BWW Interview: Chris Patton and Justin White Talk AMERICAN IDIOT at SRO
SRO (Standing Room Only) Productions is producing AMERICAN IDIOT at Obisidian Theater in Houston, TX this fall. The original musical, by Billy Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, won two Tony awards, a Drama Desk award, and a Grammy for best Musical Theatre Album. The story centers on three young men and their paths to self-discovery. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Director Chris Patton and Actor Justin White about the upcoming SRO production in Houston, TX.
There must have been a lot of talented Houstonians that came out to audition, especially for this style of musical. What was the casting process like?
Chris: Did you know we had over 90 people to come out to audition? That in and of itself was amazing in Houston. Myself and the creative team had to narrow 90 plus people down to a cast of 13, which was a monumental headache-inducing task, partly because we had so many people come through that were so talented, but yes, due to the nature of the show, the style of singing that was required and the look and everything else, we had to cut a lot of amazing people. And in a town like this in which the theatre community is so connected, you end up having to cut friends who very much want to be a part of this show. It was humbling, amazing, and exciting to see all of the amazing talent that came out. And the cast has come into it so eager. No matter what we throw at them, they are up for it.
What are some of the challenges you've faced thus far in the production?
Justin: Playing guitar while trying to emote as well. I think a lot of people get lost in the guitar. I've been playing guitar since I was 16. And so far in the show, I've been playing chords, but now we're adding blocking with specific patterns and trying to actually communicate poetry, not even straightforward lines about what I'm feeling, but communicating poetry. You're just like, "focus, focus...". I wrote out the lyrics, then I wrote what I would say to match it, then I wrote an inner monologue- and the inner monologue would be very different from what he had written. So it's almost like when I was in college, singing in Italian, you have to convey those emotions, an inner monologue, while saying other words.
Chris: The show itself is challenging because it's 88 minutes that never quits moving, and it has so many moving pieces. The show just barrels along. Part of what's so fun, exhausting, and energizing is all the things that you have to keep your eyes on at one time. But it's so great that I have a choreographer, a music director, and a stage manager at all times. So, that's the challenge, keeping it all rolling without any sense of drag or boredom. Minding how things move in and out of the space, especially in a small space. I think the music is deceptively challenging too.
Tell me about your character, Justin.
Justin: Johnny is a kid who grew up in a small town. I grew up in Houston, TX. I've always lived in a big city. When I went to Oklahoma City, I saw a lot of those smaller towns where you really don't know what else to do. That's where I sort of found the beginning part of him. I connected with him in this way, because from there I went to New York City, and although it doesn't say he went to New York City in the script, we can kind of assume that he goes to a place like New York City. While I didn't go nearly as far as he did- he gets into a lot of crazy stuff- I wasn't following my passion and got into partying, which is one of the reasons I moved back to Houston. So, I see some big similarities there. He also has to come home at the end, he realizes that what he wants isn't necessarily best for him and that he does need his friends.
There were many relevant political and social issues in the original albums by Green Day, and even in the initial release of the musical. Today there's race relation issues flooding the media, a reality star business mogul running for president, and so many other social issues. Chris, what's the relevance for today's audiences or why did you want to direct it?
Chris: I was in Maryland when I found out the rights were going to be released, and I just knew I had to direct it. The scary thing is that for all the positive changes that have occurred, there are still so many things American Idiot and 21st Century Breakdown reflected that haven't changed. That's great news for art and peace, but that's scary news for our society. All of those things you just said with police, race relations, and a TV reality star real estate mogul running for president is astounding- that things like this are still going on. Also, we are still dealing with vestiges of how 9/11 was handled and those five years after, during that time the album was written. As much as this country is great, and we all love being here, we want it to be better. I think the artisans are usually the people that drive that sort of change. There's also a whole timelessness to this story that I call the fool's journey. It's the need sometimes to get out of wherever we're from to go discover that there is or isn't something out there for us, then at the end of the day, we come back home and realize that the grass is always greener on the other side. And the idea of St. Jimmy is very universal, the fact that we've all got a shadow. We've all got a dark side to us.
For people out there that don't know much about the musical, and think they're going to see a concert, what can they expect?
Chris: This production is going to surprise them. It's a rock musical with no intermission that almost plays like a narrative music video. The thing I've always been the most excited about is for the chance to emphasize the intimate elements that maybe weren't so evident in the Mayer production, because that production had to be designed to live in 1000-seat houses, and it very much is a rock spectacle when you go see it. I love the fact that it's going to be obvious in this space what the relationships between the three principal guys are and these girls that they discover in their lives. From the beginning, that was my approach. I had a vision for bringing it to life and really making the book sing just as much as the music does. I think it's proving to be a great opportunity to focus on what the actual book of the show is about. This book that Billy Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer penned is a nice, tender, interesting story about friendship and relationships and the journey that many young people make on the way to individuation and self-actualization.
There's a certain timelessness in many of the themes in the show, such as that self-actualization, learning about yourself, and coming home. So, if you could give your younger self some advice, what would it be?
Justin: In this industry, it's a marathon, not a sprint. I was so eager to go out to New York and just start doing it. But there is so much here in Houston that I can learn from and grow from. Even from where I was in college, I was still learning and developing. And even now, I continue to learn and develop much more, but from a different aspect. I did the music side in college and the acting side in high school, and now I'm finally meshing them together on a way more professional level. People are going to want to work with you if you are professional. Work ethic is huge.
Chris: I think Justin's quote is right on. It's about perseverance and cultivating your training, professionalism, and your audition skills. Whether as a director or an actor, you become very aware of how important just having great audition skills is. There's also a huge difference between the metaphor and symbolism of what professional actually means, rather than the denotative definition. You know, you can identify as a professional but that's very different from actually being one. And that's something that in my 20s- I was an unprofessional brat. So, the letter I would give myself in my 20s is: "Get over yourself and put your nose to the grindstone and work, and be humble about it".
Green Day's AMERICAN IDIOT
Additional Musical Arrangements by Tom Kitt
Directed by Chris Patton
Musical Direction by Tamara Robertson
Choreography by Eric Dano
Stage Managed by Lauren Hainley
Produced by Rachel Landon
Performances at Obsidian Theater on October 9 - 31. October 9, 10, 12, 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29, 30, 31 at 8:00pm with a 3:00pm matinee on October 25. Tickets at www.sro-productions.com.
Image 1: Cast.
Image 2: Cody Ray Strimple, Scott Lupton and Bryson Baugus.
Image 3: Justin White.
Image 4: Scott Lupton, J.T. Hearn, and Bryson Baugus
Image 5: JT Fischer.