Professor’s play comes to stage
by Davis Hill
Eastern creative writing professor Jonathan Johnson waited more than 20 years to work on the play that he knew would change his life.
In March, the Eastern Theatre Department will mount the world premiere of Johnson’s play, “Ode,” which is based upon the life of celebrated English poet John Keats. “Ode” focuses on the romance between Keats and his fiancée Fanny Brawne.
When Sara Goff, Eastern’s director of theater, first pitched the idea of performing “Ode” at Eastern, Johnson was astounded.
“I was over the moon. My God, what an opportunity,” he said. “I live half a mile from the theater. I loved Sara’s work. The chance to be involved like this, in my first ever premier, [is amazing].”
Several years ago, Johnson gave Goff a copy of the script to review. Goff, who reads many new plays, was immediately struck by the vivid dialogue and memorable scenes.
“When I read [“Ode”], I was taken by how I could hear the characters speak,” she said. “A lot of times when I read plays I never really want to do them, for various reasons. I believed in the potential of this script. I believed in Jonathan [Johnson]. … I just knew it was the right play.”
“Ode” had been brewing for some time. Johnson’s mother was a Keats scholar, so he was surrounded by Keats’ poetry throughout his childhood.
When he was 20 years old, he visited Keats’ grave and final house during a family trip to Europe. After encountering Keats’ letters and artifacts, Johnson decided to write a play honoring and exploring the life of the poet.
“I always had this relationship to Keats. … He’d been … this imaginary friend that I had for a long time,” Johnson said. “I visited the house in which Keats died. … I thought, ‘I have to tell this story.’ I knew that [‘Ode’] was one of my life goals.”
After attending several years’ worth of plays directed by Goff, Johnson decided to give his manuscript to her just in case she liked it. The rest, as they say, is history.
“New, original work is one of my favorite things,” said Justin Schlabach, who plays John’s brother George Keats. “It’s something that nobody else has done. … [Future performers] are going to be looking back at our production, [asking], ‘What did they do originally?’ That’s just a cool thought.”
Kyle Kahklen, who plays Joseph Saverne, a painter friend of Keats, agreed and emphasized the work that goes into portraying historical events.
“[We did] a lot of research to develop who [our characters] are,” he said. “They were real people. It’s something that actually happened. That’s partially the challenge of it.”
Part of Keats’ appeal, according to Johnson, is that he was not a stereotypical poet. Although Keats was sensitive, inward, detached and troubled, he was also fun-loving, charismatic and well-connected within a vibrant social circle.
Johnson explained that “Ode” is particularly relevant for young adults. “The two things that you become aware of as a young adult … is that death and love both actually apply to you,” he said. “You have this problem: How will you love and how will you live in a way that you know you have to die?”
“Keats was very conflicted because he loved Fanny, but he also saw his love for Fanny getting in the way of his work,” said Blaine Nichols, who was cast as Keats. He explained that Keats was excited about the romance, but was struggling to reconcile it with his ambitions as a poet. Keats saw his relationship with poetry and his relationship with Fanny as mutually exclusive.
“['Ode'] is a passionate play about young people falling in love, … realizing their mortality and … how they come to handle that,” said Johnson. “It’s a play about searching for grace artistically through poetry. [It’s] about love and dying.
“Keats is the one who taught me how to love and how to be alive, knowing that we all have to die.”