Interview with Matt Johnson and Joanna Underhill, Writer and Director of New, Home-Grown Musical

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While Disney’s iconic “Beauty and the Beast” is being performed on stage at Lancaster’s historic Fulton Opera House, something new and strange is being rehearsed just next door. A cast of nine actor/musicians are running the last few scenes in the new absurdist musical “Sorry Brian, You’re Derek Now!” This homegrown theatre piece tells the story of a pair of twins, Brian and Derek Prior, who live polar opposite lives. Brian is brooding and often quotes Nietzsche. Derek is the charming golden boy, adored by his community of Castor County. When the latter’s life is cut short, Brian is pressured by his direct circle of peers, family, and even local law enforcement to pick up where his twin left off by putting on Derek’s personality and even his title.

After a Sunday afternoon rehearsal in the Fulton’s education building, I was lucky enough to get an hour with two of the creators—writer Matt Johnson and director Joanna Underhill.

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Carl Bakey: What is the premise of “Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now”?

Matt Johnson: Surprisingly enough, the premise of it was supplied to me by the title. Ton-Taun wanted to do this EP release. Sending me the title was the definitive moment for me. I loved the songs, I thought they were beautiful. They’re not related thematically or conceptually in any way. The album title is an inside joke among the band. Within ten minutes of hearing the songs and the title, I structured the plot. I wanted to do something a little Kafka-esque or a little bit absurd. The title was evocative to me. Here’s this person who’s being told that they’re someone else. The premise was to make the subtle ways that society pushes you into being a role; to make that explicit, absurd, and dark. Society allows you a lot of leeway, a lot of space, so long as you’re willing to play along just a little bit. We make these compromises to be somebody in order to be who we really want to be.

Joanna Underhill: Isn’t that great, though, that so much thought goes into an hour and fifteen minute piece based on three rock songs from a band that just thought these songs would be fun to write?

CB: Joanna, how has it been different directing “SBYDN” as opposed to your other various theatre experiences?

JU: This is my favorite way to direct. I’ve always said I want to direct either students or inexperienced grown ups, so this has been perfect. They’re musicians and they’re used to having to build things together. They don’t rehearse a role in isolation. In musical theatre everybody comes in and thinks, “This is my part and I gotta make sure I do this and get my stage time.”

MJ: These are untrained actors.

JU: Well, they’re musicians!

MJ: Yeah, they’re all musicians, and when I thought about casting them, they’re all people who have a theatricality to the way they perform. I wanted that. I didn’t want a typical musical aesthetic where everybody’s overacting a little bit.

CB: So, you’re pulling in a very wide range of experiences in the sphere of art. How has your relationship as playwright and director taken shape over the rehearsal period?

JU: It’s great to have a playwright who is so flexible. First of all, who has a vision, who is flexible with that vision, but wants to contribute. Sometimes playwrights can be inflexible and then you’ve got to deal with that when they’re there—

MJ: Fortunately, I’m at every practice.

JU: Also, sometimes too they’re not as creative. Matt has directed some short films, so he’s got that eye for how things should sound and look up off the page.

CB: So, instead of saying, “Know the rules and then break them by hiring actors and trying to get them to let their hands get dirty,” you guys have decided, “Let’s have fun!”

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Joanna Underhill (director) and Matt Johnson (writer) of Sorry Brian, You’re Derek Now.

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CB: It seems like you guys are having a lot of fun creating this thing together. What are some of your favorite aspects of working with this specific group at this time?

MJ: The collaboration. It’s beautiful. It’s the only way that I think all of us have been able to survive the Trump victory.

JU: We were rehearsing the night of the election and we saw the turn start to happen. We all had our phones out.

MJ: We kind of knew at the end of rehearsal. I posted on Facebook like: “Hey, if this goes the wrong way, I would love to just entrench myself with these people and make art and beautiful things because I don’t know how else we’re going to make it together.” I don’t know, if we didn’t have this, if I would be as spirited as I am now. It’s an escape, but there’s also something meaningful about, in the face of something that you think might be Fascistic, to be just making art. Last night, I went to the best drag show I’ve ever seen. And I kept thinking, “This is the way to topple dictators: by being yourself to the Nth degree. These people will save us.”

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CB: There’s so much art happening all the time in Lancaster County. Right next door, the Fulton is putting on their most expensive production to date! How is this piece different than other theatre happening in the region?

JU: It’s an original work. It’s a homegrown original work. No one else is really doing that to this extent.

MJ: I love that no one knows what it’s about. We’ve been trying to keep it under wraps. Even my wife and other people I’m close to have no idea what they’re getting into. They’re kind of buying in because of the collaborators.

CB: That’s awesome. How have you been using that to your advantage?

MJ: We made this whole false universe where we made posters for the individual characters of the show and posted them all around. So for Nancy the mother we have “Nancy’s Scrapbooking Class” posters all around town right now and they have the little tags that you can pull off and we’ve gotten something like 120 calls to this number. It’s Nancy saying, “I’m sorry, the scrapbooking class is canceled because of the incident. But if you could come down to Tellus on December 2, 3, and 4, that’d be great!” Two nights ago we had a message on there. There’s this guy who’s like, “I love scrapbooking. Scrapbooking is cool. I hope that I’ll see you December 2 because I love scrapbooking.” We made up a fake radio show for the Bob character and we have a blog up for Brian.

JU: Laura’s Bug Club.

MJ: And if you follow it, you know what’s going on. But if you don’t, I’m cool with that.

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CB: Who is your target audience? Who should come see this show?

JU: I think there is an audience out there for this alternative to the mainstream theatre that usually happens around here. Especially because it’s a musical absurdist piece. There aren’t many of those around. In terms of those people who make theatre a habit, there’s definitely that segment who are going to think this is weird and great and fun. And it’s in a bar, and that’s even better.

MJ: The word “musical” instantly brings up a certain type of production. I’m totally fine with luring people in who think “musical” and then get what we give them. So, somebody can say “I didn’t like it,” but I don’t want them to not like it because it wasn’t what they were expecting. That’s one of my least favorite complaints about film or music. I’m sorry for you: you don’t really like theatre, you like spectacle.

JU: I also think we’re going to reach other people who just want to come see Ton-Taun and realize you can experience this music in a different way.

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CB: During rehearsal Adam Taylor, who plays the lead, came over and told me how funny he thought the script was when he first read it. Then he got to rehearsals and it really started coming to life for him because of the direction from Joanna and the energy of this group. Having only known Adam as a musician, it’s so fun to see him on this new platform.

MJ: Adam’s not just our lead. He’s responsible for everything else. He made our trailer video. He’s biting his fingernails about tech stuff because that’s what he does for a living. He’s done award shows, the US Open, all this kind of stuff. For him to give away some control as a collaborative effort is really difficult, but he loves it. I think that’s transformative for some people.

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CB: It really is so refreshing to sit in on the creation of this new piece of art! I’ve been disenchanted with local theatre just doing the shows they’re supposed to do to get people to come out and see them and keep the doors open. How do we bravely go into the storm of DIY theatre and supporting it in Lancaster?

MJ: I couldn’t imagine being a theatre producer and saying, “Here’s the twenty choices we have, which one are we going to do?” Especially to say, “Which of these is going to make the most money?”

JU: You just can’t worry about money. You’ve got to find people who have day jobs who are willing to give up some of their free time. You just have to find that passion. You have to reach out to people you wouldn’t think of. I want people who haven’t done it before who say, “I think I could do this.” They can’t all be actors. It’s the DIY thing: you’ve got to burn your fingers with the glue gun and stick yourself with a needle and sacrifice some of your time and put up some of your pocket money. I’ve been buying a fair amount of props for this.

MJ: Just with the sound people and the lighting, I mean, we have got to make some money back. But that’s the thing, none of these people are motivated by money. Everybody’s crazy busy and they will agree to three nights a week because they believe in the project. That is unheard of. When you believe in something like that it’s so much more magical. But how to make it happen more? I would just say, “Do it!” You just have to have more confidence than you do skill, and then the skill will come. If you have an idea and you think it’s worthwhile, this town will provide.

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This show is 100% Lancaster and pulls from the diverse talents of this “new Brooklyn.” I can’t think of another musical I have been more excited to see in the last several years. To spend upwards of $150 for orchestra seats in any Broadway theater, you know what you’re going to get. However, to take a chance on a piece that will most likely only be performed for one weekend by this unique cast, I won’t be caught sleeping on this. The people who walk out of Tellus360 having seen “Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now” will have experienced a smart, timely, and funny musical based on three songs written by one of Lancaster’s favorite bands. I will leave you with a glimpse of the excitement this cast has for this show: after Katie Seifarth, who plays Kerri in the show, was directed to climb in through Brian’s bedroom window and do a karate-stunt-man-inspired roll across the floor, she stood up, pumped her fists in the air and shouted, “I’ve been dreaming of this! It’s like fucking ‘Saved by the Bell!’”

“Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now” is being co-produced by Ton-Taun, Creative Works of Lancaster, and Matt Johnson. It will be performed at Tellus360 on December 2 and 3 at 8pm and December 4 at 5pm. The run time is approximately one hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available at Tellus360 or online at http://m.bpt.me/event/2713064

To check out Ton-Taun EP that inspired this musical, visit https://ton-taun.bandcamp.com/

Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now! from Adam Taylor on Vimeo.

Interview with DJ Ramsay, Creator of Lancaster Coloring Book

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“What’s your favorite Pantone color?” We laugh, but I’m serious, and if you don’t already know DJ, you won’t know why this is a perfectly acceptable question for me to ask.

Friends call David Ramsay Jr., “DJ.” DJ is the guy who gives me a hug everytime I see him and it’s not annoying. This is the guy who comes up with entire sticker campaigns when he’s upset about something, the guy who’s always up for the domain-name game. This is the man with a keen artistic eye, and the observant hand behind the Historic Downtown Lancaster Coloring Book. This is a glimpse of Tuesday night at the Springhouse Taproom downtown, and that means tacos. DJ and I talk about lots of things on Taco Tuesdays at the Taproom, but this night we decide to talk about coloring books.  

If you haven’t seen the Historic Downtown Lancaster Coloring Book around town here and there, then I’m not convinced you’ve been paying attention. You could have caught glimpses of of the two volumes at BUZZ, Festoon, or BohoZone, and I wanted to figure out exactly where they came from. When asked about the inspiration behind the coloring book project, DJ time travels back to 2011 during the closure of the Millersville University Library when he was asked to come up with some line-drawing mock-ups of the new facility vs. the old, dusty, well-loved Library before. The assignment triggered a newfound love of architectural illustration; “it also kind of really makes me happy because they’re full of right angles and perfect shapes…perfect for someone with OCD,” he offers. After putting the illustrations away and forgetting for a time, their rediscovery in early 2016 led to a new desire in creating, so he decided to try his hand at depicting the Lancaster Central Market. “The next thing I knew, I had, like, 30 illustrations.” Thus began the coloring book campaign.  

The first of the books focuses on the “Golden Age” of Lancastrian architecture around the city with clean, precise renderings of well-loved and recognized buildings: Central Market, City Hall, Fulton Opera House, etc. It capitalizes on the recognition of famous Lancaster landmarks and appeals to natives, transplants, and tourists alike. The second volume, more focused and nuanced, brings with it an overarching theme of “buildings that were lost to progress and saved through creative reuse,” DJ explains.  

“I was really inspired by these old photos I would see of the 100 block of North Queen where they tore down beautiful buildings to build the monstrosity that is Lancaster Square.”

I take a sip of my beer and think of all the fireworks I watched in that strangely hollow, carved out piece of city.  

“I wanted people to look at buildings differently,” he tells me. In this second coloring book, “most of the buildings were not standing anymore, so I see it more as a historical artifact.”  As a writer, I have to say that I enjoy the second book slightly more than the first as it zooms in more closely on story—buildings that once stood, just down the street from us, paired with short vignettes of facts and timeframes providing context. DJ and I swoon about some of these lost pieces, and he tells me about a few he really struggled with; namely the old insane asylum.  

“There were some buildings, like the insane asylum, that were beautiful buildings, but I didn’t want to trivialize it by saying ‘hey, let’s color the insane asylum.’” Ultimately, he decided to include it in the finished product, understanding the importance of the story the place could tell.  

Sip of beer. Circle back. PANTONE! I need to know—I need to know what color a person who (self-admittedly) could obsess over a single shade of black finds the most favored.  

“It was definitely a pantone color of the year, but it wasn’t recent,” he supplies. [SIGH] “my favorite pantone? It has to be Pantone 14-0754: ‘SUPER LEMON.’” I take another sip of my beer, and I am so glad that it’s Super Lemon.  

“Name something that you’ve learned about yourself (as an artist…as a human) since you started the project,” I ask. (Please note that I wanted to make a really great “when life gives you super lemons” pun here, but it never coalesced.)

“I’ve increasingly grown to appreciate the influence of the past in what we do and how we tend to ignore that influence. Or, instead of influence, the subtle homages to the past that you only know if you know the past.” [[Forgive me; this felt incredibly prescient, so I am going to draw attention to this statement by putting brackets around this sentence.]] “So, in Lancaster Square, there are pieces of the Northern Trust and Savings Company that were discovered by the river.”  

Seriously, you can see them when you go to Lancaster Square to watch the fireworks all of your parking tickets have paid for.  

“Or, it’s just little things, like the awareness I know have of architecture now,” DJ posed.  We talk about looking up at our city more often now, about eavesdroppers, about the number of lions on buildings here. There’s something telling about “looking at a building’s past and then looking at why it’s used the way it’s used now,” and DJ’s coloring books absolutely capture that wonder. We are surrounded by story in stone.

A friend comes in and sits down with us. We talk about wanting tacos, and we talk about how maybe we don’t need an extra 100 hotel rooms instead of useable space. We talk some more about Pantones.  

“How does the idea of the Lancaster Coloring Book contribute to story or storytelling?”

His answer is just one of the many reasons I am happy to call DJ a friend because this is where he talks about stories encompassing us. He speaks of buildings being the example of past turning present, and explains that, with something like a coloring book, we get to rewrite the way we see the world in our own ways.  

When I ask him where he thinks this project might be going, DJ tells me he has a vision of expansion through the lense of “DIY History”—an ever-evolving interaction with the past and that which surrounds us now. By coloring in (or outside of) the lines of history, we recreate it every day. He also emphasizes the importance of conversation:

“Who doesn’t color something and then want to show it to someone? I see it as a way to build conversations.”

We finished our beer and talked about ordering food before I asked him one last question:

“How can art, as writing, or painting, or coloring in a coloring book, be used for good?”

DJ didn’t pause, or blink, or sigh, or take another sip, or scratch his beard; he simply responded immediately, “fostering conversation. It’s like, it’s a way to do it without having to actually approach someone and start it. It’s just kind of like, conversations evolve naturally,” and we talk about how much more we need that in the world. We talk about buildings, and we talk about God being disappointed in us from the eaves of our houses, and we talk about our favorite colors to color with (Super Lemon), and then we order tacos.

For more information about the Historic Downtown Lancaster Coloring Book, or to purchase a few copies, go to www.lancastercoloringbook.com.

Lancaster’s Storytelling Showdown: Gearing Up for the Grand Slam

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If there ever was a more organic way to meet a total stranger (relatively, is anyone a total stranger in the internet age?) I haven’t accomplished it better than when I got together with Carla Wilson to talk about the November 22nd season finale of Lancaster Story Slam.

We both arrived at the always faithful Lancaster Dispensing Company early. We both grabbed seats at the bar sensing the oncoming dinner rush. And when I saw her e-mail saying that she had arrived early with her husband, it didn’t take more thirty seconds than to discover we were seated three seats away from one another.

Here’s what I knew about Carla before meeting her six days ago: She’s the Event Director and Co-founder of Lancaster Story Slam, an event in its second season which she elevator pitched as, “People reliving their stories for an audience with the raw and electric energy that comes from a live no notes performance.’ Besides that, she isn’t the artist-also-running-the-event type.

Carla, who we’ve interviewed before about Lancaster Story Slam’s origins, was specifically recruited by West Chester Story Slam founder Jim Breslin for her ability to coordinate and conduct events at all stages from the venue planning, marketing, to stand-by duties in case any sort of fire (metaphorical or otherwise) breaks out during the night of the event.

Given that we spoke with the finale upcoming on the Nov. 22nd I wanted to know what Carla as the event organizer considered one of the highlights of an overwhelmingly successful second season. She was quick to answer: “The unexpected success of our night themed, ‘Foreign Soil’. We were initially scared that we were going to get a lot of ‘vacation romanticizing type stories’, but the response from the local immigrant communities and their participation made it a special night, something better than we really could’ve even asked for.’

“And what would you say has been the biggest challenge?” I asked, curious to see the struggles from a behind the scenes point-of-view.

It took Carla a minute, a testament to the tight ship she runs and the savvy she exercises maintaining the open accepting energy of a great poetry event in a bar with audiences that frequently exceed one hundred people. Then she said,

“Not getting enough pre-orders! It’s hard to plan for a room you don’t know the size of, so we’ve been really encouraging people to make sure they pre-order tickets. It’s really tough to have to turn people away, and the finale sold out last year.” For those committed to going you can pre-order your tickets here.

The grand slam will feature the 11 monthly winners from the second season as they compete to be named “Best Storyteller in Lancaster” with the theme of “Rise Above.” Storytelling who will be participate include Matthew Kabik, Liz Yocom, Beth Horenkamp, Aaron Spangler, Tony Crocamo, Audrey Lopez, Jamie Beth Schindler, Bryan R. Caine, Rebecca Thatcher Murcia, David Smith, and Aaron Lewis.

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Matthew Kabik (left) poses his prized pint glass trophy after winning the January event, alongside host Cliff Lewis (right) who won the 2015 Grand Slam.

We both agreed it’s a good problem to have and talked about the future of story slam. While you’ll be seeing plenty of advertising for it, the scoop involves a late-night story slam event for the more raucous (adults only) crowd and a spring workshop to help people feel confident in telling their stories, whether on stage or in life.

A 11 month event season is lengthy to begin with, but considering the additional events on the horizon as well, I had to ask Carla how she keeps herself motivated, especially without a stake in performing. She talked about feeling renewed and re-energized by seeing an artist come out and “leave it all on stage. Each story is a surprising and emotional journey, and because it’s unscripted there’s the constant excitement of the unknown.” We both relate over feeling a revitalization of our creative energy after seeing live music or performance; a locked in engagement that opens your mind up afterward to all the different creative things you dream to do.

Before finishing our drinks I asked Carla if she had any advice for those who aspire to plan a successful literary event like hers. Here are her two big tips: “Make local in-person connections and leverage social media. You can’t take for granted how good a face-to-face is in fostering a good relationship with a venue or owner. And you need to remember to diversify your feed. Everyone engages with media differently, that makes a variety of photos, articles, videos, and content important to reaching the largest audience.”

I finished up my notes, paid my tab, and put on my jacket, thankful for the fates at play that connected a talent like Carla Wilson’s to my local literary community, and blessed us with Lancaster Story Slam.

Come out see who will be crowned “Best Storyteller in Lancaster” at the LSS Grand Slam Event, November 22nd at Tellus360. Pre-orders strongly encouraged, available here.