ONSTAGE Playwright and actor Evan Johnson’s drag queen alter ego, Martha T. Lipton the Failed Actress, is one of the most delightfully surreal performers in SF nightlife, leading her audience in nutty yet ultimately deeply touching live acting exercises and vocal rehearsals that always bring the house down.
So it’s exciting to see Johnson produce a full-fledged stage work, Barn Owl (Thu/31-Sat/2 at Counterpulse), that seems to expand on the radical inclusivity (and nuttiness) of his Martha T. Lipton personality—even though he had to withdraw from life in the spotlight to get it written.
Barn Owl centers on the young Harmony, “whose Mother leaves earth on a UFO with 37 other members of Heaven’s Gate. Raised in Northern California by Uncle Al, Harmony works to reframe life’s challenges and transcend their circumstances in an effort to connect with a deeper calling.” The play, featuring an intergenerational cast and some dazzling multimedia effects, aims to blur lines of “gender, rationality, and narrative form to provide a theatrical glimpse into the greatest mysteries of the universe.”
“I went away to Santa Barbara reconnect with my creative self after nine years in the city—I was just exhausted,” Johnson told me. “I started looking into different modes of performance to refresh what I was doing, and channeling came up—I came across these New Age, enlightened guru-type cult figures, connecting with something cosmic, bigger than them, spreading this ‘message to humanity.’ I thought that would be a fun writing exercise, writing like you’re telling the whole world something important but maybe baffling to most. I gave myself the character Harmony: She was trying to tap into a divine source, and through that process of writing that way, the play grew.
“I also had a lot of mystical, serendipitous things happen while I was writing, one of which was meeting this beautiful barn owl at the Santa Barbara Natural History Museum, at a show called ‘Eyes in the Sky.’ I had just written about a barn owl appearing at the window of this character, so it was an eerie coincidence, because who expects that much barn owl in one’s life? It became representative to me of how following our own line of curiosity can lead us to strange places, and if you let yourself go, cosmic mysteries can come through you.
“The Heaven’s Gate group was such a wild, wacky phenomenon,” Johnson said. “People who believed that dogma, that approach to life, were very interesting to me, especially how they viewed their body as a vehicle—and how they had all these elaborate plans laid out in a very structured manner. It started being a fascination for me, which grew as all these mystical things were happening in my life. When I came back from Santa Barbara, I started teaching improv to seniors, and I found their energy as an ensemble so inspiring to me, I wanted to incorporate some of that in the play. I decided that Harmony was in touch with a group of cosmic elders on the other side of the veil, drawing her to the Mount Shasta energy vortex as a means to heal from trauma.”
OK, that’s a lot! How does the story unfold? “Harmony’s mother leaves to join the group Heaven’s Gate,” Johnson said. “She’s one of the people that lays down her life to cross over and travel the galaxy in a UFO. Of the people who ‘exited’ this way, two of them did not leave video testimonies like the others, which was intriguing to me. I wanted to create a fiction around these people who somehow felt they didn’t need to explain their choice. Mommy in the story is a fictional composite in the story, and gives us a personal entryway into the group.”
What kind of research did Johnson do to tell the Heaven’s Gate story? “I read Benjamin Zeller’s book Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, which was very insightful. I talked to someone who knew a Heaven’s Gate member. I talked to a UFOlogist and an E.T. liaison who works with galactic energies for a living. I talked to a gentleman who is a commentator on the cable program Ancient Aliens, who advised me on Joseph Campbell archetype stuff, like the symbology of the owl. I read Aleister Crowley and his dramatic rituals, a lot of sacred alchemical texts. I was reading books that were channeling Pleiadians by Barbara Marciniak, like Bringers of the Dawn….
“It was all kind of compounded by the fact that the election results had just come in, the splintering of all these communities, the infighting and polarization of everything. It felt so off the mark—like, what is up with the human race, what are we doing here, what’s not working? It was a fun role to play when I could sit down and start writing and be delivering this kind of lesson that New Age literature was imparting, to be a messenger.”
How does all that work dramatically? “Harmony is a kind of messenger, but there’s real human fear and tragedy that the Heaven’s Gate group is both escaping and in a way propagating, sweeping everything from life under the rug of this New Age vocabulary. There’s a real tension there. If you’re always talking about your higher self, and your higher vibration or consciousness, if you’re only looking to be around others like you, moving to Mount Shasta to be part of a spiritual community…What are you ignoring or avoiding?”
“My collaborator Teddy Hulsker works as a sound and projection designer professionally in theaters throughout the Bay, and I tapped him right away,” Johnson said. “I told him, I’m doing this show about aliens, and multiple realities, dream sequences, metaphysical sequences, cosmic elders in robes… So we’ve really developed the visuals and sonic landscape of the show. And there’s music! Teddy has written some songs and plays guitar, I play a djembe, I have a full on Northern California realness drum circle moment. I’ve been playing the djembe since I was 11, my mom taught African dance since I was about five. I was raised doing samba parades in Humboldt.
“So the real California woo-woo mystique I’m familiar with definitely comes through,” Johnson continued. “Sometimes when I talk to people, I’m like, don’t you know that Mount Shasta is an energy vortex, and that the Lumerians are an advanced civilization that live in the lost crystal city of Telos? Doesn’t everybody know that? But I guess obviously not, and obviously not everyone agrees with that, but there’s lore there. And although I don’t want to say that any one belief system is better than another, I hope the play at least opens up the question of, what do you believe?”
Tickets and more info here.