FOR Gussie Johnson, theatre has been a part of her life for about as long as she can remember.
Previously the oldest practising teacher in New Zealand, at 92 years old Johnson also stakes a claim for oldest working theatre director in the country.
Born and raised in Invercargill, she spent time living in Dunedin, Palmerston North, and travelling overseas, but inevitably returned to her roots in the deep south.
“Basically, I’m a Southlander,” she said.
She made her onstage debut at Invercargill’s Civic Theatre when she was 7 years old, and said a lot of things had changed since then.
Johnson and her late husband, Graham, who was a violinist, often performed in country halls around the region.
“But those things are gone now – I think with the advancement of the motor car, when you could come into town and it’s not very far, those sorts of things fizzled out, which I think is a bit of a shame.”
Throughout her many years as a high school drama teacher, Johnson said she had directed too many shows to count, and her experiences with her pupils performing in the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival had been a consistent highlight.
“When I was teaching at Kingswell High School, we were the first school in the district to do the Sheilah Winn Shakespeare stuff, and I had students who didn’t know anything about Shakespeare – and we won.”
“We got the biggest shock of our lives… I asked the adjudicator why she had selected us, and she said had something to do’ there was no-one on the stage who just said their part and were off.”
She said she had been to Wellington 13 times for the Sheilah Winn Festival with pupils from several high schools, racking up several awards.
Her relationship with the Invercargill Repertory Society goes back more than 50 years, with Johnson learning about the mechanics of theatre by “cleaning the place up”.
“I think that anyone who does go into theatre should make the tea. They should do the dressing of the cast, they should do all sorts of things backstage and gradually you get to know so many things by doing the menial jobs.”
Having spent time in almost every department of the theatre, she said she best met her stride while acting, especially pantomime.
“Anyone who wants to learn about a stage should learn to do pantomime, because you can do absolutely anything and you have to use your imagination.
“I used to love playing the baddie, because you could run in and run out with a bottle of squirty water and squirt it at the audience… And the orchestra used to bring an umbrella.”
Throughout her many roles, she said the production which had the biggest impact on her was Fiddler on the Roof, due to its subject matter and heartfelt story.
“You have to get into a story, and if I’m doing a role in a play, I make up a story in my mind about where that person came from, what happened in their childhood or throughout their life to make them act as they do in the play in the part you’re playing. It’s just a bit of imagination of what happens to people and the scars that are left on you through childhood.”
Auditions for the Invercargill Repertory Society’s production of Killer Boobs, written by Tim Hambleton and directed by Johnson, will take place on Saturday, May 14.
The play is a dark comedy about a breast cancer support group, which Johnson said carried the message of
“I doubt that there’s a family anywhere on Earth that hasn’t had some experience with cancer.
“It’s a good wee play – well, it’s a big play actually.
“If you’ve got a tough time ahead of you, then keep on going and I think that’s what they are trying to put across to the people that’s what Tim Hambleton thought. Have a go at everything you possibly can.
“I hope the people will enjoy it, I’m sure they will.”
The show will be staged at the Repertory Society from July 25-30.