Interview: World Premiere Backyard Renaissance dramedy brings adventure to the Tenth Ave Arts Center
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, November 6, 2022
Wrapping the season with a world premiere, Backyard Renaissance presents artistic director Francis Gercke’s comedy drama The October Night of Johnny Zero, running from November 26 through December 10 at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center in San Diego. In what is described as part true crime, part paranormal adventure, and part family tragedy, this production, directed by Richard Baird, tells the tale of high school athlete Johnny Grimes and one fateful October afternoon circa 1980.
Johnny has a goal simply to get in touch with his mom, get home, finish his homework, and establish his legacy in the conference basketball finals. Classmate Franky Pinnolini, a fan of Johnny’s, is similarly motivated and in possession of wheels. And so it begins... as the events at play on that fateful day on the eastern seaboard ultimately take the cast (and the audience along with them) “down the rabbit hole of small-town suburban life", they come "face to face with the myths and monsters that might lurk just below the surface.”
The October Night of Johnny Zero - Gercke’s first professional production as a playwright - has elements of autobiography but also what the company describes as a touch of dark magic. Gercke explained: “I think there are moments over the course of everyone’s life when you say to yourself, Welp, that part of my life is over… and the moment, the incident that set everything off, is in no way extraordinary. It’s pretty common. But it keeps changing in my mind, my memory, my imagination. And it never goes away. It’s either smack dab in the center of my mind, or it’s way out on the edges. And I can’t tell if I’m remembering it, or it’s remembering me.”
Director Richard Baird says that the newness of this work poses a unique challenge. “Developing a new play comes with quite a bit of excitement and also a lot of specific challenges,” he said. “Is the audience following the story the way that we hope? What choices can we make to make our purposes clear?” He added that the experience of directing a new work, while new to him, is exciting as well: “Having the playwright in the room is incredibly helpful and the dialogue created by the playwright and the cast yields thrilling new questions and solutions. Very thrilling.”
Actor Jessica John, who plays Barbara in the production while concurrently serving as producer and founder of the company, expanded on the specialness of this experience, carrying with her the additional lens of being married to the playwright. “This role has been one of my favorites to tackle and one of the scariest and I've played some truly great parts (like Maggie the Cat, Masha, and Abbie),” she said. “I think the greatest challenge for me is that I love this role and this play so much. I feel like I'm seeing the inside of my husband's heart. There are lots of half-truths and semi-stories from his life in there and I think you can see it in the specificity he gives each of the characters. Barbara is so imperfect and so amazing to me and I'm desperately trying to get the right balance of both. Additionally, I'm playing a mom, which I've never been in real life, although I am an adoring stepmom and aunt. But the journey of my character in this play is so heartbreakingly maternal and the mindset of Barbara has pushed me into some emotional places I wasn't expecting.”
This impact has a sense of permanency for John that lives beyond the edge of the stage. She said, “The play has climbed inside of me in a way no other production has. It's beautiful and mysterious and heartbreaking and hopeful. I think there's a message in there about the importance of seemingly random meetings. We have the ability to affect and change each other's lives over a lifetime or in a single evening. Nothing is wasted and we shouldn't take anything for granted.”
Director Baird agrees - this is a show that will remain with audience members after the final curtain. “The October Night of Johnny Zero is funny, intelligent, frightening, moving and complicated, he said. “And I mean complicated in the best sense of the word. Life is quite complicated.”
Audiences can catch The October Night of Johnny Zero from Backyard Renaissance at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center from November 26 through December 10. Tickets are available at backyardrenaissance.com.