Northbrook actor brings Shakespeare to Chicago parks
Julie and Don Johnson
Spectralia Theatre, next at Touhy Park, 7348 N. Paulina Ave., Chicago
5 p.m. July 14-15
Programs continue through August 5. For a listing of parks and performance dates, visit www.spectralia.org
Updated: July 10, 2012 6:59PM
Julie Johnson remembers when she first made the acquaintance of William Shakespeare.
When she was a very young actress (going by the name Julie Levinson in those days) in Northbrook, performing frequently at Northbrook Children’s Theatre, NCT artistic director Gregg Dennhardt gave her the collected works of Shakespeare as a gift.
“I used to read it every night before going to bed,” she said. “I didn’t understand it really, but I loved it.”
Now she and her husband Don Johnson are passing on that favor to kids in Chicago with their Bard in the Parks program, adapting and producing free, family-friendly outdoor productions of Shakespeare classics throughout the summer in Chicago parks.
“It’s not children’s theater, per se,” Johnson said, noting that their Spectralia Theatre productions are family-friendly in the reverse sense. Meaning that while their shows are aimed at young audiences, there’s enough bawdy humor included to keep parents entertained, “even though it goes right over the kids’ heads.”
Her husband is an actor/director who also fell in love with Shakespeare at an early age under very different circumstances. The tiny Alaska town where he grew up had zero theater awareness so seeing a production of Shakespeare on a high-school trip to Fairbanks blew his teenage mind.
That means he doesn’t bowdlerize his adaptations, including the Johnsons’ current touring production of “As You Like It.” And he does his best not to water down the language, restricting himself to paring the plays down to a more easily digestible 90 minutes.
“The kids are attracted to the spectacle,” said Julie Johnson, who moved on from NCT to professional theater in Chicago before studying at the Stella Adler Conservatory and continuing to perform in Chicago, though she teaches special ed as her trade. “And we’ve found that even though the language is challenging, they can understand it.
“On one level, the stories are pretty basic because they’re about such big human concepts: love, betrayal, honor, reconciliation, war. And I think there’s something about Shakespeare’s language that mesmerizes them.”
Sometimes literally, she said, recalling how one little girl got up during a performance, walked into the scene and followed her around, sleepwalker-like, until her mother grabbed her.
The Johnsons met while performing together in “a very odd play” in a horror theater festival on the South Side (“I think I was a supposed to be a cannibal,” Julie said. “I had to eat part of his arm on stage”), but they didn’t click as a couple until working together as managing and artistic directors in the now-defunct GroundUp Theatre.
They founded the Bard in the Parks program as an offshoot of GroundUp in 2005 and produced five seasons of touring shows (performing together in one the day they got married) before disbanding GroundUp so they could live and perform in Fairbanks for two years.
They founded Spectralia after returning to Chicago last year, largely as a means to get their free Shakespeare program up and running again.
“It’s so much fun seeing kids transfixed by these plays the way we were,” she said. “Even if they feel like they need to get up and run around for awhile, hey, we’re in a park. They can do that.”