Interview: Rebecca Johannsen on Her Solo Show, ‘Women at War’

Rebecca Johannsen Women at War

Women at War, actor/director Rebecca Johannsen‘s solo show about women in the US Army’s Female Engagement Team, had it’s first full reading at San Diego’s Ion theatre last week. The reading was “incredibly helpful,” Johannsen said, especially so because she’s gearing up to present the show at this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Johannsen, who got her Ph.D in Theatre from UC Irvine, Master’s in Theatre from SDSU and taught at NYU’s Tisch Drama Department, wrote and directed the piece about the women who were deployed to Afghanistan in 2012. Taken from interviews, it uses their stories about their unit to connect the lives of women from America to women in Afghanistan.

How did the reading go? After doing the reading, is there anything that you might change based on audience reaction?

The reading was incredibly helpful. The play is currently still being formed and there are a few areas I am still trying to work on. The audience reaction and their responses during the Q&A really helped me to discover the first, my instincts about those area that need work are correct, and second, that this is a story that people want to hear.

There is still a character that is an enigma to me, but the reading audience, as well as working with other actors to embody the roles, helped me step back and see the characters more clearly. I have three days of R&D rehearsal in London in mid-May and I now know exactly where to start with exploring those characters.

How did the idea of the show come to you? 

I met a Marine who told me about the FET. He introduced me to one of the women he worked with when he was deployed and the idea of what their mission was fascinated me. It made me ask the question: what happens when women engage in conflict in this way? When nations go to war, the “Other” is dehumanized. The job of the FET is to go into villages that aren’t friendly to US forces and built relationship. To talk to them. To humanize them. It brought up for me the idea that we might be able to re-shape the way we engage in conflict if we embrace bringing more women into the process. Women think about the world and relationships to the people in it differently. What might happen, dare I say, if women ran the world for a bit?

Was doing a one-woman show a goal that you’ve had or did it just happen organically from working on it?

I originally conceived of the play as a multi-cast play where the actors would also help conduct the interviews and collaborate to devise the play. But the cost of that, as well as major life changes (I finished my Ph.D. and moved very suddenly to New York City to pursue my academic career) got in the way. I realized I could pursue this as a solo performance after seeing a friend in New York perform a show at the United Solo festival (a festival of solo shows…unfortunately I couldn’t submit this play for this year because it happens at the height of my work obligations here in California). Her piece was about the fires in Australia a few years ago that devastated the country (she’s Australian). She interviewed survivors and shared their stories in a play called ‘The Day the Sky Turned Black’. When I saw her show I realized I could do this as a solo piece and began pursuing it shortly after. The reading, though, used a cast of four actors. That is how I envision it for a full stage production with a decent budget. Largely it will be a solo piece while it tours festivals because I can’t afford to hire other actors.

Did the thought of doing a one-woman show scare you at first? 

It terrified me. I actually haven’t been on stage as a performer in seven years. I’ve been focused on directing and teaching. But, it’s amazing how quickly you get over that. I performed a piece of the play in London in February…it was shortlisted for an award called the LET Award that gives funding to a promising new play heading to Edinburgh, and it was selected as one of 10 finalists out of 100 submissions. I performed in front of representatives from the major venues at the Fringe festival and, although I didn’t win, I did secure a venue from it. But once I began rehearsals for it, my focus was much more directed at honoring these women that I deeply respect and care for, and doing their story justice. That’s my focus now.

You also direct yourself in this show. How does that work? I know if it were me, I’d be constantly changing things and second guessing myself.

It’s funny because I’ve always hated directors who are so conceited that they think they can direct themselves! This was purely out of financial necessity.

But, as a director I am incredibly collaborative. I think one of my greatest strengths as a director is that I go into a rehearsal knowing that I know nothing (not really, but I like to get rid of ego that tells me I know more than the others in the room). It makes collaboration incredibly powerful. I bring people in the room whom I trust and whose artistry I admire and I let them help me shape the play. With ‘Women at War’ I have a brilliant movement director in London, Jodie Cole, who is directing me with movement (which is a large portion of the play), so it’s like having a co-director who can step back and let me know if something is working or not.

My set and costume designer has also brought a number of ideas to the table that will shape how the play unfolds on stage. I also have a number of friends who are writers, actors, and directors that have been giving me feedback as the work develops. Another strategy that has been helpful, with both directing and writing the play, has been to direct other actors performing what I ultimately will have to perform. It helps me hear the script and whether or not the lines are working.

It also gives me a different perspective on how to play the character. But that is a challenge. Because I know how the material was articulated originally in the interviews, there’s a balance between creating my own understanding of the character, while being true to who these women are. They have incredibly distinct personalities and I really want to capture that in the performance.

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