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Performing a Haunted House

Just in time for Halloween, alumna Cheri Johnson unveils a ghost story turned multimedia event
October 19, 2017

Back in 2008, Cheri Johnson (MFA 2005) spent a summer in a bright and airy house in St. Paul's Crocus Hill neighborhood. When in 2014 her sister, composer/performer Julie Johnson, asked her to write a ghost story that might be put to music, Cheri remembered that Crocus Hill summer. "I thought it would be a neat challenge to write a creepy ghost story set in a house that was neither dark nor creaky," she recalls. Workshopped with the celebrated new music chamber ensemble Zeitgeist, the piece began to sharpen and cohere, ultimately inspiring the collaborators to further develop it as a performance project incorporating film and set design.


The haunting results will be on display in six performances (October 27-29 and November 2-4) at Zeitgeist's Lowertown Studio Z (transformed for the occasion into a brooding Victorian mansion). "Crocus Hill Ghost Story" is the second presentation of Zeitgeist's 40th anniversary season.

DJ Mendel with Julie and Cheri Johnson
D.J. Mendel with Julie and Cheri Johnson Photo by Bob Stacke

A variety of grants (Knight Foundation, City of St. Paul and Lowertown Future Fund, Minnesota Arts Board) allowed the Johnson sisters to hone the project with the members of Zeitgeist, along with actor/filmmaker/director D. J. Mendel. But, as Cheri is quick to note, the project also benefited from the contributions of several Department of English alumni, including MFAs Charlie Conley, Will Bush, and Michael Walsh and PhD alum Bob Cowgill. More on their contributions from Cheri below.

Cheri Johnson recently published two series of nonfiction books for young readers (Origins: Urban Legends and Origins: Whodunnit) with Full Tilt Press, a nonfiction imprint of Book Buddy Digital Media distributed by Lerner Books. Both series are “hi-lo” nonfiction (high interest/low reading level) for upper elementary and middle school students. She also edits and factchecks for Book Buddy. Johnson has written literary biographies for Cengage’s American Writers Supplement and worked as an editor with many individual writers on their creative writing. "I like to take on someone else’s voice and edit according to that voice," says Johnson: "in a way it’s like getting to be an actor taking on a role." And sort of like a haunting.

What is the genesis of the tale?

Zeitgeist invited my sister Julie Johnson to participate in their Composer Workshop, a five-day workshop in which composers bring in sketches and ideas and use Zeitgeist as a kind of creative laboratory to explore possibilities for a new piece. Julie had composed from short stories before—Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People,” for one—and she asked me to write a ghost story. I was excited. I used to write a lot of ghost stories, though I hadn’t in years. I set the story in the extraordinarily hot and humid summer of 2011, when the Twin Cities, on July 19, hit its highest heat index ever of 119 degrees. The story begins when two middle-aged artists come to the Crocus Hill house from Roanoke, Virginia, around the first of June, for what they think will be a fun and relaxing and cool northern summer. [Read a short excerpt.]

Julie and I didn’t know exactly what the piece would look like—whether the whole story would be narrated or just parts of it, whether it would just be music based on the story, etc. Zeitgeist was wonderful. They let us try things; they offered ideas and feedback. When we did informal performances of the piece, the versions that hit our test audiences the most were those in which they could follow the whole story, and in the end that’s what we decided to do. Because the register of my voice didn’t stand out well—it’s about the same as the marimba and the vibraphone—and because the narrator of the story is a man, we asked one of the other composers, Colin Holter, to narrate. The text sounded great with a deeper voice, which led us to later ask D. J. Mendel to work with us as an actor.

"This past summer the four of us had
a fantastic workshop at Michael’s
house, in which we asked questions
like, 'What’s the difference between
a ghost story and a haunted house
story?'" - Cheri Johnson

What led to the involvement of MFA alumni Charlie Conley, Will Bush, and Michael Walsh and PhD alum Bob Cowgill?

Ever since our MFA days, Charlie, Will, Michael, and I have been close friends and have read one another’s work and kicked around ideas. Charlie read and helped me revise the very first draft of “Crocus Hill,” back in 2014, and I knew I wanted his advice and help all the way through the process. He is especially good at figuring out how to make a strong narrative and structure in stories and novels, and how to build cohesion in productions that incorporate music, text, film, dance, etc. Will often pinpoints the essential problem in the stories and novels I give him; and while he was at the U of M, he both wrote and taught speculative fiction, which I knew would be helpful. Michael focused on poetry while he was at the U of M, but he has been writing a great deal of fiction; I wanted his insight into how I might build a strong sense of my two main characters’ long and complicated relationship into a story that would be shorter than mine usually are. This past summer the four of us had a fantastic workshop at Michael’s house, in which we drank rum and asked questions like, “What’s the difference between a ghost story and a haunted house story?”

When I was a sophomore at Augsburg College, I took Expository Writing with Bob Cowgill. In that class he gave me the most valuable piece of writing advice I’ve ever received: he told me that I had enough of a facility with language that I could trick myself and readers into thinking I was saying something, when sometimes I was only stringing words together. He taught me to take myself to task with every word: “Is this really what I mean? Is this really true?” So I wanted Bob to help me with the story. I also needed his insights into adapting text for the stage. In the 1980s, Bob was a dramaturg at the Guthrie, and he used to run the Oak Street Cinema. He teaches film and studies the way music works in both film and theater. Julie and I both wanted his help with our collaboration: we knew it could be great, or it could be a hot mess, since neither of us had ever done anything exactly like this before.

In September, you presented two public preview/discussion sessions about the show, at Studio Z and at Open Book. What did you learn?

At our Lowertown Listening Session in Studio Z, our audience was made up primarily of composers, who gave us a great deal of valuable feedback on both creative and technical issues. At the Open Book preview, an audience member (who happened to be from the Crocus Hill neighborhood!) asked us whether or not we were documenting this piece as a script and score that could, like a play, be performed by other people at a later time. We don’t yet know the answer! I also realized I needed to be ready to answer the question of whether or not I believe in ghosts. :)