It’s not every day that one gets to work alongside their significant other, but this couple has been lucky enough to do just that over the years — even after tying the knot!
Both Brian and Callie have been consummate actors, directors, and educators for almost two decades, and have worked together in some of the most prominent, award-winning theatrical experiences Southern California has seen. They have taken shows Off-Broadway, won awards at International Fringe Festivals, produced shows in conjunction with the California Humanities Project, ran a successful Children’s Theater program, and produced countless well-attended theatrical experiences over the past 17 years.
Brian’s story is one to give pause with shocking admiration. Coming to La Habra High School in 2004, the school’s theater program was all but nonexistent; the school was primarily known for its outstanding football teams. Within just a few years, Brian Johnson formed the La Habra High School Theater Guild, which is now recognized as one of the most respected high school in theater in the nation.
When Brian left La Habra High School as the Guild’s Artistic Director, he left a legacy of work like no other teacher before him. Some of his most impassioned work with his students resulted in Herculean performances with shows like "Beauty and the Beast," "Cabaret," and 2016’s “The Plummer Project,” a site-specific, audience-immersive play conceived by Brian, and written by Callie, who was then an actress and acting teacher at the Orange County School of the Arts.
That year became even more thrilling with his direction and choreography of “Carrying the Banner,” an explosive energy winning acrobatic-filled depiction of the New York newsboys’ strike of 1899. Then there was “Lord of the Flies,” “I and You” (directed by Callie), “Parade,” and the one that still creeps me out a little, “Sweeney Todd,” which to this day I feel is the best production of that show I’ve seen. “Tristan & Yseult,” an offbeat adaptation of the original high middle ages play, was another winner, directed by both Callie and Brian, dealing with the scandalous love affair between a Cornish prince and an Irish princess.
Callie Prendiville Johnson, actress, writer, educator, director and currently the Associate Artistic Director of MOXIE Theatre in San Diego, has laid her claim to fame as a playwright as well. Her play, “Blamed: An Established Fiction,” won Best Drama at the San Diego Fringe Festival in 2015 (performed in Tijuana and San Diego), and the 2017 Hollywood Fringe Festival Scholarship, funded by the NEA. “Blamed” was then selected to perform Off-Broadway at the Soho Playhouse. And, of course, her acclaimed play, “The Plummer Project,” received a California Stories Grant from the California Humanities Association.
As an actress she has performed at MOXIE, Soho Playhouse, South Coast Repertory, La Jolla Playhouse, North Coast Repertory, Los Angeles Opera, Long Beach Playhouse, Chance Theatre, Downey Civic Light Opera and Lyric Opera San Diego, and has taught at the University of San Diego, Concordia University Irvine, The Orange County High School of the Arts, BRIDGE Theatre Project, La Habra Theater Guild, Christian Youth Theatre, and The Playground.
Together, they have formed a vibrant new production company, called The Electric Company, performing exclusively in partnership with the historic Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton. The Electric Company has already began producing full-length plays, immersive experiences, and intimate storytelling and concert series, right on the grounds and gardens of the beautiful 1920s mansion.
Last fall they led with “The Old Man and the Moon,” a gloriously inventive, boundary-blurring musical fantasy that elevated traditional storytelling to high art. This month they present “Alice: An Immersive Adventure,” which takes you through the grounds of the Muckenthaler Cultural Center as you’ve never experienced them before, beautifully transformed into Lewis Carroll’s technicolor Wonderland.
You can tumble down the rabbit hole with Alice in an interactive theatrical adventure as you meet some of Wonderland’s most famous and curious inhabitants. Take tea at the biggest un-birthday party with the maddest of Hatters, let the Cheshire Cat take you hither or thither, and even join the underground movement to rise against the fearsome Queen of Hearts. The show is set for performances for three days only, February 19th, 20th and 21st, so get your tickets early to ensure your spot at the Muck!
But now, let’s take a moment and get to know this dynamic power team. We asked them both to give us separate answers to a number of questions we thought you’d like to know. Here’s what they have to say:
Brian and Callie, you both are extraordinary directors and actors, and although the last couple of years has been rather hard for most artists in general, you both have found new chapters in your careers. What were some of the challenges in getting to this present level of success and how did you manage to bounce back so favorably during this pandemic?
CALLIE: "Our current status as “Resident Theatre of The Muckenthaler Cultural Center” actually came after a pretty gutting rejection from another venue that had been courting us for over a year. After that let down, we made a list of what we wanted our “home” to feel like and then another list of places in the area where we could make that a reality, and the Muck was at the top of that list. We pitched the idea, and a few months later it was real. Every project we’ve ever worked on has prepared us for where we are today in unique ways. We've been able to meld what we’ve learned from different organizations and specific production experiences into something unique that fits our specific needs and that of The Muck."
BRIAN: "We’re both excited about making art in the way we used to make art - pre-pandemic. We were still pretty busy during the pandemic. We worked with the City of La Habra to create some COVID-responsive experiences for all ages and we co-produced a show with MOXIE Theatre in San Diego that was streamed. But it’s nice to be back planning a theatre season and being in a space with an audience that you can hear, see, and feel. We’ve always been producers that have thrived on challenges and limitations so I think responding to this current situation is right up our alley. The biggest boost to our current situation has been the wonderful partnership with Farrell Hirsch and the Muck. Our theatrical sensibilities have always been about beautiful stories told in a beautiful way and the Muck provides us with some really wonderful opportunities (and challenges - which we love!) to do this."
How old were you when you decided to pursue a career in the arts, and how does your life now compare to how you imagined it while growing up?
BRIAN: "I did theatre growing up (with the Fullerton Children’s Repertory Theater) and have seen the value of educational theatre. There’s this stigma out there about “educational theatre” and most specifically “youth theatre” that it’s somehow a lesser product. We’ve always taken on that challenge and tried to produce high quality theatre that is of great value with our students. Our current “full-time jobs” in education have given us an opportunity to pursue the building of this company. I think we both wish we could just make our art full-time."
CALLIE: "I didn’t do a lot of theatre as a small kid, so didn’t grow up dreaming of it. I really started in high school. For college I picked a school where I could major in theatre, but could also change to something else in case I changed my mind. Of course I never changed my mind, and have never stopped doing it, but I think as a college student I wasn’t quite ready to say that theatre would be my life. I think if my college freshman self could see my “today” self she would be so relieved: Theatre worked out after all!"
What have been some of your proudest accomplishments so far, and which ones makes your heart beat the fastest?
BRIAN: "I’m super proud of all the work we’ve done over the years. I’m proud of the stories we’ve told and the ways in which we’ve engaged audiences. I’m especially proud of our Blamed: An Established Fiction production we produced for two different Fringe Festivals and eventually took Off-Broadway. I loved our most recent, inaugural production of The Old Man and the Old Moon at the Muck. Music is such an important part of our production process. Our seasons are always filled with tons of music and I’ve been extremely proud over the years of our productions which have featured tremendous music that has enhanced our productions in unique ways."
CALLIE: "I’m going to echo those two productions. Blamed: An Established Fiction was something that I wrote, Brian designed and produced, and two of our dear friends wrote the music and choreographed. We spent several years with different iterations of that project in different theaters and multiple cities: We performed it once in a market in Tijuana (it’s a bilingual play and we added more Spanish for that performance) and Off-Broadway for a week. The wide range of those experiences with our collaborators in these different corners of the world are some of my favorite memories, personally and professionally. The Old Man and the Old Moon at the Muck built on everything we learned in the Blamed process and included more dear friends. There was a moment during that show when I was sitting at the light board looking at the moon over the beautiful Muck trees (beautifully lit up by our friend Matt) and listening to the cast play beautiful music that definitely made my heart beat faster."
Who do you look up to as your greatest creative inspiration?
BRIAN: "I think Cal and I have been super lucky to have witnessed some incredible theatrical experiences over the years. I’m thinking of our time in Punchdrunk immersive experiences or Kneehigh adaptations or wonderful weekends at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. But some of our most inspirational moments have come in the rehearsal room or in our family room as we plan with our team for a project. We are so lucky to have such wonderfully creative and inspirational friends who challenge us and who help us create from nothing."
CALLIE: "Yes, a lot of the traveling that we have been fortunate enough to do has been to see some of these artists’ work that is so inspiring to us: Emma Rice, Lauren Gunderson, Bill Rauch’s tenure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (we were there annually to see our friend Chris Acebo’s excellent work). I’ve also been so influenced by MOXIE Theatre in San Diego and the women who founded that company. They’ve been my inspiration for over ten years: They showed me that you can be a great theatre artist and a mother. I was also very lucky that in grad school I got to take a playwriting course with Jose Cruz Gonzalez. He identified a writing ability in me that I had not been taking seriously and encouraged early drafts of Blamed."
You’ve each directed many plays and musicals over the years, and played a number of characters on stage. What theatrical character do you identify with the most and why?
BRIAN: "At the current moment, I feel like Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom trying desperately to figure out how to make money to produce our passion. If anyone knows any old ladies - please send them to our website. I’ve always had a special place in my heart for characters like “Tevye” and “George” from Julia Cho’s The Language Archive who are trying to figure out a way to communicate and operate in a new world. They both love deeply and are flawed, but are willing to try to be better."
CALLIE: "In graduate school I wrote a one woman show inspired by the “Helenas” in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I’m so different from them (in good ways and in bad) but I just love them both. They’re smart, they don’t give up (even though, really, they should) and they both brave these incredible journeys into the wilderness to get what they want. I also have a sentimental place in my heart for Abigail in The Crucible because that was the first show that I did at MOXIE."
What do you consider to be the most memorable and exciting thing that’s happened in theatre during the last few years?
BRIAN: "I’m ecstatic about theater becoming more accessible. Cal and I have traveled the world to see all kinds of productions from companies we love. While we’ve been very fortunate to make that happen, that just isn’t feasible for most people and travel isn’t becoming less expensive. I love the fact that theatres are exploring streaming options. I would much rather see something in a space - but when that’s not possible, I think it’s so great to have the option to support a theater and its artists by being able to watch a streaming version of the show. More companies and more theatres need to do this."
CALLIE: "I think the conversations around which stories get told, and by whom, are important, and are starting to be taken more seriously. I also agree that recording/streaming has been such a great development and a silver lining of the pandemic. As a theatre teacher I am so grateful for the high quality recordings of shows my students would otherwise never see. And just as a fan, I love it! We’ve gotten to see three new Emma Rice shows since the pandemic. And we didn’t have to pay to fly to London!"
As directors, what has been your most challenging production you’ve undertaken?
BRIAN: "It’s always the next one. I think we tell ourselves, “the next time we do something like this, it’ll be easier,” and while that may be true in some ways there are always new challenges that present themselves. The site-sympathetic work and immersive work we like doing never feels like you’ve got a handle on what’s just around the corner."
CALLIE: "We’d be remiss not to mention our current project, Alice: An Immersive Adventure which is exactly what Brian just described: Our first site-sympathetic, immersive project at The Muck. And it’s for kids, so it’s during the day, so we can’t use theatrical lighting! My favorites are also the most challenging though. The projects that have been the most stressful end up being the most rewarding: Shipping sets across the country when we did Blamed in NYC, or crossing the border on foot in costume when we did it in Tijuana. When I’m feeling stressed about a project, I try to remember that: High risk, high reward."
Give us an example of a dream project or collaboration on your wish list.
BRIAN: "Well, this is tricky. I’m not sure I want to spill all my ideas here because I don’t want someone else to hop on it before we get to it. But we’re excited about some outdoor reinventions of some classic shows that we can produce at the Muck. We also have some ideas for some site-sympathetic work where a show can be experienced in an intimate and engaging way. We are currently working on an immersive project for the Muckenthaler Cultural Center’s Centennial Anniversary which will happen in 2025. That really should be a culmination of our work in this discipline - it will take place all over the grounds and will feature some really interesting stories in some incredible environments."
CALLIE: "I am looking forward to writing the Muckenthaler Centennial project - I love the research and writing phase, especially about local history. I’m also really excited to play Viola in our upcoming Shakespeare in Love. I’ve directed a lot recently but haven’t actually been on stage since having our son so I’m thrilled to be an actor again, and I’ve loved the Tom Stoppard film forever and am excited to live in that world."
What advice would you have for kids who want to be actors on stage?
BRIAN: "My advice would be: do it. Do all of it. Be backstage and onstage and see as much theatre as you can. I think you learn so much from seeing theatre: good and bad."
CALLIE: "Make rejection your friend. You have to have a good relationship with rejection in order to continue this year after year. Also, live your life. Be interested in other things, places, and people. I’ve seen some technically proficient young people with no life experience and I think it does them a disservice. Be passionate about a variety of things so your fulfillment as a person isn’t dictated by one aspect of your artistry."
How would you describe yourself in 5 words?
BRIAN: "Joyful, creative, teacher, passionate, persistent"
CALLIE: "Loved, curious, earnest, traveler, foodie"
What would you say is your greatest strengths and what would you change about yourself if you could?
BRIAN: "I think my greatest strength is finding other’s gifts and talents and pulling the best out of them. I love working in collaboration with artists and thinkers and I have been so fortunate to be able to create with so many exceptionally gifted people over the years. One thing I wish I could change about myself is the ability to turn off my mind at night. I’d honestly like to get more sleep but I find myself obsessing over the day's encounters, things people have said, or ideas I have for the future."
CALLIE: "I think my greatest strength is the catalogue of material that lives in my mind. If you tell me about your play or project idea, I can remember other artists, articles, podcasts, productions, books that are relevant to your idea or might be of interest to you. I’m sure my friends are tired of my suggestions but I can give you a recommendation for whatever you’re working on, no matter how random. One thing I wish I could change about myself is my proclivity to forgetfulness, especially when I’m under stress or dealing with too many things at once (hello, life with a toddler). As good as my memory is of everything I’ve ever read, seen, or listened to, it totally fails me with remembering things to do in the future sometimes. I’m trying to be better at writing things down so I won’t forget to do them."
I’m sure you’ve had many other Q&A sessions and interviews over the years. What's the one question you wished someone would have asked you, but never did?
BRIAN: "Being the leader for several organizations over the years, I often get asked lots of questions about process or vision but I’d love to be asked more about the amazing people who I work with that support me and our work and make it happen. My work has never existed in a vacuum and I could not have produced the quantity and quality of work that I’ve produced over the years without a village of extremely creative and talented people who challenge and support our ideas and then put the magic into practicality - always in a way I could not do on my own."
CALLIE: "I actually don’t have an answer for this! There were quite a few here that I had never been asked before."
And finally, what is an interesting fact or expertise about yourself that very few people know about?
BRIAN: "I’m actually a pretty shy person with a pretty significant amount of social anxiety. The most challenging part of this new non-profit venture for us has been the necessity of talking with people and sharing our vision for our future - it stresses me out! But I’m growing and trying to get better about it."
CALLIE: "Our friends know this already, but I love to cook. One of my favorite non-theatrical creative outlets is looking at what’s in the fridge and pantry and making something delicious from whatever is on hand. I hate wasting anything so being able to use something before it goes bad in a dish that I hadn’t planned feels like a small victory."
Thank You Brian and Callie! And don't forget to get your tickets for "Alice: An Immersive Adventure." Ticket price: $20 per person. Muck Golden Ticket holders can attend for free! Please email firstname.lastname@example.org to check availability and reserve your ticket at least 48 hours in advance of the performance you would like to attend.
LA HABRA THEATER GUILD 2004 TO 2020