New Stage Company Features Actors the Age of 40+

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By Elizabeth Bergstone

Gene Johnson spent his boyhood far from the glittering lights of the city and the theatre. Growing up, he helped out around his Mom and Pop’s country store in Farmington, N.C. “Dad raised cows, we had a barn and I plowed fields and baled hay,” remembers Johnson with a smile. “It was a Norman Rockwell kind of life.”

But all that changed when, at the age of 13, he found himself acting in summer stock at the Barn Theatre in Tanglewood Park. He had the good fortune to work under the direction of James Walton (who coincidently started the theatre program at Wake Forest University). Walton became Johnson’s mentor. “I liked him and was impressed with him,” Johnson recalls.

“After two summers, I was hooked,” stated Johnson. “I decided to become a director!”

There followed several years of theatre training, resulting in a BFA in Directing from what is now UNCSA, and an MFA in Acting from Virginia Commonwealth University. Upon graduating, Johnson found himself out in the cold, harsh world of professional theatre and began to seek work as a director. Although he performed in plays, musicals, films and TV commercials, he was always seeking to be a director, a goal that at times seemed to be illusive.

Despite the fact that Johnson found it easier to get acting jobs, his directing resumé is extensive, much of it in NC. A regular director at most of the Triad’s well-known theatre venues, he has directed at The Little Theatre of Winston-Salem, the Theatre Alliance, Kernersville Little Theatre, and others.

Eventually, Johnson came up against the barrier that most of us encounter as we grow older: opportunities became fewer and harder to find. “I refused to gradually fade away and spend my time doing nothing,” he says emphatically. “I realized that there are many seniors like me with a wealth of experience and enthusiasm for the theatre, so why not form a company that would give performances by, and for, older people?” And so, 40+ Stage Company was born! 40+ Stage Company has obtained a non-profit tax status and has planned four presentations during its first season. The inaugural production will be the hilarious and popular comedy, “Greater Tuna” (which has nothing to do with tuna fish; the play is set in Greater Tuna, “the third smallest town in Texas”). It will be presented April 13-16 at Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts in the Mountcastle Forum.

Future projects include holding acting classes, both for novice senior actors who have always wanted to try acting but who never had the chance, as well as experienced actors who want to hone their skills. 40+ Stage Company is already collaborating with Senior Services on a series of “Living Histories” of life recollections written by some of their clients that will become staged readings. The first of these will be presented at Second Spring Arts Festival on May 20.

One difficulty of operating a theatre company where the productions are presented by, and for, people over forty is the scarcity of plays and parts for people in that age group. To remedy this, 40+ Stage Company is holding a competition for playwrights to submit plays that fit the criteria, with the winning plays being performed by the Company.

Johnson is in his element, directing “Greater Tuna” and looking forward to bringing more productions featuring older actors to audiences in Winston-Salem.

For more information on 40+ Stage Company, visit40PlusStage.org or like their Facebook page at 40PlusStageCompany. For tickets to Greater Tuna, call the Milton Rhodes Box Office at 336-747-1414.

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