Dion Johnstone

Theatre Conversation in a Covid World

Corey Berry

Joe Szekeres

’ve seen Dion Johnstone’s work on stage in several Shakespearean productions at Ontario’s Stratford Festival. I was particularly taken with the very bloody ‘Julius Caesar’ presented by Groundling Theatre at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre just before the pandemic hit.

When I checked his biography from his website (included at the end Dion’s profile), I also discovered he has also been a part of some very fine productions in the US under some extraordinary directors. Dion made his Broadway debut as the Duke of Albany in ‘King Lear’ with Glenda Jackson as the titular character. That is a performance I would have loved to see Ms. Jackson tackle.

Dion plays the recurring role of Erik Whitley for ‘Sweet Magnolias’ now streaming through Netflix. Another one to watch during this time of provincial stay at home orders. Dion has also played in other Canadian shows including ‘Frankie Drake Mysteries’ and ‘Flashpoint’.

In December 2019, Dion made his Hallmark Movies and Mysteries debut starring in ‘A Family Christmas Gift’ opposite Holly Robinson Peete and Patti Labelle.

Dion’s training included The University of Alberta and The Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre.

We conducted our interview via Zoom. Thank you again so much for taking the time on a Sunday morning, Dion:

The doors to Toronto live theatre have been shut for over a year now with no possible date of re-opening soon. How have you and your immediate family been faring during this time?

You know, when the focus of the pandemic hit and we went into lockdown and isolation, the focus really changed for me because my wife and I knew we would be having a child. On July 28, 2020, my wife gave birth to a baby boy who’s now on his way to nine months.

That’s been an amazing experience for us. He’s really changed our outlook because we really wanted, especially during the time of great anxiety, for him to meet the best version of ourselves, and I think when you look at him and the level of joy, freedom, comfort and confidence that he already possesses and exudes is a testament to the work that we’ve been doing. We had to get control of our mind space and internal space through all of this.

One of the things we focused on right away - there was a meditation group that was going around hosted by Deepak Chopra right at the beginning of the lockdown called ‘Twenty-One Days of Abundance’. And that was the first things we did and thought this is great. With the fear of there being no work and when everything was going to open up again, to just take time and focus on inner work and thinking no matter what the external appearances may be you can always tap into a source of abundance, that’s an energy that you put forth into the world and that returns to you in some form or other.

We started by doing that, and that really set the template for our frame of mind through all of this. Despite what we see out there, what’s more important is how you feel internally. If you feel yourself going off the rails, do the work to bring yourself back to your centre. And we want to do that because those are the lessons we want to pass on to our son, especially in a world prior to the pandemic that was moving at a blazing rate and continues.

We wanted to help provide a space for our son where in the future he could step away where he can be a part of this world but doesn’t have to be consumed by it.

I think we’ve doing quite well, all things considered.

How have you been spending your time since the theatre industry has been locked up tight as a drum?

I just arrived in Atlanta and can’t talk too much about it for all the non-disclosure agreements I signed. I can say in brief we’re shooting Season 2 of ‘Sweet Magnolias’ (now on Netflix Canada). I just arrived and just about to begin. I’ve done the period of quarantine with the multiple testing and once cleared all set to go.

The film industry has been quite progressive in finding the template necessary in order to continue filming. Modifications have been made along with heavy safety protocols, and the film industry has been largely successful. It puts a lot of pressure on the actor/artist to ensure that they are in top health to continue and honour the contract signed and to ensure the shooting schedule is kept on task.

Outside of being a new father and career responsibilities, during the early part of the pandemic there was a lot of binge-watching Netflix. Certainly, when our son came into the world, that changed a lot of the binge-watching as he doesn’t allow us to watch tv unless he’s out cold for a nap. But the moment he wakes up we gotta unplug our devices. Our son doesn’t even like us being on our cell phones. Our son calls us to being present.

I do try to find time on my own for meditational time through daily training, not necessarily weights since everything is closed. I do yoga, I use resistance bands training. I’ve been doing a lot of yin yoga, very relaxing with deep, deep, tissue work and that’s been good. I don’t get out a lot but now that I’m filming in Atlanta, there’s a park across the street from where I’m staying. It’s similar to New York’s Central Park, and there’s lot of open space and opportunities for social distancing so I can spend some time there.

In Toronto, we live across the street from the Harbour on Queen’s Quay, so my wife and I were able to take our son out for walks on pathways.

The late Hal Prince described the theatre as an escape for him. Would you say that Covid has been an escape for you, or would you describe this year long plus absence from the theatre as something else?

You know, in some ways I would say, yes, it has been an escape, and it’s been an escape from the world in the way that we knew it which has really caused me to examine it and question it.

So much of my life is influenced by being a new parent and considering what things might have been were the pandemic not happening. I remember many seasons at Stratford watching other actors become parents. They would get the performance off to go and be there for the birth and would be back on stage the next day in both performances and rehearsals.

In Stratford, the week is divided in slots. So, there could be 12 slots in a week, and you could work 11 of those and then they have to give you an extra slot off periodically. That’s a lot of work and you get one day off a week. This period of time I’ve been able to share the load of parenting with my wife; obviously there’s only stuff she can do as the mother but there’s a lot of stuff I can do on the peripheral and allowed me the opportunity to create a very deep bond with my son.

I’m adopted. My beginnings were quite rocky. I don’t know my birth father, and my birth mother lost custody of me when I was quite young. So, it’s been really important for me to create a stability and foundation to end that cycle so that doesn’t pass on to my son, and that’s not a reality that he has to know. I think about if I weren’t there, if after the birth I had to go straight into rehearsals, and I only came home at night and wholly focused on preparing for the next day, I would be there physically, but I wouldn’t be accessible to my partner, Lisa, as a parent as all that load would be put on her and I realize how big a load that is.

It gets a little bit easier now that he’s a little bit older so me being out of town is a little bit easier. We do have a very good network support and he’s not quite as dependent as he was in the beginning. Those early couple of months, you realize how our world is not geared up for that, not geared up to usher new life into this world. You’re ripped away from your children too quickly, that’s the way of the world.

But the pandemic stopped that. It stopped the world and we’ve got a chance to look at what’s important and what do we value.

For me, it’s an escape for what it could have been in that sense. On another level, it’s an opportunity to question when it all comes back, what’s the kind of life I want to have, and how can I create a life that gives me more of a balance so that it’s not wholly work heavy. If that means I do condensed periods of time so we can take a couple of months off and go take a family vacation together, I don’t know what that form will be, but making sure I can be there for my family in a big way is very important.

I’ve interviewed a few artists several months ago who said that the theatre industry will probably be shut down and not go full head on until at least 2022. There may be pockets of outdoor theatre where safety protocols are in place. What are your comments about this? Do you think you and your colleagues/fellow artists will not return until 2022?

Given that we’re dealing with a virus, going in and out of lockdown, and you just told me today the numbers in the province are up over 4400, it’s impossible in my mind to predict when we will be back. I would say 2022 is a safe bet. It could be longer.

I think the reality is that theatre as we knew it has changed. And we may never quite see it in that same way again. But I do have hope for what theatre will evolve into. Right now, seeing Stratford and Shaw come back in interesting and careful and limited fashions is a good thing. Both my wife and I worked with Obsidian Theatre and they did a co-production at the beginning of the year with CBC Art called ’21 Black Futures’ which brought theatrical work to the screen. I think that’s another avenue that’s been successfully explored.

Theatre isn’t dead. It’s under the ground and working it out and figuring it out what can it do. How can it manage in this period and how can it re-invent itself for what’s to come.

My life has changed. I don’t think I’ll be able to walk into my house again without ensuring I wash my hands down. Our experience of the flu may be radically changed in the time to come. Our world is going to be radically different, and we will always be under the reality this happened once, and we reached a threshold where it could happen, and it shut down the world. That’s now a possibility. We don’t know what else is coming, what further things are coming down. We have to be prepared and safe.

The excess that we knew may not happen in the same way, but I do think theatre will evolve nevertheless to meet the capacity of the time, whatever that form is going to be.

I had a discussion recently with a Toronto Equity actor who said that theatre should not only entertain but, more importantly, it should transform both the actor and the audience. How has Covid transformed you as an artist?

That’s so interesting. It’s hard to know as an artist how Covid has transformed me. It’s certainly made me look at different avenues and explore what else I have inside to offer. I sit down and go, well, if I’m not performing on a stage, what’s my purpose? Why do I act?

If I can’t do it in that form, what’s another form I can do it in? That led me to explore teaching opportunities. I love to see people empowered and transformed by different thoughts and different ideas. I like being the vessel that can contain those ideas so that people can reflect and see it. I can achieve that same feeling through teaching what I know.

Ghostlight Theatre came out of the cage really strong when we went into the lockdown initially and offered an opportunity to teach a class of whatever I wanted. And I decided to put a class together on rhetoric using Shakespeare as a platform to really explore the ideas of ethos, the logos and pathos and the pillars of argument.

My intent was whether you were an actor looking to sharpen their skills or an audience member who wants to know more about what the craft is, it didn’t matter what walk of like you came from. In the end we are being affected by messaging all the time and we are being played on intellectually, emotionally, and ethically all the time. You open your Twitter feed and think about what triggers you. Some of the images we see there are pathos, and some are facts and figures that make your brain spin whether they are true or not but present themselves as true.

To have the ability to have more discernment about what’s coming at you and more choice as to how you want to play something as an artist, and how you want to play upon your audience, I thought was a very fun thing to explore and share and had been really introduced to me when I was at Stratford doing The Conservatory Program. I give full credit to the knowledge and training I received there, and also from the late Ian Watson who was one of our instructors and was a master of argument.

And so, really sharing the way those principles that affected me and how I now use them in my work is how I put together this course and I found that a satisfying discovery, and I probably wouldn’t have done. Covid has created an online opportunity where you can work with people from around the world. I’ve been able to do play readings with a company in New York. People can now be pulled from anywhere say to do the reading of a Jacobean play, and audiences now have access to be able to log in anytime to those writings and artists.

It’s really brought the opportunities to use your craft in different ways globally.

The late Zoe Caldwell spoke about how actors should feel danger in the work. It’s a solid and swell thing to have if the actor/artist and the audience both feel it. Would you agree with Ms. Caldwell? Have you ever felt danger during this time of Covid and do you believe it will somehow influence your work when you return to the theatre?

I definitely agree with Ms. Caldwell’s notion of danger. And certainly in performances, something has to be genuinely risked in order for the stakes to be real and in order for the audience experience to be transformative. If there’s nothing happening in the artist, and it’s just acted, then what happens is a separation between the audience and the performer where the audience is just watching you, and not breathing with you and experiencing with you.

The more that the artist can access a true feeling of risk and danger, the danger. The best directors I’ve had are those who have really pushed me in my performances to risk more, to go further in order to draw and drop deeper in myself in challenging and frightening work because you don’t know how you’re going to get there.

Now, in terms of Covid, it’s a strange thing because it affects everybody differently. Some people have had direct experiences with it, some people have had or have the virus. Others have had close family members or friends pass away from Covid, so they feel differently. Others have had no direct experience with it and haven’t been in an ICU so it’s a challenge for those who do not understand what it like or have the experience with it.

Living with this invisible threat which has been very disorienting and weird and certainly frightful on those days when I have to have a Covid test, and I fear if I get a positive result that’s it for my ability to be on set, to provide financially for my family, and my contract is now gone. I really had to challenge myself to ensure that I don’t bring this negative and destructive energy into my reality, well that stop telling that story because it’s not serving me. Yes, fear has been triggered in me on account of this virus but I haven’t had a direct personal case or a family member so I can’t speak of it from that angle. In many ways, it’s been a bizarre thing that’s there, but I respect how many have been affected by it but it’s so strange because it feels like nothing is happening.

In terms of how Covid will affect my work? I don’t know. Everything that happens in life is going to affect your work. It filters in ways that we’re not aware of. Sometimes, for an actor, the best problems are solved when you’re working on a role in your dreams when you start to dream about a part because that’s your sub conscious working it out in better ways than your intellect can.

I’m sure subconsciously the way I have grown and changed over this period of Covid will bleed and is bleeding into my work, but I couldn’t intellectually say how.

The late scenic designer Ming Cho Lee spoke about great art opening doors and making us feel more sensitive. Has this time of Covid made you sensitive to our world and has it made some impact on your life in such a way that you will bring this back with you to the theatre?

Well, certainly in a beautiful way, having a child and we made a real commitment to validate his feelings to recognize, acknowledge and understand what his needs are. Even though he doesn’t have the language to communicate just yet, we wanted him to feel that he was being heard and responded to. In a way, he’s been very communicative from the very go.

There is this thing called baby sign language and you can help them communicate early in life. We tried that and that didn’t really work for us, but we can feel his energy and been in communication from go. He doesn’t cry very often. He’s not a crier but when he does it’s because we’ve missed a lot of signals that he’s been given along the way. More often than not, we’re able to figure out those signals before the crying so that is something important to figure out.

Just that level of sensitivity, that relationship we share with him is so profound, so unlike; I love in a deeper, fuller way than I have before. I’m fiercely protective in ways. I laugh. This kid makes us laugh. He’s brought so much to our world and that’s a beautiful thing.

Looking at this world through the pandemic, I’ve become really sensitive to the messaging that comes our way. There’s so much confusion. I’ve never learned through anything where there have been so many mixed messages – lockdown versus lockdown and all that illogic that has been followed through, it’s no wonder there are anti maskers, anti-vaxxeers, hoax, an opportunity to decimate society and a re-set. We live in mass confusion.

We are in great need of discernment, and it’s made me very sensitive to what I take in. I want to pay attention to how I’m feeling internally, and if I’m getting too worked up maybe it’s time to take a step back and look at something else OR to explore all sides of the argument. We’ve lost how to debate because everyone is so entrenched in their camp with no cross discussion. We’ve a lot of work to do to find shared common ideals as opposed to where we are different if we’re to get anywhere in this mess of confusion we’re living in.

Again, the late Hal Prince spoke of the fact that theatre should trigger curiosity in the actor/artist and the audience. Has Covid sparked any curiosity in you about something during this time? Has this time away from the theatre sparked further curiosity for you when you return to this art form?

Really, it's a furtherance of what I just broke into. There was a time on my social media feed where I wouldn’t follow anyone of different beliefs and ideals than mine. But then I realized I don’t know what other people are thinking and so when things happen, I don’t understand why it’s happened.

In terms of curiosity as an actor, we’re very often playing individuals who don’t share that same ideology that we hold, how can we do this if we don’t allow ourselves to see things in another light or way, and allow ourselves to go through that ideology that we don’t understand? I started including in my feed people who hold opposing views to my own, just to keep tabs to the rhetoric they’re using and what others are thinking.

There seems to be a fear that in doing this we lose our own identity or you are affirming other people’s beliefs that are right or wrong, and who’s to say what’s right or what’s wrong. But nonetheless, you can’t have a conversation if you can’t find common ground.

Because we’re all human beings in the end, somehow in our world it makes sense to try to see the other side, to see the logic there. Where do we connect? Where is our common humanity? How can a bridge be made from one common ideal to the next without trying to see another point of view?

Through me doing this, I can potentially have the same affect on someone else trying to see from where I cam coming.

To learn more about Dion, visit his personal website: www.dionjohnstone.com, To follow Dion on his social media: Facebook: @DionJohnst ; Twitter: @DionJohnstone ; Instagram: @dion_johnstone

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