Actor and Grantsville native Joanna Johnson remembers looking east from Grantsville at night as a child. Lights from Salt Lake Valley made the silhouette of the Oquirrh Mountains stand out, and she wanted to be where the lights were.
“I’m a city mouse who grew up in the country,” she said.
Johnson spends a lot of time in the spotlight now. For nearly a year and a half, she’s been touring with Rogers & Hammerstein’s version of “Cinderella,” which had a successful two-year run on Broadway before hitting the road.
“She plays one of the stepsisters in the play,” said Anne Dailey Meyer of Allied Touring, a Division of Allied Integrated Marketing, which represents “Cinderella.” “She is absolutely hilarious. She kind of stops the show every time. She’s absolutely wonderful.”
Last year, the play spent its best-selling week in Salt Lake City.
“By the end of my time with ‘Cinderella,’ I will have been to 48 states,” Johnson said.
Johnson described herself as a character actor, and said she enjoys playing the role of Charlotte, one of Cinderella’s stepsisters.
“Charlotte is vain and selfish, but she’s in no way malicious,” Johnson said. “In the beginning, she doesn’t stand up for anyone else because all she wants is her mother’s approval, but she sort of figures it out in the end.”
Before landing her role as Charlotte, Johnson went to five to 10 auditions a week in New York City, a place she described as “fast-paced, diverse, and a little bit crazy at times.”
It’s a busy life, and Johnson loves it. She always has.
“It’s never, ever scared me,” she said. “I’ve done musical theater my whole life. It was a logical progression to do it professionally.”
Johnson said her parents and siblings love acting. Her father, Ron Johnson, recently played Ebenezer Scrooge in The Old Grantsville Church production of “The Christmas Carol.”
Johnson remembers acting in community plays and commercials when she was as young as 5 years old.
“And of course there were many shows that I did by myself in the basement,” she said. “Doing shows makes you better at doing shows.”
After graduating from Utah State University, Johnson participated in the Pioneer Theater production of “Elf” in Salt Lake City. That experience led to her auditioning for and booking a position with Tuacahn, an outdoor amphitheater near St. George, Utah. She spent two seasons there, working a total of six shows, and landed an agent.
In 2015, Johnson moved to New York City for the first time. She moved there again following her second season at Tuacahn.
“Venturing out in anything for the first time is always scary,” she said of her move and her dreams of being a professional actor. “A brother sat me down and said, ‘This is a one-in-a-million thing.’”
While living and working in New York, Johnson learned about an open call for “Cinderella” auditions. Johnson went very early in the morning to make sure she could audition and still get to her side job on time.
“There were six or 700 girls there,” she said. “I was 11th in line.”
Johnson went through five separate auditions for “Cinderella.” By the second one, she felt she was going to land her part.
Because of her time with Tuacahn, Johnson had a lot of performance credentials, and she was called back to sing. Her agent contacted her later with news that the director wanted to do a work session with her, which allowed Johnson to demonstrate her elasticity and consistency as a performer.
“Consistency is number one,” Johnson said. “They need to see, ‘can you bring your A-game every night, for eight shows a week?’”
They also want to see whether actors can work well with others.
“They’re spending millions of dollars on this show,” Johnson said, explaining no one has time for drama outside the play itself. Overall, she’s impressed with the quality of the people she works with.
“The higher I climb in this industry, the more I see the nicest, coolest people rising to the top,” she said.
According to Johnson, touring can be as challenging as auditioning. Most sit-downs, where “Cinderella” stays in one location, last about a week. Contracts are 10-months long.
“They’re already booking ‘Cinderella’ into 2019 and 2020,” she said. “It will be back in Salt Lake again sometime. Will I be in it then? No idea.”
While three years on a tour is atypical, Johnson said she will weigh the stability against the opportunity to grow her resume. If she’s not in “Cinderella,” though, she may well be in another play on tour.
“I’ve told my agents I’m very interested in another tour,” she said. “I love touring.”
One of the most challenging things about touring is finding food, Johnson said. Since the motels the cast stays in don’t have kitchens, she spends a lot of time searching out restaurants, and she uses Uber a lot. She knows the ropes now, which means she can help newer actors on cast learn how things work.
“Being able to be that person is cool,” she said.
There’s some professional pressure on tour. Johnson said she sometimes looks out over 3,000 seats and wonders how many tickets the play will sell each night. It’s important to her to do her best work at every performance.
“I’m a representative of a lot of time and energy and money,” she said.
Since starting with “Cinderella,” Johnson has spent her summers volunteering with plays at the Grantsville Clark Historic Farm.
“Being able to work in community theater in my off time is amazing,” Johnson said. “Everyone there is relaxing and performing just for the joy of it. They’re volunteers with passion.”
Community theaters gave her a start, and now she wants to take it as far as she can.
“It was always normal for me to be a performer,” Johnson said. “Sure, I do it for the money, but I really do it because I love it.”