Theatre alumna stars in spooky off-Broadway show

By Features Editor

Callie Johnson, a 2012 theatre alumna and rising Chicago stage personality, has spent the last four months covered in stage blood.

Coming off a run as iconic anti-heroine Carrie White in “Carrie: the Musical,” the stage adaptation of Stephen King’s novel at Bailiwick Theater Chicago, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Johnson was repeatedly doused with buckets of sticky red corn syrup this summer. In her new double role as archaeologist Annie Knowby and Shelly in the touring production of “Evil Dead: The Musical,” Johnson is set to land at the Broadway Playhouse at Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., Sept. 23–Oct. 13.

In 2013, Johnson received an Equity Jeff Award in Cameo Performance for her portrayal of ambitious reporter Melba Snyder in “Pal Joey” at Porchlight Music Theater, 4200 W. Diversey Ave. She also received accolades for her performance as Natalie Goodman in “Next to Normal” at Drury Lane Theater in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois, a 2014 Broadway World winner for Best Direction of a Musical or Revue and a Best Revival of a Musical award.

The Chronicle spoke with Johnson about her time at the college, her roles in “Evil Dead: The Musical” and what it was like to play Carrie White.

THE CHRONICLE: What brought you to Columbia?

CALLIE JOHNSON: Growing up 60 miles outside the city, I would make frequent trips into Chicago. When I was younger, we would go to the American Girl Place or to the museums. I knew the city fairly well. I felt comfortable and I didn’t really want to be too far away from my family, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Embarking on a college journey is always kind of scary. Chicago was the perfect theater scene to start out in and stay in, and one of my teachers suggested I apply to Columbia.

What was your most valuable resource at Columbia?

The faculty. They’re all such wonderful people, and they’re work- ing professionals. That, to me, is the most valuable thing I gained from Columbia College. They’re not has-beens. They’re all working out in the field, and they are there to help us and support us. And they know the theater scene. They know what’s happening, they know what’s great, they know what’s fun [and] they know what people are looking for. They’re on top of it. It’s invaluable.

What was your defining moment in college?

I did a show called “Floyd Collins.” It was the main stage musical my junior year, in 2011. It’s based on a true story about a man in the 1920s who was a cave explorer, and it became national news, and they made a bluegrass musical about it. I was cast in the female lead role as Floyd’s sister. A few of the other cast members and I decided to travel down to Kentucky where it happened and visited the cave, the grave and the places he had been. Going down there was an unbelievable experience because it just made me realize this is why we do the work that we do—tell stories. It really gave me a reason to do the show every night because I had been there, I had seen it, I had experienced it and I had done the research. Columbia’s all about ensemble. It’s all about a support system. It’s about the work. It’s not about selling your soul. I feel like so many people in this business can get into the habit of just doing this to do it, but at Columbia, I really feel like it’s about the work and the love of it.

Were you a fan of the “Evil Dead” series before you started work on the musical?

No. I had never seen the movies, [but I have now]. It’s really fun. I really have come to appreciate it: seeing the people that trek out to see the show and seeing what fans they are. There are specific lines in the musical, like when Ash says, “My boomstick,” the crowd goes nuts. They are hardcore fans, so that has been so much fun for me and for the cast. We’ve all become acclimated to the whole idea of the film and the musical—the whole energy.

How did starring in “Carrie” compare to “Evil Dead”?

People came into Carrie expecting it to be a camp musical, and it’s the opposite. We made it very much about bullying, [and] we made it about the destructiveness of love. It was a very real thing. The book itself is not campy at all. I think [we] did it at a perfect time when every day in the news we are reading about someone [who] brought a gun to school and about bullying in general. Especially with cyber-bullying and social media, that’s become a relevant thing in our society. Back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when Carrie came out, that was not a thing. We just wanted to make the show relevant, and we did. For me, it was a very touching experience and a very horrible thing that that girl went through. It is completely the opposite of “Evil Dead,” [which is] absurd and funny but obviously both involve blood, which is a big joke between my friends and me.

How would you describe your roles in “Evil Dead”?

I play two characters. The musical is a combination of the first two movies with references and lines from “Army of Darkness” thrown in there. The first character I play, Shelly, is the dumb, blonde bimbo. I wear two push-up bras, if that gives you any idea. Now, [my second character] Annie, is only in the second film. She is an archaeologist. She, her father and her boyfriend discover the book of the dead, the Necronomicon, at the cabin these college kids go to.

Is it a challenge to switch between the two roles?

It’s a super challenge. My changes are quick, and I’ll flip back and forth. I’ll exit as Shelly, and then I’ll quickly throw on my wig and my trenchcoat and I’ll go on for an Annie scene and go off stage and come out of the bedroom as Shelly just having had sex with Scott. Then when Shelly dies, I am Annie full-time. It’s tricky, and it’s very fast. When Shelly dies, there is some blood, so I have to wipe that blood off and get changed very quick.

How do you bring Broadway glitz to “Evil Dead,” a series known for its kitschy plot and dialogue?

You’re seeing very good actors do camp very well. You can’t help but laugh at it because everyone on stage is very talented but you’re doing these completely outrageous scenes. The funny thing about the movies is they’re obviously bad actors trying to make these scenes very real, very dark and horrific, but it turns out to be the most ridicu- lous thing you’ve ever seen.

What is the hardest part of doing the show?

Staying in character on stage. I just want to laugh at everything everyone is doing.