The following is part one of two interviews planned for March, 2017 with Johnny Kalita. In this interview, Johnny will update us on his thinking around Black Mamba Theatre Company (BMTC) and give us some hints about his next production.
In 2016, Johnny successfully launched the BMTC and produced his first show, The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh. The show ran for three weekends in Spring to sold out audiences each night. For a more complete understanding of Johnny’s vision, please read his February 2016 interview.
Given your successful first production of The Pillowman in 2016, what elements of your vision/mission for BMTC do you affirm going forward and what elements are changing?
BMTC’s mission is to tell dark tales with a tight grip and a sharp bite. As I elaborated in my 2016 interview, I want to do psychological thrillers that leave audiences on the edge of their seats. I want to do really gritty, realistic, dark work that effects people afterwards. That is not going to change….
Something else about BMTC that is NOT going to change are the underlying core principles. I have always operated this way, but now is the time to publicly communicate these. I have three simple, but important core principles for BMTC and myself – in priority sequence:
1 – Respect for the individual. We will ensure everyone involved in the artistic process will be respected. We will listen to and ensure the integrity and safety of the team.
2 – Respect for the playwright. The text is a gift and it should be respected and performed as written by the author.
3 – Respect for the audience. Respect for the audience and community members who see our shows. What they pay to see should provide excellent entertainment, quality, and value.
While there is a natural tension or conflict between the first two principles, this is a balancing act and in the end respect for the individual always trumps respect for the playwright. For example, if there is an intense scene in a play we are going to do, we would collaborate between the producer, director, fight choreographer and the actors to find that middle ground where were able to accomplish what’s needed for the story, but in a way that the actors feel like they are able to do so, night-after-night, without feeling vulnerable or compromised.
In terms of changes, we are still going to do plays, but moving forward we are also going to do other things – maybe things adapted from other art forms, such as games, movies, improv or other art forms. But the same approach of doing dark, gritty, realistic, visceral productions is always going to be the signature of BMTC. For example, an idea I have surrounds a game that I played that deeply effected me – “Silent Hill 2”. It’s an interesting, but horrific story, with great atmosphere and music, which is in BMTC’s wheel house, that I’d like to adapt to stage.
Did you say "improv?”
I started in improv in Chicago – I did the complete Second City and IO programs – improv was my life. It was what I wanted to pursue. However, what I found was there was a lack of seriousness from the actors involved – they all just wanted to do comedy. I saw more potential in improv, but the actors I was working with did not want to go there. I saw it as a way of creating amazing theater - an interesting story with interesting characters, not just trying to make funny jokes. I wanted to do improv in a way where the audience forgets there are watching an improv show and thinks they are watching live theater. They lose themselves in the fact that these are real characters that they are invested in and there is a story happening and is unfolding. The audience is taken through a range of emotions, including laughter, that comes from a organic/truthful place with real characters, versus doing improve to be funny and just make people laugh. For example, in the early stages of Under the Gun Theater, they were doing experimental work and one of the things they did was “Dinner with the Clark’s” where we essentially developed characters. I got to develop a very weird and interesting role where I got to bring in my own costume and props – which is something not traditional for improv. In addition, I did a lot of writing to develop the character so that when I came on the stage I knew who my character was, I knew where he came from, I knew his backstory, what his wants and objectives were, and what his relationships were with the other characters on the stage. So that when you get on the stage, you already know all these things and then you start the improv. It’s sort of like improv within a framework or with boundaries. This keeps the scene on a streamlined, more theater-like path, instead of just going out there and being wonky. For me this is a better ride for the audience. That is something I really care about – ensuring that the audience is getting something of value for the money they are spending on the show. I feel most of improv does not have that value.
What can you tell us about your next show?
I am not ready to announce the title of our next show, but I can say we are going to take things up a notch. Compared to “The Pillowman”,the next show is going to pop more and be more dynamic. There will be a lot more going on in each scene – things will be very fast paced and less static. The characters have clear objectives and wants and they fight like hell to achieve those things. The violence will be more intense and impactful and the play overall encompasses more of what Black Mamba is all about than “The Pillowman”. In fact, this next play will set the bar for all future Black Mamba shows.
In terms of timeframe, we are targeting spring of 2018.
In terms of business objectives for the show, I’d like to continue to sell out every show. The play has a bigger draw than “The Pillowman”. I’d like to pick a venue that allows us to increase the audience size from 30 to 40-50 while maintaining that intimate feel – that is a very Chicago and BMTC thing. I’d also like to do a longer run than “The Pillowman” so more people have a chance to see the show.
Is your role going to change in the next show?
In “The Pillowman”, I not only had to put up my first show, I also had to start up my theater company (BMTC). So I took on a smaller acting role in my first show than I originally wanted so I could focus on all of the behind-the-scenes production activities that I had never done before – which was great experience for me. However, one of the things I felt after the show, was a sense of discontent, because I had not taken on a larger acting role.
Now that I have the experience from “The Pillowman”, and now that I have more people involved, I plan on taking on a larger acting role in the next show. I realize now that I could not have taken a larger role in the first show – and if I had, the end product would not have been as good. But for the next show, it is a “must” that I have a larger acting role. I will be delegating more to other team members.
I have talked with many people in the community, and as the artistic director and leader of this company, I need to put myself in a larger role on stage so people can see – ‘ok – this is the head of the company, these are the roles he’s doing, he has a bigger voice – he’s taking charge and is being up front.’
What can you tell us about the cast/team in the next show?
Team is very important. The potential cast for the next show includes two of the actors I have worked with on both The History of Violence (Bare Knuckles Productions) and “The Pillowman”. One of the actors I have worked with on “The Pillowman”. The stage staff I have worked with on the two shows. The director and one of the actors are new, but appear to be fitting in well. Given the challenging roles in the next show, especially the women roles, it is great to have worked with the two women actors on previous shows. There is an established track record and a level of trust and comfort that will just make things easier for the show. I could not be happier that I have found all of these people for the team.
Longer term as we have more success and do shows more frequently, I view the members of “The Pillowman” and this next show as the core of an ensemble for BMTC – they are like family to me.