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Actor Jessica Johnson: ‘Educating Rita was the first time heard a working-class voice in a play’

Starring with Stephen Tompkinson in the UK tour of Educating Rita, Jessica Johnson tells Giverny Masso how reading the role for the first time aged 14 gave her hope that theatre wasn’t just for posh people…

How did you get into theatre?
From when I was very young, my family owned a little guest house next to the Sunderland Empire, so we used to get a lot of the stand-up comedians, drag queens and performers staying with us. I kind of fell in love with it, because they always seemed like such interesting people. I wouldn’t say I came through the usual route as I’m from a very working-class background, so the majority of my time was spent in church halls and drama clubs. I just did whatever I could, whenever I could.

What has been a big career highlight for you so far?
I’m an associate artist with the company Open Clasp. I’ve worked with the artistic director Catrina McHugh for a number of years, and about five years ago we devised a show with women in Low Newton Prison called Key Change. It was only supposed to be a small project, but we toured it round men’s prisons in the North East, then we did a couple of nights at Live Theatre in Newcastle. People were saying: “There’s something special here.” We ended up taking it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The four and five-star reviews started coming in, then we won the Carol Tambor Award and transferred it to New York.

What has been the biggest challenge in your career?
In my early 20s, I had a bit of a break in film. I ended up with a great agent, but I was being called down to London for auditions three times a week, often last-minute. It was costing about £120 every time I got on a train. Alternatively I could get on an overnight bus and arrive at Victoria at six o’clock in the morning having had no sleep. I still have conversations with young actors who are suffering in the same way. It’s especially frustrating when northern houses are auditioning in London.

Extortionate train fares are pricing us out of auditions, actors warn [1]

How did you get the role in Educating Rita?
While rehearsing Goth Weekend at Live Theatre, I got chatting with [Educating Rita co-star] Stephen Tompkinson, who was rehearsing The Red Lion. I’d just done Educating Rita at the Gala Theatre in Durham, which was fab. I was saying I’d love a longer run, as we only did a week. I did a reading for this production and it kind of went from there.

How did you develop the role?
The previous version I did was set in the modern day, so for this one I had to try to get my head in the right place: what was it like to be a woman in 1980? I have a lot of empathy for Rita: I wouldn’t say our stories are the same but I understand her aspirations. I remember first reading the play when I was 14. I was trying to find a monologue, and it gave me hope. It was the first time I’d heard a working-class voice in a play. The other stuff you read makes you go: “I don’t know if this is really for me.” Suddenly, you go: “I can fit into this world, it isn’t just for posh people.”

CV Jessica Johnson

Training: None
First professional role: Donna in the film School for Seduction (2004)
Agent: Janet Plater Management

Educating Rita review at Theatre by the Lake, Keswick – ‘a tightly directed revival’ [2]

Educating Rita is touring until August 17 [3]