BWW Interview: Brianna Johnston Embodies The White Witch in THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE
In preparation for opening night of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe", I sat down with Alberta Theatre Projects' White Witch, Brianna Johnston to talk about how she gets into the mind of a villain.
Though this will be Johnston's debut on the Martha Cohen stage, she is no stranger to theatre, performing in various productions with The Shakespeare Company, Theatre Calgary, and Apparition Theatre. In addition, she has an been a fight director for numerous productions including ATP's "Wedding Party" earlier this season, as well as assisting in last season's "Zorro: Family Code". Later this season, she'll be fight director for Vertigo Theatre's production of Whispers in the Dark written by Calgary's own Anna Cummer.
Now, Johnston takes on the role of the main antagonist of this holiday classic.
Played by Tilda Swinton in the 2005 film (Titled "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe), much of the character's presence is reliant on the actor's ability to be a combination of regal queen, ruthless warrior, and charming temptress. "I've been relying a lot on her physicality." Said Johnston. "There's a thing that people assume with 'regality'; it's so reserved and so easy to assume coldness on top of that. And so I've been trying to playing into that feeling of pulling back and living in that world like I'm above everybody."
With the physicality of the character comes the voice work that goes into creating such a dynamic figure within the world of Narnia. "I'm always a fan of juxtaposition. I think it's a really cool thing in theatre to play the opposite choice of what someone is expecting. In pulling that regalness out, I've been unafraid to play with the base notes in her voice. I think sometimes we think that playing the base notes in a voice makes someone really unfeminine and that's a really crappy way we think about women sometimes. Because of this incredible costume [designed by Hanne Loosen] they've put me in and this physical posture that I've been able to do, it's really easy to play the base and cruelty of her."
Johnston admits that the most difficult part has been vocally preparing for the amount of commands and battle cries the White Witch makes throughout the two-act production.
"It's really vocally demanding. I'm mic'd, but it's only on for a total of 3 minutes of the show ([for] the moments that are one step above what the normal heightened is). I'm also playing with where her voice sits and where it changes. Where the domineering voice sits and where the entrapment of Edmund sits on a different vocal plane, and so to find grounding for both of them: that's most of my warmup for the show."
Long before the actress started rehearsals for the production, directed by ATP's Artistic Director Darcy Evans, Johnston had to sit down and discover who this character really was.
"[First] I went back and read all five of the books again just to remind myself of the world." The Calgary-born artist grew up loving the series and revealed much about the character's origins beyond the play, before diving into the overt religious symbolism of the story. "I thought it would be interesting to play with other archetypes of religion and spirituality and integrate those things. I've been imagining the White Witch as Lilith [colloquially known as the mother of demons] because Aslan is Jesus, and trying to create that difference... I think inside that, there's a really cool play on other versions of religion that Christianity would be opposed to."
The White Witch is not the only character whose voice plays an essential part in their character work. Bruce Horak, voicing the puppeteered Aslan, the lion, gave Johnston some inspiration in the rehearsal room. "Bruce has a beautiful vocal quality that he's using. That's been kind of fun; to play into how we can live in that same world of magic that has a similar quality but also find the opposite quality of what he's doing. So, I stole from Bruce a little because he's brilliant."
In addition to bringing the iconic Snow Queen of Narnia to life, Brianna Johnston is also the fight director for the production. Her resume has taken her all over, with credits at Alberta Theatre Projects, The Shakespeare Company, Ghost River Theatre, Lunchbox Theatre and many others. And she credits her mentor, Karl Sine, for sparking her interest during a university production of Hamlet. "I never wanted to stop." She told me.
This show has also presented her with the added challenge of choreographing epic fight sequences with herself as a major player. "The fights for this show were really complicated because there were a lot of moving pieces... in order to create the illusion of a battle, we had to figure out ways that we could have enough moves over here and enough moves over there and make it look like there were more people on stage than there were."
Thankfully, she wasn't alone. "I had a wonderful assistant fight director, her name is Jesselle Lauren." Together, they would experiment with movement and film it so Johnston could look back and decide what worked best. "...And using Daniel [Fong] (playing Peter)'s natural tendencies, we put something together that had a lot of flow and worked really well."
Through the darkness and danger, this villainous Queen assured me that "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" is a family story through and through.
"The show is a really magical adventure." she told me. "It's a family coming-together story. It's kids learning to trust each other and rely on each other, and I am the main antagonist of that."
Catch Brianna Johnston as the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe at the Martha Cohen Theatre until December 29th 2019. Tickets can be purchased at www.albertatheatreprojects.com or by calling 403-294-7402.
Follow her on Instagram at @bricmae.