Chats with Johanna Day and Tim Acito

 

By Joel Markowitz

  • O HAPPY DAY!
  • Helen Hayes Award winner and Drama Desk nominee Johanna Day on Almost an Evening

It’s been one helluva year for Johanna Day. Last year, she won the Helen Hayes Award for her riveting performance as Lizzie in Arena Stage’s production of The Rainmaker.

And a few hours before this interview, Johanna found out that she had been nominated for a Drama Desk Award for her performance as Ann in Peter and Jerry, which she performed from November 12-December 30th at the Second Stage Theatre.

And now, she’s appearing in a trilogy of short plays by recent Academy Award winner and Washington native Ethan Coen (No Country For Old Men). I saw the show a few weeks ago and in the Coen Brothers tradition, it’s drop dead funny, off the wall, sheer joy!

Joel: Congrats on your Drama Desk nomination! Can you tell us about the role you were just nominated for?

Johanna: I originated a new character in an Edward Albee play. He wrote a first act to his first play called The Zoo Story, about Peter and Ann before they go to the park on that fateful day. I did it four years before in Hartford, with a different cast, and then we did it two years later, in 2007,  at Second Stage Theatre with Bill Pullman and Dallas Roberts. It was just a great play with and was so much fun, and Bill was so great to work with, even though I only appeared with him in the First Act.

Joel: What is Almost an Evening about?    

Johanna: It’s hard to say! It’s three little stories. They are not really connected. They are Waiting, Four Benches and Debate.  I am in Debate, and play F. Murray Abraham’s  “Lady Friend.”

Joel: I laughed my head off watching Debate and the audience was roaring too. It’s one of the funniest 25 minutes I ever had in the theatre. Were you in the original production at the Atlantic Theater?

Johanna: I came into this play late. I didn’t do it originally (at the Atlantic). I came in and only had a few rehearsals.

Joel: What’s it like to work with Broadway veterans F. Murray Abraham and Mark Linn-Baker?

Johanna:  They are such pros and great comedians and a joy to work with..

Joel:  Tell us about winning the Helen Hayes Award last year for The Rainmaker.

Johanna: Oh my gosh! I couldn’t believe it. It was so fantastic! I loved working at Arena Stage . I was so scared to do that play. I don’t know why.  And then I did it, and I was really, really happy I did. It was so exciting and was one of the most beautiful productions.

When I was nominated for the Helen Hayes Award, I thought, “This is the best thing ever!” And winning it was quite a surprise! I was in California with a friend of mine – and you know the time difference  – I was down in a Jacuzzi, and the phone rang, and my sister-in law called  and told me I had won, so I popped some champagne with my friend and we celebrated!

Joel: What was it like to work with the DC Theatre community?

Johanna: It was great. I’ve done 3 plays at Arena Stage which is great for me because it’s close to where my family live in Rappahannock County, Virginia so I get to see them and they get to come up and see my plays. All the people who I grew up with in my town come to see them.

The DC community is fantastic, and Molly Smith is just a goddess, and has trusted me to do some difficult roles there.  I did Culture Clash, Anthems, An American Daughter and then The Rainmaker.  I can’t wait to work there again!  

Joel: Again, congrats on your Helen Hayes win, your Drama Desk nomination, and I urge everyone in DC to buy tickets and see Johanna in Almost an Evening.

– Almost an Evening runs through June 1st at The Theatres at 45 Bleecker in NYC. More info including online ticket purchase on the website.


  • ZANNA DON’T! is coming to town
  • A chat with composer Tim Acito

Joel:  Kensington Arts Theatre is presenting the DC area premier of your wonderful musical Zanna, Don’t!. Are there any themes in Zanna, Don’t! for DC political junkies?

Tim:  There is probably nothing overtly “political” about Zanna, Don’t! which is precisely its political point. Thankfully, there are many individuals and organizations that are courageously struggling against the more blatant examples of homophobia in our society – from the lack of marital rights and job protection to verbal and physical abuse – but I wanted to draw attention to some of the more subtle ways that society has excluded gay men and women. For example, the vast majority of pop songs ever played on the radio have been written in a heterosexual context. This translates to thousands of messages every day that reinforce the notion that non-heterosexual love is somehow wrong, to be hidden, and unworthy of inclusion in the American cultural ethos.

Joel:  Folklore has it that a Clint Black song helped you come up with the concept of the show. Is it true?

Tim: I was listening to Mr. Black’s “Something That We Do”, and thought, without thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great to hear such a beautiful, honest country-western love song sung from one man to another?” I remember feeling embarrassed that I had come up with such a ludicrous idea, and then I remember feeling angry and disappointed and deeply troubled that my brain had been trained to dismiss such an idea so readily, and with such disdain. It quickly became my mission not only to write a country-western love song (which became “I Could Write Books” in the show), but to write in all the various pop musical styles I had grown up loving – from funk and disco to hard rock and lyrical ballads. From there, it was not a far jump to re-imagining the entire world in a homosexual context.     

Joel:  I saw the Off-Broadway production of Zanna, Don’t!, and loved it. As a young gay man growing up in Buffalo, NY, I went through the taunts and physical attacks in junior high and high school, and always dreamed of things being “flipped around,” so my straight friends and taunters could see what it would be like if the “shoe was on the other foot.” Did you encounter any of this in high school in Freehold, New Jersey?

Tim:  Fortunately, I never really endured any direct assaults.  I had friends (and probably some enemies) who sometimes jokingly (or not) referred to me as “gay” ever since I was five or six, even though none of us really knew what it meant.  I usually somehow managed to have enough “cool” friends, play enough sports, and even have enough “girlfriends” to keep people guessing. Sort of.  

Joel: Was the character of Zanna based on a friend or family member?

Tim: No. I’m not actually sure where he came from.

Joel: Are you like any other character in the show? 

Tim:  I was probably most like Kate, and some Steve, too, though I think, as with most writers, there are aspects of each of the characters I could own up to.

Joel:  How would you describe the score of Zanna, Don’t?

Tim:  Eclectic neo-70′s bubble gum.

Joel:  Your father was a jazz pianist. How does jazz influence the Zanna, Don’t! score?

Tim:  My Dad was, and still is, a mindblowingly good Dixieland Jazz pianist, and while that style of music has never spoken to me as much as contemporary pop, I know one thing I have inherited from him is a “heavy left hand,” meaning we tend to pound out heavy syncopated bass lines with our left hand in order to drive a song. In addition, without ever consciously intending to, he taught me that there is a time to be simple, gentle, and understated, and a time to raise hell.   

Joel:  Which of your favorite composers or songwriters influenced Zanna, Don’t!’s score?

Tim:  It’s pretty much right out of 1970′s AM Radio. Comb through the Billboard lists from the decade, and you can probably find analogs to every song in the show.

Joel: Have there been any other productions of the show since the off-Broadway production closed in 2003?

Tim: Apparently there have been several productions throughout the country and some more planned for overseas, but I’ve only seen two of them, both by university undergraduates who did a lovely job in embracing the ramshackle, whimsical nature of the show without losing its heart of conviction.

Joel: Will you have a chance to see the Kensington Arts production?

Tim: Regrettably, I most probably will not be able to make it down, due to an upcoming workshop of a new musical to debut is Seol, Korea.

Joel:  Will non-gay people enjoy Zanna, Don’t!?

Tim:  Apparently they do.  Though the show takes place in some sort of parallel, vaguely contemporary universe, its sensibilities are very deliberately innocent 1950′s “Father Knows Best” G-rated Americana. The more you can draw people in with a traditional sense of fun and humor, the more you can slip some potentially subversive messages under the radar. I can’t tell you how many parents have told me that their children – straight children, no less – know all the words to the cast recording by heart. 

Joel:  What do you want audiences to take with them when they leave the Kensington Arts Theatre production?

Tim:  Pop culture by definition should be inclusive of all the population.  In being forced to look at pop culture in non-traditional ways, I hope the audience will leave the theatre with a greater awareness not only of the larger injustices within our society, but of the many smaller, simpler, wonderful pleasures of daily life that unfortunately are not always shared by all. 

Kensington Arts Theatre, a community theatre company, has a well-earned reputation for excellent productions of musicals. Zanna, Don’t! is running Friday and Saturday nights May 16-31 and Thursday, May 29 all at 8 pm, and Sunday, May 18 & 25 at 7 pm.

Tickets are $20 with discounts for seniors, students and Kensington residents. Reserve online or call 240.396.4307.

Comments

  1. New Yorker says:

    Johanna Day did not appear an evening of three short Albee plays, but in fact one play entitled PETER AND JERRY at 2nd Stage Theatre this past fall. Mr Markowitz seems to have erroneously confused PETER AND JERRY with Edward Albee’s THE AMERICAN DREAM and THE SANDBOX, which are two one act plays formerly running this season together at the Cherry Lane Theatre.

  2. Thanks so much for sending this information and comment. You are correct. Peter and Jerry was produced at Second Stage Theatre as one play. Several of the sources I used to prepare for this interview, were incorrect, and stated that the show was part of an evening of several short plays. Since I didn’t see the show, and relied on their information, I quoted that information in my interview. So again, thanks so much for submitting this information to me.

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