Theater Notebook: San Diego’s favorite character actor, Ralph Johnson, is playing dead — again

A man wearing a striped suit and hat and sitting in a wheelchair is surrounded by actors and crew members.
Ralph Johnson, center, with the cast and crew of “Lucky Stiff” at Scripps Ranch Theatre. Director Kathy Brombacher is at far right.
(Courtesy of Ken Jacques)

Also this week: Playwrights Project’s Plays by Young Writers Festival returns and La Jolla Playhouse announces fellowships for BIPOC directors and stage managers


It’s hard work playing a dead guy.

Just ask Ralph Johnson, who is performing the title role in the musical “Lucky Stiff” this winter in a co-production that runs Jan. 28-Feb. 19 at Scripps Ranch Theatre, then moves to North County for a second run with Oceanside Theatre Company March 3-19.

The beloved San Diego character actor said that even though he doesn’t have to memorize any lines or stage blocking for the show, it takes a great deal of concentration, listening and stillness to play the role of Tony Hendon. Hendon is a newly dead American millionaire whose final request to his nephew and sole heir, Harry, is to take Tony’s corpse on an all-expense-paid gambling vacation in Monte Carlo. Johnson first played the role of the lucky stuff in a 2016 production at Grossmont College.

“People say it must be easy to sit in the wheelchair and be dead. But you do have to pay attention,” he said. “I have some choreography when I’m seated. I have to slump over or lean over or my head goes down, and I do get up at one point during a nightmare scene and do a little dancing and singing. But other than that I’m just in the chair. It’s an acting exercise. You can’t cough, you can’t sneeze. If you fail, it will ruin the whole show.”

In the 1988 Stephen Flaherty-Lynn Ahrens musical, Tony’s will requires that Harry dress Tony’s body in a suit, tie, hat and dark sunglasses, so nobody at the casinos will know he’s dead. But even behind the sunglasses, Johnson said he plays the role with his eyes closed so he won’t react or laugh if something funny or unexpected happens onstage.

The musical is being directed by Kathy Brombacher, the now-retired founding artistic director of Moonight Amphitheatre in Vista, which has been Johnson’s longtime artistic home. This year marks the 30th anniversary of his first performance at Moonlight.

“I adore Kathy. She’s a treasure in this community,” he said. “You think back about the hundreds or thousands of people you meet doing theater and I’ve met so many lifelong friends who I’ve learned so much from over the years.”

Johnson became an actor in midlife. After earning a college degree in music education in his 20s, he quickly realized he didn’t enjoy teaching. Instead, he got a job at Sequoia National Park and spent 12 years there working in concessions, personnel and hospitality positions. He moved to San Diego in 1984 for a hotel industry job and started auditioning for roles in community theater as a hobby. His first local acting gig was in a Christian Community Theatre production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in 1990.

In the years that followed, acting became Johnson’s passion, so he worked day jobs in the mortgage, publishing and security industries to support his theater work. Over the past 33 years, he has appeared in more than 100 productions, both in San Diego and elsewhere around the country.

Now in his 70s, with homes in San Diego and Palm Springs, he’s still enjoying stage work and has no plans to retire.

“Being an actor is hard. You’re always looking for the next job. Fortunately I haven’t had to do acting to put food on the table, so I don’t worry as much about if there will be a next job,” he said. “A few years back I was driving home from L.A. and I said to myself, ‘You’re getting old and your opportunities will be less,’ and I was at peace with that. The career I’ve had has been wonderful, and it’s not over yet.”

For tickets to “Lucky Stiff” visit or

A woman in a tank top poses outdoors.
Kat Yen is the recipient of a Director Fellowship at La Jolla Playhouse.
(Courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse)

L.J. Playhouse launches BIPOC fellowships

Kat Yen has been announced as the first recipient of La Jolla Playhouse’s 2023-24 Directing Fellowship. Launched last spring, the two-year fellow programs for directors and stage managers were created as part of the Playhouse’s Anti-Racism Action Plan to be more welcoming to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) voices.

Yen is a Taiwanese American theater director from New York City, with a master’s degree in directing from Yale University. She has directed at multiple theaters and is an alum of the Lincoln Center Directors Lab. She joined the Playhouse staff this month. The recipient of the first Stage Management Fellowship will begin later this year, and their name will be announced closer to their start date.

Plays by Young Writers returns

This week, Playwrights Project will present its 38th edition of the Plays by Young Writers Festival in a trio of San Diego performances.

The four winning scripts from Playwrights Project’s 2022 Plays by Young Writers competition will be presented Thursday and Friday, Jan. 25-27 mornings to school groups, followed by a public performance at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 28.

The 2022 competition drew 228 scripts from 243 writers at 39 schools in 17 school districts statewide. The winning scripts tackle issues of cultural identity, redefining oneself, the impact of grief and the injustice of war.

In the contest’s younger division — ages 11 to 13 — there was one winner, Ell Banoub, for his play “The Santa Heist.” Banoub is a student at Creative Performing & Media Arts Middle School in San Diego. In the holiday comedy, Santa Claus has COVID, so preteen boy Danny, his dog and his Elf on the Shelf doll team up to save Christmas. Banoub’s play will have a staged reading.

The other three winning plays were written by students ages 14 to 18. All three plays will receive fully staged productions.

“The Notifiers” is by Donny Cannady of Fullerton. Set during the Vietnam War, it’s about two volunteers — a World War II veteran and a 20-year-old man whose medical condition excused him from the draft — who share their views on war while driving to notify a family that their loved one has died in the war.

“Gifted” is by Tehilla Fishman of Los Angeles. It’s the story of Luna, a teen piano prodigy who gives up the instrument after the death of the grandmother who raised her. Then her grandma’s spirit returns to say she won’t rest until she knows Luna starts playing again.

“American Dissonance” is by Vincent Schilling of Los Altos Hills. It’s the story of a 20-year-old Chinese American meeting with her therapist to talk about her plans for a cross-country road trip to San Francisco’s Chinatown to explore and define her cultural identity.

All performances will take place at the Salvation Army’s Joan B. Kroc Center at 6845 University Ave., San Diego. For tickets to Saturday’s performance, visit

— Pam Kragen writes about theater for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Email her at