by Lorie Lewis Ham
Fresno actor and director Karan Johnson has not only been a big part of the local theatre community for years, but also has a heart for animals—working not only with therapy dogs but also the local zoo.
Karan’s love of acting goes all the way back to elementary school. While attending college, she helped put together a summer theatre group in North Fork, whose members included Dan Pessano, now Managing Director of Good Company Players in Fresno. She received a degree in theatre from Fresno State.
“Later I was one of the founding members of Good Company Players, and have been working with that company in many capacities since 1973,” said Karan. She also spent three years with the Pacific Conservatory of the Performing Arts in their summer theatre program where she had the opportunity to work with future stars like Kathy Bates, Boyd Gaines and Robin Williams.
As an actor, Karan has enjoyed playing all types of roles and her resume is extensive. What she loves most about acting is touching peoples’ emotions through a play. “I enjoy performing comedy because it’s fun to make people laugh….but it’s also fun to touch their emotions with drama.”
Her favorite role thus far is Blanche in Brighton Beach Memoirs. “I got to play it twice, 15 years apart, in two different venues and with two different directors. That was very fun. Blanche is a role that is both comedic and very dramatic, so I got to make people laugh and cry in the same play.”
The directing side of her life began by directing school productions while working as an elementary school teacher; a job she held for 30 years. She got her first opportunity to direct adults when she directed Children of a Lesser God for GCP in 1984. Since then she has directed many other GCP shows. As a director, Karan likes the fact that you get to be the boss; that it is your vision that ends up on stage.
Valerie Munoz has been friends with Karan for years and has worked with her in theatre since the early 80’s both as fellow actors, and with Karan directing her. Valerie said from that point on they seemed destined to work together in numerous productions. “It is a pleasure to work with her as an actor and a director because of her commitment, creativity, and skill in both aspects of production.”“Actors like directors who do more than get you from place A to place B on the stage, and Karan is one of those directors,” continued Valerie. “She will advise you on character, style, body language, and nuance in a respectful and helpful manner. As an actor, you can trust her on stage, and that means a lot. Her creativity spurns you to be equally creative with your character. Finally, the most important thing that Karan brings to the boards is a sense of humor.”
Actor Terry Lewis, who recently played the Phantom in a local production of Phantom of the Opera, has also worked with Karan and agrees about her sense of humor. “I think that sense of humor and fun shows through on stage too—she’s always got a twinkle in her eye.”
One of the more recent shows where Karan and Valerie worked together was The Dixie Swim Club. Elizabeth Stoeckel was also a part of that cast. “As an actor, it is always an extreme pleasure to share the stage with someone you totally trust and respect,” said Elizabeth. “Karan Johnson is that kind of performer. If something goes wrong–a line is fumbled, a prop falls, or a costume piece malfunctions–Karan will quickly and smartly adjust.”
Not only does Karan have a love of theatre, but also of animals. A few years ago she became involved with therapy dogs after she got her dog Nick, a Golden Retriever/Standard Poodle mix. “When I realized that she was also sweet and mellow, I decided to have her trained as a therapy dog. She has been working for over three years as a therapy dog, mainly as a “Tail-waggin’ Tutor,” which is a therapy dog trained to listen to children read. She also visits schools and works with Alzheimer patients.”
Karan was one of the founding members of the local chapter of Therapy Dogs, International, which helps place therapy dogs in hospitals, rehabilitation centers, schools, libraries, and other venues in the Fresno area.
Her love of animals carries over into more exotic ones as well. When she retired from teaching, she began volunteering at the Fresno Chaffee Zoo taking the zoo mobile out, giving zoo tours, and walking the llama, and now works there part time teaching Zoo Camp classes.
This love of exotic animals is also obvious in her personal life as she has an obsession with armadillos, making sure to find a way to get an armadillo into any show that she directs or acts in. “They are never in obvious places (I would never steal focus from a play!) and it’s fun to come up with places to put them. For example, for the last show I did, The Dixie Swim Club, a small white armadillo was mixed in with decorative shells in a glass vase.”
Since 1986 she has also had all of her friends paint pictures of armadillos on her bathroom walls. “There are hundreds of paintings by very creative people. Since many of the painting gets done at the opening night parties I have, most of the theatre community in Fresno is represented.”
Recently Karan got to combine both loves as Nick got to play Sandy in Reedley High School’s production of Annie. Kings Canyon Unified School District’s Theatre Arts Coordinator Mark Norwood, worked with Karan during her early years. “Karan is a wonderful and warm person who cares passionately about theatre. She is wonderful to work with”.
Currently Karan is directing Born Yesterday for GCP, which just opened this weekend at Second Space. Actress Danielle Jorn is in the show and stated that Karan has quickly become one of her favorite directors. “As an actor, I put 100% of my trust in her, knowing full well that the process and final product of a Karan Johnson show will always be something I’m proud to be a part of. If her name is attached to a production, you can bet on it that I will be there to audition.”
To see Karan’s latest work, check out Born Yesterday at Good Company Players’ Second Space Theatre. This show runs through June 12. Find more information on their KRL event page and watch for a review here next month.