When “Moon Walk” premiered at Emerson College, writer and director Brooke Ivey Johnson didn’t expect the play to take her across the pond to the world-renowned Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Self-funded and new to the scene, Johnson and her company knew the play was something special. But the process of getting to Edinburgh this past summer was arduous nearly every step of the way. Since then, Johnson has been reflecting on the experience. On one hand, there’s the pride of being a young creative who showcased her production at the largest arts festival in the world. On the other, the experience opened Johnson’s eyes to the limits presented by events like the Fringe, which she describes as “cost prohibitive and classist.” Now, as a recent graduate, she’s taking everything she has experienced to inform the future of her work.
Johnson likes to call her production a “strange little show.” Created while she was studying English and theater performance at Emerson, the play was one of Johnson’s first efforts writing, directing, and putting on a show with little to no help. But “Moon Walk,” a tragi-comic play about post-graduates dealing with mental health, addiction, gender, and friendship, also mirrored some issues that Johnson was dealing with for the first time in her personal life.
“For a long time, the only thing I wanted to write about was mental illness,” Johnson said. “I suffered from depression, and when I saw myself making the show actually happen, I was finally at a point where I could reflect on that.”
“Moon Walk” featured Emerson students Sean Bannon and Miles Millikan as two lifelong friends living together in Boston. Sam, played by Bannon, is a playwright who grows increasingly depressed, and his friend Alex (Millikan) finds it harder and harder to get through to him. When the pair find a third roommate, played by Emerson grad Karin Hoelzl, she serves as a mediator and helps renew their friendship. The two-hour show is a vignette of dialogues among the characters in their living room, always funny and always ambitious in its reach. Despite its comedic nature, tragedy consumes the end of the play.
After a successful run at Emerson College, Hoelzl and Johnson — who work together as Sprutt Theater, their burgeoning production company — pitched the play to various theaters in Edinburgh with hopes of getting a spot in August’s Fringe festival. After weeks of applications and relentless emailing, it happened.
“I was in Panera when I got the first acceptance e-mail, and I cried over a bread bowl, and then immediately panicked that I had no idea how to make it happen,” Hoelzl said. “Our small team of four was straddling three different cities up until the day we met up across the pond. I drew up a budget and proposal, applied for a scholarship at Emerson, and we crowdfunded the rest of the money.”
Besides traveling and performing, the company had to worry about time constraints, advertising, and set-building — all in the span of a week. And Johnson was suddenly faced with the task of cutting her two-hour play in half. Emerson professor Andrew Clarke, who helped guide Johnson, said he knew she could get it done.
“No playwright likes to hack their stuff down to comport with a time restriction,” Clarke said. “Brooke and I went back and forth on email and the play got shorter, tighter, and still maintained the emotional intensity of the original. Not easy to do, but not surprising that Brooke could pull it off.”
The Fringe started as a companion to the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival in 1947, when eight theater companies turned up uninvited, managing to use the festival’s large crowds to get attention. It showcased small, experimental shows, precisely the kind you’d find on the fringe of the theater world. As the decades passed, the Fringe became a massive endeavor with year-round staff, headquarters, and some of the biggest acts from around the world. The idea of the festival prioritizing smaller acts has become more of an afterthought, and Johnson picked up on that very quickly.
“We all came away a little disillusioned about the Fringe,” Johnson said. “It was clear to us that the festival has become primarily about money, and that quickly became an important aspect of how we pitched the show, the way we put it on, and the way we advertised it once we were there.”
Johnson and her crew spent hours each day walking the streets of Edinburgh, handing out fliers and promotions to get people to the show. Surrounding her were other smaller shows going through the same struggle amid massive productions that had the backing of PR companies and millions of dollars. Initially, it felt incredibly disheartening.
“There were moments where I was really afraid that I had gotten myself into a mess I couldn’t see the other side to,” Hoelzl said.
But in the end, it proved to be worth it. The experience humbled Johnson, but it also demonstrated that the play had an audience outside of her college and family. The struggles encountered in Edinburgh only fueled Johnson’s goals for the future. Now, alongside Hoelzl, Johnson is talking to various theaters in London to keep the momentum going.
“Whether I write something new or continue with ‘Moon Walk,’ the experience has taught me a lot,” Johnson said. “People still feel like artists should feel lucky to even be seen or acknowledged at all. That was hard for me to come to terms with, but it’s the truth, and it’s not going to stop me.”
Chris Triunfo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.