February 15–March 10, 2019
Friday and Saturday 7:30 p.m.
Sunday 2 p.m.
St. Bonaventure, 1625 W. Diversey Blvd., Chicago
(enter on Marshfield)
Editor’s Note: Leigh Johnson shares the third of his works receiving its world premiere at Saint Sebastian Players (SSP) when Little Stones opens February 15. SSP premiered his play Lefties in 2013 and Lotto Fever in the Sucker State in 2014. Other Chicago productions of his work include Khe Sanh Bagman in 2000, Brother’s Keeper in 2016 and A Prayer for the Sandinistas in 2017. He is an associate member of SSP and a founding member of Subtext Theater Company. In addition to being a Chicago-based playwright, he is a novelist and screenwriter. Picture This Post talked with Leigh for some insight into the play and the playwright.
(Picture This Post) What first attracted you to writing plays?
(Leigh Johnson) From a very early age, I knew I wanted to be a writer. As a child I was a voracious reader, and I found that after reading a story of some kind I couldn’t wait to tell my family and friends about it. So it was this duality—not just the reading, but the need to relate it back (and usually in my own words)—that probably led to my becoming a playwright. It actually took me quite a while to figure this last part out, that the best avenue for telling my stories was for the stage, and not the short story form, which is what I mostly grew up reading. It really was the need to hearout loudthe story I was telling that made me a playwright.
Is this script one that sates that initial desire?
Absolutely. Of all the plays I’ve written, this one is probably the most lyrical. In the past I prided myself that my characters and plots involved real-life people with real-life problems. My characters did not wax poetic about the more esoteric aspects of life. But Little Stones came from a very different place, a place where the characters are struggling to find a deeper meaning for their existence, as opposed to fighting daily battles. And when your characters are so engaged, their hopes, fears, and yearnings come directly from the heart. And the language of the heart is poetry, which of course must be heard to be fully appreciated.
What inspired you to write this play?
Two years ago, my other theatre company, Subtext, was rehearsing another of my plays in an upstairs classroom at St. Bonaventure. (St. Bonaventure hasn’t had a school at their facility since the 1980s, and the classrooms sit empty.) As it was, a couple of other small theatre companies were also renting rehearsal space, and I knew several of these other actors and people from past productions, as did a number of other actors. This is not unusual—the Chicago theatre community is very close knit. The combination of the old Catholic school classrooms—where children for decades began their formative years—starting at one end of the hallway and working their way down to the other—along with the concept of actors who in the past had been in plays with other actors present, were currently in another play, and in the future would probably be paired up yet again—really resonated with me. I—like a lot of people these days—am very interested in Buddhist thought and principles. And to me actors encountering other actors from past plays in the course of rehearsing a current play seemed almost an exact metaphor for twin souls and reincarnation: the idea that we have all lived many lives. And we will live other lives in the future, very probably with some of the same souls with whom we have previously been involved. The more I considered this, the more I realized there was a play to be had there.
Was the inspiration the historical elements or St. Bonaventure or both?
It really was both. Once I had the framework for the play, I was able to fold in the history of the parish and the neighborhood, as well as the significance of the 100-year anniversary of the great flu pandemic. Those two aspects really came together nicely and fit the overarching story quite well.
Who do you think would especially be drawn to this story?
First of all, anyone involved in Chicago theatre, especially the bare-bones skin-of-your-teeth storefront variety. This play is really a love letter to these people—the actors, directors, tech people, costumers, stage managers, etc. etc. etc. who toil away for no pay to follow their passion. It’s no cliché to state that the phenomenon that is Chicago theatre has its beating heart in the storefronts and the church basements.
But in addition to theatre people, this play should especially be of interest to those for whom Buddhist principles and philosophy resonate deeply within their lives. For those who have found or are seeking relief from the noise and confusion of our 24/7 existence, those for whom meaning and mindfulness are more important than financial success and social status.
Is that why you were drawn to the story?
Yes, for both reasons. It would not surprise me at all to discover that some of my theatre compatriots and I have been through all of this before, in another time and another place. That is how close I feel to some of them.
What should people know about the history the play references, especially the 1918-19 flu pandemic?
That this was probably the first time a specific human disease was truly a worldwide phenomenon. Because of the massive troop movements from World War One, the virus spread from continent to continent, which really hadn’t ever occurred before. So, for the first time, the world suddenly got smaller and what happened in rural Kansas had implications in Europe and beyond. That’s kind of a big deal—that the 1918–19 flu pandemic heralded a change in human interconnectivity.
What is it like to watch a rehearsal and see your words come to life?
It’s a pretty good high, but it’s also humbling. Because when you see what the actors are doing with your words, how they are making them their own, taking ownership of them, you realize you only did the preliminary work. It is the director and actors who ultimately breathe life into the play, and to watch that happen slowly over the course of a number of rehearsals is quite remarkable. I suppose it’s kind of like watching your kids grow up. At some point you ask in wonder, “Well, where did that come from?”
This is the third premiere of your work the Saint Sebastian Players have produced, along with two of your earlier works. What do you value about this partnership?
Most importantly, trust. When I bring a new work to SSP, I know the people are concerned only with making the play as good as it can be. That’s it. There are no alternative political agendas, egotism, or destructive rivalries within the company. The sole focus, whether a new work or Shakespeare, is to put together a production team and a cast that will best serve the work. And then everyone pulls together and makes it happen. It really is quite remarkable in that they’ve been doing this now for 38 years—which in theatre years, well, is like 200 years, the way companies come and go.
Do you have ideas for your next play or plays?
Not specifically, no. But then, the well was dry when I was rehearsing that play in Classroom 101 at St. Bonaventure also. And within an hour of that epiphany…I had a new play. So you just have to trust that the Muse will not forsake you.
All photos by Eryn Walanka