The relatively mild winter has allowed Shakespearean actor, Dion Johnstone, who has been based in Vancouver for most of his life, to spend a lot of time outdoors getting acquainted with Toronto, his new home.
“I am on break right now and I am enjoying it, especially with the weather being so kind,” said Johnstone who is preparing for his sixth season at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, North America’s largest classical repertory theatre which presents the works of William Shakespeare and other great writers.
The 2010 season runs from April 10 to October 31.
The 34-year-old Montreal-born Johnstone made his first appearance in the festival in 2003.
“At the time, I wanted to move exclusively to film and TV,” he said. “But I got a call from Stratford to come out and audition. I had always wanted to be in the festival, but I did not want to come in as a spare part so I figured I would build a name as a film and TV celebrity and then come back and raise hell.
“Anyhow, I came down from Vancouver for the audition and was accepted. That was my introduction to the festival and meeting an amazing company of extremely top line artists over the years. It has been pretty amazing performing there.”
Johnstone spent the winter of 2003 at the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre which was founded five years earlier to prepare talented young actors for the rigors and specific requirements of acting in classical theatre.
“I felt at that time that I was learning so much about the craft of acting, so I was really hungry with questions to learn more,” he said. “I felt I needed something like the conservatory to provide me with access to knowledge.”
Last season, Johnstone played Macduff in Macbeth opposite stage, screen and TV star Colm Feore, and this year he will be alongside Christopher Plummer, playing the beastly Caliban in The Elephant. He will also play Valentine in the Shakespearean comedy, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
“I have always been artistically inclined and I have always been drawn to mythic stories,” said Johnstone who graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts from the University of Alberta and is trained in Krav Maga, an Israeli combat style which combines elements of boxing, judo and jujitsu.
“I loved comic books when I was a kid and lived in that fantastic realm where anything was possible. So later on when I was in high school and I first came into contact with Shakespeare, I recognized within those stories those same kinds of mythic elements that I saw in the comic books I read. I feel I have learned more about myself and about the human condition through exploring, understanding and embodying Shakespeare’s language.”
Prior to his Stratford debut seven years ago, Johnstone landed several TV roles, including Captain Nelson in the Stargate SG-1 Episode, Rules of Engagement; Doctor Peter Newell in The Man Who Used To Be Me; Lieutenant Gitomer in The Monk and The Candidate and Curtis Peck in L.A Law: The Movie.
Separated from his mother at age five, he and his twin brothers were raised in Edmonton.
“My mother was unable to provide for us back then and the state took us and placed me in a group home and my brothers – who were just one year old at the time – in a foster home before we were re-united,” he said. “Our adopted parents (who were White) were quite honest by telling us they could not provide us with cultural experience. They however let us know that they loved us and could give us a home and stability. We definitely got a sense from them that there were no limits to your life and what you want to achieve.”
Johnstone was re-united with his birth mother almost 11 years ago after a feature story on him accompanied by a photo appeared in a Vancouver newspaper.
“I was there to play Mark Anthony in a Julius Caesar production and the writer was interested in my background,” Johnstone recalls. “My mom, I later understood, had told only two people very close to her about having to give up her children and one of those people saw the article and made the connection. She immediately got in touch with my mom who was living in Surrey, British Columbia…Being reunited was amazing. When you talk about your world turning on the drop of a dime, I had that visceral experience.”
Johnstone now has a close relationship with his birth mother who he said he has forgiven.
“She did what she had to do at the time because of circumstances beyond her control and I understand that,” he said.
Johnstone says he hopes he could also connect with his father who he does not know.