Paul Johnson celebrates Paul Sills in 'Back to Borneo'

Paul "Sparky" Johnson felt two seemingly contradictory emotions while working with mentor Paul Sills, the legendary co-founder of Second City, son of improvisation innovator Viola Spolin, and someone with a reputation for being a tough nut. (Speaking as someone who interviewed Sills multiple times and watched him in rehearsal, the reputation was well earned.)

"I would say I approached working with Paul full of love and fear," Johnson says. "I knew that he would do everything within his power to bring me to a higher level of focus, and sometimes that would be difficult. At the same time, I knew when he would get frustrated and angry that he was accessing his own focus, and whatever was coming out was something that I absolutely needed to hear and respond to."

Johnson brings his one-man show Back to Borneo to the Nautilus Music Theater this weekend for performances sponsored by theater bookstore Play to Pay. Johnson will also lead a master class Saturday morning at the bookstore. In the play, the writer and performer examines key moments in his life through the prism of his work with Sills.

It's a relationship that started in the early '90s and continued until Sills's death in 2008. At first Johnson, a professor, writer and performer, was just another student at Sills's workshop on his farm in rural Door County.

"I was in awe of him that first summer and really didn't spend much one-on-one time with him. After the following summer's workshop, Paul took me aside and said, 'If you write to me, I'll write you back.' He was true to his word and this was the beginning of our relationship, which lasted until his death in 2008."

The decade and a half of working together allowed Johnson to see more of the inner Sills.

"Over the years, as I got to know him as a friend, I got to see beyond the often gruff exterior and sometimes volatile directives given during a workshop or rehearsal. He had a great sense of humor and was very funny in an understated sort of way," Johnson says.

In Back to Borneo, Johnson has been unstuck in time, a la Billy Pilgrim, and experiences the moments of his life, including his youth in British North Borneo (Malaysia), as if they were happening right now. The title comes from a phrase Sills used to say to the performer: "Become a child, go back to a time when you were connected. Get back to Borneo."

"The play is really centered on showing how the things I learned from Paul are constantly integrated into my performance, my vocation, and my life. Paul believed very strongly in the power of the story--of the word--and this show is taking my own significant stories and bringing them to life through the dramatic essentials he drilled into me through the power of space and transformation," Johnson says.

For his master class, Johnson will explore how to make the "invisible visible" in a performance space using several of the principles that Spolin developed back in the 1950s. "I hope that I can pass on through the workshop the kinds of things I have learned and discovered regarding space and transformation that have contributed to the form evolving to this level."

Back to Borneo runs Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and the master class is at 10 a.m. Saturday. Contact Play by Play for tickets and more information.

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