Tidewater Women’s Fran Ward recently talked with Garney Johnson, Director of the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman, playing this month at the Generic Theater in Norfolk.
Tidewater Women: Garney, from your résumé, I see you have been a director, a leading man, a singer, actor, and set designer. Please tell the readers how you started in “the business.”
GJ: I have always been involved in it. I love the movies. I grew up playing piano. I was involved in the arts in middle school, going to the movies, working at a movie theater, and then was a manager at Blockbuster. I memorized all the Academy Award stats: best picture winners and other categories. I was the person people would call to see who won in any given year. That was before computers made that all available. I was involved in community theatre even here in Hampton Roads. And I write and do stand up and sketch comedy (like Saturday Night Live sketches).
TW: How did you come to direct the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman?
GJ: I liked the sound of the title when the movie came out. It sounded like a comic book, but I wasn’t allowed to see it then. When it came to Broadway as a musical, I memorized the whole score. I loved it. This is my first time directing a musical, and it’s been a dream project I've been planning for years. It feels as if everything I’ve done has led to this project.
TW: What is the special attraction you have to it?
GJ: I relate to the movie because of the cinematic escape that movies provide to the characters. I can put myself in that movie. I understand.
TW: Please explain that.
GJ: I’m not sure how familiar you are with the story behind Kiss of the Spider Woman.
The musical is based on the novel El Beso de la Mujer Araña by Manuel Puig that was published in the 1970s and later turned into the 1985 film that won William Hurt the Oscar for Best Actor and also became the first independent film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (It lost to Out of Africa.). That same year a stage play was produced in London, but it wasn't until 1993 that the Kander and Ebb musical made its Broadway debut that went on to win seven Tony Awards including Best Musical.
The story takes place in a South American prison. Valentin is a young revolutionary political prisoner, and the warden has put him in a cell with an older homosexual man named Molina, who is in the middle of serving an eight-year sentence for corruption of a minor. The two men end up bonding as Molina recounts movies from his childhood starring his favorite actress, Aurora. Molina loves all of Aurora’s movies except the one where she plays a Spider Woman, whose kiss represents death.
TW: How have you given this production your personal touch?
GJ: I’ve added a multimedia component to the show.
TW: Describe your multimedia process, please.
GJ: I’ve assembled a team of multimedia professionals to recreate locally some of the scenes that Molina narrates to Valentin, which will be projected on a large screen on the stage. It is all very stylized like a film from the 1940s. Our final location shoot was at Harrison Opera House.
TW: You have reinvented the movie.
GJ: Film is my obsession. Music is my passion. I’ve always said, “I’m married to the movies, but music is my mistress.” There’s an intangible aspect to what music can do for you emotionally.
TW: Garney, what do you do in your real life away from those passionate relationships?
GJ: I’m part of the Lions Medical organization that provides eye care and makes a difference in peoples’ lives. Every year there is a gathering of all the families who have granted the use of donor eyes from their family members. I put together a visual presentation. I pick the music and the imagery. The energy from the families is palpable.
TW: That’s pretty amazing. Thank you for sharing that sensitivity.I have two final questions for you. The first is what is your first memory?
GJ: I remember watching Fantasia in a movie theatre with my family. I remember the combination of music and color and was even swept up in it—especially with the ballerina hippos—and even just the squiggly lines. The seats squeaked.
TW: Your remembrance of film is the same as Molina’s fascination.My final interview question is always what would you like the readers of Tidewater Women to know?
GJ: That they should come see Kiss of the Spider Woman in June. Especially now, it is important for everyone to experience this exercise in empathy. It is important to let other people share their experiences and for us to try to understand. This is an important story to be told now. Not that the prisoner falls in love with Molina, but that prejudices were replaced with respect and admiration.
TW: Thank you, Garney, for echoing the meaningfulness of the movie with how we can apply it in real life. You are an example yourself. I look forward to seeing Kiss of the Spider Woman!
GJ: Thank you. I hope to see you and readers of Tidewater Women there, too.
Kiss of the Spider Woman runs June 5-7 and June 14-28, 2015, Thursday - Saturday 8 p.m. and Sunday 2:30 p.m. • Generic Theater (also known as “Little Hall”) under Chrysler Hall, 215 St. Paul’s Blvd., Norfolk • Tickets: www.generictheater.org and ticketmaster • 757-441-2160 ($)
For info on the Eye Bank and donations, visit lionseyebank.org