March 6, 2014

STRANGER: Jeffrey Johnson
LOCATION: Ted’s Bulletin, 505 8th Street SE, Washington, DC
THEME: A local actor describes his unique one-man show

Jeffrey Johnson came alone to dinner.

The softly-spoken and easygoing actor, who lives in Washington, DC, left his alter-ago Special Agent Galactica at home. So over an evening meal at Ted’s Bulletin in Eastern Market I found myself sitting opposite a man with neatly trimmed hair, wearing a sensible burgundy top and grey t-shirt. It’s a far contrast from Galactica, a female hired assassin in a hot pink wig who travels through space and time. Oh, and she performs musical numbers at bars and clubs during her spare time.

Galactica is a solo songs-and-story act that Jeffrey has been doing in the region for a while. He’s currently focusing a good portion of his time on promoting the character, which originated from a lip-synching show with fellow artistic-minded friends through to a stand-alone performance piece. The solo act came about when he was invited to do a solo show at now-closed DC gay bar BeBar, and Galactica was his project.

For Jeffrey it was a chance to put a spin on something he’s not particularly fond of: one-man shows where a pianist spins yarns about their life interspersed with songs. Often popular on the likes of cruise ships, these solo acts might seem dated or self-indulgent.

“I was bored by the idea of just being another guy at a piano. How many of those does this city need to have?” he asked with a slight grin. “But I wanted to get back in to performing. So then I thought: what if I take the idea of Galactica, hide behind her, and expand her story through cabaret?”

When he branched out as the special agent, he was nervous to sing in public — something he hadn’t done in years. But he was invigorated by the creative freedom from the performance. It allowed him to write, act, sing and more, very much in line with his lifelong desire to experience as much as possible of the theater world as possible.

Jeffrey wrote an outline of Galactica’s story that informs the comic show and its musical numbers. “You’re seeing that during her down-time, to stay sane, she does cabaret. So these performances are her outside of her mission, trying to keep it all together,” he said.

“It’s allowed me to play a lot and by doing it I’ve come to really enjoy it. To me it’s theater. Galactica allows me to write, to do shows, and to do creative work,” he said.

It’s also not the first time he’s performed in a dress, as he would later tell me about another show he performs as a female. But when Jeffrey and I had dinner, he left Galactica at home.

Probably for the best, because unlike a past interviewee that arrived in his work outfit — VeeKay the circus clown — Galactica is just one of many facets of Jeffrey’s life.

During our meal he told me not only about how he created the space oddity Galactica, but also his extensive work on and behind the stage, including several years as director of the District’s flagship gay theater company the Actors’ Theatre of Washington (later called Ganymede Arts).

Just as Henry Hill in Goodfellas knew as far back as he could remember he always wanted to be a gangster, Jeffrey knew from an early age he wanted to be an actor. “I never wanted to be a doctor or a fireman. I wanted to be in the movies or on the stage,” he said.

We’d settled on a good restaurant for the discussion about acting. Ted’s Bulletin has a 1920s/1930s vibe to it, with wood paneling, tiled floors, touches of Art Deco, and a large projector screen down one wall of the dining room. There the restaurant (silently) plays old black-and-white movies. I’ve definitely seen at least one Frank Capra movie on my visits.

The menu offers hearty American fare done well: meatloaf, eggs, burgers. A perfect fit for Jeffrey, who said he’s a big fan of breakfast food.

That night he skipped an appetizer, but I went with the daily soup special.

It was loaded baked potato soup with bacon bits and sour cream. Ted’s serves hefty portions, and I appreciated a warm, hearty soup on what was a cold night.

As I inevitably slopped portions of my starter on the wooden table, Jeffrey gracefully ignored that and told me about his first inklings of a desire to act.

He was born and raised in upstate New York, and from an early age his parents involved him in their love of theater and music.

One of the first shows he remembers seeing is the musical Oklahoma! at a local community theater. “I loved it,” he said. “To me, that was Broadway.”

Other experiences included tagging along with his parents to a traveling vaudeville show, where he got to meet the likes of old-time entertainers such as Milton Berle. “So I had that love of performing arts from the get-go,” Jeffrey said.

His love of music came from his father’s cousin who would play and sing with Jeffrey whenever she was visiting. “That’s why I wanted to start playing piano, that’s how I got into music,” he said with a smile. He started piano and clarinet lessons at the age of seven, and studied music theory in college.

But it wasn’t just arts growing up. Jeffrey was also a state champion swimmer, so any time that wasn’t spent on music or theater was spent in the water.

It was his sportsmanship that got him a scholarship at the University of South Carolina. And that’s where two pretty significant developments happened in his life. First, he ditched swimming at the beginning of his sophomore year. He realized that his interest was theater, and dedicated himself to that pursuit. Second, he came out as gay shortly after the change in career path.

“Once I was surrounded by gay people and gay-friendly people in the theater, I was ready to come out,” Jeffrey said. What he wasn’t ready to do was stick with a college education just for the sake of it. He experimented with various majors — theater, business, sociology — but eventually decided a degree wouldn’t determine his future in the arts. And so he never graduated from college.

“It got to the point of rebellion,” he said. “Everything about the academic world bothered me. I was seeing people that were really good actors not getting good grades, and seeing people I thought were crappy actors getting good grades. I realized you can’t take something so specific to an individual and grade it. I tried to stay in school because I thought I needed a degree. But I’ve never needed it.”

Instead he threw himself full-time into making a life in the South Carolina theater community, which he said is particularly vibrant in the town of Columbia, where he spent 11 years. During his time down South he got to try acting, directing, teaching, doing choreography and other skills.

“The only reason I left Columbia is that I didn’t feel challenged anymore,” Jeffrey said. He weighed his options, and decided on a move to Washington, DC, even though he had no job lined up.

Although New York City is known for Broadway and its proliferation of theaters, Jeffrey said a move to Manhattan was never under consideration. It was 1997, he was about to turn 30, and he didn’t want to start life all over again in such a massive city. Plus, the fierce competition for jobs in the city meant he’d have likely had to focus on one type of theater job for several years. He wanted a role that would allow him to indulge all the skills he’d learned during his time in Columbia.

Life in the Big Apple would likely also have meant having to go the “Equity actor route,” he said, meaning months of toiling away in specific career positions just to earn enough hours to qualify for membership in the actors’ union. He was opposed to a life of having to perform certain roles or do work just to earn union credit. “I wanted to enjoy the work I did, not just do it for the sake of doing it.”

So he ended up in the District, which he said has the second largest theater community in the United States after New York City. “You might not think of DC as a theater city, but it’s huge.”

What else is huge in DC? The servings at Ted’s Bulletin.

As Jeffrey was narrating his move from Columbia to Washington, our main courses arrived. This was a slight problem, because I was still eating my soup.

My only complaint about dinner that night was the delivery of the main courses while I was clearly working on my appetizer. But the service at Ted’s is usually great, so I’m sure it was just a minor communication issue in the kitchen.

While I kept working on the soup, Jeffrey started on his Reuben sandwich.

Corned beef, sauerkraut and 1,000 Island dressing on grilled marble rye bread, served with fries and a pickle. It was a hefty mound of food, and he picked at it slowly, almost in awe of it. Indeed, he couldn’t finish it and took the leftovers home.

Eventually I finished my soup and was able to also start on my entree.

I opted for that night’s special, Ted’s Bulletin’s spin on fish and chips. A massive slab of catfish was crusted with cornmeal and served with sweet potato fries and coleslaw. There was a pleasant crunch on the perfectly cooked coating around the hearty cut of fish, which was complemented by the (hopefully homemade) coleslaw. The sweet potato fries were fine, but the fish was the real star of the meal.

My excitement over the meal meant I paused on interrogating Jeffrey, giving him the chance to continue his story. I felt somewhat bad that he could only take occasional bites of his Reuben sandwich while I tucked in to my dish. But then I had another bite of the fish, and any thoughts of guilty were quickly forgotten. Hooray for having a goldfish’s (or catfish’s?) memory span.

After moving to the District, Jeffrey got a job in the administrative office of Arena Stage, a large and well-respected theater that stages all manner of productions from classics to more experimental pieces. Jeffrey called the job “a great foot into the theater community” in the city.

Then he learned that Studio Theatre, another DC-based organization, was staging a revival of the musical Hair, a show in which Jeffrey had performed in Columbia. He won an understudy role for the District performance and ended up having to tread the boards for a whole weekend when the first-pick actor couldn’t perform. That appearance drew great reviews, and Jeffrey says the role led to other offers and work in the theater.

Eventually he was offered, and accepted, the position of artistic director of the organization that would ultimately be known as Ganymede Arts. The organization was the only dedicated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) arts company in DC. From 2003 to 2011 he was responsible for plotting the company’s theatrical seasons, taking care of finding performance space, dealing with day-to-day administrative headaches and more. He said it was just the opportunity that he’d been looking for, where he could use all the skills he’d built up over the years.

For a while the company was nomadic with no fixed location as it had no dedicated office space, something Jeffrey said was “stressful” but a valuable learning experience on how to think on the fly. Eventually it settled in a theater on Church Street in the city’s northwest quadrant.

Jeffrey was frustrated by what he saw as a lack of variety in gay theater at the time, with most companies in the city performing the same plays such as Angels In America or The Normal Heart that dealt with broad themes, such as the struggles of coming out or suffering from AIDS. “That’s fine,” he said. “But the focus of those plays is an issue, they don’t necessarily have depth.”

Seeking a new approach, he looked to classic plays such as Les Liaisons Dangereuses and The Owl and the Pussycat that could be “reinterpreted without changing their integrity.”

That didn’t mean revising the dialogue or plot to make it explicitly gay, he said. Instead, Jeffrey found novel ways to highlight a gay interpretation of the material. For example, in Les Liaisons Dangereuses he played a female part but dressed as a male. “It was very gender-bending, the audience could see a male-female or a gay interpretation. And that fit our mission.”

During his time at Ganymede Arts, Jeffrey said he and the company received a warm reception from the city and its theater community. But the economic downturn of recent years meant that funding from outside sources dried up, and the company was no longer sustainable.

The curtains closed on Ganymede Arts in 2011. Given that a few years have passed, I asked Jeffrey what legacy he thinks it left behind. “I think that when the theater closed, after about a year, a lot of the community felt the absence. I think when it was there it was kind of taken for granted,” he said.

The company’s willingness to stray from the more typical gay productions helped broaden its appeal, he said. And in the wake of Ganymede Arts’ run, he believes that the city is now more receptive to LGBT-themed performances. “When I started off, theaters didn’t have gay nights. But we were successful, and now I think a lot of theaters realize that they need to market to the gay community,” he said.

Now that the company doesn’t consume his every waking moment, Jeffrey is free to focus on Galactica and another female performance: Edie Beale from Grey Gardens.

Grey Gardens was a decrepit mansion — since restored — in East Hampton, New York, and home to the eccentric Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale, known as “Big Edie,” and Edith Bouvier Beale, known as “Little Edie.” They were both the subjects of a landmark 1975 documentary film, unsurprisingly titled Grey Gardens.

In order to raise money to keep the house from foreclosure and pay off taxes, Little Edie created a cabaret act that played dozens of times in New York City. Jeffrey said he was inspired by the story of Grey Gardens to emulate Little Edie’s show, and has performed it for several years. He recreated the cabaret act, marking the first time that he stepped into a dress for a one-man show.

“But Galactica is the main one that I do,” he noted.

We took a quick break from the conversation to review the dessert menu, but Jeffrey told me has a sweet tooth and would avoid the tempting dishes.

I couldn’t resist, and settled for one of the restaurant’s signature alcoholic milkshakes. I opted for the grasshopper, a mix of Kahlúa and crème de menthe in a lurid green color. The minty flavor, backed up with a decent kick of booze, made for a great finish to the meal.

As I sipped on the milkshake — Jeffrey politely declined my offer to share it — he told me that he’s hoping to increase the number of Galactica performances in the coming months.

Jeffrey has performed the intergalactic routine at various venues in the District, including performances alongside jazz pianist Aaron L. Myers III, who I interviewed in February. Jeffrey is enjoying the artistic freedom that he gets from Galactica, and plans to keep his energy focused on the act. “The last few years of running the theater got really stressful. This is totally creative. I wanted to go back to acting, I missed acting and being on the stage,” he said.

“Now I’m able to do all of that with Galactica, though it’s very odd that I find myself wearing a dress. It’s never been a goal of mine. But I’m actually enjoying it. It’s fun, it’s very liberating,” he said with a smile.

It was hard to imagine the mild-mannered man in front of me transforming into an extroverted space cadet. Yet once I got home and watched some of his performances online, I saw how well he manages the change. The outgoing character belts out songs and tells a fun story in an apparently seamless way.

Given that Galactica is a time traveler, I wondered whether Jeffrey might have hopped forward in time to see what the future holds. But he’s fine with living in the present. “I’ve never had a big end goal,” he said. “The goal I have is that I want to have the opportunity to do what I want to do at that particular time. A year from now, I might never want to do Galactica again.”

To support himself, Jeffrey works a day job doing administrative work for the Council on Undergraduate Research. Its mission is to “promote high-quality undergraduate student-faculty collaborative research and scholarship,” according to its website.

While he’s happy with his work, Jeffrey said that one day he’d love to be able to support himself solely through his creative endeavors such as Galactica.

As I finished the milkshake and we brought the dinner to a close, Jeffrey paused for a moment while he weighed his next statement. Then he concluded, “It’s not like I want to be a star. But I want to be successful in what I do, and to be challenged by it. I just want the opportunity to do it.”

It seems that with his self-made show Special Agent Galactica, he’s getting that opportunity. Even if it comes with a sparkling dress, makeup and a hot pink wig.

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