by Michael Bowen

First you notice the Midwestern accent, the level eye contact, the quick laugh. Yvonne A.K. Johnson may have studied and directed in the United Kingdom -- she may even have two middle initials -- but she's not going to be some snooty kind of artistic director for Spokane Civic Theater.

Johnson arrived in Spokane on Jan. 6 after driving a U-Haul trailer through increasing snow all the way from Minneapolis-St. Paul. She immediately set about asking people from all walks of life, from all over town, what they were thinking and hearing about the Civic.

"What I heard was that the Civic was lacking in direction and vision," she says, summing up what she calls "my incognito weekend." She heard about financial difficulties, inconsistent production standards, a tumult among the leadership. But she also heard that people consider the Civic "a hub of this town. People think of this as their hometown theater," she says.

Speaking at a reception in her honor at the Civic on Monday night, Johnson read off a laundry list of intended improvements. She and her board intend to use some capital campaign funds to ensure that the Civic receives some needed renovations: insulation, new doors, new interior paint, a photo wall of past productions.

She intends some programmatic and organizational changes, too. The Civic's various children's programs and classes, the Box 'n' Hat Players and others will be gathered under an umbrella organization to be known as the Spokane Civic Theatre Academy. This summer, K-6 students will put on 30-minute productions of Johnson's own adaptations of such titles as The Fellowship of the Rings, Peter Pan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz. There will be set-painting classes "run for and by the kids" along with junior and senior high programs. A performance camp will last "two full weekends this summer," with the Main Stage summer show to be "all about the kids of Spokane."

Internship programs with local colleges, a guest artist program, workshops at different levels on auditioning and directing -- there will be a lot going on.

Johnson plans several fund-raising activities, including a workday at the theater in June concluding, says Johnson, "with a big barbecue. Hey, I'm from the Midwest -- I'm a Packers fan, and we go for brats and sausages."

Another fund-raising idea -- aimed squarely at the Civic's grayer audience -- is "Seniority," a festival of a half-dozen 10-minute plays by and about seniors.

Wine tastings and English teas at the E.J. Roberts Mansion in Browne's Addition -- where the Civic cast parties are already taking place -- are also probable, as are concert-style fund-raiser performances of such titles as Les Miz, Chess and Jekyll and Hyde.

Why so much emphasis on marketing and development? Because the Civic has been bleeding money for several years. Johnson, however, remains upbeat: "We will be out of the red by June 2006," she says. "I am committed to that. It will happen. But we will need to tighten our belts, and we need to cultivate audiences."

Johnson has the credentials to get the overhaul accomplished. Originally from Milwaukee, Johnson earned an undergraduate degree from Wisconsin's Carthage College, then spent 1995-97 at the University of Essex in England, working on a Master of Arts degree in Contemporary Theater Practice. Her MFA is from Minnesota State University, Mankato -- which has a theater program large enough and selective enough to hone its grad students' abilities.

But a woman who has done so much and intends to accomplish so much more still has to have some downtime. So what's on her nightstand for reading? "Wicked," she grins, referring to the current Broadway hit about Glinda the Good Witch and Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. And in her CD player? "Wicked."

I guess we know which musical is at the top of the Civic's wish list now. Johnson says that, toward the end of the 16-hour days to which she's becoming accustomed, she'll crank up the inspiring first-act curtain song from Wicked, "Defying Gravity." She whistles. "As soon as the rights are available, we'll do it," she enthuses. "I want to premiere all those big musicals here -- and I'm OK with everybody knowing that." Later, she admits that organizations like Best of Broadway and Coeur d'Alene Summer Theater "can always bump us. But there are still a lot of musicals out there," Johnson adds. "And my intention is for the Civic to do them."

While the rights are still pending for a few shows, Johnson has gone ahead anyway and announced the Civic's 2005-06 season.

First up will be Professor Henry Higgins's phonetic refashioning of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady -- which the Civic hasn't done in 19 years. The mystery-thriller I'll Be Back Before Midnight, a box-office hit back in '92, comes next. In a season that predominately bears Johnson's own stamp, this is the show urged upon Johnson by the Civic's board. "It has lots of special effects," she says. "It's a thriller -- there will be lots of screams and oohs and ahhs."

The Christmas show will be Charles Dickens Presents A Christmas Carol, a modern-day, play-within-a-play re-envisioning of the Scrooge tale that was conceived last summer by Johnson herself and written by her friend L.B. Hamilton. "It's inter-generational," Johnson says, "with lots of roles for everyone from kids to seniors."

For the sophisticated comedy? Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story. (C.K. Dexter Haven, beware.) In the drama slot? Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, providing a lot of kids' roles (the "no-neck monsters") and a pair of roles -- Maggie the Cat and Brick the repressed alcoholic -- that local actors will salivate over. The season-finale musical? Meredith Willson's The Music Man.

Johnson wants to undercut the supposed distinction between the mainstream offerings on the Main Stage and the edgier material down in the Studio: "This is one theater, though we have two spaces," she says.

The 2005-06 Studio Theater season will open with Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile (wacky intellectual comedy based on a possible meeting in Paris between Picasso and Einstein), David Auburn's Pulitzer winner from 2000, Proof (has Catherine inherited her mathematician father's insanity as well as his brilliance?), and will conclude with some iconoclastic early work from David Mamet, Sexual Perversity in Chicago. In between, the Studio will put on an original, small-cast musical, co-written by Johnson, called Life 101: A New Musical. She toured the show -- which concerns a professor and seven students on a study tour in London -- through the Midwest before taking it to Edinburgh's Fringe Festival and winning Best of Fest recognition and positive reviews.

Meanwhile, there's still this season to contend with, and Johnson has announced that she herself will be directing the season finale opening in May, Hello, Dolly! Listening to Johnson talk about how she plans to cast her first show in Spokane (at auditions on March 6-9), it becomes evident that she'll bring change to the Civic simply by virtue of being new in town.

"There will be no pre-casting," she declares flatly. "During my incognito weekend, one thing that became apparent to me is that there are quite a few people around town who would like to play the role of Dolly Levi. Well, the nice thing is, I don't know anyone. So everyone will be treated the same -- I'll just come in and cast it. For the first year I'm here at least, I'm going to cast shows based on people's abilities and their time schedules, based just on what I see."

There will be a lot of 16-hour days -- with Johnson and a lot of other people creating some magic and "Defying Gravity" -- before the lobby is remodeled and the new artistic vision implemented and the red ink is out of the theater's ledgers. But on Monday night, Johnson signaled a special commitment.

Saying that "We want to make sure that this theater is here in a hundred years" -- it's in its 58th season now, after all -- she announced a fund-raising innovation called the Legacy Society. Essentially, it's an attempt to get donors to include the Civic in their estate plans, with $5,000 the minimum contribution. Of course, those who join the Society this year will be recognized in the theater's programs as founding members -- and Johnson announced that "I've been here one month, and my name will be the first in the Legacy Society."

That's putting your money right where you pronounce all those flat vowels. True to form, Johnson is a Midwestern gal -- honest, hard-working, self-effacing -- who commits to projects wholeheartedly. She has even purchased "a 1907 Victorian just off 22nd." The Civic has gotten itself a Midwestern woman for its new leader and visionary.

The show tentatively scheduled for the month by which Johnson has promised to balance the Civic's books is The Music Man. If she can unite the sobriety of Marian the Librarian with the exuberance of Professor Harold Hill, she just might get all 76 trombones paid off. And if Yvonne Johnson manages that, a lot of people around here will be tooting her horn.

Publication date: 2/10/05

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.