Jeremy Johnson: Embracing the new and old

Jeremy Johnson has been with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for eight seasons. He was a superb Sky Masterson in OSF’s 2015 production of “Guys and Dolls.” This season he will be portraying Doctor Caius in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” and M. D’Arque in Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast.” This is the second of a two-part interview. The first was published on March 6.

EH: Is there a common quality that all actors share?

JJ: The vast majority of actors I have met have been very warm: outgoing, even if a little shy. There’s that stereotype that actors need a lot of approval, and I’m sure that’s true sometimes. But actors have also been, in my experience, unbelievably generous and open-hearted.

EH: Do you have a theory of acting or method?

JJ: I went to Northwestern University. I studied with David Downs. He would focus on: How can you be clear and understood and believed on stage from a purely technical point of view? How do you build a character physically? If you start with a role, and you say, “Who is this person?” How do you go about creating that character in a meaningful believable way?

Things like: “What kind of eyes do you have? What kind of hands do you have? What kind of a spine, and what sort of a walk do you employ?” were part of that teaching. I did go on and take the Meizner Technique, improvisation, on-camera classes, and voice lessons. Acting is something you can study your whole life.

EH: What’s the state of theater today?

JJ: Across the country, we’re seeing a much greater push for diversity and inclusion, not just putting all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds on stage, but telling more diverse stories, trying to come to a better and deeper understanding of each other. That seems to be a worthwhile pursuit, especially in today’s climate.

I do think that the model of a classically oriented repertory company is less prevalent than in decades past. That’s of some concern to me, because an actor, like myself, who has the enormous fortune of spending years in a classical repertory company, can stretch to play a Shakespeare character in the afternoon and sing in a musical at night. That can do nothing except open yourself up and build your skills.

It’s great to see new actors come to OSF with the fresh insights and energy that they bring. But there is also something really valuable about stepping into a rehearsal room with these expert Shakespearean actors, who also know each other, and have a comfort level with each other, because they can go deeper into a scene with each other faster, and share a commonality and a certain language. That is very hard to duplicate, if you are playing something for the first time with someone you’ve never met. I hope that we can continue to hold on to that company model while we welcome fresh faces and fresh voices.

The good news is that theater is alive and well. New young playwright’s voices are being heard. There is a very strong interest in finding the next Tony Kushner or Sarah Ruhl or Eugene O’Neill.

That experience of sitting in a room — live — with breathing people next to you, experiencing the same story — that will probably exercise our collective need for justice, forgiveness, community, love, redemption, all of that — is really vital.

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