An Interview with Craig Johnson

An Interview with Craig Johnson

Craig Johnson is the Guest Director of The Incredible Fox Sisters, the second play in the Department of Theatre & Dance season at Lamar University, where we get a little creepy with the comedy by Jacklyn Backhaus just in time for Halloween. We recently had the chance to catch up with Craig and ask him a few questions about his experience.

Lamar University Department of Theatre & Dance: Hi Craig, we’re so fortunate to have you with us directing The Incredible Fox Sisters!

Craig Johnson: Thank you.  

LUTD: So, what can a person expect when they go to see The Incredible Fox Sisters?  

CJ: Audiences should expect the unexpected. Yes, it will be creepy, spooky, eerie. But just when you settle into the ghost story, something absurd and quirky will pop up to make you guffaw. Then, when you’re certain you’ve got a handle on that vibe, suddenly you’ll find yourself reflecting on deep questions: the nature of belief, the boundaries of gender norms, the opportunities of capitalism. But wait! A new character will step onstage and you’ll be unexpectedly moved by their plight – how can our emotional engagement shift so quickly? Lather, rinse, repeat – it’s a rollercoaster ride!        

LUTD:  This is a less well-known play by playwright Jaclyn Backhaus. What sets it apart from some of her more well-known works like Men on Boats or Wives?  

CJ: I don’t know Wives, but Men on Boats is about an actual expedition of men exploring the Colorado River in the 19th century, but it’s performed by an all-female cast! So like The Incredible Fox Sisters Backhaus uses nimble, contemporary theater techniques to investigate real-life stories. That makes for an exciting friction as the past and present rub up against one another.    

LUTD: Can you offer a glimpse into your process as a director?  

CJ: The first read of the script is so important. If it somehow grabs me, then I’m hooked and can’t shake it. That’s what happened with The Incredible Fox Sisters. After that, I study the structure, the storytelling: how is the plot released, how do the characters change, where is the emotional center of the play. Since I also have a background in public history (for many years I managed a historic house in St. Paul, Minnesota) and since this is based on actual people and events, I dug into the research. Incredibly, in August I directed a show at a theater in upstate New York, so I was able to visit the nearby Fox home where much of the action takes place. Only the foundations remain, but there’s a quiet, rich eeriness that seeps into the places where history happened, and it was exciting to bring pictures and stories to the cast. With the designers, communicating by trading images helps us quickly unearth the visual landscape of the show; and in rehearsal I like to create an atmosphere of ‘serious playfulness’ so that the cast knows they can take risks, be vulnerable, and bring their A-game. Finally, I’m tasked with tracking every detail in the production so it can synthesize into a unified whole. That’s a lot! And it can only be accomplished by trusting and collaborating with a talented, dedicated team like we have here. It takes a village to put on a play.                   

LUTD: This play follows real women in late the 1800’s New York. What can audiences in Texas gain from experiencing this production in October 2023?  

CJ: Well, for one thing, this is a snappy, gripping ghost story – and who doesn’t like that just before Halloween! But on a deeper level, one of the great values of theater is the invitation to engage with lives that are remarkably different from our own. And then uncover our common beliefs, values, and yearnings. So here’s the story of a couple teenage sisters, who, faced with limited options, make some remarkable choices and embark on a journey leading to fame, wealth, and, in more than one sense, immortality. Like the title says, it’s incredible.        

The Last Word: The last word is yours. Anything you want to say to interested parties, the cast and crew, the Lamar University community, etc...? 

CJ: Gosh, my jam is walking with these students as they discover and master so many theatrical practices. A couple of them have to speak with a Minnesota dialect (think Fargo the movie or TV show). The women all wear corsets and hoop skirts – that demands a different kind of movement and posture. Many of the actors flip back and forth between two or more characters, so finding each voice and physicalization requires delicious creativity. For one actor, it’s his first show in English. And for every one of them, my task is to help them succeed so that the play can come roaring at the audience with the startling velocity, imagination, comic daring, and thrills that, frankly, are pretty breathtaking.     

LUTD: Thanks for your time, Craig! Looking forward to seeing the show! 

CJ: Thanks for having me!

The Incredible Fox Sisters runs for ONE WEEKEND ONLY October 26-28 at 7:30 and October 29 at 2:00 pm in the Studio Theatre between Dishman Art Museum and the Jimmy Simmons Music Building on Lamar University campus.  

Purchase tickets online or by calling (409)-880-2250, and in person at the door one hour before curtain. See you there!