Remembering Chris Johnson



Moira Day, University of Saskatchewan

I have been asked to say a few words of tribute to a long-time friend and associate of our Association, Chris Johnson, who passed away suddenly at the age of 76 over the past week.

My understanding is that colleagues from Winnipeg will be talking more about Chris’ extraordinary achievements in Winnipeg in Act III [of the annual CATR/ACRT Conference], so I will be speaking more to Chris’ time in CATR/ACRT.

According to his colleagues at the University of Manitoba, “Chris Johnson began his career at UM in 1979. For over forty years he dedicated himself to theatre education, creation, and performance.”[1] Our own Association, the Association for Canadian Theatre Research as it was first known, came into existence only three years earlier in 1976. Chris joined in 1984. I met him for the first time at the 10th anniversary in 1986. He is seated beside Denis Salter in the front row of that iconic photo. And from then on he was a fixture on the executive, committees, and conferences of our association for most of the years that followed. According to Robin Whittaker,[2] in the years between 1985 and 2014 Chris served as prairie representative, member-at-large, conference organizer (with Annette Saint-Pierre), Membership Chair, Scholarly Awards Committee Chair, Elections Officer, as well as a participant on multiple panel, praxis, and paper sessions. A personal favorite of mine was a lively paper in 2008 that discussed Winnipeg writer, Bob Armstrong, and his dark, cerebral comedy about the impact of colonialism, a play that I had both seen and anthologized. The last time I saw Chris, still lively, provocative, and entertaining, was at the Victoria conference in 2013, almost three decades after our first meeting. If Chris’ career in theatre lasted for over forty years, a good thirty of them were spent with us.

Any of us who knew Chris remember his marvellous sense of gentle ironic wit and humour. He was the kindest and most generous of men, but he had zero tolerance for snobbery or pretentiousness. So I know that he would not mind me by beginning with a bit of an in-joke. At one point we had three Johnsons who were very active in the Associations. Stephen Johnson, Chris Johnson, and Denis Johnston (with a “t” in his variation of Johnson.) What ensued was not dissimilar to the situation of dealing with three local characters all named “Charlie Brown” in W.O. Mitchell’s whimsical comedy, The Black Bonspiel of Wullie McCrimmon. I think it may have been Chris who suggested that perhaps we could aim for a kind of “Brangelina” solution.  Rolling all the Johnsons into one would reduce confusion – and create one heck of a super-scholar.

The additional joke to that is that any one of those three seemed to do the work of three people anyway. And that was very true of Chris, whom I possibly saw more because he was in a neighboring province. I can speak personally to his kindness and generosity in answering or helping out with anything dealing with Manitoba theatre – past and present: promptly, thoroughly, and often with a twinkle of humour. I remember the personal guided tour he gave me of the department and the Black Hole theatre – and the enormous pride in took in both – when my travels took me to Winnipeg. He was a wonderful host when the conference moved to Winnipeg in 1986. And his interest and support for young scholars and their employment opportunities afterwards was particularly notable: he contributed regularly to the Heather McCallum Scholarship Fund, which particularly supports the work of emerging scholars, and was a voice on the Association’s Professional Concerns Committee when it was dealing with ways to address a nationwide hiring slump in the 1990s. Older colleagues have similar memories:

Stephen Johnson:

“I remember him as a caring and loyal member of the association, continuing to support and to attend conferences and serve on organizing and awards and other committees, representing the discipline and Manitoba for a long time—indeed, I would guess that he was one of the longest-serving members of the Association, remaining a constant over times of great change. A supportive and encouraging colleague.”

Louise Forsyth

“He was such a delight as a colleague. Whatever he had to share with us, it was always right on and witty and a pleasure to hear.”

Ann Saddlemyer

“I certainly recall him from the early years of the association and how enthusiastic and encouraging he was.  And I recall his fine work on George Walker.”

Ric Knowles

 “I do remember him as a smart, witty, gentle man, and an early and dedicated member of (then) ACTH and later ACTR and CATR. I also remember his work as one of the first and best scholars of George F. Walker, so when I got your message I wrote to George, who posted the following on face book:

‘Chris Johnson died suddenly a few days ago. Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba and a constant supporter of Canadian theatre, Chris wrote extensively about my work and was as great a supporter as I could ever hope to find. I miss him already. I was just about to send him my new play when I got the news. I know he would have been a keen reader. With wonderful generous input. He always was. I’ll just have to imagine what he would have said. But imagining it won’t be nearly as interesting as reading his words. He was so smart, so funny and very very kind. My deepest condolences to all those close to him. It’s a great loss. I’m sure many of his former students are feeling that loss and are also profoundly saddened.’ ”

And of course, last week, playwright Ian Ross, in his own acceptance speech as one of our newest honorary members of CATR/ACRT, also spoke very warmly of Chris’ mentorship and profound influence on his development as a writer. In 1998, a year after Ross became the first Indigenous writer to win a Governor General’s Award in any category for his play fareWell, Chris became one of the first members of the association to present a paper on his plays. In 2016, Chris marked the successful conclusion of thirty-six years of advocacy for a new space for the Black Hole Theatre Company at the University of Manitoba, by directing Doubtful House, a new play by Ian Ross specifically commissionedto open the new John J. Conklin Theatre.[3]


Ric concludes:

“I hope this helps, and I hope the CATR membership remembers Chris with the admiration and respect–and sense of deep loss–that he deserves.”

I echo that.

I would like to close with a quotation from the Tempest, another play I’m sure Chris was familiar with.

“Nothing of him that doth fade, But doth suffer a sea-change. Into something rich and strange.”.

You live on in the love and memories of all of us, Chris – and in the many people you supported, mentored and helped over the years. Thank you, old friend. For everything. And good-by.

Moira Day

University of Saskatchewan

June 28, 2021

Additional memories

Jerry Wasserman:

Chris was a sweet, smart, talented, hard-working guy. He was also one of the primary catalysts that turned me into a teacher and scholar of Canadian drama. In the late 1970s, before he got the U of M job, he was teaching at UBC as a sessional. He had a created a Canadian drama course that he was teaching in the English Dept. Just before he left, he suggested that I take over the course, since I had been acting at the time in several Canadian plays. With his encouragement and his reading list, I took the plunge. I saw him irregularly in the decades after that, but corresponded with him fairly regularly. Like Ric, I was especially impressed by his work on George F. Walker. He’ll be missed.

Gyllian Raby:

How to celebrate Chris Johnson’s passing and celebrate his being?

He was a genuinely kind man, indefatigable in his support for students, and passionate about theatre. He was one of the reasons I thought I’d like to be a university prof. and loomed large in my life. When I was ridiculously young with purple hair, he hired me as an Assistant Prof at U of M, a sabbatical replacement. He welcomed and mentored and encouraged and protected me. One day in the faculty lounge waiting for a kettle to boil, someone tried to insist I didn’t belong there and Chris swept in wittily with an over the top introduction in his understated tone.

He had a pallet mattress in his office where he sometimes stayed over if directing a play or if marking and admin took too long and he couldn’t make it home—he ran that ship  pretty much on his own at that time and it was remarkable what he accomplished with small resources. I don’t remember him ever complaining about the burden, only critiquing the big picture. He was never patriarchal, he knew how to listen; students felt they could turn to him. In 1984 we made sonnets out of George Orwell’s 1984 and with a few students we performed it at the dump. I remember it was very very cold and he smoked a lot as we flapped our arms and stamped our feet. The performance was just for its own sake, not part of a course or anything. Just because. He encouraged me to go back to work with One Yellow Rabbit urging me never to lose the clown and never to stop creating. Words I treasure.

I hope I was clear enough in letting him know how much his guidance meant to me.  I guess the best mentors don’t ask for feedback, they just do it and sail you off down the river with a come back any time, and a wave.

Thanks to all who loved Chris for sharing this opportunity to circle back for a moment, in sadness and gratitude for having known him.

Gyllian


[1] https://news.umanitoba.ca/notes-on-the-passing-of-dr-chris-johnson/ 

[2] My thanks to Robin Whittaker for his archival work into past newsletters of CATR/ACTH to help supply a more detailed record of Chris’ participation in the association over the years, and for drawing my attention to several other tributes to Chris.

[3] https://ctr.utpjournals.press/blog/2018/10/03/dr-chris-johnson-receives-theatre-educator-award-evies-winnipeg-theatre-awards

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