"What is your strength as a director?"
As if he had anticipated the question, Craig Johnson put down his morning coffee and reached across the table for his script notebook. Taped to the light-blue plastic cover was a fortune-cookie slip: "You see everything that happens in terms of its larger meaning."
"It must be true," Johnson said, his face grinning into a perfect oval.
Johnson has been seeing larger meanings for more than 20 years as a theater director -- and a dozen years before that as an actor. Currently, his efforts have come to fruition with Torch Theater's production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," which opens Friday at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage. The Christopher Hampton play was made into "Dangerous Liaisons," a 1998 film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich.
The play reeks of sexual intrigue, manipulation and backstabbing. Stacia Rice returns in her first stage performance since "A Streetcar Named Desire" 18 months ago (she had a baby). She plays the Marquise de Merteuil, and John Middleton portrays her foil, Vicomte de Valmont. The cast includes Linda Kelsey, Mo Perry, Karen Wiese-Thompson, Katharine Moeller and Liam Benzvi.
So what does Johnson see in terms of "larger meaning" for this steamy kettle of fish?
"This is a portrait of a decadent society," he said. "They have everything, and that traps them, so lacking a moral center they assert themselves by exercising personal power plays."
For a contemporary spin, Johnson said, "We've been tagging it as being about the 'One Percent.'"
Johnson's recognition last September for his direction of "Street Scene" (for Girl Friday Productions) brought a remarkable response from the 2,000 people inside the State Theatre for the annual Ivey Awards. His long career, his many associations and the consistently good feelings he engenders from artists jelled in a surprising moment.
"I heard it the same way," said Richard Cook, who gave Johnson his first directing job in 1989 at Park Square Theatre. "It was really a warm embrace."
Johnson is one of the true citizen-artists who make Twin Cities theater lively. He pays his bills with a day job, but comes out at night to direct, act and often adapt classic dramatic works for small and midsized companies. He may, by his own admission, get envious when he watches the flair of the best professional directors in town.
"I often have 'I-would-have-never-thought-of-that moments' when I see other work," he said, citing Peter Rothstein, Joel Sass and Michelle Hensley as directors he admires. "I mask my jealousy with self-deprecation," he said, laughing. "Or depression."
But his brilliance -- a compliment that would make his Scandinavian visage blush -- rests in a determination to maintain tension, to identify moments of release and trust a script's worthiness. Through attention to pace and detail, he keeps audiences checked in.
"I love a director who by the time you get to opening, you've mined the moments and considered all your options," said Rice. "He not only has a grasp of the script but the nuances of the characters."
Perry, a frequent collaborator who has done some of her best stage work under Johnson's direction, trusts that he will push her and constantly ask her to "give more."
"Those are two words that describe his directing style," Perry said. "He's not a director who is content to block the scene and then take what the actors show up with and leave it at that."
Last year, Johnson adapted and played the title role in "Uncle Vanya" for Gremlin; he did the critically acclaimed "Street Scene," an old Elmer Rice play seldom staged because it requires a huge cast, and "Beyond Therapy" at Theatre in the Round. He acted in "Boys in the Band" at Pioneer Place in St. Cloud and directed "The Full Monty" at Paul Bunyan Playhouse.
That's not a bad schedule for a guy who works full time as site manager of the James J. Hill House in St. Paul. While still a student at Harding High School, he got a summer job with the Minnesota Historical Society, playing a soldier at Fort Snelling. While a theater and English student at the University of Minnesota, he moved to the Hill House as a guide and worked up the ranks. He threads his theater skills throughout his work, with Victorian-themed readers' theater at holidays.
When a reporter asks casually how much James Hill spent to build the house, Johnson sounds like a "Rent" chorus member singing "Seasons of Love."
"Nine hundred thirty-one thousand, two hundred and seventy-five dollars and one cent," he answers. "Mr. Hill kept very detailed records."
Not too seriously
When she launched Torch Theater in 2005, Rice asked Johnson to direct "The Miracle Worker." They had met when Johnson directed Rice in "Baby With the Bath Water" in 2001. She liked his instincts, whimsy and self-deprecating style.
"He's the only director I know that can come into a room wearing a scarf and it doesn't seem completely obnoxious," she said. "He absolutely has a sense of humor about himself."
In addition to "Miracle Worker," Johnson acted with Rice in the stage spoof of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" and directed "Dancing at Lughnasa," which featured Rice, Perry and Wiese-Thompson.
"Liaisons" also puts Johnson together with Kelsey, whom he will direct in "Doubt" at Park Square this spring, and his favorite designers: Jen DeGolier (lights), Katharine Horowitz (sound) and Michael Hoover (set). Rich Hamson will design costumes for a show that relies on an opulent environment.
After "Liaisons" opens this weekend, Johnson will go back to work Monday morning at the Hill House. He will get ready for "Doubt" and look ahead to other projects. He admits that he wishes "kind of all the time" that there were "enough hours in the day" for him to do theater exclusively, even as he confesses he's a "little bit of a fraidy-cat because I like having the security of employment."
So he will do what he does. And the community will be happy for that.