PODCAST: An Interview with Director Jessica Lynn Johnson of 'Soaring Solo'

Photo by Monique A. LeBleu – Director Jessica Lynn Johnson of Soaring Solo, at the Hollywood Fringe Festival Prom Night 2016, Hollywood, California.

UPDATED: 8-25-18

I interviewed Director Jessica Lynn Johnson, teacher of Soaring Solo, a how-to series of workshops and individual instruction on creating solo theatrical projects and bringing them to fruition. Jessica is often a one-woman cheering squad for her students, creating unique costumes out of their promotional bar cards and items for Fringe Festival parties.

I first met Johnson at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2016, dressed head to toe in a costume crafted entirely from her students’ and other producers’ show cards. This creative endeavor she makes special each year for the annually anticipated social event, “Prom Night.”

After seeing some of her students’ shows at the festival and at the Whitefire Annual Solofest, I caught her in action at a recent Saturday morning workshop with LAFPI: The Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative at Whitefire Theatre, on Saturday, July 21, 2018.

I later spoke with Johnson, here, where we talked on the mechanics of her process for creating solo artist theatrical projects, her use of inspiring and provocative word prompts with exploring through two-minute on-the-spot writing, the free workshops she teaches at the Whitefire Theatre, and various festivals and creative outlets that feature solo shows such as Solofest, the Hollywood Fringe Festival, the North Hollywood Fringe Festival, and work with The Los Angeles Women’s Playwrights Initiative.

The atmosphere in her home studio is designed to be conducive to creativity, both for herself and for her students, and she talked further on how the process that she teaches can go far beyond that of creating a solo show, but lead a deeper path into self-discovery.

Jessica Lynn Johnson will co-host Hot Off The Press, a Night of Excerpt Readings, post-show Q & A, and music, with L.A. Women’s Theatre Festival, September 16, 2018, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at The Whitefire Theatre.

Jessica Lynn Johnson: Website, Facebook and YouTube.

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Big Thanks to Ashley

Better Lemons was launched as a team effort and I’m grateful for Ashley Steed, the founding Editor in Chief, who was there at the beginning, encouraging and nurturing writers, and working with me to get Better Lemons to where we are today.
Ashley and I have a lot in common, including a passion for artists, Los Angeles, and the performing arts.
I’m grateful for her contribution and look forward to supporting her in one of her productions sometime soon.
Ashley has done a great job in organizing an incredible brigade of Better Lemons writers and her accomplishments at Better Lemons will go a long way toward setting up our next Editor in Chief for success.
I’m thankful for Ashley’s support and I wish her well as she returns to making theater her priority.
Publisher, Better Lemons

Ashley Steed Concludes EiC Tour

Ten years ago I was an intern at LA Stage Alliance. One day Lee Melville, who was the Editor of LA Stage Magazine (like an actual magazine made of paper), came to us interns and asked us if we’d like to write an interview for the publication. I immediately said yes, whilst simultaneously having a flashback to my senior year of high school.
Lying in the center of my room in the fetal position, my mother comes in, “Oh my god honey what’s wrong!”
“Essay,” is all I can muster. I used to love writing but something twisted senior year and now anytime I had to write something I’d have an anxiety attack.
“You are a beautiful writer,” my mother exclaims. “You are a beautiful writer.”
I took me a long time to believe her – the first step towards that was saying “Yes” to Lee Melville. I was so nervous conducting that first interview, even more nervous writing it, but Lee guided me along the way and kept asking for more articles. He was a wonderful mentor and I was deeply saddened by his death nearly four years ago – his love for the LA theatre community is what has inspired me the most.
With writing for LA Stage, I discovered a passion for interviewing artists – I love hearing about what inspires them, what drives them, the challenges they face, the magic they make. I also have a deep, deep love for Los Angeles – I firmly believe this city needs more coverage of the arts. We need the rest of the world to know that we are a culturally rich and diverse city, “Hollywood” is only one aspect of our identity – this city is brimming with artists who are passionate, creative and imaginative. They deserve to be recognised and celebrated.
When offered the Editor in Chief position of Better Lemons, I immediately said yes. Again, that same flashback of my mother came rushing to my mind, this time with a different resonance. For me, the hesitation of saying yes wasn’t from insecurity, it was because my mother was dying – I didn’t know if I’d have the time or headspace to dedicate to the site. Yet, I could hear my mother’s never ending encouragement in the back of my mind, so I took the leap.
When my mother died, I wrote about continuing on with creating despite living with immeasurable grief. It’s been four months since she’s passed and I’ve been blessed to have gone from production to production to production. I’m still grappling with the grief, but I’m thankful to have the work to keep me busy. Making theatre is my passion and what a joy it is to be able to do what I love.
It is for this reason that I’m not continuing as Editor for Better Lemons. My priority will always be making theatre. I will continue to do interviews and write about theatre when I can, but Better Lemons deserves a leader who can dedicate more time moving it forward. Which is why I’m delighted Stephen Fife is taking over the helm. He’s an incredible writer with a wide range of experience in writing for and about the arts. I have no doubt that he will do great work for arts and culture coverage in Los Angeles.
My deepest gratitude to Better Lemons in allowing me to help it transition into this new chapter of the site, and I look forward to watching it grow.

Creativity in a Time of Grief

Although I’ve officially been the Editor in Chief of the new and improved Better Lemons since November, this is my first article. I’ve sat down a few times to write something – about how we need to be taking risks and creating magic on our stages, about bringing the theatre community together, about my passion for the performing arts and my deep deep love and appreciation for LA theatre. However, every time I sat down to write, nothing came out. I’ve had a terrible case of writer’s block, which is really a pain for any form of writer. The past few months, I’ve had trouble focusing – I couldn’t think about risks, or community, or even theatre magic because I was busy thinking, or rather worrying, about my mother.
Although my mother encouraged me to study architecture as a backup plan, she never discouraged me from pursuing a career in the performing arts. In fact, after a mental breakdown from too many sleepless nights in the architecture studio, I told my mother that I was officially switching to theatre. Her first words were, “I’m so sorry I ever convinced you to study architecture. The stage is always where you’ve belonged.”  I, however, wasn’t sorry. She knew just how difficult life was and she made sure to prepare me for anything and everything. I loved my time in architecture, but it’s not where my heart was. She was right, for me it was always the stage.
At the end of 2015 my mother saw me act for the first time since high school. I was in Love and Information at Son of Semele. She walked in and I could hear her laughing from backstage, proudly telling everyone that she was my mother, her joy overflowing. I was so happy for her to see me on stage again. Yet, there was also deep deep concern. My mother had cirrhosis of the liver and it was taking its toll on her. She had been very unsteady her trip to LA to see the show and by this point there had been countless falls throughout the year and even more hospital visits. There was now a shroud of anxiety around my mother – as if she would spontaneously combust or crack into a million little pieces.
This past year, I decided to lead a devised show for a festival (opening soon). I started the project just after I put my mother into hospice, knowing that she probably wouldn’t make it to Christmas. The producer asked me if I wanted to hold off, maybe produce my show later. When my mother was still “with it” she told me she didn’t want me to stop living my life because of her illness. Thus, I told the producer, “The best way to honor my mother, is to do the work.”  And that’s exactly what I did.
Throughout this intense creation process I’ve had to deal with calls nearly every other day about my mother’s decline. Over Thanksgiving I emptied out her apartment, but made sure no one told her – she still thought there was a chance she could go home. Though a trained actor, I’ve never been good at lying. Pretending that she could one day leave was one of the hardest roles of my life. However, this was the stage I was standing on – the role of caretaker. After emptying out her apartment and selling all her belongings, she asked me, “when do I get to go home?” I simply replied, “well, mama, let’s see what the doctors say, ok?”
It always took me at least a couple of days to recover from visiting my mother. I’d cry while trying to be brave for her. I’d try even harder to be patient with her. However, I’ve never had time to wallow or rest because, just like my mother, I am a workaholic. There were points during rehearsals for the devised piece where I wondered if I should have waited to do the show. At the same time, I was also grateful to have the distraction.
We took two weeks off of rehearsal for the holidays. I was going to spend the break doing some work for the show to ensure it would be ready for tech mid-January. Of course, no work got done. My mother made it to Christmas but by that point was already in a long process of dying.
I watched a lot of doctor shows growing up (my mom’s favorite), they don’t depict just how awful and traumatic dying can be. There was no peaceful “I love you” or her simply closing her eyes and being gently taken away by angels. No. She kicked, and bit, and screamed and fought. She was weak but kept trying to get up and walk around, so the staff had to put her on a matress on the floor with some floor pads down on each side. This way she could drag herself around her room without the risk of falling. The final day she was mostly still and slowly, laboriously breathing. Why isn’t any of this something shown on tv or film or stage? Maybe it’s too hard to watch. Maybe it’s too hard to believe. I couldn’t believe it myself and I was living it.
My mother died just after midnight on Friday, December 30th at 59 years old. The first thing I felt was mainly relief – as it had been a long and tumultuous road. Nothing was ever easy for my mother, other than her love for me – which poured out freely. It certainly wasn’t easy to watch this magnificent warrior woman who forged me from the ashes of all her trauma and pain to make something beautiful, slowly dwindle and waste away.
Just four days after my mother’s death I had rehearsal. I didn’t want to go. I felt overwhelmingly underprepared and I simply wasn’t in a place to deal with people. It felt strange continuing on when I had this large chunk missing from my chest, where phantom pain had been making it difficult to breathe but easy to cry. As we say, however, the show must go on.
Slowly in that first rehearsal the fog had started to lift. I could think clearer and went nearly 6 hours without crying. I was (and am) thankful to have this creative outlet, to have my ensemble all relying on me to lead the way. They’ve been lifting me up everyday. What a gift. It’s true, the greatest way to honor my mother is to do the work.
And so, that’s just what I’ll do. I’ll continue to do the work. With the opening of each new show, if I sit in the theatre, close my eyes and listen, maybe, just maybe, I’ll hear her amazing laugh as she proudly declares “I’m Ashley’s mom.”
Thank you mama. For everything.