Skip to main content

Holladay Journal

Skyline drama alum finds home in internationally recognized Shakespearean theater

Dec 04, 2019 09:41AM ● By Heather Lawrence

Chris Johnston in The Willard Suitcases, a world-premiere musical by Julianne Wick Davis; directed by Ethan McSweeny. (Photo by Lindsey Walters)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

When Chris Johnston scored the lead in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” at Skyline High, he felt like he was on to something. He was right. Eighteen years later, he’s part of a world-class Shakespearean acting team in Staunton, Virginia. He also arranged music for the premiere of a new musical. In an interview with the City Journals, Johnston said the journey of how he got there is as important to him as the achievement itself. 

Johnston grew up in Millcreek and graduated from Skyline in 2001. He was president of the drama club when an energetic new drama teacher, Kyle Lewis, was hired. “We started doing tournaments, one-acts, Shakespeare scenes and scholarship auditions. I was accepted to the University of Utah’s Actor Training Program, and it was directly because of my teacher,” Johnston said. 

While at Skyline he developed his musical talents. “I grew up singing in church. I took piano lessons and voice lessons. My senior year I taught myself to play guitar,” Johnston said. 

Johnston’s time at the U included studying with Shakespearean scholar Jaq Bessell. Johnston’s world changed when Bessell attended the biennial Blackfriars Conference at the American Shakespeare Center (ASC) in Staunton, Virginia. It is the only recreated Blackfriars Theater in the US. Its historically inspired staging techniques include having the actors sing and play instruments before and during the show. 

“When Jaq got back, she said, ‘Chris, you have to audition there. You would love it. You would get to act and play music.’” Johnston auditioned, but wasn’t offered a position. 

“That was good for me because I came back and finished my degree. I liked Shakespeare, but I didn’t love it yet. My passion came from doing it over and over again,” Johnston said. Four years ago he finished the canon, meaning he has performed in some aspect of each one of Shakespeare’s 37 plays. 

Johnston auditioned for Blackfriars again in 2006. This time he was cast for two seasons of the ASC’s touring troupe. He continued learning new instruments. He met his wife and decided to stop touring. After a short return to Utah to act and teach, he joined the ASC’s team of in-house repertory actors and settled in Staunton. “This city is a gem — it’s beautiful,” Johnston said. 

Johnston said he’s seen a lot of growth at the Blackfriars. “Two years ago, we got a new artistic director, Ethan McSweeny. He made my position as manager of music official. I choose, write, arrange and teach all the music for our shows. All of our actors learn to play instruments and sing. There’s nothing really like it, not even at the Globe in London,” Johnston said. 

In February, Johnston was approached by McSweeny with a new musical, “The Willard Suitcases.” Written by Julianne Wick Davis, it imagines the lives of residents who lived in the real Willard Psychiatric Center in upstate New York many years ago. The contents of some leftover suitcases were the only clues to who these people were. 

“[McSweeny] gave me the music and I arranged it from piano to fit other instruments in our production. [Davis] was a treat to work with. She’s like Shakespeare in that she writes people. What he does in verse she’s written into this musical,” Johnston said. 

“The Blackfriars is an ideal theater for musicals. We have actors who can sing and play. It’s just small enough that it feels intimate, but big enough that it can be grand. This music was challenging, but we have a great work ethic. No hill is too high,” Johnston said. (A performance of “What Would You Pack?” with Johnston on guitar is on YouTube.)

Johnston said he would like ASC to be part of the Shakespearean theater conversation. “I want actors to say that if you’re going to do Shakespeare, you have to work here.” 

The fall repertory season at ASC ran from Sept. 25 to Dec. 1. They presented “Antony and Cleopatra,” “Julius Caesar,” “Caesar and Cleopatra” and the world premiere of “The Willard Suitcases.” The productions ran concurrently, with all the actors performing in each show. 

The ASC gains international attention for its work. The Telegraph in the UK wrote a piece about them in October 2018. They’ve been covered this year in April and November by the Washington Post. In his Nov. 6 article, the Post’s theater critic Peter Marks gave the theater’s season a positive review, and described Johnston as a “guitar-strumming troubadour.” 

Johnston has family in the Salt Lake Valley, and he doesn’t get back to visit them as often as he would like. But career-wise, he’s where he wants to be. “I’ve never had the time to worry about, ‘Can I make this a career?’ because I’m always thinking about the next show.” 

His advice to people who want to work in theater or music is both practical and philosophical. “Learn as much as you can. Take acting classes. Learn to read music and sing. Play an instrument or two. Don’t be afraid to fail. You’re telling people’s stories, so learn about all kinds of people. Take care of yourself because you don’t get sick days. It’s a hard career, so you really have to want it.”

Johnston said acting was always a fallback to music, which he really loves, so it’s a dream come true to do both. “I feel like I’m having the realization every day that I’ve made this a career. I’ve been employed with a livable wage at the same theater for over a decade. I’m very lucky. Every day it hits me how lucky I am.”

“Shakespeare’s stories are beautiful. They’re 400 years old, but they’re really about people, and people haven’t changed that much. Theater is so ephemeral. So focus on the journey, because that’s what’s magical. Over time you’ll look back and be amazed at what you did,” Johnston said.