Today’s edition of “Borderstan People” is with Jeffrey Johnson, better known to many as Special Agent Galactica, whom we first met several years ago — in today’s interview he talks about both Johnson and Galactica. He also fills us in on his current show on the second and fourth Fridays of the month at the Black Fox Lounge on Connecticut Avenue.
Borderstan: Let’s start with the basics. Where did you grow up and how did you end up in DC, Borderstan in particular?
Johnson: Well, I was born and raised in a small town called Horseheads in the beautiful foothills of New York state. As a child and into my years of young adulthood, I was an All-American swimmer, state champion and record holder. I was recruited by various Division 1 universities for swimming, and I ended up choosing the University of South Carolina. I swam for the University for one year, and then finally, after 13 years face down in a pool, gave it all up to pursue theatre.
I stayed in South Carolina for 11 years before moving to DC. During my time in South Carolina, I was able to develop many aspects of my craft: acting, directing, writing, choreography, musical direction and musical composition. I chose DC because it’s big enough to offer challenges, but small enough so that I can dabble in more than just one area (acting, directing, etc.).
Borderstan: What all are you up to these days, artistically?
Johnson: Well, there are always a number of things brewing in my head, but at the moment, I am exploring my music muse. It’s an area that I’ve neglected while in Washington. It’s also the area of the arts that I’ve studied the longest. I started piano when I was six and played for 13 years; I was in various choirs throughout school; I studied music theory and played clarinet in the band; and in South Carolina, I performed mostly in musicals and taught musical theatre and vocal performance to both kids and adults.
I kind of defined myself as a musical theatre guy, but had to redefine myself in DC because musical productions were few and far between when I moved here. But in the beginning of 2011, I found some events and opportunities for me to get reacquainted with my “musical self.” So that is where my focus is now. Specifically on the Happy Hour Show I do every other week as a character I created named Special Agent Galactica.
Borderstan: Do you consider yourself a singer, performance artist or something else? What do you say when people ask, “What kind of artist are you?”
Johnson: Good question — And I used to be able to define it but now it’s harder. I remember someone once asked Barbra Streisand if she considered herself a singer or actress and she said an actress. Isn’t that funny? I think at the time — and today — we would naturally opt for the “singer” when thinking about her. I’ve said to folks that I don’t consider myself a singer and they’ve disagreed. I know I can sing, but after taking a break for 15 years, it’s taken some time for the idea of it to sink back in.
So in that respect I guess I could be defined as a singer. Right now, with Special Agent Galactica, I consider myself as an actor who is playing a character who happens to have a legit jazz Happy Hour Show [at the Black Fox Lounge]. I’m very lucky to be backed by a combo of very talented Jazz musicians, and they’re sticking around so I guess they find legitimacy in what I do. I’ve never been one to just be satisfied doing one thing. Acting. Singing. Writing. It’s all a part of something complete and when I ignore parts of it for too long then I feel out of balance.
Borderstan: Tell us about Special Agent Galactica. The name… who she is… her role in life.
Johnson: I’m not sure I know too much, myself. She is a very elusive person and our relationship is on a need-to-know basis. I manage her performance details and bookings and that’s all I’m really allowed to know. I do know that she works for a privately funded/run securities organization referred to as “The Agency,” and that she has been involved in many top secret, yet highly publicized, missions.
That’s all I can say on the matter. However, she does seem to be opening up some in her Happy Hour Show with stories and anecdotes about herself and her experiences. When she is not performing her Happy Hour Show, she is usually at “alternate coordinates” on some mission. I try to keep things together on this end for her so when she returns she can focus on her shows.
Borderstan: Tell us about Ganymede Arts and your role. Why do you think it failed to gain traction in DC?
Johnson: I inherited the role of Artistic Director of Actors’ Theatre of Washington (called ATW, which later became Ganymede Arts) in June of 2003. It was a dead company at the time and my role was to bring it back to life through quality productions that reflected the GLBT mission of the theatre. In the eight years that I ran the company (under both names) I feel that we accomplished that. When the larger theatre companies are selecting gay themed shows it is something that’s taken a little more seriously now. To answer to your other question, it’s not that the company failed to gain traction; we were very successful, artistically. In our final years we wrote and produced an original show that received rave reviews. It was called “Edie Beale LIVE at Reno Sweeney,” and after a successful run in DC,
I took the show to New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. All of that is something that even the big boys can’t brag about. What Ganymede Arts failed to gain was funding. Why were the larger organizations getting huge chunks of money from the DC Arts Commission and the smaller ones received next to nothing? I’ve found that other small LGBT organizations face the same run-around when dealing with DC funding. Also, I believe that the political mindset of the city permeates into the reasons for donors to donate. So, with Ganymede Arts being the low guy on the totem pole, our donations were few and far in between. Those that did donate kept us squeaking by from production to production and I am forever grateful to them. I worked with a crew of remarkable, passionate people, and the experience taught me to look at our limitations and challenges and make those the strengths and the defining uniqueness of our work.
Borderstan: We originally met you when you worked at go mama go! and we recently talked about the late Noi Chudnoff, the 14th Street store’s founder and owner. Can you tell us about Noi’s role in your life and your art?
Johnson: Noi was a benefactor. Noi was a second mother. Noi was a mentor. Noi was a boss. Noi was a donor. Noi was a muse. Noi was a best friend. If I stared to talk about her it would just be expanding on those things…and it would take away from the simplicity of it. A lot of the opportunities I have today are due to her influence.
Borderstan: What do you like best about living in our happy little bubble of Borderstan? Dislikes?
Johnson: The possibilities and options that everything offers. From choosing what you want to do at night (bars, restaurants, shopping on U Street, Columbia Heights, 14th Street), to seeing the possibilities in the beginnings of a street that is changing from gutted facades to homes. I love that it’s a place where the majority of space does not lend itself to a high-rise apartment complex, and thus, the character of each street is defined by the character of each individual who lives there. It’s a melting pot with various cultures and races coming together and learning to live with each other. It has it moments… but those moments give it an edge and make it a real place to live.
Don’t really have any dislikes other than the rent for businesses is way to high and thus I’m seeing the variety of locally owned retail and smaller arts organizations dwindling and we are getting a lot more restaurants and bars. I tend to be one of those that think variety is best and offers a much more colorful and welcoming atmosphere.
Borderstan: Favorite haunts, places to eat, things to do in the neighborhood?
Johnson: Some of my favorites are DC Noodles, RICE, Home Rule and Commissary. Though I don’t get to go as much as I would like, I love that the 9:30 Club is right there. And as they say in the South, “I’m spittin’ distance” from Nellie’s. I am a person who walks everywhere. I love it.
Borderstan: What have we missed?
Johnson: I guess I could mention that I am (well, Galactica is) teaming up with Frank Asher of OLD CITY green to do a benefit concert on June 16 at 7:30 pm for Metro Teen AIDS. We are doing the concert in the middle of the garden among the fireflies, flowers and under the stars in hopes to raise money for a very important and vital cause. Tickets are available for purchase online for $20 and at the gate for $25. Chef Patrick Vanas, Bill McKenney and Black Fox Lounge are all coming on-board to donate catering, wine, vodka and rum (imagine the taste of those freshly picked mint mojitos!). You can find more information on my website at PinkHairedOne.com.