Johanna Allen has had a decorated career in the performing arts. Her biography boasts some of the most loved productions in the theatre canon, and she continues to add to this stellar list. I was very lucky to steal some time with her, to talk about her outstanding experience as a singer and actor, and to listen to her advice on attaining longevity in a performing arts career.
Welcome Johanna, I’m grateful that you can share your valuable expertise with me and my readers. You’ve been involved in the arts for many years with credits comprising musical theatre, theatre, opera, film, television, and cabaret – that’s quite a versatile career! Tell me about your training and what skills you find best serve you when traversing these various disciplines?
I’m grateful for my teachers, from my initial training in Adelaide at the Uni of Adelaide all the way through to acting and voice teachers in New York. I think ultimately, you can never afford to stop learning. I still try and take lessons regularly, and continue to stay alive in the process of learning. The other thing that’s important from my perspective, is to remain a student of life and a citizen of the world. I think we have a duty as artists, to stay curious and informed – about politics, governance, cultural understanding and past and present history. If we want to tell different stories, we need context, knowledge and authenticity to tell them as best we can.
As an actress, you’ve played many roles. Congratulations on your recent performances in Carousel for State Opera South Australia, and for your upcoming role in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for Crossroads Live. Tell me how it feels to return to the big stage following the events of 2020.
It’s hard to put it into words. Like so many others, I lost a really significant role and various contracts to covid. Other silver linings emerged, like the opportunity to work with the Australian String Quartet as a presenter/producer. But I don’t think the world has returned to normal and I certainly don’t think our sector has. Will it ever be the same? I’m not sure… I do know that live performance is irreplaceable and artists are the strongest people I know, so we will never give up. I can’t wait to be back on stage again. I’ll just hold it a little lightly till we are actually there. That being said, one of my favourite quotes is something Oscar Hammerstein said…
‘I just could never write anything without hope in it.’– oscar hammerstein – composer
To be part of Carousel, a show that speaks to hope, resolution, redemption and the best and worst of what it is to be human – well, it was utter joy in every way. I loved Carrie Pipperidge. I loved her simplicity, and I say that in the best sense of the word. I loved her irrepressible joy, and I loved being onstage next to Dimity Shepherd as she so gloriously sang ‘You’ll never walk Alone’ each performance. We will always need music and stories to transcend the best and worst of life. And I have faith that, despite the lack of government recognition, despite what’s happening to our story tellers right now, we will return. We will be needed. We are needed. So onwards for now, in whatever capacity we can.
Your stage career includes cabaret and you’ve recently toured Euromash to the Adelaide Fringe Festival. What was it like to be back in Adelaide performing to a more intimate crowd?
I will always be an Adelaide gal and I was delighted to be back. I loved being at the Queens, I loved being part of a curated program of brilliant artists. I loved playing with the phenomenal Mark Simeon Ferguson and Julian Ferraretto, two of the most talented musos I know and also Adelaide proud.
You’ve shared the stage in concerts with some big names like David Helfgott, Anthony Warlow, David Hobson, Michael Buble, and Suzanne Vega, what have you learned from performing with artists of their calibre?
Funnily enough, and I need to remember this when I’m in self doubt mode (because we all still have those moments… and how..!) no matter how successful we are in the eyes of our peers or the public, we still all have our own insecurities, we all still have our weak spots and no one, not even the greats, are without that. I guess greatness still comes with humanity – and something about that is sort of reassuring in a way. That being said, I’m constantly inspired and in awe of the vast talent around me – orchestral players, chamber music artists, and leaders within our artistic community. The best ‘kick up the butt’ I know, is when I get to work with, or watch incredibly talented people. It makes me want to work harder and do better every time.
With so many performance credits to date, which roles and shows are still on your bucket list?
So many! So many! I want roles that make our audiences think so [there are] many Sondheim women on that list. My favourite roles thus far have all been Sondheim characters: Charlotte in A Little Night Music, Bakers Wife in Into the Woods, and now I want to explore other platforms – I want to write for television, I want to write and act in feature films. What I think I crave is control, something actors have very little of. But also, I seek a different kind of creative freedom that comes from driving the vehicle as a writer as well as performer, and different platforms to those I have predominantly worked in.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t consider a career in the arts a ‘real job’?
It’s hard not to feel angry at this, because every single person I know in my industry works their butt off. They rarely have one job. They usually have several, and they range from teaching, producing, [and] working in a related facet of the world, to doing whatever is needed to survive.
I think, the best way to combat this is to make good art. Make great work that shows people are people – there is more that unites us, than divides us. Ultimately, I think those that make their life in the arts and those who don’t value it, want the same things. We all love our families, and want to do well in life, and work hard in order to make that happen. So make work that allows them to see that, or at the very least, shows empathy from both sides of the problem. That’s the crux of it all, is it not?
As Mr Shakespeare said ‘to hold a mirror to the soul’. Make it a mirror that helps us all understand each other better, and hopefully that perception can shift. And if it can’t be shifted, then stuff it – make great art even more loudly!
You’ve previously been a lecturer at the Australian Institute of Music and a voice coach on programs such as The Voice, what advice would you give to aspiring performers?
Build resilience! Lots of it. And work hard. Don’t tie your entire identity up with the industry. Also, understand that as a professional singer and actor, that might also might mean professional creative producer, writer, publicist, teacher, director, production manager and whatever else is needed to survive.
As someone who knows what it takes to achieve longevity in your craft, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the Australian arts industry during your career, and what more would you like to see improve?
In the past two to three years we’ve seen significant change. Cultural diversity is now at the forefront of discourse, as it should be, with much needed changes and shifts. I think there’s more to do here. I also think there is more to do around body diversity, and age diversity. Stories need to come from all corners of who we are, all ages, all shapes, all people.
I think what last year showed me, is that despite being a billion dollar industry, the arts is still perceived as being on the fringe corners of life. We’re a hardworking community. Yet somehow there is a perception that our jobs, our contribution is not financially remunerative for the country, or indeed a valued part of how we live. This has to change. It’s a complex problem, and it requires complex strategy to make change. But change is necessary.
Thank you Johanna for sharing your wisdom with the studio clients and readers of The Serenade Files.
To learn more about Johanna visit Instagram @johanna_allen