Interview with Matt Johnson and Joanna Underhill, Creators of New Musical, ‘Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now’
While Disney’s iconic “Beauty and the Beast” is being performed on stage at Lancaster’s historic Fulton Opera House, something new and strange is being rehearsed just next door. A cast of nine actor/musicians are running the last few scenes in the new absurdist musical “Sorry Brian, You’re Derek Now!” This homegrown theatre piece tells the story of a pair of twins, Brian and Derek Prior, who live polar opposite lives. Brian is brooding and often quotes Nietzsche. Derek is the charming golden boy, adored by his community of Castor County. When the latter’s life is cut short, Brian is pressured by his direct circle of peers, family, and even local law enforcement to pick up where his twin left off by putting on Derek’s personality and even his title.
After a Sunday afternoon rehearsal in the Fulton’s education building, I was lucky enough to get an hour with two of the creators—writer Matt Johnson and director Joanna Underhill.
Carl Bakey: What is the premise of “Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now”?
Matt Johnson: Surprisingly enough, the premise of it was supplied to me by the title. Ton-Taun wanted to do this EP release. Sending me the title was the definitive moment for me. I loved the songs, I thought they were beautiful. They’re not related thematically or conceptually in any way. The album title is an inside joke among the band. Within ten minutes of hearing the songs and the title, I structured the plot. I wanted to do something a little Kafka-esque or a little bit absurd. The title was evocative to me. Here’s this person who’s being told that they’re someone else. The premise was to make the subtle ways that society pushes you into being a role; to make that explicit, absurd, and dark. Society allows you a lot of leeway, a lot of space, so long as you’re willing to play along just a little bit. We make these compromises to be somebody in order to be who we really want to be.
Joanna Underhill: Isn’t that great, though, that so much thought goes into an hour and fifteen minute piece based on three rock songs from a band that just thought these songs would be fun to write?
CB: Joanna, how has it been different directing “SBYDN” as opposed to your other various theatre experiences?
JU: This is my favorite way to direct. I’ve always said I want to direct either students or inexperienced grown ups, so this has been perfect. They’re musicians and they’re used to having to build things together. They don’t rehearse a role in isolation. In musical theatre everybody comes in and thinks, “This is my part and I gotta make sure I do this and get my stage time.”
MJ: These are untrained actors.
JU: Well, they’re musicians!
MJ: Yeah, they’re all musicians, and when I thought about casting them, they’re all people who have a theatricality to the way they perform. I wanted that. I didn’t want a typical musical aesthetic where everybody’s overacting a little bit.
CB: So, you’re pulling in a very wide range of experiences in the sphere of art. How has your relationship as playwright and director taken shape over the rehearsal period?
JU: It’s great to have a playwright who is so flexible. First of all, who has a vision, who is flexible with that vision, but wants to contribute. Sometimes playwrights can be inflexible and then you’ve got to deal with that when they’re there—
MJ: Fortunately, I’m at every practice.
JU: Also, sometimes too they’re not as creative. Matt has directed some short films, so he’s got that eye for how things should sound and look up off the page.
CB: So, instead of saying, “Know the rules and then break them by hiring actors and trying to get them to let their hands get dirty,” you guys have decided, “Let’s have fun!”
Joanna Underhill (director) and Matt Johnson (writer) of Sorry Brian, You’re Derek Now.
CB: It seems like you guys are having a lot of fun creating this thing together. What are some of your favorite aspects of working with this specific group at this time?
MJ: The collaboration. It’s beautiful. It’s the only way that I think all of us have been able to survive the Trump victory.
JU: We were rehearsing the night of the election and we saw the turn start to happen. We all had our phones out.
MJ: We kind of knew at the end of rehearsal. I posted on Facebook like: “Hey, if this goes the wrong way, I would love to just entrench myself with these people and make art and beautiful things because I don’t know how else we’re going to make it together.” I don’t know, if we didn’t have this, if I would be as spirited as I am now. It’s an escape, but there’s also something meaningful about, in the face of something that you think might be Fascistic, to be just making art. Last night, I went to the best drag show I’ve ever seen. And I kept thinking, “This is the way to topple dictators: by being yourself to the Nth degree. These people will save us.”
CB: There’s so much art happening all the time in Lancaster County. Right next door, the Fulton is putting on their most expensive production to date! How is this piece different than other theatre happening in the region?
JU: It’s an original work. It’s a homegrown original work. No one else is really doing that to this extent.
MJ: I love that no one knows what it’s about. We’ve been trying to keep it under wraps. Even my wife and other people I’m close to have no idea what they’re getting into. They’re kind of buying in because of the collaborators.
CB: That’s awesome. How have you been using that to your advantage?
MJ: We made this whole false universe where we made posters for the individual characters of the show and posted them all around. So for Nancy the mother we have “Nancy’s Scrapbooking Class” posters all around town right now and they have the little tags that you can pull off and we’ve gotten something like 120 calls to this number. It’s Nancy saying, “I’m sorry, the scrapbooking class is canceled because of the incident. But if you could come down to Tellus on December 2, 3, and 4, that’d be great!” Two nights ago we had a message on there. There’s this guy who’s like, “I love scrapbooking. Scrapbooking is cool. I hope that I’ll see you December 2 because I love scrapbooking.” We made up a fake radio show for the Bob character and we have a blog up for Brian.
JU: Laura’s Bug Club.
MJ: And if you follow it, you know what’s going on. But if you don’t, I’m cool with that.
CB: Who is your target audience? Who should come see this show?
JU: I think there is an audience out there for this alternative to the mainstream theatre that usually happens around here. Especially because it’s a musical absurdist piece. There aren’t many of those around. In terms of those people who make theatre a habit, there’s definitely that segment who are going to think this is weird and great and fun. And it’s in a bar, and that’s even better.
MJ: The word “musical” instantly brings up a certain type of production. I’m totally fine with luring people in who think “musical” and then get what we give them. So, somebody can say “I didn’t like it,” but I don’t want them to not like it because it wasn’t what they were expecting. That’s one of my least favorite complaints about film or music. I’m sorry for you: you don’t really like theatre, you like spectacle.
JU: I also think we’re going to reach other people who just want to come see Ton-Taun and realize you can experience this music in a different way.
CB: During rehearsal Adam Taylor, who plays the lead, came over and told me how funny he thought the script was when he first read it. Then he got to rehearsals and it really started coming to life for him because of the direction from Joanna and the energy of this group. Having only known Adam as a musician, it’s so fun to see him on this new platform.
MJ: Adam’s not just our lead. He’s responsible for everything else. He made our trailer video. He’s biting his fingernails about tech stuff because that’s what he does for a living. He’s done award shows, the US Open, all this kind of stuff. For him to give away some control as a collaborative effort is really difficult, but he loves it. I think that’s transformative for some people.
CB: It really is so refreshing to sit in on the creation of this new piece of art! I’ve been disenchanted with local theatre just doing the shows they’re supposed to do to get people to come out and see them and keep the doors open. How do we bravely go into the storm of DIY theatre and supporting it in Lancaster?
MJ: I couldn’t imagine being a theatre producer and saying, “Here’s the twenty choices we have, which one are we going to do?” Especially to say, “Which of these is going to make the most money?”
JU: You just can’t worry about money. You’ve got to find people who have day jobs who are willing to give up some of their free time. You just have to find that passion. You have to reach out to people you wouldn’t think of. I want people who haven’t done it before who say, “I think I could do this.” They can’t all be actors. It’s the DIY thing: you’ve got to burn your fingers with the glue gun and stick yourself with a needle and sacrifice some of your time and put up some of your pocket money. I’ve been buying a fair amount of props for this.
MJ: Just with the sound people and the lighting, I mean, we have got to make some money back. But that’s the thing, none of these people are motivated by money. Everybody’s crazy busy and they will agree to three nights a week because they believe in the project. That is unheard of. When you believe in something like that it’s so much more magical. But how to make it happen more? I would just say, “Do it!” You just have to have more confidence than you do skill, and then the skill will come. If you have an idea and you think it’s worthwhile, this town will provide.
This show is 100% Lancaster and pulls from the diverse talents of this “new Brooklyn.” I can’t think of another musical I have been more excited to see in the last several years. To spend upwards of $150 for orchestra seats in any Broadway theater, you know what you’re going to get. However, to take a chance on a piece that will most likely only be performed for one weekend by this unique cast, I won’t be caught sleeping on this. The people who walk out of Tellus360 having seen “Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now” will have experienced a smart, timely, and funny musical based on three songs written by one of Lancaster’s favorite bands. I will leave you with a glimpse of the excitement this cast has for this show: after Katie Seifarth, who plays Kerri in the show, was directed to climb in through Brian’s bedroom window and do a karate-stunt-man-inspired roll across the floor, she stood up, pumped her fists in the air and shouted, “I’ve been dreaming of this! It’s like fucking ‘Saved by the Bell!’”
“Sorry Brian: You’re Derek Now” is being co-produced by Ton-Taun, Creative Works of Lancaster, and Matt Johnson. It will be performed at Tellus360 on December 2 and 3 at 8pm and December 4 at 5pm. The run time is approximately one hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available at Tellus360 or online at http://m.bpt.me/event/2713064
To check out Ton-Taun EP that inspired this musical, visit https://ton-taun.bandcamp.com/