Interview with Lisa Berry & Dion Johnstone

You think you understand what a power-couple looks like in the entertainment industry? Think again! Dion Johnstone & Lisa Berry – veteran film, TV and theatre actors – sat down for an inspirational chat about their journey in the arts, their pursuit for interesting projects and their love for one another.

Berry began her journey in the arts after a reflection on her talents. “I was a makeup artist before I got into acting”, she said. “I had a whole other career but I’ve always been the type of person who loves to tell a great story and make people laugh and be an entertainer of all kinds. When the opportunity came to try, it was, to my surprise, something that I was actually good at and thought that I should go to school and actually try and see what I could do with the talent that I maybe had”. The school she speaks of is the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts, where she graduated from in 2004. Since then, she has taken her talent and applied it to both theatre and television, from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to Global’s Combat Hospital. “The rest of the family were the ones who pretty encouraged me to follow this route because they believed in my talent”. Her family did well!

Johnstone on the other hand has a rather personal connection with the arts that goes back to his childhood. “When I was quite young, I grew up in a situation where I was separated from my birth mother and 2 brothers that I have, and was raised for a period of time in a group home with other kids”, he said. “I was very creative as a kid, as an artist, a musician and as a dramatist and I would stage little plays with all of the other kids who were in this group home”. His story echoed “artist in the making” and it wasn’t surprising when he said he was 7 or 8 years old at the time. Johnstone had a natural inclination towards the arts, something he refined well into his high school days and throughout his education at the University of Alberta, where he received a BFA in Acting.

Like many actors, they have dabbled in a little bit of everything; film, television, theatre, you name it. However, preference isn’t really a question when it comes to choosing between the mediums. “I think it’s really role depending”, said Berry. “For myself, the medium isn’t the important thing, it’s more the role. A great role is a great role”. Johnstone mentioned how the benefits of both mediums can be shared with one another. “I find that with stage, you are always working to make the person in the last row, up on the furthest balcony, feel like they are getting a close up performance. So you need to build your work to make sure that it reaches them in an authentic way. On film and television, you’ve got a camera that’s right in front of your face. So, you have the opportunity to go to levels of intimacy that would never read on stage”. Film, television and theatre are worlds apart when it comes to the final sensation derived from each art. Both Johnstone and Berry have been able to add value to both arts by adding what they learn from each. “I try to pull strengths from the other into each medium and hopefully become a better actor in both mediums through that process”, concluded Johnstone.

Johnstone and Berry first came together – and found love – at one of the most significant stage events in Canada: the Stratford Shakespeare Festival. They met on the set of To Kill a Mockingbird and it was all “love at first sight”. “I do feel as much as it’s an honour to work at the festival and to perform on those stages and work with such talented people, I do, in a way, believe that I was actually there to meet Dion”, said Berry. “What I am always grateful to Stratford for are the people they brought into my life”. They were friends throughout the production and continued so for the next one year until they finally decided to take it to the next level. “I spent several years prior to [To Kill A Mockingbird] – maybe 4 years – at the festival”, added Johnstone. “Everybody saw me as this really really serious guy, so super focused on the work, no sense of humour, very hard to connect with. In some ways that was true because I was playing fantastic roles that were being handed to me from a lot of pressure to deliver. But Meeting Lisa – she just had a way into recognizing my humour but also drawing it out of me. One of the greatest experiences to happen to me is having her come into my life”. Modern day Romeo and Juliet!

These two talented artists will be coming back to the magical world of theatre in the coming months in all new productions. Berry will grace the stage of the Tarragon Theatre in Richard Rose’s This Is War, an all new play that will get its world premiere on December 28th 2012. Tackling the sensitive subject of war, Berry brings to the table related experience to add to her role. “I was in Combat Hospital so I got the experience of understanding what that world is and how sensitive the topic is and themes are within those worlds”, she mentioned. “I am the only female member of the cast and the topic goes to extremes from the intimacy’s over there at war to the struggle of power and balance and I sit on a very fine line of what is right and what is wrong and I have to justify my actions throughout the show”. Berry was particularly excited about Tarragon’s intimate setting, going back to the discussion of giving the furthest audience member a close up performance. “You get to be a whole three dimensional character and you’re not worried about hitting the back of the house because the back of the house is ten feet away. You can be as honest, and genuine and real and authentic within a role as you possibly can”.

Johnstone, on the other hand, will be taking a trip south of the border to the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to play Mark Anthony in Jonathan Munby’s Julius Caesar, beginning February 5th 2013. “That’s a role I have wanted to play for a long time now”, stated Johnstone. “It’s going to be a contemporary production and its going to echo a lot of what’s currently going on in American politics”.

Julius Caesar is quite a significant production for Johnstone. In fact, Shakespeare himself is significant in his life. As a board member of the Shakespearience Performing Arts in the GTA, Johnstone has a personal connection with the Bard of Avon. “I first connected with Shakespeare when I was a kid”, he began to explain. “My first love was comic books and superheroes and Greek mythology. My parents were a little bit worried at the time that it’s great that he love comic books but we really want to get him into classical literature, get him reading novels and all that. They were at a flea market and all of sudden found these old comics from the 50’s called “Classics Illustrated” and they were a comic book set that would tell the stories of great novels like Moby Dick and Three Musketeers, and one of them was Julius Caesar. So they got that for me. That was my first contact with Shakespeare. They used the actual text from the play but put it in a comic book format. For me, almost immediately, I was able to connect the words to the images and I think that’s the greatest gift that I’ve gotten with working with Shakespeare is the power of images”. Julius Caesar in comic book form, a love story to rival Romeo and Juliet and a veteran actor from the Stratford Festival; if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d take his hat off to Johnstone. Maybe Johnstone is related to him?

Towards the end of the conversation, both Berry and Johnstone left some interesting advice for those who really wish to excel in the arts. As mentors to many, they felt strongly about sharing strong advice. Berry, who occasionally visits Randolph Academy to speak to graduating students, emphasized the importance of not taking theatre school for granted. “Always be learning, always be training and always be trying to get better”, she said. “I kinda put in the context of “everyday try and learn 1% more, get 1% better” because at the end of the year that adds up to continuous growth and allowing yourself to be in a position where your always warm, always hot, always ready to go.” Johnstone compared actors to athletes. “When you look at Olympic athletes who are training for an event, they have a team of coaches around them who are helping them to see where their strengths are and where their weakness’ are and how to improve on those weakness’. They train themselves up to that event and no matter how they place, once that’s done, then they’ll go back and look at the tapes and see okay “what can be improve here, what can we improve there.” It’s an ongoing process”.

“I’m always searching for different techniques that I don’t know yet that may help bring me to a deeper level of the craft”, added Johnstone. “That’s the advice that I give students. You’re in school at the time right now but when summer comes, look for classes to take or look for a preview production. Get in a play. The biggest thing is to just be doing it, however you go about it. The more that you do it, the more that you learn the more that opportunity starts to come to you by virtue of being around it and finding a way of being in it”. Berry concluded by mentioning a rather important point: “It’s also a business”, she said. “I find a lot of new artists coming out aren’t really exposed to the business side of it right away and the way that I kind of try and express it is a sense of, you have to look at yourself as a business and everyday that you don’t do work, your business is closed”. Like the Eaton Centre, your doors are open all the time, ready for work. So you want to keep yourself working all the time, regardless of whether or not you actually have a “gig”. You wanna keep your working doors open because when someone does come in or knock on your door, you’re open, you’re ready, you’re available and go. That’s how your being an artist and a business at the same time, so that the two of them become married and they don’t feel like strangers to each other so that you can actually build a career”.

Quite literally the modern day Romeo and Juliet, these two fine actors demonstrate knowledge of the craft and the passion to share their knowledge with other aspiring artists. Make sure you catch them at their upcoming theatre productions. More details below.

Thank you for reading!

Dion Johnstone in Julius Caesar: Click Here

Lisa Berry in This is War: Click Here