BWW Interview: Julie Johnson of COME FROM AWAY at Peace Center
She had graduated a year or two before I began attending Austin College in Sherman, TX, where she'd been a star of the theatre department. She quickly began working in regional theatres and soon landed a dream gig that only increased her status in my eyes: she was the voice of Baby Bop on Barney & Friends. Yes, the purple dinosaur has been very good to her.
I asked Julie to tell us a little about her journey and about the magical production that is Come From Away.
And don't worry, I edited out the part where we gossiped about our college theatre department.
BWW: So you've been to Greenville before?
I was in Greenville about six years ago with the first national tour of Memphis, for the same producers as Come From Away, and they were all people that I'd worked with before - you know the chain of events thing that happens in our business. I was doing a show at Theatre Three in Dallas called Heartbeats, and Amanda McBroom, who had written all the music and written the script, came to see it. And she said, "Oh you know we're doing Heartbeats at the Goodspeed Opera House." I was going to stay in Dallas, I didn't really have my sights set on New York. But she said, "Would you come up for the callbacks?" So she arranged that and I went to the callbacks and that's where I met Sue Frost who was at the Goodspeed Opera House for years, and she later left the Goodspeed and formed Junkyard Dog, along with another partner, and those are the producers for both Come From Away and Memphis. So through those connections I auditioned for Das Barbecu and booked that, and that was directed by Chris Ashley, who later directed Come From Away and Memphis. The whole business is a network. And as my grandmother used to say, "Honey, you leave a place with people wanting you to come back."
BWW: That's great! I'm always telling my kids that you want to be someone people want to work with. So tell us about Come From Away.
I'm telling you and I'm not putting any shine or spit on it or anything - it is one of the most amazing pieces of theatre that you will see. And I'm taking that as a quote from so many people who come backstage or come out and wait for us to sign their programs, they've never had an evening in a theatre where they laughed and cried at the same time so much. And you think "a musical about 9/11?" But this is the truth and why we always say it, it's a musical about 9/12, and what happened when so many people were completely displaced from their lives - and not to say that that was anything that compared to what happened to the people in the towers - but at that point when they shut down the American air space there were all these planes that had no place to go. And some went to some of the larger cities in Canada but they didn't really want to take them into the larger, more populated areas. But there was this airport in Gander, Newfoundland that had been used during WW2, a huge airport that could take the size planes that it needed, and it was in a remote area. They had no idea - they didn't know if bombs had been put on those planes, nobody knew anything. They shut down the American airspace and 38 planes landed in this small town of about 9,000 people and there were almost 7,000 passengers on these planes. And the people of Gander took in 7,000 strangers from all over the world...and they literally fed them, clothed them, and entertained them for five days.
It's funny, it's literally heartwarming - heartwarming seems to be an overused phrase, but if it ever fits anything, any show, that's what this show does. And it kind of restores your faith in human kindness, in that all of these people, they just didn't even think twice about that, they'd let people come to their homes and get them a nice hot shower and make them a meal. Some people hosted people in their homes. And all the schools, the churches, the legion hall - they had people everywhere. And just treated them, well, like cousins had come to town.
BWW: We could use a little restoration of faith in human kindness right now.
I don't even know how many countries were represented on those airplanes, but they're all religions, and there's a beautiful song called "Prayer" that is in the middle of the show and it is just breathtaking. And inside that song they interwove I believe five different religions and traditional songs from those religions into this one moment. There's a Catholic hymn, there's Hindi, there's a Muslim man who was on one of the planes - he represents actually several people - he is performing one of his prayers at the same time, and a beautiful Jewish prayer that a rabbi is singing and they all go so beautifully together it kind of reminds you that we all are aiming for goodness and kindness. We just pray in our different languages. It's really stunning.
BWW: I'm getting chills just thinking about it.
And there are twelve actors. We get to play over 40 characters among the twelve of us. We play Ganderites and we also play - I play a woman on one of the planes, because they were on the planes from 12 to 28 hours, sitting on the tarmac. Because the town had to get ready for them! They started making sandwiches and food and getting stuff together as quickly as they could - and the FAA wanted to check and make sure that everything was safe. And I play a woman on one of the planes that's just literally about to lose her mind, named Dolores, and she's from New York and she's the loudest person on the plane - and she's actually based on a real woman. The local police came on board and she said, "I've got to get off the plane, I've got to get off the plane, I'm claustrophobic." And they said, "Well, really, the only other place we have to take you is to a small cell downtown which may be more claustrophobic but we'll give you that choice." And she just calmed right down and sat back down in her seat. But that just shows you, even how the Gander police operated. They didn't throw her in handcuffs and throw her off the plane, they're like here's your choice...."
BWW: What's the structure of the piece?
We have fourteen chairs, three tables, and twelve actors, and the lighting is gorgeous and the band is on stage, and there's a lot of Irish influence in the music, because a lot of Irish settlers form the famine came and settled in Gander. And we literally are all storytellers, we all help tell the story, we sing a lot of it in unison - choral kind of music, not a lot of solos, not a lot of big nine o'clock numbers. it's all of us weaving and telling the story and we pop in and out of different characters with just a simple piece of clothing and a change of accent, and move the chairs around - the chairs are moved to represent the local Tim Hortons and then we turn the chairs into an airplane and then we turn them into a bus, and tell the story that way. Because it's about the people. I have nothing against the big beautiful shows, but this one is about the people. And Chris Ashley - he won a Tony for direction - and Chris Ashley is just purely brilliant. And Kelly Devine's choreography is just perfect for us. I think the youngest cast member is 33, and we go all the way up to, well, I won't mention any numbers, but we're older character actors, you know all of us are getting to be in one show together. Usually there are only two older character actors and that's it, so we get to be in a show about these people and all work together and it's just delightful. Because everybody in the show is capable of delivering the big eleven o'clock power ballad at the end, being in The Music Man or Hello Dolly, be the leads, but we all are a cohesive ensemble in this, and that's the way we tell the story. And it's all about the humanity. So you really don't need a bunch of sets flying in and out and a lot of costume changes. I think it also helps you to focus on the real message of the show.
BWW: I'm so excited about seeing it. It seems like it's a necessary tonic for the times.
We are all in this together and if you can find a way to get along, it makes life so much more peaceful and so much more enjoyable. And not to be pollyanna, we're not all going to get along at the same time, but my goodness, to look for what you have in common with someone as opposed to looking for the differences - celebrating the differences but enjoying what you have in common I think is a big part of this story, and it's certainly something that we need to hold on to.