By Samantha Stark
An important part of growing up is learning to accept everyone loses touch with someone; it may be a best friend, lover, or a sibling. Michael Johnson and his younger sister were dramatically affected by this lesson and have struggled with communication most of their lives.
He said although people can talk to each other, that doesn’t always mean they’re communicating.
The average individual forgives and forgets, but Johnson couldn’t settle with that idea.
“There was just that one day that I realized I was eating supper with my two parents and a stranger,” Johnson said, referring to his lost relationship with his sister.
This sparked a passion and, as an artist, he threw that into his work; writing a play that anyone from any background can relate to in many ways.
The play begs the question, “How distant can a relationship become before it’s too damaged to be reclaimed?”
The University Theater Series presents the all-student-created production of “ben and trish.” one-day-only Dec. 6 on the Gaede Stage at 7:30 p.m.
It’s the story of a young man, Ben Anderson, looking back at the memories he shares with his younger sister, Trish, and trying to piece together why their relationship become estranged.
“Ben struggles to find the perfect Christmas gift for his little sister, Trish, who has already given him the best present ever,” Johnson said. “This play is a lot of things, but it is definitely a young man’s desperate attempt to reconnect with someone he is still trying to find.”
The play is based on Johnson and his own relationship with his younger sister.
“It’s not a happy play; it’s also not a sad play,” Johnson said.
Throughout their lives, Johnson and his sister gradually grew further apart until they became complete strangers to one another.
“There was a period from when she was 14 to 20 that I didn’t have a clue what was going on in her life,” Johnson said. “It was horrible and one of the worst things that has ever happened to me.”
Growing up in a generation focused on social networks and constant communication, Johnson found it shocking that so many others could relate to his situation of losing contact with a loved one.
“I think there are themes in this play that people without siblings can connect to and understand too,” Johnson said.
He said he pursued and developed the play due to its honesty and relatablity. It’s been a long time in the making.
In 2006, Johnson saw an original one-act in high school that one of his peers wrote about a brother and sister dealing with similar issues he encountered in his relationship with his sister.
“I wanted to run home and talk to my sister about it but I couldn’t,” Johnson said.
That play impacted him so deeply, rattling around in his head until he took a play writing class in 2008 at Concordia, which assigned him to write his first full-length play.
“That was when the first draft of ‘ben and trish.’ was conceived,” Johnson said. “It was far from perfect, but it will never be perfect.”
Last fall, Johnson wanted to submit a piece to the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF). Searching through his portfolio; Johnson found “ben and trish.”
“I went back through it and I found that there was a truth in it; a value in it,” Johnson said.
So he contacted theater sophomore Emily Carlson and his roommate at the time to read through the rough draft wrote years before.
“I fell in love with the rawness and pure truth of it,” Carlson said. “I knew it was going to be a play that would change a lot of me, as a performer and a human.”
Carlson found such a connection with the character Trish that she couldn’t help but plead to have the opportunity to play her.
“I could relate to it because being a woman, I know what Trish is going through,” Carlson said. “How cruel and terrible some boys can be, and how the world is going to end when you’re 16. Trish is such a beautiful person that just needs someone to tell her that.”
With Carlson’s encouragement and instant passion for the play, Johnson approached Elliott Heerman in hopes he would have a similar connection and play Ben.
“We read the play at my apartment with a couple of close friends and my mom,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty intense experience but everyone connected to the piece somehow.”
In March, they decided to perform a stage reading with Carlson as Trish and Heerman as Ben. They received a shocking amount of positive feedback from the audience, which included faculty advisor Patrick Carriere.
Johnson sat down with Carlson, Heerman, and theater junior and director Nora Flaherty to discuss going further with the play.
“We all agreed that this piece needed to be seen and not just heard,” Johnson said. “I think that is the case for any theater piece, that even the greatest of plays aren’t alive until you see them acted out with passion.”
They started materializing their plans the following summer and approached Carriere in September.
“We said we wanted to perform this play as an all-student-created production,” Johnson said. “We wanted to also do it as a Blackfriars event.”
Having been impressed with the play’s stage reading in March, Carriere granted permission and full support for the production.
Since then, Johnson and his crew have been rehearsing on average 10 hours per week wherever possible to be ready for their one-day-only premiere on Dec. 6.
“I have written a lot of plays, but I really consider this my world premiere,” Johnson said. “This is the first time I have had a full-length play performed on a stage.”
After the premiere, the crew is hoping to be accepted into the KCACTF and be able to perform at the regional level in Minneapolis in January.
“We had an incredible donor who has contributed a significant amount toward respondents coming and viewing the show,” Johnson said. “One of the two respondents will be from the play selection committee in Kansas.”
That person, along with the play selection committee, will decide if the play makes it to the big city.
The average cost to register for KCACTF is $300, although that doesn’t include the cost of hosting respondents. Even if the crew didn’t get the generous donation, Johnson said they could have continued to register the play for the festival.
“Everyone has had our back 100 percent,” Johnson said. “It’s been pretty humbling.”
Johnson, Carlson, and Heerman have discussed working together in future plays and even opening a local theater company titled “Danger Theater.”
Johnson believes that in a theater company everyone (actors, directors, writers, etc.) should all train together.
“I would like to have a company where we all teach each other and we all grow together,” Johnson said.
He believes that the FM area is hungry for theater and there is a lack of new work. Johnson thinks it lacks new, original, and youthful productions.
“Right now the FM area is in a stage of ‘What now?’ when it comes to theater,” Johnson said. “You can take a classic and adapt it in a way that makes it beautiful and profound and resonate with a new audience only so many different ways until the play is tired out.”
He originally dreamed of getting an MFA in play writing from Yale, although his dream shifted for “practical and unpractical reasons.”
“My new goal is to run my own theater company in the next five to 10 years, and that company would produce many plays, some of them which would be written by me,” Johnson said. “I hope this play is a beginning to that dream.”
Tickets for “ben and trish.” are $5 for students and $7 general admission at the ticket office or online at tickets.mnstate.edu.