“Embracing Embarrassment, Renouncing Shame & Starring in Your Own Musical” In Conversation with Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson on STUPIDHEAD! A Musical Comedy
Interview by Hallie Seline
Knowing that Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy was returning to the stage after loving it at the Summerworks Festival, I was excited to sit down with funny ladies Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson to chat all about it. We appropriately met in the Theatre Passe Muraille greenroom and spoke about how the piece has developed for this first professional production with TPM, Katherine’s inspiration to communicate her experience with dyslexia through her dream of being in a musical, and finding freedom in renouncing shame and owning where you’re at, epic life fails and all.
Hallie Seline: Tell me about the show and how it has developed from workshop to festival to first professional production.
Katherine Cullen: Stupidhead! is a sort of musical/standup comedy style/storytelling show about me growing up with dyslexia. I had this idea a couple of years ago and I started to write, let’s call them proto-songs when I was alone and bored and unemployed. And then videofag gave me the opportunity to do a workshop presentation of it, about three years ago now. So I went to Britta (Johnson), maybe a week before the workshop, (laughing) not even… and asked if she would help me with the song aspect of it – to help me add accompaniment. When we did that first workshop of it, we were exploring different ideas and forms.
When it came time to do the Summerworks Festival version, we really decided to make it more of a musical. The theme around that version was much more like… birthday party, piñata, musical, which is still very different from what it has grown to now.
Britta Johnson: The story of it now is that we’re trying to make Katherine’s dream of being in a musical come true so, you know, it has lighting, full songs and all of that. But I also think in the process of continuing to write and develop the songs, because that’s all I can speak to, we’ve tried to keep the essence of those early ones from the workshop in the fold of its current form. Where it isn’t necessarily about a perfect polished song, it’s about how to honestly step into each one, as herself and what song serves this character.
KC: Yeah, this character, me, has no musical training and doesn’t know anything about singing, or pitch, or what makes a good song, or… anything. Anything I’ve picked up over the last few years has literally been because of working with Britta and forcing myself by saying, “I need to learn to hit that note!” So we put those parameters out there from the beginning and it allows the space to really fuck up and not hit the note, and know that it’s still going to be okay. I feel like I’m allowed to not be this polished musical theatre singer because that’s part of the conceit.
BJ: Yeah! I feel like part of the conceit is to joyfully and whole-heartedly step into doing something that you don’t feel you’re good at. That’s really important in this show.
HS: Which is so wonderful because we so rarely or just don’t do that. So often we feel like we have to wait to be perfect before we show it or do it.
KC: Exactly. I feel like this show has a kid-like mentality of being like “I don’t know? That looks fun! I will do that in front of people,” you know what I mean? It’s trying to get back to that place where you don’t second-guess yourself and you don’t self-edit and there isn’t that sort of judgmental voice being like “Oh, no. No. No. That’s ridiculous. Don’t do that.” It’s more like “That sounds like a great idea! I will try it.” (laughing) You know?
BJ: As someone who gets to watch it over and over again, it really looks like Katherine as a kid playing pretend in her room. The songs go everywhere from a full three-and-a-half-minute-long, emotional, perfectly rhymed song, to what I picture as her as a kid looking in the mirror and playing pretend. There’s room for all of it.
KC: Yeah, it’s like if this show had a spirit animal right now it’s that little girl in that viral video who wobbles into the room for her birthday party. She’s just having a hippity-hoppity day. Because, why not?
I mean, there are darker themes that are in the show that are being probed now in a way that we didn’t really probe when we were at Summerworks. One of the songs expresses how you need darkness to have light and I think I’m exploring a child-like freedom of expression but also those kind of adult things in the world or in our lives that make us feel like we can’t or that beat us down, make us feel like we’re losers or “less than”. I think that there is a real conversation that the show is trying to have between those two and trying to kind of make peace with it.
And part of having a hippity-hoppity day is saying “I don’t need those chains. I don’t need to think of myself as a bad loser. I can just be a person because we’re all just people and we’re all fine here, so why not just have a jazzy time?”
BJ: And that the imperfection isn’t something to overcome and get to the other side of. That’s why hearing you sing these songs is so moving. If it’s just something that you invite into the picture, and own, you can have a hippity-hoppity day with the dark parts and the light parts and the parts where you fail and the parts where you make an ass of yourself and it’s still just as hippity-hoppity! (they laugh)
HS: Amazing. You mentioned from the beginning you were writing songs for this and you have also said that you have never been in a musical. So what was the idea behind making this piece of yours a musical?
KC: One thing that I do really like about musicals is that there’s this element that you get to express something extra or express something that you can’t satisfy just in dialogue. There’s this component to the expression that is sort of special or heightened and that isn’t in the realistic way that we express ourselves on a day-to-day basis. I feel that there is something also about dyslexia that has that. My experience with it and how I experience the world has been so sort of topsey turvey and that has been very difficult for me to explain to people. To me, it just makes sense that then to be able to communicate that experience that I would need to burst into song.
HS: What is something that you hope the audience takes away or experiences while they are here?
KC: I think this play is so much about, you know, just not feeling alone in the parts of yourself that you feel don’t totally fit in. So I hope it speaks to people from that perspective, that they feel like their humanity is seen, you know? And that it’s cool to laugh at the shit that you do that’s silly as opposed to being ashamed of it.
I think the show is really about renouncing shame, in a lot of ways.
BJ: I just feel that if the audience has half as much fun as I have sitting at the piano, laughing and crying along with Katherine, I think that we will have done our job.
Rapid Fire Question Round:
KC: Probably sushi.
BJ: Burritos, no question.
KC: Jesus Christ Superstar
BJ: West Side Story.
Where do you get inspiration?
KC: Hmm… I think usually when I watch something really funny and it just makes me feel like there’s a lot of possibility in the world, when I see something super funny.
BJ: Probably the people around me. Watching people I love and respect… or don’t, you know (laughs) struggle with the same stuff I do.
KC: Watching people I hate…
BJ: Watching people I hate and delighting in their failure (laughing)
HS: That inspires me!
KC: Don’t edit that…
BJ: That’s the end of the interview. “Britta Johnson, who kind of glommed on to the interview, talks a lot about the people she hates…” (laughing)
The Best Advice You’ve Ever Gotten or That You’re Currently Living By:
KC: My dad always says “Have faith in the future” and I don’t totally know what that means but I kind of like it. Have faith in the future. Why not?
BJ: I don’t know… There’s never going to be a moment where you’re like, “Now I’ve got it”, so don’t wait for that moment. You’re still doing it even if that “moment” doesn’t come.
KC: Yeah, you’re always doing the best with what you’ve got at any given moment.
BJ: Also I think my sister once told me that my hair always looks better than I think it does… which has also really helped me lately… (laughing)
Describe Stupidhead! in 5-10 words… together:
KC: … It’s a… fun,
KC & BJ: hippity-hoppity day
BJ: that embraces the honest struggle of simply…
KC & BJ: beeeing aaa..llliiv?—huuuman!
HS: Brilliant. Thank you!
STUPIDHEAD! A Musical Comedy
A Theatre Passe Muraille Production
Written & Performed by Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson
Original Music by Britta Johnson
Original Lyrics by Britta Johnson and Katherine Cullen
Directed & Dramaturged by Aaron Willis
Additional Dramaturgy by Andy McKim
Set & Costume Design by Anahita Dehbonehie
Lighting Design by Jennifer Lennon
Associate Producer: Colin Doyle
Stupidhead! is a comedy musical about having dyslexia. It’s also about how being a human is really embarrassing… like all of the time. The winner of Best New Performance Text at the 2015 SummerWorks Festival, Stupidhead! returns to Theatre Passe Muraille’s Mainspace with brand new material and brand new songs.
In Stupidhead! performer/playwright Katherine Cullen shares true stories about her dyslexia, the way she interacts with the world, and the way the world interacts with her. Cullen’s script – directed by the Dora nominated Aaron Willis and accompanied by lyricist/musician Britta Johnson’s original songs – makes for a show that is painfully funny, brutally honest, and totally relatable for anyone who feels like they do things a bit different.
Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace
16 Ryerson Ave.
March 16 – April 2, 2017