Starship Odyssey Captain’s Log Vol. 1: A Chat with Denny Johnson
Starship Odyssey: The Final Mission is an improvised sci-fi experience for nerds and non-nerds alike. Debuting this summer’s performance series Improv Saves the World, Starship Odyssey is part of WIT’s Directors Series, a program designed to create new shows by giving directors (including first-time directors) the opportunity to pitch and produce an original show.
We asked the director of the project, Denny Johnson (former WIT ensemble Commonwealth, Going to the Movies Alone), some questions about the show to prepare audiences for “the final mission” to save humanity from ultimate evil.
This is the first in a short series of Captain’s Log entries leading up to the premiere.
First up, as context, why did you want to do this show?
Sci-fi was always a way for me to escape as a child and that’s what I want to create for our audiences. It’s a genre that tackles everyday issues in a location, like space, or a time, like the future, that provides enough distance to actually enjoy the issue. We live in a time of stressful jobs, crazy politics, and a whole host of societal problems, from climate change to lack of healthcare. This is a show that is a fun, escapist place to face those issues.
What are your sci-fi credentials?
One of the greatest things about the Starship Odyssey cast is how much they have taught me about sci-fi. My credentials essentially begin and end with Star Trek. But something my co-director Colin Murchie started on day one was a “book report.” We set aside a few minutes of every rehearsal for the cast to bring in a piece of sci-fi that speaks to them. It’s a “show and tell” that has made this cast stronger and our stories richer.
How would you describe the cast as a whole? Are they all sci-fi devotees?
They are mostly sci-fi devotees or at least have a connection to sci-fi that has inspired them. The creative team was so lucky to see scores of auditions and had a hard task of landing on this incredibly talented group. They are a diverse group in every way: age, race, sexual orientation, and even folks who had not been on a WIT stage prior to being cast. To me, that diversity is representative of what the sci-fi shows I grew up with were all about.
Who is on the creative team for the show? What are their roles?
Such an amazing group of people.
Colin Murchie, WIT alum extraordinaire, is my co-director and is really tasked with bringing the vision to life. He speaks fluent nerd and is laser focused in cutting right to the heart of what a scene needs.
Caroline Blair is a creative consultant who started by helping us build ensemble chemistry and fine tuning the format of the show. Now she is on speed dial to put out fires and help me brainstorm issues.
Ray Simeon, our Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, is production designer. Ray is designing lighting, sound, props, seating, the perfect cocktail. What doesn’t this guy do?
Bill Nelson, my theater spirit animal, is our costume designer. The first impression of this show will not be the lines spoken; it will be Bill’s amazing costuming. Every instinct he has had in dressing our crew for starship duty or alien encounter has been inspired.
Mark Chalfant is our Admiral at High Command. He provides grand direction and scope, valuable input, and of course, budget.
What are you most excited about for this show?
The creative team has all been “yes, anding” each other’s ideas. From the format, to the lighting, to the costumes, it has been a supernova of collaboration. Seeing all this come to the stage in an explosion of sight, sound, and story will make for a show you can’t predict and can watch over and over.
What do you work on in rehearsals? What are the differences in preparing for a genre-specific show vs. a typical WIT improv show?
We spent the first third of practices just building ensemble chemistry; making sure improvisers understood each other’s play. We are now in the middle third of practices where we are “building the show.” This means tweaking the format over and over and running the full 45-minute show at each practice. In the last third of practices, starting in mid-May, we will run full shows with sound and some costuming to help us inhabit our futuristic world.
Do you want to give us any hints about what the show might look like?
No…you have to see it for yourself.
Could you describe some memorable moments from the rehearsal process thus far?
I think the most fun and memorable moments have come from our very experienced cast subverting expectations and making the choices you might not expect from a regular sci-fi show. There have been three or four times, in the middle of a show run, that I have literally been on the edge of my seat, wide-eyed, hand covering mouth, in pure anticipation of what these folks were going to do next.