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Volier Johnson celebrates 40 years in theatre

Published:Sunday | March 14, 2010 | 12:00 AM
Actor Volier Johnson - File

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

Volier Johnson knew the value of really getting into character from the outset of what has turned out to be a lifetime in theatre. Auditioning for a role in Rip Van Winkle when he was a student at St Andrew Technical High School (STATHS), Johnson dressed for the part and made an indelible mark on his drama teacher.

"Two of us going for the part. Me go home for a old pants and draw it right up. Trevor Rhone said, 'Audition done!'," Johnson told The Gleaner.

After that production and A Christmas Carol (in which he played the miser Scrooge), the following year Johnson - still a schoolboy - did his first commercial theatre production for Rhone, More Please, in 1970. Then Rhone put Johnson on the big screen in the biggest Jamaican movie to date, The Harder They Come, in 1972.

"Me was the handcart boy who tief Jimmy Cliff tings," Johnson said. He earned all of $30 for his role and was off to a flying start.

Hugh Campbell is organising a programme to celebrate Johnson's 40 years in theatre, starting with a night of Serious Business on April 1, the Legends for the Legend party with Bunny Goodison and Winston Blake on May 9, a one-off play in August and a gala dinner in December.

Johnson pointed out that he did not really start earning money from his theatre endeavours until he started doing Ed Wallace productions, those 1970's plays including Operation P, Boeing Boeing, Love and Marriage and The Rapist. Earlier in the decade, right after graduating from STATHS, he did a series of productions with Lloyd Reckord, among them Junction Village, Amen Corner, Rose Slip and Pillars in the Mud. From those, he earned something which has lasted longer than cash would have.

Much more cultural

"It was more cultural when I started out and me thank God for that. It teach me how to characterise. During that period you had to have character. When you look onstage you see 10 different man in 10 different character," Johnson said. "I'll never forget when I did Rose Slip. When you look on the stage you in a tenement yard," he said. Leonie Forbes and Pauline Stone were also in that play.

For commercial theatre, Johnson said, "You really feel satisfied when you have the people a tear down the place. It is entertainment".

In the 1980s, the prolific Johnson did a number of Pantomimes (Tantaloo, Trash and Schoolers among them), Ginger Knight plays (including Higglers, Stepfather and Room For Rent) and Basil Dawkins' productions, that period extending into the 1990s. One of the Dawkins plays, Toy Boy, won Johnson the Actor Boy Award for Best Actor in 1996.

It was also in the 1990s that Johnson said he really took acting "serious". The Oliver at Large series took off and they started touring, this allowing Johnson to leave his day job in the sugar industry. He had done steel fabrication after leaving STATHS and then dabbled in chicken rearing. Looking back, Johnson said, the pace was hectic. Then, "it was nice. You leave work, you go home and organise yourself for rehearsal. When you like something it is not stress. It never come in like anything. Is a part of my life".

Johnson stepped into the director's role once, on a production for Ginger Knight. He has also written skits for other persons, but never a full-length play. "Sometimes I say to myself, it easier you stick to the evil you know," he said. He also did stand-up comedy once, with Miss Kitty at Love is a Funny Little Thing two years ago. "I never had anything scripted, I never had anything in my mind. Me just bounce off Miss Kitty. Me surprise myself," he said.

Although it was a good experience, Johnson said he would not venture further into stand-up comedy. "Me have a big reputation. Me no waan kill it," he said, laughing.

Starting in the 1990s, he did a number of JAMBIZ productions (Pinocchio, Children Children and Breadfruit Kingdom among them), there were the UK productions Trench Town (for Kay Osbourne) and Used. Past the turn of the millennium he has done Strength of a Woman with Andrew Roach and the Stages Productions plays Below The Waist, Bashment Granny 2 and Serious Business, which is now running. Johnson has also done several sitcoms, including Lime Tree Lane, Just One More, Claffy and Sarge in Charge and has gone into radio with FAME FM's Full House Fridays.

Popular names

Claffy bestowed upon him one of his three popular names, the other two being Maffy (from Oliver at Large) and Fishead (Traxx). His favourite characters have been Gus (Rose Slip), Grantley Cox (Operation P), Lord Bag and Pan (Trash) and Wrap Up (Toy Boy). For Gus, the permanent drunkard, Johnson had to keep twitching onstage for two hours. Cox had to wiggle as a roach made its way through his innards, Bag and Pan had to tip toe until the final scene and Wrap Up was a depressed man.

The directors Johnson has been most comfortable with are Keith Noel, Pablo Hoilett, Michael Nicholson and Trevor Nairne, and he lifts his hat to Lloyd Reckord. With Trevor Rhone "you always look forward to working towards something else". Among those who have encouraged him are Leonie Forbes, Angella Jarrett, Deon Silvera, Terri Salmon, Christine Bell, Oliver Samuels, Basil Dawkins, Ginger Knight, Grace McGhie and Fae Ellington.

Having done it all and intending to cut back on his performances ("me sort of tired now"), Johnson has one more 'to do' on his theatre list. At least, 'to do again'. "My dream is to do another two-hander with Oliver. I don't know what format it going take yet, but something like that is nice," Johnson said.