There’s a lot of theatre in this town. A lot. No matter what your particular brand of good time, you can probably find something to fit the bill, be it at the Station, Parkland College, whatever building is housing CUTC, or at the venerable Krannert Center. But, as Prince once so famously declared, “I’m here to tell you, there’s something else.” For many people, most of them students on the U of I campus, that something else is the Armory Free Theatre. It’s hard to turn around on campus without seeing a poster for an upcoming performance at the Armory, and most of them are grassroots, knuckle-down, passion-driven experiences.
One such show — perhaps the quintessential such show — will open soon at the Armory: a labor of love and a Herculean task by the title of Andrew Lippa’s The Wild Party. I was lucky enough to catch its director, Kendall Johnson, between his very full schedule of manic rehearsals and lascivious publicity photo shoots. I’ve known Kendall a little while now, having seen him in The Full Monty and Hairspray, among other shows; he also participated in my reading of Dustin Lance Black’s 8 last summer. I’ve always known him to be a talented guy and a genuine charmer, but I had no idea he wanted to direct.
Turns out, neither did he.
Smile Politely: Kendall! First off, congratulations on making this production happen. Um, how, exactly, did you manage that?
Kendall Johnson: It all started with a director’s proposal presentation I was assigned in my directing class. I’ve always been semi-obsessed with the show, with its huge belty numbers and great original cast, so when given the project, it was really easy to choose a show. I had some of the casting in mind when I found out my show was chosen for the Armory season, but then I had to overcome the issue of paying for the show.
I chose Kickstarter as a means of raising money for the production. Two days from the end of the Kickstarter campaign, I was about $700 away from my goal. It also conveniently coincided with my birthday, and my boyfriend started a secret group on Facebook asking people to donate as a birthday present; 24 hours later, he’d raised over $1,000! In the end, I had made my goal and was able to do the project. We held auditions halfway through the Kickstarter campaign, and I had a much better turnout than expected, and I can honestly say that we have a great group of actors working together to make this show possible.
SP: I’ve seen you on stage several times, but I’m excited to see what you do from the director’s perspective. How long have you been interested in directing? What draws you to it?
Johnson: I hadn’t really even considered directing as an option for myself until I took a directing class with JW Morrissette at the university. I get the opportunity to observe directors for every show I work on because I’m studying to become a stage manager. That’s one of the parts I love about being an SM: I get to watch directors work with actors and overcome various staging problems. I’ve learned a lot from the directors I’ve worked with and watched work.
SP: So, why The Wild Party? What makes this show exciting to you?
Johnson: The music is what initially drew me to the show, plus the choreography possibilities. Along with directing, I’m also choreographing the show with Stephanie Galvin. The music is all so exciting and engaging; the huge numbers and the more subdued ballads all engage the audience and offer excitement. I love how many different characters there are in this show — as opposed to just a few main characters and many ensemble members — and how they each have their own distinct storyline and backstory and contribution to the party overall.
SP: You’re already deep into rehearsals. How’s it going, so far?
Johnson: We struggled at first, battling with auditions and callbacks for Krannert productions and having fall break in the middle of rehearsals. But now all of that is over, and I have the whole cast and no conflicts until we close. We started with choreography rehearsals with Steph, because I wanted to start rehearsals even though I was still committed to working on the Krannert opera. So once Florencia en el Amazonas closed, I was free to devote all my time to The Wild Party. When I joined rehearsals about a week in, all the dances were learned and I had a chance to work the blocking and my vision of the piece into the actors’ work. We’re nearly a day away from blocking the whole show, and I’m so excited to move into the space next week.
SP: Who’s in the cast?
Johnson: We’re got Allison Morse as the leading female, Queenie, a vaudeville dancer; Matthew Dylan Riley as our leading male, Burrs, a vaudeville clown. Invited to the party are: Ellen Fred as Kate, Queenie’s frenemy; Adam Thatcher as Black, her man; Neal Thomas and Christopher Cayari as Phil and Oscar D’Armano, incestuous pianist-composers; Naomi Mark as Madeline True, the lesbian; Brian Krause as Eddie, the pugilist; Jaclyn Hergott as Mae, the looker; Racquel Rizzo as Dolores, the hooker; Maddie Knight-Dixon as Nadine, the minor; Luis Vazquez as Jackie, the dancer; Mark Fox as Kegs, the Bartender; Joseph Boersma as Sam Himmelsteen, the producer,; Zach Moyer as Max, the orgasmic man; and Christopher Brown, Elana Weiner-Kaplow, and Dina Monk are in the chorus.
SP: Damn. I’ll admit you had me at “incestuous pianist-composers.” Anyway, back to the interview. Since you mentioned the big belty numbers, do you have a favorite song from the show?
Johnson: That’s a difficult question. I’d have to choose between “Old Fashioned Love Story,” sung by Naomi Mark as Madeline True, or “Two of a Kind,” sung by Jaclyn Hergott as Mae and Brian Krause as Eddie. Both songs are great comedic moments of the show. “Old Fashioned Love Story” is Madeline’s wish for a great lesbian story in the midst of all the heterosexual loving going on at the party, and Eddie and Mae’s “Two of a Kind” is a testament to their super cute relationship, as they are the only stable couple in the entire show. The choreography for that number will surely make any audience member vomit from how ridiculously cute it is.
SP: What are your plans beyond this show? What’s next for you?
Johnson: I want to continue directing each semester. Next semester I’m thinking of doing some short, student-written work. I’ll also be working as an assistant stage manager for one of the Krannert productions, but which show is yet to be determined.
SP: Ten Word Answer. Why should people see The Wild Party?
Johnson: It’s just gonna be a good time — a wild party.
“A ferocious story of irritated lovers, idle entertainers, jealousy, revenge, and one wild, wild party,” this production will have only two performances. The first will be Friday, December 7, at midnight (which, yes, does technically make it Saturday morning); the second will be Saturday, December 8, at 3:00 p.m. For more information, check out the facebook page. The event is free and open to the public.