An Interview with Christine Toy Johnson – Award-Winning Actor, Playwright and Filmmaker

Background

Christine Toy Johnson is an award-winning actor, playwright and filmmaker. She has been featured extensively on Broadway, off-Broadway, in regional theaters, in film, television and concerts worldwide. Highlights include the New York revivals of THE MUSIC MAN, MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, PACIFIC OVERTURES, and FALSETTOLAND, the national tours of CATS, FLOWER DRUM SONG and BOMBAY DREAMS, and leading roles at theatres including the New York Shakespeare Festival, Williamstown, the Huntington, Tale Rep, The Denver Center Theatre Company, The Minnesota Opera and New York City Opera. Almost 100 film and television appearances include two years as “Lisa West” on ONE LIFE TO LIVE, 30 ROCK, UGLY BETTY, THE BIG C, ROYAL PAINS, FRINGE, CROSSING JORDON and many episodes of various LAW AND ORDER.

She produced and co-directed (with husband Bruce Johnson) the award-winning documentary feature TRANSCENDING – THE WAT MISAKA STORY, and an anthology of her written work was inducted into the Library of Congress Asian Pacific American Performing Arts Collection in 2010.  As part of the elected leadership of AEA since 1992, Christine is co-chair of the Equal Employment Opportunity Committee and is a Board Member/ Officer of the Tony Honored Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts and a founding member of AAPAC, the Asian American Performers Action Coalition.  She was honored by JACL (the country’s oldest and largest Asian American civil rights organization) in 2010 for “exemplary leadership and dedication” Details: www.christinetoyjohnson.com.

Interview

1. What inspired you to become a playwright and filmmaker?

As an Actor (and Asian American person) I was really feeling the sting of not seeing balanced, complex and full-bodied Asian American stories being told on stage and in the media, and started what I called a small “collaborative collective” in 2002. I invited a couple of writers, directors and actors to get together with the purposes of supporting the writers to complete pending projects, providing voices to read or sing their works in progress, and encouraging each other to keep being creative. Though the collective only lasted a few months, the biggest thing that came out of it was the encouragement I received from the group to start writing my own stories (when I had not previously written anything but journalistic pieces). My husband Bruce (who had been to film school and who wanted to get back to filmmaking after going off to have a Broadway acting career) and I ended up making a short film that I wrote, called “All American Eyes” — based on the inadvertently discriminatory things people had said to me throughout the years. I wrote it, we shot it, we entered it into festivals (and even won an award for it)– and then I decided I needed to learn how to write! So I did the Certificate of Screenwriting program at NYU’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies over a period of two years, and I was absolutely hooked! In the past 10 years I have continued my studies and have written 4 full length plays, 1 full length play with dance, 7 one act plays, 1 documentary-style theatre piece, 3 screenplays (one collaboration with the incredible Charles Randolph-Wright), produced/co-directed with Bruce an award-winning documentary about the first non-Caucasian pro-basketball player, Wat Misaka of the 1947 Knicks, and am in the middle of writing my first full-length musical. (All while maintaining my acting career. No wonder I’m tired!)

2. What topics do you feel are important to write about and why?

I tend to gravitate to writing about identity and belonging — often within Asian American story lines (but not always). When I was doing the 1994 New York revival of MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG, every night the one line that always rang a bell to me (and I wasn’t even writing then, but that’s the power of Stephen Sondheim!) was when Charlie said to Franklin, “Write what you know (touching his heart), not what you know (touching his head).”  My essential wound has always been about not fitting in (as it is for so many of us on a universal level), not being included; especially as an Asian American in this industry — so I suppose I am often trying to work that out and what that means to many different characters in many different circumstances. I am also committed to telling balanced, complex, full-bodied stories of Asian Americans; the ones I was missing when I was inspired to begin writing — so that maybe we and our stories can start to be recognized as part of the American landscape. My family has been here since 1865 and still we are fighting to be thought of as “American”. So — yes! I write about that, too.

3. What is your favorite family vacation memory?

Bruce and I have had so many wonderful vacations together! One that sticks out is a trip we took with my Mom and Dad to Europe a few years ago — we took a cruise from Venice to Lisbon, visiting 8 countries in 10 days! (One of those days was spent exploring Barcelona, which is inspiring the musical I’m currently writing — and it’s fun to be keeping that memory fresh in my mind!) We’re so lucky to have had a chance to travel with my folks and see so many parts of the world together.

Another is a recent trip to Honolulu that Bruce and I took to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. It’s amazing to be in what I call “Asian America”, where I’m in the majority in my own country — and the food is outrageous! Bruce would move there tomorrow! (I’m still a NYC girl at heart, but I know that we will be returning to Hawaii as often as we can!)

4. What thoughts keep you up at night?

Honestly, I am so sleep deprived, I fall asleep about 4 seconds after my head hits the pillow every night. But often I wake up early with characters from the plays I’m working on gently encouraging me to fix their story lines, or just (I know this sounds really corny, but it’s very often true) excitement for what I can accomplish in the new day. I love the morning:  it’s quiet, no one is calling, and my thoughts (after coffee) are clear, un-anxious and inspired. It’s when I do my best writing (from about 7 a.m. – 12 p.m., with a visit to the gym in the middle).

5. What are you most proud of?

On a philosophical level, I am so proud to feel that in small ways, through my work as an advocate for diversity and inclusion in this industry and in writing under told stories, I might be making a difference for the next generation of artists of color. On a more tangible level, I am so proud of the documentary that Bruce and I made, which has helped to acknowledge Wat Misaka’s  accomplishment of breaking the color barrier in pro-basketball on a global level, and in his lifetime. As we have traveled with Wat, screening the film and talking to young people across the country, watching them light up at the sight of a role model that looks like them, I am reminded that telling our own stories, no matter what obstacles stand in the way to tell them, is not only important — it is essential. And worth every second of blood, sweat and tears. The film, TRANSCENDING – THE WAT MISAKA STORY, and a collection of my full-length plays were inducted into the Library of Congress Asian Pacific American Performing Arts Collection in 2010 — and I’m pretty darned proud of that, too!

6. If you could be an olympic  athlete, which sport would you choose?

I think for sure I would be a marathon runner! “Slow and steady wins the race”, right?

7. What’s the best advice you’ve recieved?
One of my first screenwriting mentors, Oscar-nominated writer/composer Jamal Joseph, said, “Go where you’re celebrated, not where you’re tolerated.” I think this is something to truly live by. And, from Reverend Bryant Kirkland, “Never give up. Never give up. Never give up.” Something else to live by!
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