Augustana drama professor presents Back to Borneo
By Dan Jensen (Camrose Booster)

Augustana professor Paul "Sparky" Johnson will stage his one man show, Back to Borneo, at the Augustana Theatre Centre January 14 to 16.

"I don't think I have ever been involved in anything quite as rigorous as this, where you are the only one up there for eighty minutes," said Johnson.

"It is going to be really physical."

The show sees Prof. Johnson take the significant stories of his life (he was born in British North Borneo, which is now Malaysia) and play them as they are happening right now. In all of them, his mentor, the late Paul Sills, who was an American icon in theatre, is at his side, encouraging him to "stay in the present," and coaching him towards the discoveries of focus that eventually save his life.

"The premise is that I have become unstuck in time, like Kurt Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim," said Johnson. "I think every actor gets to that state or wants to get to that state where he or she can be present, even though it is something that has happened before, like a play he or she has rehearsed over and over again. One thing Paul says to me in the show is 'become a child, go back to a time when you were connected. Get back to Borneo.' Whenever I lose focus, then, he will remind me to get back to a time when I felt connected, to get back to Borneo."

Underlying everything is Johnson's attempt to highlight the work of Viola Spolin, the mother of Sills and modern day improvisation, who believes that nobody teaches anybody anything, rather, that a person learns from experience and experiencing. In Ms. Spolin's words, "You are connected, you're right there. That's where the spontaneity is; that is where the joy is; that's where the happiness is. It is the never-ending spiral of life."

The show is the culmination for Prof. Johnson of at least two decades of research, in that he had a very close association with Sills until Sills' death in 2008.

"I had a very close association with a very brilliant guru in Paul Sills. I was able to be close and work closely with him, something that not many people were able to do, because he didn't allow very much access. When he passed away I wanted to share some of what he taught me. I thought of writing a book but Ms. Spolin has already done the seminal work about improvisation for the theatre, so I thought of doing a performance instead. I thought if I could get the message out so that more people would access her book and her knowledge, that would be better than me writing a book."

Prof. Johnson left full-time acting as a profession when he came to Augustana to teach 25 years ago, but has kept his hand in a few of his colleagues' productions, as well as a few Churchmice Players' performances. He has also worked with a comedian putting together shows that take the place of keynote presentations at the end of conferences. He feels Back to Borneo will be challenging (he falls off a bicycle at one point) as well as exciting.

The show at Augustana will kick off a long sabbatical tour for Prof. Johnson, who has plans to present it (with his wife as sound technician) in several major cities throughout North America, including Seattle, Olympia, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Tampa, Chattanooga, Asheville, Hickory, Winston-Salem, Raleigh-Durham, Williamsburg, Cincinnati, Minneapolis and Edmonton.

"People that I have known have been able to hook me up with a venue and give me a place to perform," he said.

Johnson will perform Back to Borneo at the Fringe Festival in Edmonton next August, where he feels he will be able to add a few more production elements. He has also been asked by the Bailey Theatre Society to perform it again at the Bailey Theatre when he gets back to Camrose.

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