Closeup Image of polished vintage wood flooring at CFPA - Center for Performing Arts in Minneapolis, Minnesota

ReClaim May: A Conversation with playwright JuCoby Johnson

On Wednesday, May 9, 2018, CFPA Mpls Executive Director Jackie Hayes sat down with playwright JuCoby Johnson to discuss his creative process and his play “How It’s Gon’ Be”, which will receive it’s first public reading on this Saturday, May 19th, at 7 pm at CFPA Mpls.

JH: How do you begin writing? What do you see first?

JJ: I always see small images first. I’m not a person who can just write something in two weeks; I’m very envious of those people. It takes me awhile. Like in this play, I saw my old neighborhood, and the way it would look when it rained: the streets are filled with trees, with Spanish moss hanging down. There was something about the image of rain in that neighborhood that I really responded to. So whatever those images are, that come to me –I love poetry, so I try to become poetical about what I’m seeing. Once that poetry happens, characters come out of the images that I’m seeing, this world that I’m looking at. What kind of people live here? What do they do here? And then the characters take me where they want to go.

JH: Is it mostly about the visual experience for you? Or do you smell, do you feel, are all the senses engaged when you imagine [that world]?

JJ: Yes, it absolutely is all of it. When I was writing this piece especially, I didn’t want to go for exact facts. I didn’t want to take these exact events from my life and put them on stage. But I did want to create the feeling. That long summer day feeling, when so many things happen in the course of one day. How did I get here? I woke up this morning, and how did I get here? And the smells: the quick rain shower smell, when it rains in the middle of the day and the sun’s still out, and you’re, like, “What is that?” How can I put that in a play, in language, or in situation?

JH: How do you come to plot, or the order of events? Do the characters direct you?

JJ: I get an idea and I get really excited about plot. I always see a beginning and an end, with specific moments I would like to come to along the way. But I’ve learned that sometimes I have to let that go. Sometimes the story and the characters don’t care about this “moment.” They’re like, “No, we don’t care about that.” So I have to let it go a little bit.

JH: So it’s a balance between the characters leading and you shaping, and somewhere in there, things meet and don’t meet and the story moves.

JJ: This play is completely different from what I thought it was going to be when I first wrote it. I thought it would be just more narrative, dialogue, not so much poetry. And then I wrote the poem that’s at the beginning of the play, and I thought: “Oh, that’s what this needs to be.” People need to all of a sudden find themselves in poetry. That’s the world of this play. The characters begin with traditional dialogue, and then, sort of Shakespearean-like, they soliloquize, out of nowhere. I was like, “Oh, ok, that’s what we’re doing? That’s fine, that’s fine. I thought we were just going to do scenes, but that’s not what we’re doing.”

JH: What experience do you want the audience to have?

JJ: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about why I do theater. Why do I continue to do it? I’ve done it since elementary school, and at every turn I had to ask myself, why do I keep doing this? Not in a bad way, but what about this keeps me doing it? I think it’s because when I first found theater, it just made me feel less alone. I didn’t feel as lonely. I was part of a community. What I want from my play is to let people know that what they feel, or [experience in] these very complex issues – that someone understands what’s going on, that they are not alone. For all the characters in the play. There is no one character that I don’t love and believe in, even if they are exhibiting behavior that they should think about. I would like people to see the play and go, “I feel release, I feel refreshed after I’ve seen and heard this thing.”

JH: What about form – the stories that you have to tell, at this moment, seem to be taking shape as scripts. Have you practiced other forms, or does this really feel like the right form for your stories?

JJ: This is my favorite form. I’ve also written narrative essays and poetry. But there are some things that I can’t do physically. I would love to be able to dance, I’d love to be a modern dancer. I don’t have the capacity for that at this point. [But when a script is put] on stage, you can do so much. You’re not solely dependent on dialogue. You have that element of visuals. Being a live actor is a very physical job, so you ask performers to really be in their bodies. Even when it’s a scene with mostly just talking, [they have the opportunity to express] what’s happening and to explore that live in front of of an audience. That’s what’s most exciting to me about this form. A screen play would be a very different thing. As a playwright, I think about the live experience: what is the journey that the actors are going on every night, how can I create something nuanced enough that to keep them interested every night, so they don’t ever think they have it all figured out.

JH: If you were to imagine a site, location, context within which this story could live, that offered it the best possibility for arriving at where you want a group of people to arrive, what would that look like?

JJ: Jacksonville is really big, and my first house there, on the west side, was really far away from the beach. The most water you’re gonna get is when it rains. It’s just hot. All year. It never gets cold. It’s absurd. If a breeze could just come by at some point today, that’d be great. At the back of this house we had this huge deck patio sort of situation that my dad built, and it was old – by the end of it’s life it was very rickety and things are falling apart. But it sort of jutted out from the house like a thrust [stage]. If I could take the rails off that deck, and put actors up there, and have people sit in my old back yard. That would be a gift. In the heat. And if I could control the rain . . . That would just be . . . [sighs]. That’s the dream. Outdoors anywhere would be great. That back yard would be the best. But I would love to watch it out in the elements, whether it rained, or not, or whatever. Just to be able to start it with the sun out, and let the sun go down over the course of the play, let it rain on everybody, “Here’s your ponchos if you need one.” There’s something about the smell of “after rain” that even if you saw this play in a theater in the dark, if I could somehow get people to leave and [sniff] “It smells like after rain.” That would be it.

JH: What are your goals for this reading?

JJ: I just want to hear it out loud. I want to hear how audiences react to it. We did a small little reading in my living room, just me and the actors. It’s not a very long script, but it took us forever to get through, because at every moment we would want to stop and talk about it. We would be in the middle of a scene and we’d have to stop reading because we were so excited and laughing and talking about, “yes! That’s exactly what it’s like!” I would love to see an audience wrestle with it – and how much do [the actors] have to [wait], to let the audience process. I want to know what it feels like if the audience is in a more traditional relationship, here we are, listening to the thing. I’m really excited about all the windows in the sunroom. That will give me the personal satisfaction of watching the sun set, and we’ll sense the presence of the world outside. I’m very excited to hear it. I’m really excited about our cast. I just wish it were tomorrow!

Join us on Saturday, May 18th at 7 pm!

RSVP on Facebook!