Photo by Phil Hossack - Winnipeg Free Press
October 28, 1944 – June 20, 2021
Born, Christopher George Johnson, at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, B.C. to Kathleen and George Johnson,
Chris spent the first year of his life with his maternal grandparents, Ida and Ernest Cox when his father was stationed in England by the RAF for the end of WWII. After George’s return to Canada, the family moved to a small house behind the Langley Advance newspaper and then after his sister, Judy, was born in 1952, they moved into the house on Douglas Crescent where Chris spent his high school years.
Chris’ grandparents had a summer cottage in White Rock, B.C., where Chris and Judy spent many happy summers with their cousins, Kevin and Linda Cox, at the beach. It long remained a favourite spot to visit whenever he returned home.
First attending Langley Prairie Elementary, and then graduating from Langley High School in 1962, Chris spent his formative years indulging his adventurous spirit by exploring the creeks and woods near his house with friends Andrew Rees, Jimmy Kiddoo, and Roddy Brooks. He was fascinated by trains at an early age and built his first model train layout in the basement of the family home (it grew from there to the epic N-track it is today). Chris also enjoyed puppetry and entertained his little sister with plays that he had made up. He was very active in Cubs and Scouts and attained his Queen’s Scout Award in 1959 – the highest award achievable in scouting in the Commonwealth. Chris played piano through his teens and completed his Royal Conservatory exams up to Grade 8. In high school, Chris was an avid student and enjoyed competing for top marks with his friends, Roddy, Terry Metcalf, and Carolyn Allen. He also competed in track and field, practised archery and built models in his spare time. During high school, Chris worked in the family newspaper business, The Langley Advance where he swept floors, stuffed papers and later wrote news reports for the paper. He considered, at one time, a career in journalism.
Chris attended UBC and graduated with a BA in English and creative writing (1966). He completed his MA in 1968. While he was at UBC, Chris worked the graveyard shift at CBC radio in Vancouver, writing news reports and occasionally reading them on air. He taught at Brock University in St. Catherines, On. from 1968 until he left for Leeds University (England) in 1973 where he completed his PhD in Theatre. Chris returned to UBC to teach creative writing in 1976 until he moved to Winnipeg in 1980 to take up the position of Head of the Theatre Department at the University of Manitoba.
During the next 41 years, Chris built a dynamic and engaging theatre department as well as oversaw both the Black Hole Theatre and Conklin Theatres creation and blossoming - from the ground up. What makes his theatre department, school, and theatres different from others in Canada is that U. of M’s theatres stand both together but separate from the university. Chris was always very proud that their very existence is predicated on the efforts of the box office alone (and blood, sweat and tears of his students – who have willingly given those over the decades), and that the dept. functions with its own executive student committee. Chris was adamant that students know how to wear all the hats in “putting on a show”, as well as managing the politics behind the lights. When his students graduated, they were set up to run their own theatre and film production companies. Chris expected much from his students, but he also skillfully and carefully nurtured their craft. He set his students up for success. Chris was an ardent supporter of both the emerging and the established playwright, actor, director, stage-manager or back-stage individual. He taught his students to respect all roles in a production.
Chris was the foremost expert on Canadian playwright, George F. Walker. He wrote a book about Walker’s work, Essays on George F. Walker: Playing with Anxiety. (Blizzard Publishing Inc., 1999) where he analysed all 26 of Walker's published plays, writing about them in context of Walker’s life, world, and lived experiences.
In more recent years, Chris received the inaugural Theatre Educator Award with The Winnipeg Theatre Awards – The Evies, and soon became a staunch supporter of the annual event that celebrates excellence in his nook of the Prairies. He retired from the University of Manitoba in 2016 and was made Professor Emeritus in 2018.
Chris is survived by his wife, Barb; his son, Zachary (Reid; mother, Lillian); stepdaughter, Erin; stepson, Stephen; grandson Ethan; sister, Judy; his cousin, Kevin (Barbara); and long-time family friends, Dr. Carolyn Allan, Sally Rees, Andrew (Carol) Rees.
Chris was pre-deceased by his father, George; mother, Kay; grandfather, Ernest; grandmother, Ida; grandson, Tarok; Uncle Fred; Aunt Betty; cousin Linda; and long-time friends and collaborators, Harry Rintoul, Craig Walls, Vic Cowie, and Carol Shields.
Chris will be missed by his long-time work, academic, and creative community friends, Dennis Smith and Carolyn Kutchyera, Dennis Johnston, George Toles, Marilyn Loat, Bill Kerr, Bob Smith, Karen Schellenberg, Fiona Smith, and those at the University of Manitoba Theatre, Film and English Department, the Black Hole Theatre, the Conklin Theatre, the Winnipeg Theatre Awards – “The Evies”, Manitoba Theatre Projects, Prairie Theatre Exchange, Winnipeg Jewish Theatre, the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, his multitude of students, and others.
A small family memorial took place on July 6, 2021. Interment at Glen Lawn Memorial Gardens to follow. When Covid restrictions are lifted, a theatre-based memorial will be planned for Chris’s family, friends, and community to close the house. In the meantime, Chris' family kindly requests that his friends and relatives take a few minutes to honour his memory by watching the photo-biography above. Please, also consider sharing your own photos and/or sharing your own memories and stories using the comment section on this page.
In lieu of flowers, it was Chris's fondest wish that a scholarship fund be set up in his name. Anyone who wishes to donate to the Chris Johnson Memorial Scholarship can do so by visiting the following webpage. http://give.umanitoba.ca/ChrisJohnsonMemorial
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