Recently, I had the ultimate pleasure to speak with Canadians Dion Johnstone and Lisa Berry who are both set to end 2012 with a bang in the theatre world. Lisa has recently announced that she will be playing a lead role in the theatrical play This Is War for Tarragon’s 2012-2013 Season and Dion will be playing Mark Anthony in the theatrical play Julius Caesar at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.

Recently, Lisa starred in the TNT film Silent Witness which she was shortlisted for a nomination for this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards. Coming up, she can be seen in episodes of Showcase’s XIII: The Series as assassin Grier airing later in the season as well as SyFy’s hit show Haven. As well, you can catch Lisa in the upcoming feature film, The Colony starring alongside Lawrence Fishbourne. Lisa graduated from the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts and has worked at both the Stratford and Shaw Festivals with notable leading roles including Mayme in Intimate Apparel. She has been dubbed in the industry as one to watch out for in 2012.

Dion is very well-known for his role as Chaka on Stargate SG-1.  Dion was also prominent at the Stratford Festival where he received great praise for his roles as Caliban in the Tempest and Valentine in the Two Gentlemen of Verona. Coming up he can be seen in TV shows such as the Listener and Flashpoint.

Dion, you are no stranger to theatre and Shakespearean plays.   For myself in high school, Shakespeare was always a dreaded challenge in English class.  What inspires you to take on these roles along with sitting on the board for the Shakespearean Performing arts?

Dion: What I love about Shakespearean art is that it has an incredible record of human thought.  He drew a lot from the Greek myths and he shows are very mythic.  Myths are instilled in humanity.  They are the things that we deal with  in life.  Shakespeare is the microcosm in our own lives.

I love sitting on the board of Shakespearean Performing arts so I can pass that knowledge on to kids.  Today, we all sit here with an iPad, cell phone and all the conveniences we have in our lives but we are in great danger in losing our imaginations.   Shakespeare helps people to expand their imaginative side and it is an emotional escape.  Once kid’s get past the linguistics of Shakespeare, like the “the’s” and “thous”, they are able to connect with the plays on a higher level.

When I went to high school studying Shakespeare was a brutal experience because the teachers didn’t have the tools themselves to teach it.   The educators in Stratford have created fantastic tools to help bring those tools into the classroom to demystify the language and take the burden off the kids.

Lisa: So many schools want to remove Shakespeare from their curriculum and it is a shame when people can’t see past the art of it.  The images creating in your mind when performing or reading Shakespeare helps create a bigger picture.  Most of our personality and intelligence is instilled in us before the age of five, the life and colour that can be gained through learning Shakespeare.  Being charitable is a huge component of our relationship and the Shakespearean Performing Arts is a way where Dion can give back to the community.

Lisa, I imagine being shortlisted for Outstanding Supporting actress for your role of Stella Marz in TNT’s Silent Witness was an honour.  How did your path from make-up artist to actress evolve?

It’s funny.  I love telling this story.  It’s a story of going after your true passion in life.  I was doing what I liked to do not what I loved.  Make-up artistry was a safe choice.  It wasn’t the thing that made me jump out of bed in the morning and feel alive at the end of the day.  My family and friends encouraged me to pursue acting but I was reluctant.  They encouraged me to do the Lion King open call auditions and to my surprise, I kept getting call backs.  I didn’t get the role for the LK but I was surprised on how far I got.

I am very blessed to come from a family who pushed me into the arts.   There are many who don’t have that support.  My father told me that my Mom wanted to be an entertainer and that I was living my mother’s dream.  She never shared that story with me but encouraged me to follow my path.

After the auditions went down and I didn’t get it.  What do I do now? It was a matter of asking questions and learning how to make a living.  It was then that I found Randolph Academy.  They trained me with the discipline that I carry with me in everything that I do today.

My mother always said “Aim for the stars and if you land on the moon, you’re doing ok.”

Dion and Lisa, have you ever had the opportunity of working collaboratively together on a project? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this partnership?

Dion: We got to do the opening for a fund-raiser for Graham Abbey and Michelle Geroux’s Groundling Theatre.

Lisa: Collaboratively, we have zero weaknesses and 100% strengths.   We work so well together even when were putting furniture together.  We’re a really great team.  Our relationship is stronger than ever after buying a house and renovating it together. When we found each other as couple, we came together at such a beautiful time in our lives.  If we met a year earlier, we would have been a hot mess as we both getting ducks in a row personally.  When we met, the stars aligned.

We are now trying to manifest where we can work together professionally.

Dion: It would be great to have a show where we work on the same series.  This would make life fun and easier.

For both of you:  What are you doing to prepare for your upcoming theatrical roles?  How do you keep the relationship alive when distance is a factor?

Dion Johnstone as Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona

Dion: I’m still quite a ways away but I’ve been doing a lot of research.   I am in the process of reading the play to understand the reading.  I don’t memorize because there will be a cut to the script the closer we get to rehearsals and  I don’t want to get settled into a pattern of saying the lines.  At this time, I look up words I don’t understand and research any reference so I know what I’m talking about.

This production (I can’t go too much into it), the director wants modern and topical American political presence.  I’m researching politics and the upcoming political election.

Lisa: This is the beauty of what we do; the research part.   This is what I love about our industry. The wealth of knowledge that we have.  I had intimate detailed knowledge of what it was like to be in Afghanistan.  This time my focus will be researching the men and women in the field. What those life and death situations were as well as the political stance about the war.

Dion: The year we got together, Lisa was in Toronto and I was in Vancouver.  We are very familiar with Skype.  In the beginning we required constant contact.  But now , it’s as simple as a good morning and good night texts.  We make plans when we can do a Skype date.  We keep each other in contact throughout the day.  If too many days go by and you don’t know what’s happening, then you start to move on without realizing it.

Lisa: We’ve created our own relationship.  We are very clear about things.

Our little town of Stratford is often busting at the seams with theatre attendees.  Dion, despite your busy schedule, did you spend much time taking in Stratford and all that it has to offer while performing there?

Dion: Every season is a little different for me.  I’ve had season’s where I have seen every show that came out of the gate while other seasons I didn’t have that opportunity because of a variety of reasons, such as the show being sold out or I’m performing at the same time.

What makes it difficult for me is that it’s season dependant.  One season, I played three prominent roles in three plays.  When you’re in rehearsal, it can be hard to separate yourself from that work.

I had my own routine as well. When working at the festival, it can be a very intense schedule for everyone, including the people backstage, coaches and actors.  In fact, everyday everyone receives a schedule.  I try to build in my own time so I don’t lose myself in all of that.  I have to wake up earlier to get to the gym as it’s an important meditational and personal ritual for me.

I made the experience my own in order to be happy to take on the work load.

How does a busy couple like you spend a quiet day with no commitments?

Lisa: You can find us cozying up on the couch.  When we decompress, we decompress.

Question for both of you:  Ideally, what do you both see yourself doing ten years from now personally and professionally?

Dion-Johnstone-Lisa-PerryLisa: We’ll definitely have a family, beautiful home and fantastic careers at that time.  I know I’ll be directing things that I’ve written and produced.  I will create a program that gives back to the community.  20 year goal is to own a studio in Toronto and have a production house to help keep Canadian artists here, so they don’t have to leave the country.  I want to have a studio where artists can be as big as their dreams want them to be.

Dion: I would agree with all that and add that we will both have international careers at that point in our lives.  Not only working in US and Canada, but in London, South Africa and various places around world.

Lisa: It is amazing the talent that we are unaware of until we travel to those countries.  I got to work with Francois Renault, he is Paris’ Anthony Hopkins.  I strive to work with people and projects that have great depth and strength.

Will you be attending the 2012 Toronto Film Festival this year?

Lisa:  Actually, I have a film in it.  I had a cameo in a movie called Anti-Viral directed by Brandon Cronenberg.   I’m very excited to go to TIFF this year and we’re just going to enjoy it.

Thanks to Lisa and Dion for taking the time to speak with me.  Our conversation was longer than this where my experience was surreal because I learned so much about theatre and Shakespearean art.  I can’t wait to head to the Stratford Festival now!

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