Johnson makes directorial debut with ‘Shakespeare in Love’
Directing “Shakespeare in Love” at Woodford Theatre is an opportunity for Matt Johnson to celebrate the life and work of William Shakespeare through a story that reveals him as a real person. “The Shakespeare in the show is not necessarily what we think of as genius,” says Johnson. “He’s very human.” He describes this story about a fictional relationship between Shakespeare and a woman who poses as a man so she can star in his play as very funny, romantic and sexy. Woodford Theatre audiences will see Shakespeare develop his craft while falling in love with Viola, who inspires him as a writer. “The show is very human. It’s very driven by passions and rivalries,” says Johnson. He says Carson Carney (Will) and Hannah Daugherty (Viola), who he’s never directed before, “do a lot of the heavy lifting in the show.” The scenes in this production are short so audiences will not see them alone onstage for extended periods of time, yet Johnson says, “They did a really great job of connecting” from the start of rehearsals. “You have to believe that they are falling in love with each other,” he continues, “and both of them are very present and sensitive to each other’s needs.” Because “Shakespeare in Love” was adapted for the stage from a screenplay, Johnson says it’s been a very different theatrical experience for his actors. The stage production was blocked “out of sequence” like a movie shoot so the cast didn’t get to see the entire show until a week ago. And when they did, he says their response was “holy cow, we have got a show.” Johnson, who grew up in Georgetown, which he says was a lot like Versailles before Toyota’s arrival, wants to empower his actors while directing a show. As a director, the father of two says he likes to play with an audience – “pulling them in really close emotionally and then pushing them away ...” “This show’s written that way so it fits me real well,” Johnson says. It wasn’t until Johnson was an undergraduate student at Morehead State University when theater “hit all the buttons for me,” he says. While doing a lot of summer stock in his early years as a professional actor, Johnson portrayed a Klingon at King’s Island, which he describes as “a pretty sweet gig.” Later in his career, Johnson was a resident puppeteer at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, also doing a lot of sketch and improvisational comedy around the area. And he spent eight years as an associate artistic director working with his best friend to help save the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, which got him closer to home. He still does one or two shows there a year. “For me,” says Johnson of being involved in a theatrical production as an actor, director, set designer or writer, “it’s really about making meaning and sitting in the dark and pretending with 200 people … “When it’s good, everyone chooses to believe in it. And that is not only how we make good theater, that’s how we make a society, that’s how we make any truth, that’s how we make meaning in our lives. That’s how we make ourselves by choosing to believe in this narrative that we’re performing on a daily basis.” Johnson has lived here for six years, but had never directed a show at Woodford Theatre before “Shakespeare in Love” – mostly because of his busy work schedule as director of the Appalachian Shakespeare Center and an assistant professor of music at Eastern Kentucky University. Johnson says when he moved back to Kentucky after finishing graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University in 2013, he says Vanessa Becker Weig, now the artistic director at Woodford Theatre, hired him to design the set for a show. “So we’ve been friends ever since,” he says. “Shakespeare in Love” opens on the Woodford Theatre stage Friday, Jan. 31, at 8 p.m. Additional performances on Friday and Saturday nights at 8 and Sunday afternoons at 2 continue through Feb. 16. To purchase tickets ($22 for adults and $15 for students) visit woodfordtheatre.com or call the box office at 873-0648.