Wednesday, September 03, 2008
PHIL JOHNSON and MIKE SEARS:
The Brains (?) Behind Nemesis Speak
interview by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
If you were lucky enough to get down to Compass Theatre at 6th and Pennsylvania in Hillcrest between August 8 and 24, you would have seen an hilarious show called Nemesis, written by Phil Johnson and Mike Sears and starring — you guessed it — Phil Johnson and Mike Sears. They played two men, Peazel Hunnicutt (Johnson) and Mickey Sticke (Sears), who meet on what their creators describe as the worst job in the world — gluing salt crystals to the outsides of pretzels — at Mother Pickel’s Decent Pretzels in Appalachia. When one of them does the other out of a promotion, they form a life-long hatred that endures even as one of them becomes an Enron-style CEO and then President of the U.S., while the other commands a space station and wrestles with a recalcitrant wheelchair.
There’s a third performer in the piece, Terri Park, who appears as all the women they exploit financially and sexually; and for the Compass production they got a first-rate director, Cynthia Stokes, who usually stages operas old (she’s scheduled to do Madama Butterfly in Philadelphia and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette in San Diego) and new (Margaret Garner for Opera Carolina, Murder at the Opera — which she co-wrote — in Houston and a long-term collaboration with composer Richard Danielpour). But Johnson and Sears are the prime focus, and when they sat for a Zenger’s interview after their August 22 performance they revealed the same streak of madcap humor off-stage as they’d shown on-stage.
Zenger’s: Why don’t you just start with a little of your background, and how you got into theatre?
Phil Johnson: I’m Phil Johnson. I’m the funny one. And this one over here is Mike Sears.
Mike Sears: Yes.
Johnson: He’s very talkative. Mike is a New York actor. I’ve done stuff all over, some in New York. But I’ve been in San Diego about 10 years.
Sears: I’ve been here about four, four and a half.
Johnson: He’s loving it.
Sears: I’m loving it.
Johnson: We met while doing a play — not a very good play — but we thought, “We could write a better play!” So we decided to do this.
Sears: We started about two years ago. We did it at the Actors’ Alliance festival.
Johnson: We did? We did very well at the festival.
Sears: But it was just the first scene, the pretzel scene.
Johnson: We kind of won that festival, which was nice, so we decided to flesh it out and finish it.
Sears: We did two readings over about a year, and Cynthia Stokes, who’s our wonderful director and dramaturge —
Johnson: Yes, we have a very fancy director. She’s with the San Diego Opera and the La Jolla Playhouse right now, and she’s very, very smart. We don’t know why she’s doing our show, but we have a great time, the three of us all together.
Sears: And Terri.
Johnson: And Terri, who’s a brilliant actress. We’re very lucky.
Zenger’s: How did you get the idea for the show?
Johnson: How did we get the idea?
Sears: I don’t know. I think you called me and said you had an idea about two men who —
Johnson: — hunt each other down through the years, and hate each other forever. We just started writing scenes that worked off our chemistry, which is very 12-year-old boy-like. Then the plot just kind of came up. We thought of the worst job possible: gluing salt on pretzels in a pretzel factory in Appalachia. Then it just got bigger, like the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.
Zenger’s: Why did you call it Nemesis?
Johnson: Nemesis — what else could it be?
Sears: Why did we call it that — was it going to be anything else? I don’t think so.
Johnson: The name came pretty early, because we kept realizing that in all of the scenes we kept having this back-and-forth attitude, like we were constantly picking at each other. Nemesis seemed the perfect word to make it sound operatic, to overdramatize something that was really ridiculous and childish.
Zenger’s: So where does it go from here?
Johnson: Well, we hope to do it —
Johnson: Broadway, baby! Don’t forget it!
Sears: Our intention is to take it to L.A. This whole experience here really is an extended preview of sorts. Once we finish, we’ll go back and do some rewrites. There are things we’ll cut, there are some moments we’ll revamp, but in terms of props, costumes, set, lights, sound, we really needed to see if it worked, if there was an audience for the show or if it was just poo.
Johnson: Yeah, poo. That explains it.
Sears: But if there was indeed an audience, which we found that there is, then our intention is, like I said, to do rewrites, to take the changes that we learned from doing it for an audience, and then we’d like to do it in L.A. in the spring, spring or winter.
Johnson: Right. We even did this set, thinking about future productions, so the whole thing folds down and packs up. But, like Mike said, we had to see if it would work. The parts of it, those sections which we call the montage sections, where we quickly go all over the world very quickly, they were only ideas on paper and we had no idea if they would work. And they seemed to work.
Sears: And the Jazzy [electric wheelchair], the thing with the Jazzy.
Johnson: We didn’t know if the thing with the wheelchair would work. But it’s coming along. I’m coaching Mike. I’m hoping his performance will get better, but he doesn’t listen to me.
Sears: Yeah, I don’t listen to him.
Zenger’s: I was trying to trace your influences. Some of it reminded me of the “Mama’s Family” skits on the Carol Burnett Show. Some of it of Mel Brooks. Some of it — particularly the bloody rag around your head — of Monty Python.
Sears: I would say the Carol Burnett Show, Monty Python —
Johnson: The Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote.
Sears: Urinetown, that musical. We were interested, too, in wordplay. We paid a lot of attention to the words that we chose, trying to actually use language within a skit, rather than just throwing words around.
Johnson: The whole world was fantastic. It was just an outrageous world, everything about it.
Sears: And we wanted to heighten the language. Because the physical world was heightened, the situations were heightened, we wanted to choose heightened language as well. We also talked about Zoolander, Ben Stiller movies, Will Ferrell. The Hudsucker Proxy was a big influence.