Theater productions often have no more involvement with the author than their name on the script. San Francisco’s theater company Campo Santo prefers to collaborate with authors, like Denis Johnson, to create works beyond any one person. In Spark‘s episode “Collaborations,” witness the relationship between writer, actors and director working together on the development of shows from first reading of the new work “Psychos Never Dream” to final rehearsals and the performance of “Soul of a Whore.”
Campo Santo, founded in 1996, is the resident theater company at Intersection for the Arts. Along with executive director Deborah Cullinan, the core members of Campo Santo are Margo Hall, Luis Saguar, Sean San José and Michael Torres, who came together in an effort to create socially relevant theater that is accessible to a diverse inner-city population. Campo Santo has produced over twenty highly successful productions of new works by contemporary writers continuing to experiment and take risks. They have received numerous grants and awards including Bay Area Theater Critics Circle Award for Best New Play for “Hellhound on My Trail” by Johnson.
Offering a unique theater experience, they let the words do much of the talking, presenting the plays simply in an intimate setting. Currently all of the plays are developed collaboratively over a period of months with not only the final product, but the process opened up to the community by early readings through the Open Process Series. Campo Santo works with playwrights as well as authors more accustomed to forms such as fiction, like Johnson, who is one of Campo Santo’s longest-running collaborators.
Having begun in 1999 with short stories from Johnson’s cult classic, “Jesus’ Son,” they have continued with a new production annually ever since. Johnson may be most well known for “Jesus’ Son,” which was made into a movie in 1999, but he has published over a dozen books including novels, collections of poetry and a collection of his international journalism. Johnson, still a relative newcomer to the world of theater, is able to continue experimenting as he finds his way. His production of “Soul of a Whore” is created entirely in verse. Johnson says, “It’s almost like a practice play. I’m just trying it out. It’s all very experimental for me.”
The collaboration benefits both Campo Santo and Johnson. “Soul of a Whore” director Nancy Benjamin says, “If a playwright’s dead or out of town, you can’t ask the questions we’re able to ask.” Through this process they are able to speak directly with Johnson, though they admittedly do not always agree with him, his words can often provide the clarity they are looking for. For Johnson, sharing with Campo Santo has been a way to move away from working alone as he does with fiction.
For Johnson maintaining this level of involvement isn’t just about finessing the dialogue or putting his stamp on the production — it’s an opportunity to connect with the actors in ways that continue to inspire him. He is able to spend time with people who now know his work as well as, if not better than he does. Johnson says, “I really feel as if I’m being intensely read and deeply appreciated. Maybe it’s not by the whole world, but even just a handful. It’s great. It’s just wonderful. It’s a writer’s dream.”
Where: Intersection for the Arts, 446 Valencia St., San Francisco
Phone: (415) 626-3311