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History of the Opera: “I love this building”

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Stewart Johnston, son of Jay Johnston and grandson of Fay Johnston, is at least the third generation to play his role on the Opera stage.

“The Opera House is a cool and unique building. We should recognize that we are fortunate to have a small bastion of culture in a place beyond the rural. Most rural towns don’t have that kind of access to the arts. I love this building.

Johnston has played many roles at the Opera, as a patron, as an actor, as a volunteer. He performed on stage, worked behind the scenes to learn all the elements of the performing arts, and volunteered in countless productions on lighting, sound, and wherever needed. He spent a lot of time in the audience with his family, going to concerts and touring shows, where he was blown away by the quality of the lineup. He still remembers his childhood excitement when he saw the Glenn Miller Orchestra. The orchestra is still led by the family of Glenn Miller, one of the finest trombonists, songwriters and producers of the swing era. Johnston is delighted to learn that the Glenn Miller Orchestra will return to the Opera in August.

Kathy King Johnson is Executive Director of the Cheboygan Region Arts Council and Opera House.  Originally from Cheboygan, she is a Hopwood Prize-winning writer from the University of Michigan.

Because Johnston spent so much time at the Opera as a child, he “knows more than most operations”. He understands the operating space of the Opera and respects it. “It’s not just being on stage, but behind the scenes is where a lot of the work happens,” Johnston said. There is no place at the Opera that speaks to him more than the building’s famous acoustics. “It is not a physical place, but rather a physical quality of space. You can stand on stage and be able to throw without too much breath or force and clearly hit the back wall.

With room to roam the physical grounds of the historic theater, Johnston has also found a safe emotional space to grow. Johnston said: “I have a lot of personal attachment to the Opera. I attribute my ability to participate and function in the adult world to my time at Summer Youth Theatre. Johnston was often referred to as a nerd growing up. “It’s a classic trope – nerds are dumb, without social and emotional skills,” he said.

Although he was a computer expert, Johnston felt less secure in dealing with people. His time at the Summer Youth Theater gave him the confidence and skills he would need to perform one of the toughest jobs in the world: IT support. Information technology involves the use of computers to store and exchange all forms of electronic data. People like Johnston make up the support staff or IT help desk. They answer questions and troubleshoot hardware and software issues. In short, IT support is the person you call when you can’t figure out your computer, phone, printer, or other electronic device.

This job requires Johnston to be excellent at both understanding computers and people who don’t understand computers. When people with issues do eventually contact the help desk, they tend to be frustrated and out of breath.

At the Summer Youth Theater, Johnston learned to read scenes from plays. He extrapolated the skills needed to read a scene to read the emotional places people are in when they call him. In the theater, he learned to communicate clearly. He uses this skill to break down technical jargon at work. By working through the scenes with other actors, he learned to navigate emotional energy. With upset customers, he recognizes when people are having a bad day and he is able to project the good energy back. In short, Johnston learned to interact professionally without formal training outside of theater.

One of Johnston’s favorite times at the Opera was with the Summer Youth Theatre. After “aging out” the Summer Youth Theater program, he was asked to come back and help run the lights and do script readings for several years. In 2007, during the play “King of Rats”, he was invited back to the stage and received a five-year medallion for five years at the Summer Youth Theater. “It was a very emotional moment,” Johnston recalls.

Johnston’s history with the Opera runs deep on both sides of his family. Not only did his father Jay and Jay’s mother Faye attend the Opera, but Johnston’s mother Nanette (Leslie) Johnston also has strong ties to the Opera. On Leslie’s side, her mother, aunts and grandmother, Joyce, all contributed significantly to the history of the Opera.

Joyce Leslie, as one of the founding members of the Northland Players, helped revive the Opera House when it was condemned and ready for demolition in the 1970s. Joyce’s attachment to the Opera House was so grand that when she died aged 92 in 2016, her memorial service was held on stage. Johnston and his family attended the service. “It was deeply meaningful to me,” Johnston said.

Stewart Johnston is one of many young people from Cheboygan whose time at the Opera changed the course of their lives. He grew up in two families whose interest in the arts helped bring culture and the arts to Cheboygan. Next week, we will follow the journey of the Leslie family.

— Kathy King Johnson is the former Executive Director of the Cheboygan Opera House.