Drama teacher Dennis Johnson helped fuel actor Luke Kirby's creativity and curiosity.
BY RICHARD OUZOUNIAN
PHOTOS: COURTESY OF AMAZON PRIME VIDEO; DEAN PALMER
On September 2019, Hamilton-born Luke Kirby won an Emmy award for "Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series." As he accepted the trophy for his standout performance as Lenny Bruce on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (beating out a field that included superstars Robert DeNiro, Matt Damon and Adam Sandler), there was one person who took particular delight in the news.
That was Kirby's high school drama teacher, Dennis Johnson, who had been following the young actor's career from the very beginning. "It was very satisfying to see Luke being celebrated — finally! He's a hard-working actor who deserves every bit of success he's receiving."
And Kirby happily returns the compliments. "This life is something I would have never thought possible if it were not for Mr. Johnson."
They met at Guelph Collegiate Vocational Institute in 1992, after Johnson had been teaching drama there for 17 years, a position he would hold until his retirement in 1998.
Johnson was born in 1944 and went to McMaster University from 1962–66, studying history and religion. "What do you do with a degree in those two subjects?" he asks with a chuckle. "I went to teacher's college after exploring other career options."
After two years at the Ontario College of Education (1967–68), which eventually became part of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, he began teaching history at Aldershot High School, but found himself shifting into theatre, and then feeling he had some gaps in that specialization that needed filling.
"I went to the University of Waterloo, then to Queen's, then back to Waterloo. I spent two years taking courses in everything from electronic music to set design. I think I took every course even remotely related to theatre that I could find.
"When I was finished, I applied to Guelph Collegiate and that was my school for the rest of my career."
While Johnson taught many students over his 30-year career, Kirby made a particular impact. "I have vivid memories of him," recalls Johnson. "He was the littlest kid in the class, but he'd be sitting in a circle with a bunch of really big Grade 12 students and he would be the director. He was the most self-motivated student I ever had."
Kirby remembers things a bit differently, except for his height. "When I started high school, I was relatively adrift. A late bloomer with hair to my shoulders. Not aspirational in any academic capacity, but very curious and excited by the world."
When asked why Johnson and his class made such a strong impression on him, Kirby doesn't hesitate. "It was the environment Mr. Johnson created. He gave students freedom and space, and that was so compelling."
Johnson says that sounds right. "Freedom and space. I guess that may be true of any good drama class. I wasn't attempting to direct them all the time, at least not by the time I met Luke. In my first decade of teaching, I was the director. By the time I was nearing retirement, I was the facilitator of student directors and leadership."
And that's exactly how Kirby remembers their time together. "Mr. Johnson made no grand appeal for what he was teaching, but if you were interested, you could just keep travelling with him.
"He offered a thorough education in the history of the theatre. I was enamoured by his stories of Paul Robeson or Sarah Siddons, Bernhardt or Booth. And Brecht. Always and forever Brecht. It felt to me like that world was right there, welcoming and within arm's reach."
But every solid dramatic experience has a defining moment, and for Kirby it happened in the summer following Grade 9.
"He gave me a pamphlet for the Theatre Ontario summer program and that August I spent a week on the Brock University campus with kids from all over Ontario," says Kirby. "The experience really changed my perspective on the possibility and reality of working as an actor. It really felt like a great quest: a destiny where the fun and beauty would be in the moment to moment of doing the job."
Johnson explains how it was possible. "We used to use profits from our student productions to pay for the tuition of those Theatre Ontario summer programs." As it turned out, the program was a wonderful place for kindred spirits to discover each other.
And indeed, Kirby affirms that "Many of the kids I met that summer, and in summers that followed, are my colleagues and friends today."
As Kirby entered his final year with Johnson, the actor he would be had already emerged.
"We did A Midsummer Night's Dream and Luke and the other young lovers stole the show. Then he directed Brecht's Arturo Ui and his production was, well, kind of raw …"
Johnson goes on to describe a specific scene where a bodily function usually confined to the bathroom was simulated on stage, which must have raised eyebrows in Guelph in 1997 and wouldn't have been out of place coming from the mind of Lenny Bruce, the outspoken comedian whom Kirby won his Emmy portraying on television.
Kirby admits he was drawn to Bruce from an early age, reading a copy of his book How to Talk Dirty and Influence People that he found in his grandparents' attic, watching Dustin Hoffman play him in the Bob Fosse movie he rented on VHS from the library, and seeing the final interview he gave Nat Hentoff on TV.
"It gave me hope," quips Kirby, "that maybe the dark circles under my eyes would come in handy one day."
But Johnson thinks the secret to Kirby's success as Bruce is deeper than anything superficial. "He got to the heart of the man. Luke always tried to find the heart."
When asked if he remembers a specific piece of Johnson advice, Kirby instantly volunteers: "When in doubt, find the floor."
Johnson laughs on hearing that and traces it back to an improvisational comedy course he took in California in the 1970s where one of the teachers said "The ground is your friend. If nothing is happening and things suddenly dry up, then fall on the floor."
While the two haven't kept in touch for many years, each has had a lasting effect on the other.
For Kirby, "My perspective on my professional life — one of love and curiosity — can be attributed to Mr. Johnson, thanks to his subtle encouragement."
And for Johnson, "He was the kind of student who was as much a teacher as a learner. He had a curiosity about everything and an energy that was positively contagious, things I needed to be reminded of after all those years of teaching. I guess you could say that he was learning about theatre from me and I was learning about life from him."
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