William & Mary students have never met a stage they didn’t like. The very first theater in America was built in Williamsburg in 1716, and in 1736, a group of William & Mary students put on the first student play in the colonies.
Now, during the course of a typical academic year, W&M students can audition for between 20 and 30 different plays, most of them produced by independent, student-run theater companies.
The independent theater scene at W&M is as weird and wonderful as the students themselves. Just ask Michael Johnson ’09, whose first-ever play, Tragedy! (A Musical Comedy)—a brilliant mix of Shakespearean gratuitous violence, “yo mama” jokes and obscure literary references set to a catchy pop score—couldn’t have happened anywhere else but here.
First of all, his music composition teacher, Sophia Serghi, loved the idea of developing Shakespeare’s bloodiest play, Titus Andronicus, into a musical comedy (yes, she’s weird, too). And then the student-run Mystic Theatre company gave him the green light and the funding to make his funky dream a reality.
After a hugely successful run on campus, Tragedy! landed a coveted spot at the 2007 New York Fringe Festival, where Johnson and his cast rubbed shoulders with Broadway pros and the best of the international alternative theater scene. “It was my first time writing a musical, my first time writing a play, and my first time directing,” says Johnson of his Fringe experience. “It was crazy.”
That got Johnson hooked. In between composing pieces for the W&M wind symphony and orchestra, Johnson juggled several musical theater projects, including a potential honors thesis project based on Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (a real tragedy this time, he says). He also traveled to Italy to participate in the SoundScape music festival with W&M music composition professor Brian Hulse.
“I really like learning what an audience is expecting and changing it up to make them feel something different,” says Johnson of his artistic inspiration. “Whether that be comedy or something dramatic, as long as they’re feeling very strong emotions, that’s all I really care about.”