Bottom in Intrepid Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream: the Musical,” admits this obsession without hesitation.

“I probably need a twelve step group for my love of it,” he adds.

In lieu of addiction therapy, Phil Johnson will instead be putting this passion to good use by sharing it with others. Along with Artistic Directors Christy and Sean Yael-Cox, Phil will be an instructor in Intrepid’s brand new offering of fall classes.

What will he be teaching? A master class on comedy, of course.

A comedic stage veteran, Phil has shone on the San Diego stage for more than 15 years, racking up starring turns on the city’s major stages, and receiving a Craig Noel Award this year from the San Diego Critics’ Circle for his rendition of Sheridan Whiteside in “The Man Who Came To Dinner.” Aside from his stints in Los Angeles writing with the Acme Comedy Theatre, his grant from the San Diego Foundation for the Arts to develop his comedy solo show version of “Hound of Baskervilles,” and his comedy/cabaret fellowship with the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center, his most impressive comedic credit is probably his run as the tavern-owning criminal Thérnardier in the Broadway production and the national tour of “Les Misérables.”

While continuing to develop projects in town, Phil is also eager to share the tips and pointers that his own comedic gurus have taught him over the years. A master class for Intrepid Shakespeare seems the perfect fit.

Phil as Bottom
Photo credit: Daren Scott

“I have a great enthusiasm for good actors who are also good comedians,” he says. “It’s thrilling and exciting to go to the theatre and be impressed by someone who can do both sides of the coin. Plus, I love Sean and Christy, and I would love for there to be a whole bunch of good, funny actors in San Diego for me to play with all the time.”

The three-hour master class will be geared towards professional working actors; however, theatre lovers are also welcome to enroll. While some actors may shy away from comedic training, Phil maintains that the funny bits are completely accessible to even the most dramatic of thespians.

“So many people think it’s separate from them, so they’re not using all the tools in their toolbox,” he says. “Almost any good actor can be a good comedian. It’s about details and intention and thinking things through.”

To that end, he plans to organize the class around a checklist – particulars that the actor can pay attention to in order to achieve the maximum comedic effect from his or her scenes.

“If the audience is laughing, then they are following your story,” explains Phil. “If they aren’t, then you need to shake things up.”

This is why he loves previews, he says, which is that time during the run of a show when things can still be adjusted after receiving input from the audience’s reaction each evening.  “I get to see what works and what doesn’t before opening.”

Phil Johnson with Jacqueline Ritz
Photo credit: Daren Scott

This willingness to continually pursue the perfection of comedic timing is part of paying attention to the details. This is something Phil learned from his comedic stints in theatre, his own teachers, and also from a childhood spent watching the greats: Bill Cosby, Carol Burnett, Sonny and Cher, and Jonathan Winters. Honoring the legacy of comedy is something he feels is fundamental to its study.

“I think one thing that young people don’t do often enough is watch the old stuff. They don’t know who Bette Davis or Rock Hudson are,” says Phil. ”Comedy is so much an homage to what’s come before.”

Studying the legends is one way to keep one’s skills polished and in tune, but nothing beats the experience of a class. “I wish I had had someone to give me a tune up every once in a while,” he says. “You can always be funnier.”

And what if you are rather nervous about taking a master class in comedy?

“Don’t worry,” says Phil. “Nervous people are almost always funny.”

– Tiffany Tang

A Master Class on Comedy with Phil Johnson. November 24, 6-9 pm. Clayton E. Liggett Theatre at Intrepid Shakespeare (SDA Campus). $60. Enroll here.

Behind the Curtain: A Conversation About “A Life in the Theatre”

Jason Heil will direct Monday night’s staged reading of “A Life in the Theatre” by David Mamet.

When “A Life in the Theatre” by David Mamet debuted on Broadway in 1977, it opened hot on the heels of the playwright’s first White Way explosion, “American Buffalo.” Needless to say, the heartfelt strains of this new offering were somewhat off-putting for those expecting what the New York Times had called Mamet’s “bad boy bluster.”

Yet, Jason Heil, director of Monday’s night’s staged reading of this Mamet two-hander at the Encinitas Library, feels that this play fits nicely into Mamet’s canon, despite its more vulnerable moments.

“It may not fit into the Mamet mold,” he says, “but his writing style is very much there in this piece.”

That iconic writing style – also seen in “Oleanna,” Intrepid’s Season Four opener earlier this year – is what draws this Shakespeare-focused theatre company to certain contemporary playwrights. Mamet, who so clearly stamped his name on the voice of modern American theatre over three decades ago, lends his signature style and phrasing, this time in a very poignant fashion.

Chronicling the life of two actors – one a veteran and one a promising rookie – “A Life in the Theatre” is a series of vignettes that take place off stage, backstage, and even onstage, giving the audience a sincere portrait of friendship, professional camaraderie, and even a little competitive spirit.

Dale Morris will play veteran actor Robert in Monday night’s reading.

“They are always trying to pin down where they stand with each other,” explains Jason, who directed last season’s main stage production of “Turn of the Screw” for Intrepid. “As the play evolves, and the younger actor gains more status and more confidence, we see how his growth affects their relationship.”

Bantering off of each other on Monday will be Sean Yael-Cox, Intrepid’s Co-Founder and Artistic Director, as the young upstart John, and San Diego notable Dale Morris as Robert, the heavy with a wealth of experience. In a unique segment of San Diego theatre history, Sean and Dale appeared together in a production of “The Elephant Man” when Sean first moved to town in 1998 and have been looking for a project to work on together ever since.

“When we were planning this yearlong series, this play was one of the few comedies we had on the list,” says Sean, referring to Intrepid’s monthly Staged Reading Series at the Encinitas Library that has played to sold out audiences and standing ovations, and has featured contemporary and classical, as well as Shakespearean pieces. This month will mark the ninth installment in what has become known as a concentrated showcase for notable San Diego talent.

“We are lucky to have hosted the highest caliber directors and actors from the start,” says Sean. “”The reading series has been a major undertaking. We’ve set the bar high and we are eager to maintain that level of performance quality for our audiences.”

To that end, every once in a while – however reluctantly – the schedule must be changed to accommodate this uncompromising outlook. For instance, “Julius Caesar” was originally slated for the September reading, but with a cast of more than a dozen actors and a director visiting from Los Angeles, a November timeline ultimately proved to be a solution for scheduling conflicts.

“For us, it was important to get the right group of people, especially for Shakespeare. We didn’t want to compromise on that,” says Sean. “We try to remember that theatre is growing and changing and that it’s a living thing, which means it can be a little unpredictable at times.”

Fortunately, that also means that the Mamet treat originally scheduled for the end of the year will be enjoyed a bit early, and that September’s audience gets to witness the dynamic connection between these two actors who have themselves been longtime friends.

“Both of these actors bring a lot of depth and groundedness to what they do,” says Jason, commenting on the impressive body of combined work. “I’m looking forward to digging in and mulching around with them a bit.”

One of the most interesting dynamics of the play, says Jason, is the fluidity of their relationship. “I like watching the two colleagues attempt to stay professional, to forge a friendship, to figure out the friendship that forges just by working with someone.” Again, it is Mamet’s words that endow that fluidity with a sense of realism.

Sean Yael-Cox will portray young John
(pictured above in last season’s Hamlet, photo Daren Scott).

“He creates this flow with the words that goes back and forth between the actors,” explains Jason. “He messes up clean dialogue and the result mirrors the way we speak. In reality, our thoughts take us somewhere and we overlap and interrupt and we don’t censor ourselves.”

Jason also points out that many modern playwrights now echo Mamet’s realistic style, which at the time of his debut, was a stark departure from the rigidity of his predecessors’ clean lines.

“When you look at the ‘classics,’ even with a modern play, these are texts that are still going to be standing years later,” points out Jason. “A ‘classic’ is a well-built script, where there’s a lot of answers buried within, and not laid out on a platter. It’s the playwright who knows how to write a play through the words and underneath the words at the same time.”

Recently a Broadway revival starring Patrick Stewart and T.R. Knight, “A Life in the Theatre” has been described as Mamet’s “valentine” to his business. Does that mean that non-theatrical types will still find the play as captivating as those who have taken a turn onstage themselves?

Jason is reassuring. “There are moments in the piece when it is really two people opening up about each other or their feelings for theatre and what theatre means,” he says. “But it’s more that we are saying come and take a peak behind the curtain, and we will show you what’s going on back here.”

–  Tiffany Tang

A Life in the Theatre by David Mamet, a staged reading, will be held at the Encinitas Library, 540 Cornish Drive. Monday, September 23. 6:30 pm complimentary wine/appetizer reception. 7:00 pm reading. Please rsvp to boxoffice@intrepidshakespeare.com and pay with cash/check at the door or purchase tickets in advance. $15. Julius Caesar will play in November.

Meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Wendy Waddell and Steven Grawrock discuss their roles in Intrepid’s upcoming production of HAMLET.

When I sat down to chat with Wendy and Steven, my first question was the obvious one:  Wait.  Who is playing whom?

True to form, they began to finish each other’s sentences as they elaborated on their roles as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (respectively), for which they resumed rehearsals this week after the holiday break.  In the play, these characters are old friends of Hamlet, who appear after the action of the story has begun, and whose loyalties often appear undecided.  Except for a few lines of text, they are never seen apart, but always together, their names confused even by other characters in the play.

Despite a now traditional route of portraying these two as similar personalities, both Wendy and Steven are adamant about director Christy Yael’s approach of distinguishing them.

“Immediately, there’s a challenge to make it your own and different from the other person,” says Steven.  “There is no challenge or worthwhileness if you’re just playing Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum.”

Wendy agrees.  “They can be easily disposed of or perceived as filler but, let’s face it, Tom Stoppard wrote an entire play about these characters. Even though they don’t have a ton of dialogue, they are very influential.  They are the voice of the people.”

As Wendy and Steven step back into rehearsals this week, they are eager to see their ideas about their roles manifest into action and movement on the stage.  Steven, a newbie to Intrepid, and Wendy, a three-show veteran, are finding their excitement about creating these characters paralleling their interest in getting to know each other as actors.

“My first question when I was cast was, ‘Who is my Guildenstern??’” says Wendy, and for a while, there was no answer.  Steven, who just moved to San Diego with his family after a yearlong stint at The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, had solicited local theatre companies for auditions upon his arrival.  He was cast in Intrepid’s reading of Macbeth in October and eventually in Hamlet as well.  “All everyone kept telling me during the reading was that I was going to love my Rosencrantz,” he says.

“Did they tell you Rosencrantz was going to be female?”  Wendy asks him, curious.

“No, they didn’t right away!” laughs Steven.

As they have become acquainted, Wendy and Steven have also begun the journey of figuring out who their characters are in the context of the production.  Both actors agree that there is still a lot of mystery to be unraveled.  “We are still figuring out what our rhythm is going to be together,” says Wendy, and Steven agrees, adding that discovering what they are each going to bring is going to be pivotal in creating these two people.

“Often the placement of scenes with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seems like they are not much more than ice breakers,” muses Steven when asked about how these characters fit into the story of the play as a whole.  “They come before and after some fairly intense scenes, so it can seem difficult to show their reality as people.”

Wendy elaborates.  “The more I reread the play the more I love what these two characters represent,” she says.  “They bring Hamlet down to earth and make him accessible to the audience.  This is a guy who has goofy friends!”

Whatever the motivations of these characters, it is clear that Wendy and Steven are ready to move from the extensive table work they have been doing for the past month and into the action onstage.  While the table work is necessary to clarify intentions and motivations and specific moments of the play, for these two it is walking the walk  - in this case, alongside one another – that will truly bring the characters to life.

“I’m a firm believer that I’m as good as my scene partner,” says Wendy.  “I need to elevate my game for the other person.  I love the idea of it being so seamless and breathing as one machine and telling the story together.  I think, as a cast, we are all very invested.”

Steven has no hesitations jumping in with her, even though this is his first production with this crew.  “It’s immensely gratifying to come into this group right after studying in Scotland,” he admits.  “I’ve been awed to come back to a group of people who work with a process that is so professional and so familiar.”

Wendy is more than happy to put Steven’s mind at ease with regards to his debut show in San Diego.

“This is such a great group – I can’t stress that enough,” she says.  “We’re going to have a fun time together.  They are a supportive, fun, smart, risk taking group of actors and designers and directors.”

Then, she adds, “Take us all with a grain of salt, though.”

We have a laugh and I thank them for their time.  I can’t help but smile when they answer, in unison, “No problem!”

We will see you on stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.   – T.T.

Hamlet previews January 30 at the Clayton E. Liggett Theatre on the campus of San Dieguito Academy in Encinitas.  For more information about tickets and showtimes, click here.