CounterPulse artists forge agency with ‘Barn Owl’
By Lily Janiak
A survey of the careers of local theater artists Evan Johnson and Teddy Hulsker doesn’t suggest a lack of autonomy. Far from it.
Johnson specializes in the sole genres where stage actors have much creative control: solo performance and character work. He’s appeared at New Conservatory Theatre Center, Shotgun Players, Z Space and elsewhere. Hulsker, who’s primarily a sound designer but also a projections designer, has made noise at a number of the Bay Area’s top theater companies — San Francisco Playhouse and Cutting Ball, Marin Theatre Company and Aurora, among many others.
Yet, the pair report that desire for more say in their work is precisely what drove “Barn Owl,” their collaboration with director Libby King, which runs Thursday-Saturday, May 31-June 2, at CounterPulse.
The show weaves together disparate threads to tell, as Johnson says, “a queer story of finding your tribe.” One character, Uncle Al, dreams of starting his own bowling alley: “You’ll be able to see it from the interstate,” he gushes. Another, Sis/Mommy, has an unquenchable spiritual thirst that leads her to Heaven’s Gate, the UFO cult most famous for a mass suicide near San Diego in 1997. A third, Harmony, forges a new gender identity en route to Mount Shasta. Johnson and Hulsker switch off playing all the lead roles over the course of the show, with the aid of actors Beth Wilmurt and Kevin Clarke. Hovering over it all is a certain nocturnal bird of prey, whose beady eyes and camouflaged beak bear some resemblance, not coincidentally, to a cartoon of an alien.
Johnson, who wrote the script, says that after exploring sexuality in his last two pieces, “Pansy” and “Don’t Feel: The Death of Dahmer,” he felt compelled to take on gender. “It’s the thing that I’ve been, my whole life, feeling in my body: ... ‘Oh, I’m not like other boys’ or ‘All my friends are girls,’” he says.
After growing up in rural Pollock Pines (El Dorado County), Johnson, 32, studied physical theater at Dell’Arte International, where the roles he performed brought his conflicted feelings about gender into sharp relief.
“Playing boyfriends and brothers and husbands and dads, and having to put on or assume a maleness onstage — just literally performing gender for me as a male actor who has this mental thing going on — it’s been a struggle,” he says. “I’ve always felt like I’ve had to stiffen and puff out and be big.” Harmony, in this new piece, “was just a character I wanted to give myself permission to play ... and feel like I have permission to not have to deal with people’s assumptions of what I should be performing as or how.”
Johnson and Hulsker met while collaborating on “Pansy” at New Conservatory Theatre Center in 2013, shortly after Hulsker, a 28-year-old Mill Valley native, graduated from San Francisco State University’s theater program. There, Hulsker focused on sound design, not because that was his single burning passion but because that “was a way that I could do a ton of work, because there weren’t a ton of sound designers,” he says. “I think I’ve always thought of myself as more of a theater artist. I just want to do everything.”
Johnson saw that quality in Hulsker immediately. “With ‘Pansy,’ when (Hulsker) was in the room as a designer, that quality of total theater, a total theater artist — I was aware of that right away,” Johnson says. The questions Hulsker asked bespoke a concern for “the big picture, a real looking out for the audience.”
Though his name pops up in playbills constantly, Hulsker “was getting tired of doing art on a contract-to-contract basis,” he says. “It’s hard when your art becomes your job, especially when you’re doing design, and a lot of time what you’re doing is facilitating others’ visions.”
In 2015, he created the monthly gathering Klanghaus with fellow sound designer Matt Stines to stretch himself artistically. He’s written and performed work there, collaborating with artists outside of theater.
But if Klanghaus has afforded him some opportunities for creative authorship, the scale of “Barn Owl,” part of CounterPulse’s Coproductions Presenting Program, is bigger. In addition to a symphonic soundscape and celestial projection design, the show has ensemble roles for students in Johnson’s improv class for seniors, as well as one from his junior acting class for youth (both through the city’s Recreation and Park department).
“Everybody’s giving the amount of time that they can,” says Johnson. “This is a city where artists are strapped in so many ways. So we’re just trying to be ambitious and bold with the resources we have.” He’s interested in “reversing the idea that (artists) are starving for anything.” In fact, “we live with abundance. ... All around us are things to work with and play with.”
Barn Owl: Created by Evan Johnson and Teddy Hulsker with Libby King. Thursday-Saturday, May 31-June 2. $20-$35. CounterPulse, 80 Turk St., S.F. 415-626-2060. www.counterpulse.org