When Phil Johnson was in high school, he saw Clifton Holznagel in Lee Falk's Eris, a play about strangers meeting on a bridge over the Hudson River, and never really forgot that experience.
"I remember watching the play and afterwards thinking, 'Wow, that man's a really good actor,'" Johnson says. "And then I went along with the rest of my day."
Little did Johnson know that two years later, he and Holznagel would meet at Ohio University and forge a friendship that would reshape their lives. Today, in addition to acting, they run Radical Listening, a podcast about Portland theater that has become a voice for an artistic community in flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Radical Listening is my attempt to document what I call a theater renaissance that's happening in Portland," says Johnson, who is a company member and technical director at Confrontation Theatre. "Unfortunately, things have changed because of the virus, but I would say for the last five to 10 years, the Portland theater community has had a high output of theater. You've got the small fringe shows, you've got the stuff in the park. I've seen a play where you had to ride your bike from scene to scene. That was my whole goal—to document that this stuff is happening."
Radical Listening is produced by CoHo Productions and Johnson's Virtual Sonic Reality studio. When the podcast started in 2019, Holznagel became Johnson's co-host, even though he was uneasy about Radical Listening being their follow-up to Moontalk, a podcast about cryptocurrency.
"The stakes are higher," Holznagel says. "No one I knew was listening to my cryptocurrency podcast."
With high stakes came high-profile guests. Johnson and Holznagel have turned on the mic for some of Portland's most commanding performers, including Samson Syharath—who joined them to discuss the soulful scare-athon The Brothers Paranormal—and La' Tevin Alexander, who spoke to them about playing a private school student accused of assaulting a teacher earlier this year in Portland Playhouse's production of Pipeline.
Rather than intimidate interviewees with a hulking, Howard Stern-style desk, Johnson and Holznagel typically record around a tiny table at CoHo.
"Ultimately, we want it to feel like a free-flowing dinner conversation, where maybe it can get wild," Johnson says.
That spirit pervades the "headlines" section of the podcast, which has a history of loosening up guests by asking them to respond to quirky news stories, like a family in China mistaking a bear for a dog. They've kept it up, even though the pandemic has forced Johnson and Holznagel to start recording from their homes.
"I think it'll be most interesting to keep talking to the same type of people we would have talked to anyways, and talk to them about what they're up to now," says Holznagel, "because everyone's had to adjust and that's relatable."
Radical Listening has also responded to the killing of George Floyd and the protests against police brutality that followed—the podcast's 15th episode, an interview with Fuse Theatre Ensemble member James Dixon and activist Darion Jones, focused on Black Lives Matter and allyship. Yet while the podcast merges art and activism, Johnson doesn't want it to be held solely responsible for promoting equity in Portland theater.
"Here's the other thing about being Black, I guess: People are constantly calling on you to be the one," Johnson says. "Black people are always getting called upon to use their equity or their assets to enact this change, and what I'm asking is for white people to do that. I want Radical Listening to be radical listening, and I want white theater companies to do this work."
It's impossible to say exactly what the Portland theater scene will look like a year, or even a month, from now. Whatever happens, Johnson and Holznagel plan to keep listening and collaborating.
"He's really made me value my skills higher than I think I used to, for better or worse," Holznagel says of Johnson. "I hope the same is true for him, but I know it's true for me. He's an inspiring dude to be around, through and through."
LISTEN: Radical Listening streams at cohoproductions.org.