Christine Johnston and the weird and wonderful Baba Yaga
Christine Johnston is known for playing many quirky and wondrous characters. From Madame Lark to Eve Kransky, she has done it all. Her latest creation is in the Windmill Theatre Co and Imaginate co-commissioned show, Baba Yaga as the spooky and mysterious lead inspired by the Russian folktale.
Ahead of the Australian Premiere as part of the 2019 Adelaide Festival, we sat down with Johnston to chat about all things Baba Yaga.
How did the idea for a show based on the legend of Baba Yaga come about?
When Shona, Rose and I first put our heads together in Edinburgh to find seeds for ideas from which to start growing a show, it was Shona who suggested her recent interest in the character of Baba Yaga. From a Russian folktale, Baba Yaga, is a ferocious looking old woman, who lives in the forest in a hut on chicken legs, and is rumoured to eat people. There are many Baba Yaga stories, but it was a take on Baba Yaga in the book Women Who Run With The Wolves which included the character of Vaselissa and a doll that was a gift from her dying mother. There was also Vaselissa’s bullying evil step-mother and step-sisters (who sent Vaselissa to the forest to be eaten by the old crone Baba Yaga) that fascinated us.
Baba Yaga is an interesting witch because she is not ALL evil. She is frightening but can be very fair. She might eat you or she might help you. It rang bells for us all in different ways so we ran with it. Rather than present it in it’s traditional form, we decided to turn it on it’s head and take the essential elements of the characters and re-tell the story in more current settings with a retro-futuristic feel, hence our story of an eccentric, fabulous but terrifying old woman.
What can audiences expect from the show?
Music, singing, animations, laughs and a great little story. Vaselina, a meek, and timid, receptionist can’t allow herself to even consider finding her own full potential in life, until she is forced to confront the terrifying, but fascinating Baba Yaga who plays her music too loud, and is rumoured to eat babies. Vaselina is unexpectedly challenged to question the rules (and bullies) that stop her living her life. The encounter between Baba Yaga and Vaselina brings an unexpected outcome… I can’t give anything away. 😉
Baba Yaga is the first time you’ve worked with Windmill – how have you found it working with Rose and the team?
The Windmill team are like a family and I am thrilled to be invited into their enthusiasm and love of creating for young people. As an independent artist, it is affirming and exciting to be embraced by a company.
The show first premiered in Scotland to sell-out crowds and rave reviews – how do you think the audiences will differ between Scotland and Australia?
There is a synergy between Australia and Scotland… but you can never tell how people will respond to a story. The UK may be more familiar with the tale of Baba Yaga, but I think people everywhere can relate to the difficulties of bullies, or of facing our own fears or the obstructions that delay us finding and following our own interests and passions. I think we can all relate to knowing or having an eccentric and fascinating aunt or relative too. My grandfather is from Scotland and I’ve discovered some interesting family history through my visits to Scotland.
You display so many different musical talents in the show, when did you first start to develop your aptitude for music?
I’ve always loved music. My mother was a pianist and a church organist, and my father was a great music improviser. I had piano lessons from a young age but it was when I was 13 that a gift of my first guitar changed my life. I would disappear into my bedroom for hours and write songs. There was a zone that I’d enter at times like that which helped me realise that through my own stillness came the ability to write down musical imaginings.
What is your favourite musical part of the show?
I enjoy singing all the cabaret-style songs. I especially enjoy the Cat Feeding Song. And I always love playing the musical-saw. I also get to play my old school recorder again after many years.
The characters you take on are so diverse and different from one another, where do you look for inspiration when creating a new character?
The characters I play are all based on inspiration from within. A collection of of life’s experiences, whether it’s my own or someone else’s. Sometimes being very shy when younger can bring out different ways of expressing yourself and your sense of humour as you get older. I find characters sometimes allow, or sometimes even force me, to go way beyond anything I would do or feel in reality. It is only recently that I have developed my own versions of existing characters such as Baba Yaga, or Mad Margaret (Ruddigore – Opera QLD) from an outside story. This is very different from developing a character from scratch.
And lastly, you’ll be in Adelaide during our craziest part of the year – Mad March – is there anything you’re looking forward to seeing or doing as part of the Festival season?
I have been wading through the programs in wonder! There are so many things to see, I would love to see it all! Unfortunately, just for now, I think I’ll be making sure I get everything ready for the shows and touring coming up, and hope that I may get to see a few things. I saw The Magic Flute in Berlin a few years ago. Stunning! If I could make the timing work with our shows I would see it again.
It is true… Adelaide is very exciting during Mad March!!
See Christine as Baba Yaga at the Queen’s Theatre during the Adelaide Festival from Tues 26 Feb – Wed 6 March.