Hot NYC playwright Johnna Adams had to go through Orange County to get famous
When you’re a prolific playwright churning out an average of 1.5 new plays per year, inspiration is found in the craziest of places.
Literally. For Johnna Adams, who worked in OC storefront theater for a decade before moving to New York City, it was a poem written in an 18th-century insane asylum that sparked her most ambitious project to date.
It’s The Angel Eaters Trilogy, three plays about a cursed West Texas family. Rattlers, the second part of the trio, opens this weekend in Fullerton—the same time the entire trilogy opens in New York City.
(And if that weren’t enough, yet another Adams play is being produced in the middle of the country; Sans Merci, which won the Bloomington (Indiana) Playwrights Project Reva Shiner Award, closes this weekend.)
“This has surpassed my best-case scenario,” says Adams, about the state of her playwriting career 16 months after moving to New York to either make or break it. “Usually, it takes so long to get in anywhere, so I think this is a minor miracle.”
A big part of that miracle was hooking up with the Flux Theatre Ensemble, a respected independent group of actors and other theater types launched by New York playwright August Schulenburg. Adams, hungry to find a group of theater people similar to those with whom she worked in OC such as STAGEStheatre and Rude Guerrilla Theater Co., walked into a company meeting a few months after arriving, and “they adopted me right away,” she recalls. “Shortly after, I wrote Angel Eaters, and they liked it so much they green-lighted a production of the whole trilogy, even though I hadn’t even started writing the next two plays. That was amazing.”
Equally amazing is what sparked the trilogy in the first place: Christopher Smart, an 18th-century English poet who was institutionalized for supposed religious mania. One of the poems he wrote in the bughouse was Jubilate Agno, which is best-known for sanctifying the virtues of his cat, Jeoffry.
Adams, exposed to the poem during a playwriting seminar, was struck by a different idea from Smart’s fevered imagination: Creation’s Adam and his homies strolling across the untarnished Earth with powerful, golden horns sticking out of their heads. But the horns soon disappeared, and in Smart’s perverse world-view, the purpose of life was to somehow bring those horns back.
“It was this gorgeous, completely insane ramble about long-lost, never-forgotten horns that fell off human skulls. For some reason, that really struck me,” Adams says—so much so that it became the first play she jumped into after settling into her new digs in Queens.
Adams is no stranger to picking up stakes. She grew up in Texas before fleeing Bush Country for DePaul University, where she graduated with a BFA in acting. But she knew she wanted to write, so she moved to Southern California, hoping to break into screenwriting, and got blindsided by the OC theater scene. She was a pivotal force in the Orange County Playwrights Alliance (OCPA), the county’s most established consortium of writers, and had plays produced at Stages, Rude Guerrilla and the Hunger Artists.
Her works have ranged in style and subject: comedies about extraterrestrial babies, dramas about corpse-raising cockfighters, explorations of fringe religious communities. But it wasn’t until her last OC play, The Sacred Geometry of S&M Porn (produced in 2005 by Rude Guerrilla), that her diverse styles and fascinations seemed to finally coalesce.
“She’s interested in the fantastic, and she pairs it with this unflinching realism,” says Eric Eberwein, one of OCPA’s founders. “Part of your growth as a playwright is not compromising the hot, raw moments in your work—not being afraid of showing yourself in those moments, but diving into them. She just gets better and better at it.”
The latest example is The Angel Eater Trilogy, which Adams calls a synthesis of themes she has explored in earlier work, ranging from the occult and the supernatural to bizarre religious fiction, Greek tragedy, even zombies.
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But as eccentric and spooky as Adams’ plays get—and even though she’s now a New Yorker by way of DePaul and Orange County—it’s clear she has yet to shake the dust off her Texas roots: most of her plays are set there and feature the kind of homespun, if slightly warped, characters who might possibly dangle from a few limbs of her own family tree.
“It drives my dad crazy,” Adams says. “He thinks it’s really weird.”
Rattlers at STAGEStheatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484; www.stagesoc.org. Opens Sat. Sat., 5:30 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. Through Nov. 30. $12.