Q&A: Christine Johnston

Q&A: Christine Johnston

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Christine Johnston is a performing artist, writer, and singer whose numerous creative endeavours include her involvement in Brisbane’s Women In Voice series, as well as her role as Eve Kransky in the award-winning comedy trio The Kransky Sisters. She is currently playing Mad Margaret in Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse! at Brisbane’s Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC).

We caught up with Christine to find how the performance is going so far, how her career began, and what other performances of hers we have to look forward to in the near future.

2017-02-22 Christine Johnston HS-BW.jpg

Hi Christine, I hope your week’s going well! I imagine you’re incredibly busy — can you tell me a bit about how you feel the performance is going so far?

The Ruddigore performances have had a very warm and enthusiastic reception from audiences… I think the fact that we are all having such a great time on stage together is obvious. People are also responding very positively to the direction and design. We chatted the other night that, during the rehearsal period, there is always one ‘cast member’ missing — the ‘audience’.

Once opening night has happened, it is as though every performance is a new, exciting, unpredictable exchange with a new ‘cast member’ .

It can be really electrifying when the audience becomes part of the mix.

Can you tell me about how your career first began?

It’s difficult to name a starting point as my career in the performing arts almost crept up on me. I had been playing the guitar and writing songs in my bedroom since I was 12 years old but, up to and just beyond that time, I had hoped to study medicine and become a bone specialist. As I moved through my teenage years my interests began to focus more on humanities, language, writing, music, and art rather than broken bones. After high school I went to art-college majoring in Sculpture as this was a stepping-stone towards ‘museum design and taxidermy’, which interested me. It somehow combined my biology and art interests.

As a child I grew up in a family/neighbourhood where making up ‘plays’, giving ‘concerts’ in the big family camping tent (that we would erect in the back yard), and lounge-room dancing around a tape recorder, were all enjoyable extra curricular activities.

Once I hit tertiary art-college in 1984 and moved into the vibrant and creative West End community in Brisbane, my world opened up and I started sidling in the direction of performance, theatre, cabaret, and comedy. It was with groups such as Street Arts alongside Rock’n Roll Circus that kicked me off, eventually playing in groups such as the late 80s comedy cabaret group The Hibiscus Sisters (with the very funny Pauline Bell, Joey Constable, and Geri Kelder), and the late 80s/early 90s band Gezabel Dinosaur… (think B-52s and Shakespears Sister) with the incredible musicians Bretski Parker, Geri Kelder, and Geoff Ahmet, being the first band to enjoy a 2 year weekly residency at Ric’s Bar, Fortitude Valley.

These were times of lounge-room concert parties and warehouse parties where everyone could have hilarious fun performing new ideas to friends, before moving to night-clubs, big halls, theatres, and beyond.

It was these times, and moving amongst an embracing diverse community of creative thinkers, that started life’s ball rolling in a direction I had never expected.

Is there a particular moment that you would define as pivotal and, if so, can you tell me about it?

I consider there to be many significant pivotal moments, but apart from the above (alongside my waitressing, Barista jobs, my warehouse ‘stacking underwear’ and cleaning jobs)… the moment that started me in a direction that I am still moving in today was when Annie Dellar (now Peterson) asked me to be part of Women In Voice cabaret. The brief was that we could do 15 minutes of whatever we liked. It was this opportunity that opened my eyes to a different and more personal connection and communication with an audience.

The Women In Voice audiences would eventually become a bit like family. For many years, I was involved in every 2nd season of this now iconic cabaret. Later this year it will be celebrating it’s 25th anniversary. The format and the incredible community of singers that I met through this changed my life!

This is where I met Annie Lee who has been a co-collaborator since about 1998 where, through our exchange of ridiculous answering-machine messages, and our uproarious laughing fits, and mutual appreciation of human frailties and the offbeat, we both discovered the Australian comedy cabaret scene via those beloved Kransky Sisters from Esk in Queensland.

What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced as a female in the industry? 

I’m thinking about your question and I’m struggling to think of a particular challenge in the industry that I faced specifically because I am female…

Many industries, including arts, music, and comedy, can be dominated by a male presence, but I think by the time I was getting out there, ground work had been done by some pretty gutsy amazing women.

These include Carol Lloyd, Chrissy Amplett, Deborah Conway, Judith Lucy, Denise Scott (currently touring their show), Jane Turner, Gina Riley, Magda Szubanski, and Marg Downey, to name just a few in Australia…

With the amazing people that were my colleagues, including the West End community of both men and women, we didn’t really accept that there was anything we couldn’t do. We just all basically did it and had hilarious fun. There was no feeling that we couldn’t do something — in many cases being female was an advantage.

Are these still the same today, or have they changed since you started out?

Things have definitely changed and moved, some positive and some perhaps stifling, regarding challenges in the performance industry. Much of it due to the distraction of the numerous changing media and entertainment options, and the exposure and commentary that ensues.

I fear that young people with their ideas aren’t given enough of the quiet, playful, and reflective space to make mistakes and discover without stifling judgment.

What’s your favourite thing about playing Mad Margaret in Ruddigore, or the Witch’s Curse? What does the role mean to you?

My favourite thing about playing Mad Margaret is putting my own slant or interpretation onto a character that has an existing script and story line. Imbuing her with my own way of interpreting her “madness”.

Sometimes this can be challenging, because the words may not always be words that you would choose to use but, sticking to the script, it can be hugely satisfying finding your own way in and having to make it work.

The process of finding all this has been enormously fun with director Lindy Hume, who has a great sense of humour, and also in the rehearsal room with the rest of the incredible cast that Lindy has chosen.

Finally, can you tell me how you’re planning to spend your free time when the show wraps up, and what’s next for you professionally?

I am fortunate not to have much free time following this. I am going straight into co-developing two very different new shows… They are both just at seedling stage so describing them would be difficult. Without letting any premature cats out of any bags, a very brief outline is: beginning an artist residency at Malthouse Theatre; Melbourne-based pianist Sonya Lifschitz and I have collected interviews with some of the incredible women relatives/friends in our lives, ranging in their 70s, 80s and 90s, which we are hoping will culminate into a performance/theatre/music work. Also, Scottish children’s theatre creator Shona Reppe and I, alongside Australia’s Rosemary Myers, will be creating a new children’s work commissioned by Windmill and Edinburgh International Children’s Festival. I am absolutely thrilled to be developing new works with these exciting artists, each hailing from very different art forms. My bird-calling Madame Lark will also be performing at Awesome Arts Festival in Perth in October, and I do believe that those dear sisters from Esk, The Kransky Sisters, will be touring their show ‘A Very Kransky Christmas’ in November and December.

Get your tickets to Ruddigore or the Witch’s Curse HERE!


Answers by Christine Johnston

Image via Agency North with permission

Featured Image via Opera.Q

Questions and Edits by Emma Kate Lewis

 

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