Melissa Johnston finds Theatre & Film Alive and Flourishing in Detroit
Melissa Johnston graduated from AMDA in 2009. Since then she has appeared in the feature films Barely Legal (just released on DVD), and Water for Elephants. Recently Melissa moved back to her hometown of Detroit, Michigan so she could be close to her ailing grandmother. She has been working steadily in regional theatre in the city, acting in two plays, Caught Up, a family drama, and The Corridor, an urban drama about addiction. The latter is a trilogy of plays that has a matching set of films that go into production early next year. She is also acting for Made in Peril Productions, which produces superhero short films, and works as the spokesmodel for Rink Warriors, a company that hosts roller derby events.
When I asked Melissa about what it was like to work in Detroit, she explained the personal aspect of what it means for her to be acting in the former motor city. "The plays I am doing here are meant to bring attention to the city's problems since it's downfall a few years ago. It means something to me because I am from here, and people have really been suffering since the car industry left." Realizing the importance of art in such a time and place, we asked Melissa to talk about her experience firsthand.
Living in a city that is at the center of the industrial economic downturn as we know it today, how important is it for you and other actors and artists to be doing what you do?
All art is important to Detroit. It always has been. There are a lot of talented performers from the area, especially musicians and actors. The biggest difference now is that more people look to the arts for meaning. They can see their lives reflected in the art that is being developed around them. A lot of people also turn to the arts for comfort. It means the world to people here when they are able to take their families to a show and escape their hardships for a couple of hours. I recently went to a movie theater on a Friday at five o’clock and I couldn’t find a parking space.
What has it brought to your craft and the roles that you play?
I always do the best job I can, not that I didn’t try my best before. There’s just something about getting paid well to do something I love when people around me can’t afford to feed their families. It makes me realize how fortunate I am, and inspires me to give every role my all. When Detroiters go out to see a show, they expect to get their monies worth. I make sure that happens.
Were you aware when you moved back to Detroit what an impact the financial situation would have on your work as an actor?
It’s actually kind of interesting how Detroit’s financial situation affected acting here. When I came back, I expected to find no work at all. Michigan’s original plan (after the auto industry collapsed) was to bring films to the area with its tax breaks, so a few films and a couple of shows came here. Now they’re taking those breaks away, and most productions are leaving. The only exception is Sam Raimi’s Oz, which is still filming here because he’s from Detroit as well. Yet the two years that productions were filming here got everyone interested and excited about filmmaking. Now there is a lot more work in the industry than ever before.
In what ways has it changed your perspectives on life and what you do?
I’m realizing all over again how much I love performing. Being able to make people smile when they are down is an amazing feeling. Living in L.A., where so many people are performers, made me forget that movies and plays are exciting and glamorous to other people. I’m glad I could bring some of that magic home.
How long do you plan on staying in Detroit?
I will be in Detroit, on and off, until February. I fly back when I have to film projects in Los Angeles, but I have to be here at least four days a week for rehearsals and filming.
When most actors think of performing, they think of New York and Los Angeles. What would you say to the idea that the work can be just as fulfilling, if not more so, in a community that isn't thought to be the mecca of film or theatre?
How fulfilling performing is depends on the project, not the location. Anyone who has performed in more than one city knows that you come across talented people, fun projects, and great audiences anywhere you go. No city is lacking in creativity. The difference is, in a place like New York or Los Angeles you have the best resources to create your work: huge sound stages, the latest camera technology, and an overwhelming number of industry professionals. It may be more efficient to work on projects in those cities, but that is the biggest difference to me.
What do you hope will happen with the future of Detroit and more specifically Theatre in Detroit?
I hope to see Detroit grow back into the prosperous city it once was. I would be thrilled if the arts became the means by which it restored itself to glory. We have a lot of talent here, and I believe that Detroit could become just as prominent in the arts as New York or Los Angeles is today.