Cover Story – Johanna Keller: An Artist Reflects on Life, Change, and The Miracle of Art

I regard the theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being.”

Oscar Wilde

By Kate Hanzalik

Love changes life. This is a theme Johanna Keller has explored in her many artistic performances–singing songs and reciting poetry as a child, acting, studying music at University of Colorado and the American Conservatory in France, working in public relations and writing award-winning art criticism for the New York Times, teaching, and building Syracuse University’s prestigious Goldring Arts Journalism Program from the ground up. Keller’s love for the arts is the reason for all the twists and turns she’s made professionally, and lately she’s a novice making films, plays, and cabarets.

I’ve been very fortunate in my life that I have always been able to try something new. I believe in life-long learning,” she said, adding that it’s important to “push the edge of what you don’t know, and be unafraid to be humble and say, ‘I don’t do this very well. How would I do it better? How would I learn to do this?’ And then focus on that edge. That edge that doesn’t know what it is doing is the edge of myself that I’m most interested in.”

Keller found herself on the edge when she retired from Syracuse University in 2019. “I thought when I retired that I’d be swanning around the world and reviewing opera, which has to do with drama, and words, and music, things I love. But then the pandemic hit, and I said ‘Well, I’ll see what comes up.’ One morning I sat down and wrote a play. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh, it’s genius!’ I looked at it the next day and I thought this is horrible,” she laughed. “A typical experience as a writer. So the next step is, learn to do it better.”

She took online classes with the Dramatists Guild and began to use the craft as a way to explore questions such as “What does it mean to be alive right now, in this moment? What are we experiencing?”

Her questions led to creations such as Amicably, Kinda Sorta, a short, sardonic play about divorce, which will be performed in August in Manassas, Virginia, and The Perfect Match, an 11-minute rom-com film about the pitfalls of online dating, which became a feature in NYC Rogue Theater Festival.

Her curiosity has also led her to artistic resources in Syracuse by joining Studio 24 and the Armory Square Playwrights Group. From there, she produced Why Did They Get Me a Roomba?, a holiday story performed at Jazz Central about a mother who received a robo-vacuum as a present from her absent children. As an artist making art in Syracuse, she’s developed many friendships with local writers and artists, such as Gerard Moses, Peter Moller, and jazz singer Hanna Richardson.

I love this town,” she said. “I lived in Manhattan for 25 years, and when we moved here in 2003, a lot of people thought I’d miss Manhattan. But there’s more to do every night here than I can get to. It’s a wonderful town full of really creative, open people who are working hard at what they do.”

On Collaboration

Keller is so inspired by Syracuse that she’s currently at work with Richardson on a comedy cabaret about the city set to premier in the fall. This project is particularly exciting for Keller – who has written scores of her own articles about music and composers – because she’s collaborating. “Collaborative writing was a skill I wanted to learn and I knew I could learn it by putting myself in the position of having to do it, or getting to do it.”

Working with Richardson has been illuminating. “Hanna Richardson had done an amazing cabaret show a few years ago, and we were thinking of reviving that. We tried and it didn’t work, so we set it aside. Then I had this idea to write a cabaret show of parody songs about Syracuse. Comic. All comic. I said to Hanna, ‘We have to try again.’” At first they wrote separately and met once a week to synthesize. “One day it clicked. We just got it. We were able to drop all our defense and just let our creative selves get in the sandbox and play together.”

Johanna takes her art seriously, but (at least in this case) has lots of fun doing it,” said Richardson. “We’ve really started hitting our stride in our joint writing sessions–feeding off and appreciating each other’s ideas, but also each willing to express doubts or reservations, all with trust and respect. And laughter. Lots of laughter!,” she said, adding that “It’s good that we also bring different areas of musical expertise to the project – Johanna has deep knowledge of theater, musical theater, opera, and the arts in general. I’m knowledgeable about songs of the Great American Songbook. We both remember well the pop songs of our youth. So we have a lot of material to draw from when looking for good songs to parody.”

On the Value of Art

Keller’s knowledge of the arts has forced her to grapple with its significance. She said, “People think of the arts as being an add on, an extra thing. Think about human history–and here I’m talking about deep history—with anthropologists and archeologists digging into our very, very ancient past. What was the first thing we did after we took care of our survival? We had enough food. We had fire. We could keep the saber tooth tigers at bay. What was the first thing we did? Beat on logs, make music, dance, tell stories, put handprints on the cave walls. The first thing we did was art.”

Yet often during her own career, she wasn’t as close to the arts as she would have liked. When she was in her twenties, she worked as an uninspired receptionist on Wall Street. When she landed in the music business, she eventually started her own public relations agency where she represented musicians. This led her to arts journalism, but even then, writing about the arts for prestigious publications, she wanted something more.

When I was doing arts journalism, I was 100 percent into that, but in the back of my mind, I thought, ‘Oh, I miss performing. I miss theater. I miss that part of my life that I’m writing about but not in.” So today, she’s taken the opportunity to do what has always been natural to her. “Starting to write plays put me right back into the performing arts, full circle.”

For women who are assessing their own careers, Keller has some advice: “I see a lot of people, women in particular, sometimes taking a job or a project with someone they can’t completely trust. It’s never worth it. It’s better to hold out and work with people you respect. At the end of the day you will go home happy. You’re looking to work for people and with people who have complete integrity.”

On the Day that Changed Keller’s Life

In Keller’s new radio drama, The Foley Guy: A Romance, an interviewer asks a sound engineer to talk about a day that changed his life. It was the day a beautiful cellist walked into his office fawning over the sound effects he made from unusual ingredients, like jello, cellophane, and gravel; it was the day that sparked a romance that led to a walk in the woods filled with sounds and eventually a kiss. Resonating with so many, The Foley Guy won the 2023 Atlanta Fringe Festival Audio Critics’ Choice Award, and received 3 of the 7 other awards, including: Best Writing, Best Mixing, and Most Creative.

With all of Keller’s success, growth, and change, it’s easy to wonder if there’s a day that changed her life. According to the artist, it was the day she went to a poetry reading in New York City. It was “The first time I heard my husband read and talk. . . I heard this wonderful man with this brilliant mind and this big heart and this beautiful voice. We became friends and later we became man and wife.” And so began what many appreciate about her work– an exploration of love, chemistry, what she describes as “the miracle of art.”