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Shakespeare in Yosemite: musician Rena Johnson

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Oct 12, 2021 at 11:23 PM in Project News

While filming Imogen in the Wild, Shakespeare in Yosemite’s research assistant Monica Perales interviewed the cast and crew about their experience adapting Cymbeline. This eleventh interview presents Monica in conversation with Rena Johnson, singer and co-composer alongside Cathryn Flores. Read on to read Rena’s reflections on intersectionality in ecotheatre, a pivotal backyard sing-along, and nature as a character in the soundtrack of Imogen in the Wild

MP: What has been your involvement in this production?

RJ: Honestly, at first it really wasn't much at all. My role kind of expanded as we continued with the filming and everything, but I guess in essence, I was there to support Cat in any original compositions with music, and also provide my own vocals for things as needed. Eventually, I was filmed for it, which was pretty cool, and which I didn't know was going to happen! [The directors] were like, “Oh, are you free today? Come down, and we'll film you.” 

It was a bit unexpected, but it was great helping to capture all of the visions of everybody involved, especially Imogen's character. My primary job became to write the song for the burial scene. It was really fun to come up with my own lyrics and also “translate” Shakespearean language and still get the same feeling from it.

MP: Awesome, next question. What is your personal experience with environmentalism and ecotheatre?

RJ: Honestly, I had never been like an eco-person. I never liked going to the beach! I hated the beach, I hated going outside. I've never been a nature girl, so as far as ecotheatre goes, my first real experience with it was my third year of college at UC Merced. It was when I took my senior thesis class with Katie, and it was “Shakespeare in Ecology.” I was so used to looking at Shakespeare from so many different angles, from like a feminist perspective, and then looking at it from a racial perspective, and capitalism, and stuff like that, but I'd never looked at it from an environmental standpoint. So it was scary at first, and a little bit intimidating, because I felt so out of place: “Here I am with all these students who are so passionate about the environment and nature, and I'm kind of a city girl. I've never firmly connected with nature in the way that you all have—" but that was my first real experience. 

Before that, it was doing the Richard II adaptation, which was mainly a bilingual adaptation, but it still involved nature a lot. I started having those conversations a little early on and then, with this project, Imogen in the Wild, I was fully immersed in it with so many different scholars and people from all walks of life. Getting to meet everybody was really fascinating. I still felt really out of place, but I learned a lot and now ecotheatre is kind of something that I talk about non-stop! and my parents never know what I'm talking about!

MP: Okay, now the next question is a little bit connected to that one. How do you think ecotheatrical productions can impact environmental consciousness in the cast, crew, and/or audience?

RJ: I think the primary way is that it's so easy to be in a situation [of ecological crisis] and not understand it entirely, or to be really indifferent about it. I think that ecotheatre kind of triggers cognitive dissonance in us: seeing that situation being played out in front of us by other people really helps us realize where we are ourselves in the world, and what role we play. I think that's the biggest thing it does. 

Even though it's a fictional production, it makes things a reality. At the same time, I also think it does it in a way that's gentle. I think environmentalism is such a heavy topic now because it is so serious, and it's getting really, really bad, that I think sometimes people are afraid to talk about it. [Theatre] eases people into it, and especially if you're working with a play that has comedic elements and stuff like that, it just kind of hugs everybody.

MP: Yes! And that is a perfect segue into the next question: what do you hope viewers will take away from this performance, or specifically from the music that you helped create?

RJ: I think the main thing kind of goes back to what I was saying about my parents, who don't get it. I think the main takeaway that I want is that Shakespeare is so easy to adapt and so easy to manipulate for different things, and I just want people to take that away. I know that these plays are super old and written by a guy who's long gone, but at the same time, it opens up all of these possibilities and all of these doors to talk about really difficult things—even if it's not environmentalism, even if it's racism or sexism, literally anything. [Shakespeare] is the perfect canvas, and I think I just want people to appreciate that.

From the music specifically I hope that it kind of connects how environmentalism needs to be intersectional because there are so many things rooted in oppression, especially with environmental justice. So in the emotional aspect, I hope that the music captures how we might feel towards the planet, but also how the planet might feel towards us, and just give people a way to to visualize it and hear it. If we do get around to making the production album that Katie wants to do, I think that's another way that we can make sure this project continues to live on after the initial hype dissipates a little bit.

MP: I would like to pull a thread if you're comfortable with that. You mentioned that you hope the music connects how environmentalism needs to be intersectional. Would you like to talk a little bit more about that, just elaborate on what you mean?

RJ: Yeah, of course. I might need to pull something up for this because I did write about it. But basically, when I took the “Senior Thesis” class, I was really uncomfortable because I didn't know what to write about for my paper. I was kind of freaking out a little bit. I was like, “Oh my God, I don't know anything about this topic. What do I know? What do I love writing about? What do I love pulling from? Old literature, and its racism. I can identify it, and I can feel it.” So I picked that. I did kind of like an exploration of Othello and racist ecometaphors—that is what I call them—examining how language was used in reference to Othello, and also in general to the land. When I say that I hope it makes this discussion more intersectional—writing that paper made me realize that there are so many things about this world that are made to keep certain people down and in a box. Just looking at who worked on Imogen in the Wild alone, I think we're already doing amazing work in that regard, making sure that everybody is included. 

Doing this project specifically helped me realize that we do live in a beautiful world, but it isn't that beautiful for everybody. People don't get to experience the joys of Earth and nature in general because maybe they've been placed somewhere [lacking green spaces], because they're lower income, or because they're subjected to all of these health risks [from pollution] and don't live long enough to be able to see the world around them. I think things like that are really important to think about. There's so many layers to it that we can't just stay looking at the surface. It's time to go into it and talk about healthcare and the education system and higher education systems and why is it not as accessible to many people. Everything connects, and I guess for me in the time that I've spent in higher education, I've learned that there's racism in everything, even nature.

MP: Thank you for sharing all of that! Now we can get into—I hope—easier questions. What has been a highlight of your involvement with this production?

RJ: Oh God, there are so many! The first one is meeting Lisa Wolpe in person. Holy crap, talk about a fangirl moment! I've spent literally the last three years  taking classes with Katie and watching her work, studying her work, learning about what she's doing with Shakespeare, you know, as a student. And so to go from student to co-worker, it was nuts. I get to work with her again this summer for our research. It was just a full circle moment that I never thought would happen, but I'm so grateful that it did.

The second thing: honestly, I’ve kind of gained another family. And that sounds really cheesy, but that's exactly how it feels. I remember I was stuck on campus because I was working as an RA, so anytime [the cast and crew] had meetings and stuff, I could never go because I had to work. The one time I was able to come, we all went to Katie's house and she cooked dinner for us, and everybody was there. I met Billy Wolfgang for the first time—I had worked with him on Ricardo, and I never met him in person before!—I met Angel in person, I met Jason in person, literally everybody. 

We stayed up late that night, and we were going around and singing what we had come up with, for the show. I just remember I was so nervous because everybody had gone, and I sound so amateur in comparison to everybody else. I stood up and I sang my songs in Katie’s backyard, and it was just the most overwhelming feeling of love and acceptance. Especially now, just because of how the last year had been with COVID. 

Something about being out, late at night, in the cold, in the backyard, having the wet grass under me, and just being around all of these people made me wish I would have done this earlier. And it makes me emotional because, you know, here I was going from being stuck in my dorm room by myself, working, going to school all the time, never really doing anything that I considered therapeutic. Music to me is my therapy. And I had this amazing opportunity to do it with the most incredible people I've ever met. 

MP: On the other side, what has been the biggest challenge?

RJ: I think the biggest challenge was probably when I was given the task of writing the burial song, "Fear No More The Heat Of The Sun." It was hard because I wanted to write it mainly from the perspective of the other characters, because in the play’s burial scene, Imogen is “dead” and her brothers are burying her while they sing this beautiful song for her. I was transcribing those lyrics from the play but trying to make it more modern. I was trying to write it from the brothers’ perspective, and then I realized: this is not going to work. I wrote four or five different versions, and I recorded little demos of all of them, and I took an entire week just listening back to all of them, and each one I hated! 

I restarted, and I realized that the whole point of this is to connect Imogen to everything else, so I needed to look at it from Imogen's perspective. Once I did that, I was like, light bulb. I've got it. Then it was just figuring out what direction I wanted to go and learning not what the correct perspective was [according to the staging], but what the correct perspective was that I needed emotionally. The whole point of it was to rewrite the play in a way that made Imogen the focus, and made her relationship with the world around her the focus. 
I had been too busy focusing the song on the relationship between her and other people because that's just how it is in English and in Shakespeare—you're always looking at how people are interacting—and I hadn't thought to look at nature as a character. It was kind of just like a backdrop until then.

MP: And the final question: Do you have any other thoughts that you'd like to share?

RJ: I just hope people like it! I know how it is behind the scenes, getting to work with everybody. Everybody who worked on this, no matter how big or small their role was, put their entire being and heart and soul into it. And I hope that with everything going on in the whole project none of that gets lost. If people don't take away that this is a story about a girl who is trying to figure out her place in the world, but also about the world itself—if they don't take that away from it, then I would hope that at the very least, they take away that this was made by people who have a passion and wanted to share it with the world and did so, in a time where that didn't really feel possible, but they did it anyway. 

In a way, that's kind of what nature does. In really un-ideal conditions, nature's kind of just like, “I'm gonna do what I want.” I feel like we quite literally harnessed the force of nature within ourselves to put this out because it was so complicated and fast and scary at the same time. 

And also—just take five minutes and go outside and appreciate what you're looking at. Like I said before, there's people who can't do that. It’s worth appreciating.