The following is an interview with Christopher Johnson regarding the currently running production, Klingon Tamburlaine, from The School of Night. In this interview, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief Barbra Dillon chats with Johnson about the inspiration behind the adaptation, his creative process in working with the cast and crew to bring the production to life, how you can purchase tickets, and more!
Barbra Dillon, Fanbase Press Editor-in-Chief: The School of Night recently premiered the play, Klingon Tamburlaine, on which you have worked as the director. What initially inspired you to bring this unique adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine to the stage?
Christopher Johnson: I had actually been thinking for over a decade about the idea of doing a Klingon version of an Elizabethan or Jacobean tragedy. The initial inspiration came from one of the original series films, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The film is concerned with the cessation of hostilities between the Klingon Empire and Federation and the efforts of a few dedicated cold-warriors to keep the conflict alive. In the film, the Klingon General Chang (portrayed by the classically trained Christopher Plummer) is continuously quoting Shakespeare and asserts that Shakespeare is so good in Klingon that he must have originally written his plays in that language. The Shakespearean theme is so deeply woven into the film as to be included in the title (taken from a line in Hamlet). And the violent, heightened melodrama of Elizabethan drama does seem intuitively simpatico with Klingon culture. The problem for me was figuring out what play would be best suited to (and most benefit from) a transfer into a Klingon setting. Richard III was one possibility, owing to its Macchiavellian politics and pitiless violence, but the weakness and venality of the characters populating the world wasn’t quite right. Macbeth was also an option, but the pervasive supernatural elements didn’t track with the Star Trek-verse. The tragedies of John Webster are intense and hyper-violent, but the principal characters are far too given to un-Klingon sensitivity and reflection. Same with many of the high-tragedies of the Elizabethan era … the characters are just too reflective and vacillating (both of which lend themselves well to poetic soliloquy) to come off as credibly Klingon. Then, having let the idea marinate for years, the answer just popped into my head one day: What about Tamburlaine? I pulled Marlowe off the shelf, re-read both parts of Tamburlaine, and saw immediately that this was the play. Its themes are honor and conquest, its language is all boasts, challenges, and threats, and its tone is one of over-the-top, outrageously violent confrontation. Its like it was written to be transposed into the Klingon Empire.
BD: For readers who may be unfamiliar with Tamburlaine, how would you describe its premise (along with the Trek-ian twist in The School of Night’s production)?
CJ: Tamburlaine was the very first box-office hit of the Elizabethan era and is acknowledged to have kickstarted and hugely influenced the golden-age of English theatre that ensued for the next half-century. In keeping with Marlowe’s taste for foreign and exotic historic settings, it presents a highly fictionalized version of the true story of Timur, a Mongol warlord who conquered much of Asia and the Middle-East in the late fourteenth century. As it depicts a very medieval English version of an imagined semi-savage Islamic world, it presents problems for a modern audience more sensitivity to cultural prejudice. Re-imagining it as a Klingon drama allows this significant, but seldom-produced, play to retain its originally intended exotic, savage, and over-the-top feel without falling into any kind of real-world cultural stereotyping or parody.
BD: Why do you feel that this play will resonate with audiences, and what do you hope that they will take away from the performance?
CJ: There are a great many things that can (and I hope will) resonate for audiences. Firstly, Marlowe single-handedly created English dramatic poetry. The language of the play is powerful and beautiful, almost symphonic. Hearing some of these lines spoken by well-trained actors is breathtaking and hypnotic. The action of the play is breakneck and exciting, a cascading series of battles, sieges, conquests, and single-combats featuring some world-class fight choreography by the award-winning Jen Albert. The style in which the show is presented (a mashup of Japanese Kabuki, Italian commedia, and Shakespearean techniques blended with many highly theatricalized SPFX) is engaging, unique, and energized. And the Star Trek references throughout are tremendous fun while simultaneously enriching and clarifying the world in which the story is set. If any of those elements sounds interesting, this show has got something for you.
BD: You have quite a talented cast and crew involved with the production. What can you tell us about their creative process in bringing the play to life?
CJ: When we create a show, the process begins with myself, my designers (costume, lights, sound), and my violence choreographer. We basically spend a lot of time going over the script and the research we’ve all done to create the look and sound of the show. Rehearsals begin two or so months out. In the case of classical texts like Marlowe, we generally start with about 2 weeks of table work to study the language and to solidify our technical approach to speaking the show. About two weeks in, we begin rehearsals proper. For a show like this, there are a number of different kinds of rehearsals which take place concurrently. There are blocking and scene rehearsals to develop and cement the acting beats and movement. There are fight rehearsals to choreograph and drill the violent sequences. There are music rehearsals with a choral director to learn and practice the songs and with our percussionist and composer to work the live underscore and foley into the staged action. (Almost all the sound and music we do for our shows is live rather than recorded, in keeping with pre-modern theatrical practices. For Klingon Tamburlaine, however, we do use a lot of familiar recorded Star Trek sounds.) And in the case of this show, we had puppeteering rehearsals to choreograph the sequences involving models and miniatures. As things progress, these various kinds of rehearsals begin to bleed into one another until it all blends into a unified whole.
BD: Klingon Tamburlaine will be running through November 9th at The Complex Hollywood in Los Angeles, CA. What is the best way for our readers to garner tickets for the show?
CJ: Tickets can be purchased online at Brown Paper Tickets or by showing up at the box office. Given that we’re nearing the last few weeks of the run, however, I would advise getting tickets in advance in case shows sell out.
BD: Are there any other upcoming shows or projects that you would care to share with our readers?
CJ: Right now, Jen and I are in the early stages of creating an original telling of the story of the Boudiccan rebellion. In 61 A.D., a wronged British tribal Queen sparked and led an uprising against the Roman forces occupying Britain. This rebellion, one of the most violent ever to shake the Roman Empire, very nearly led to the expulsion of the conquering Legions from Britain and was only put down by a bloodbath in which hundreds-of-thousands of Celts perished. It’s set in a period that fascinates me and explores a lot of ideas I find interesting to mull at this particular moment in history. It has some great, meaty roles for actors. It also affords Jen Albert and I the opportunity to continue building on some of the movement/spectacle elements we’ve been developing and refining over our last several shows. The idea is for the finished piece to be a mashup of stage play, combat spectacle, and dance piece accompanied by a fully live vocal and percussive score. I’ll be directing in collaboration with fight choreographer Jen Albert, dance choreographer Esther Mira, and composer/sound designer Ryan Beveridge. We’ll hopefully be putting it up next spring/summer, assuming we can raise the money and get all the various pieces in place.
BD: Lastly, what would you like to tell fans who want to learn more about Klingon Tamburlaine?
CJ: There are voluminous resources, both published and online, where one can learn more about Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine, Renaissance drama, Klingon culture, and the Star Trek-verse. A quick check of Google and/or Wikipedia will yield more reading on the subjects than one can easily finish in a lifetime. But the best and simplest way to learn more about Klingon Tamburlaine is to come see it. The plays of the Renaissance (or any era for that matter) weren’t meant to be read in isolation or discussed in a classroom or online chatroom. They were meant to be seen and heard onstage in a theatre with a live audience. That is where they come to life and are most easily understood. In order to provide our audiences with some additional background info, at the start of the show I portray a Starfleet Cultural Attache introducing a visiting Klingon troupe and give a brief introductory talk about the play, Christopher Marlowe, and Klingon theatrical traditions. We’ll also to be doing a post-show talkback with myself and some of the actors after the performance on Saturday, November 2.