GETTING PHYSICAL: Johnson as Joseph Merrick.
Although Ben Johnson has been seriously committed to acting for only 2-1/2 years — he’d just been clowning around before that — he was the only person that artistic director Tony Estrella considered for the demanding title role in The Elephant Man, by Bernard Pomerance, which the Sandra Feinstein-Gamm Theatre is staging September 6 through October 7.
Johnson quietly commanded attention at the Gamm from the get-go.
“Ben is so striking physically in his normal state, and then on top of that is so gifted physically as well and able to transform himself,” Estrella said. “We were lucky when he walked in the door and auditioned for Red Noses. It was like, ‘All right, can we keep him here forever?’ He was able to pull all of that stuff off and play a silent character for three hours and make people care about him. He was unbelievable. A lot of things that he’s done has been inching toward this in a lot of ways.”
In that play, which is set during the mid-14th century plague years in Europe, Johnson impressed more than his acting colleagues. In my February 2005 review, I wrote: “But there’s one character, and actor, who stands out from the rest. The playwright sets up the mute Sonnerie as the Red Noses troupe’s beloved clowns’ clown, communicating only through the bells he wears. But Ben Johnson does something transcendent with the role . . . Later, whether miming mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on a bug, jumping rope as a newborn sprouting an umbilical cord, or waxing poignant in his final scene, he adds more than is written down.”
In addition to his talent, it was a no-brainer to give Johnson the Red Noses role because he had been an actual professional clown for eight years. Raised in Long Beach, California, he spent two years in college before dropping out and moving to San Francisco. There a friend urged him to audition for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College in 1997 and, to his surprise, he was accepted.
He has since gotten a master’s degree from Brown in teaching, but nowadays his main source of income is working for the Big Apple Circus through their Clown Care Unit. It’s a program that sends clowns to pediatric hospitals, such as Hasbro Children’s Hospital. Johnson noted that kids have the lowest status in their wards, being poked and prodded and told what to do all the time. So when he and a partner, dressed as doctor-clowns, offer to take orders from them, the kids are usually delighted to come up with funny suggestions.
“A circus performance has a completely different set of rules in terms of what it takes to make a show successful,” Johnson said, sitting in the lobby of the theater before a rehearsal.
Not only is clowning different from the sort of serious make-believe demanded at Gamm, but so too are improvisation performances, which he has also done — and taught, as well as teaching clowning.
“The improv thing is like gold for learning how to trust your own ability to make a story happen — and also to trust the ability of the other performers,” he said. “Because if I go out and make an offering and nobody picks it up, then I’m dead in the water. So taking that and bringing it to this environment was invaluable.”
Starting off well-prepared was also very important to him. He didn’t want to walk around holding a script for the first couple of weeks, as is usual in rehearsal.
“I came in with a good portion of the lines memorized,” he said. “Because the role is very physical. He’s deformed so that he can’t use his right hand, and he has hip disease that affects his left hip and he has to walk with a cane all the time to get around. So in order to jump into the rehearsal process and invest in the blocking and find the true parts to the character, I didn’t want to have a book in my hand.”
This is only Johnson’s fifth role at Gamm, so despite his critical success, stage fright is sometimes still waiting in the wings. Which isn’t to say that he’s worried.
“The bottom line is that it’s called ‘play’ for a reason,” Johnson said. “It’s just play. If the floor falls out from underneath you, then you play with it and try to do it better next time.”