Backstage with Our Town

The stage setting is stark. Empty window frames hang at various heights and angles from the rafters. A couple of wood ladders and more straight-backed wooden chairs serve as furniture. A large, handless clock face is projected on a back curtain that alternates between a blue and orange glow.

Michael Johnson ’13 stands at the back of the theatre, bouncing slightly on his toes and clapping to shed nervous energy before the director calls “action.”

It’s about 10 days before the opening of Our Town, Pacific University’s spring theatre performance, and Johnson, who plays The Stage Manager, is working on perfecting the emotional delivery of his lines. His character is both part of the show and part of the audience, a bridge, of sorts, between watcher and watched, helping explain the deeper meaning of the story.

“Normally I’m pretty soft-spoken. Gavin (Knittle ‘13, the director) is working with me to get my voice up and out and to make sure each line has the lightness it deserves,” Johnson said.

Johnson has been acting since about 2001, when he was in a community theatre production of The Hobbit in his hometown of Coos Bay. He’s acted throughout high school and at college at Pacific University, though his real passion is writing.

As a youngster, he said, “I really prided myself on how well I could spell things. That may be what started it.

“I’d finish a short writing assignment early, and the teachers would say, ‘Keep going.’ And, I loved reading as a kid. I think that’s how it always starts for everyone.”

Johnson came to Pacific in part, he said, due to the proximity to his home on the central Oregon coast, as well as because if the experience he had visiting.

“It seemed like a place I could work with people closely,” he said. “I had more opportunity to produce stuff and be heard.”

As a senior, he said, that’s been true. His major in creative writing has afforded him countless writing opportunities, and a part-time job supporting the Pacific Visiting Writers Series has allowed him to interact with professional authors and playwrights. Plus, he has been actively involved in theatre at Pacific, enough to earn an unplanned theatre minor.

He’s acted in Lovely DayPrivate Eyes and Heathen Valley, all major theatre productions during the last four years, as well as Lunchbox Theatre shows that feature student work.

His own play, Harlequins — what he calls a ridiculous piece about two young lovers who, blink, find wake up as parents of a teenage son who embodies what they once were — has had a reading on campus and will soon be produced this spring. (It also recently was selected for production in The Dalles, Ore.) He’s also preparing for a reading of the piece he’s writing for his senior project.

Johnson doesn’t exclusively write plays, though he finds himself drawn to the medium.

“The story finds the medium. I don’t say, ‘I’m starting a play and it’s going to be about this,’” he said. But plays are becoming his structure of choice.

“I prefer it to everything else. It’s writing with a heartbeat. You get to bring people into your work to speak it,” he said.

That’s what he enjoys about acting: the chance to step into someone else’s creation.

This latest, Our Town, is an American classic by Thornton Wilder and set in the fictional town of Grover’s Corner, N.H. Nobody remarkable has come out of Grover’s Corner, Johnson’s character tells us early in the story. The play, in turn, makes something remarkable out of the mundane, encouraging the audience to embrace the beauty of every day.

“It’s about everyday life for the simple purpose of enjoying it. How it’s fleeting,” Johnson explains. “There are moments that are hilarious and moments that are devastating, which is what I think we should be doing here.”

Tuesday, March 12, 2013