THEATRE: Salem Native Brings Talent To Local Stage

Aaron Johnson loved theater from an early age and in June, he is finally getting to give something back to the community that helped instill that love in him. Johnson, a 2011 high school graduate, earned a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Theatre Performance from the University of Evansville in May. He’s now bringing his experience and talent back to Salem with the show RED.

RED, by John Logan, is a 90-minute play about the famed painter Mark Rothko. In 1958, he hires an apprentice, Ken, to help him finish a series of paintings he is making for the Four Seasons Restaurant. Through the duration of the two years, the apprentice begins to challenge his teacher as they both fight for relevance in their community.

The show will be held June 4 and 5 at 7:30 and June 7 at 2. All shows will be held at the Salem Middle School Auditorium and admission is free. The play will feature Daniel Main and Johnson. The show is directed by Lilli Hokama from Denver, Colorado.

Johnson said he asked Main to do the play with him because Main was his mentor growing up and the play resonated with both of them so much.

“Mark Rothko (Daniel’s character) has a lot to teach his apprentice, but eventually the apprentice surpasses his teacher and they are able to learn from each other,” said Johnson. “Really, it is as simple as that and there is a lot of myself and Daniel in this play. It really speaks to us and the community that nurtured our artistry."

​Johnson is excited about the show and said he always had the dream of bringing a piece of theatre back to Salem after his college career had finished. His intention is to reconnect with “the village that raised” him.

“(I wanted) to get us all back into the same building to be entertained-- but I also wanted to thank everyone,” he said. “This is why I was passionate about the performances being free.” Johnson said people are more likely to come when an event is free and said the audience will probably even enjoy the play more because no one is telling them how much the piece of art is worth. “This is why a lot of theaters all over the country now are using models of a ‘Pay-What-You-Can’ system where people are just asked to donate what they think is the right amount,” he said. “It’s a friendlier way of working WITH your community to raise money. Nothing is demanded.”

​Johnson said he knows how hard people work and he sees theater as a way to distress and relax. “At the end of the day, if I can give them 90 minutes to just sit and be entertained, allow them to relax and to think, confront them with contemporary issues in the world and provoke their own beliefs--that is exactly what drew me to the profession of storytelling,” he said.

In fact, Johnson, who is the son of Jim and Judy Johnson, said he was raised in a house where storytelling was an everyday thing. “Every night at six o’clock, my family and I would sit at the dinner table and see who had a story to tell and who needed some salt,” he said. “There was the clanking of forks, the news in the background and each other controlling the pulse and nature of each story.”

He said it was never about who could tell the biggest, most dramatic tale at the dinner table. “Everyone can be dramatic. Everyone,” said Johnson. “It was about who could bring it to life and share parts of themselves that made the story defenseless.” He said that while it seemed magical at the time, there was a method to it even then: a concern for truth and a desperate need to connect with each other.

“Once I found theatre, everything just started to click,” he said. “My curiosity of the human condition was fulfilled and I could explore people and their lives in the most vulnerable way--by having to bring them to life. I could give voices to people who needed one more than I did.” Johnson said he became a better student once he learned that everything is applicable to the characters he played based on his total understanding of the world.

When asked what advice he would give to young people who have an interest in theater, he said he wishes someone would have told him not to be afraid to make his own works. “Even if it was to the neighborhood, or just to my family, to write and create my own plays,” he said. “You have to start somewhere.”

Johnson said pursuing a career in the arts is one of the best decisions a kid can make. “I majored in acting, but have two jobs this summer that are marketing and management related,” he said. “People will seek you out when they know you come from a creative education--you can problem solve differently, you have an outgoing and well-spoken personality that people want to be around. There is a stigma attached to a career in the arts where people believe you will be unemployed--I wish they could see how untrue that is.”

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