ELLISVILLE – Her home is the stage, any stage. That’s the perfect place for Jones County Junior College Musical Theater Producer and Director and voice instructor, Nikki Johnson because that is where she spends most of her time. Whether it’s preparing students for an upcoming musical, performing a solo, or stealing the spotlight in a play, the stage is where this 1998 JCJC alumna feels at home.
“I love teaching and I know I was born to teach, but nothing satisfies my soul like being in the lights and hearing that applause,” said Johnson. “My husband and students can tell you that I am happiest when I am performing.”
Musetta, played by JCJC musical theater producer and director, Nikki Johnson (left) and Marcello, played by USM doctoral student Tyrone Hayes (left) who is still enamored with his former sweetheart, discuss their future.
A few butterflies may have stirred in her stomach as Johnson took on the challenging role of Musetta in Puccini’s “La Bohéme”. However, the University of Southern Mississippi’s fall performance will most likely be remembered as a highlight in her career.
“This is a dream role for me, playing Musetta,” said Johnson. “I am thrilled to have this opportunity, however, I felt a little out of place because I’m not an opera singer. This is only my second performance in an opera but I’m having a great time with the challenge of transforming my musical theater style into that of opera.”
The Petal native earned her Master’s in Vocal Performance at USM with a year of graduate study at Baylor University. That’s when she first fell in love with the Italian opera and the part of Musetta.
“I love sassy characters that obnoxiously get their way. Also, La Bohéme is the most beautiful opera in the entire world, in my humble opinion anyway!” Johnson shared.
However, Johnson was destined for something much different than the stage before she came to JCJC in 1996. Ironically, Johnson discovered her passion and career where she now teaches daily and performs regularly.
“My first musical was ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ here at Jones. I played the urchin, Ronette. The cast members and I had way too much fun and I was hooked after that!” said Johnson. “Because of my attachment to the show, I couldn’t wait to produce it and, luckily, we had just the right students to fill the roles for the spring show. This has really been a special year for me.”
The stage and symphony directors for La Bohéme, Rob Mulholland and conductor Jay Dean explain there is no better training for a theater and music teacher than performing. Dean said, “An artist/teacher who stops performing can no longer be a complete role model for her students. Such a teacher can offer much more if she continues to perform and be an inspiration to her students.”
It is vital for teachers to continue to practice their craft, explained Mulholland, who also assists Johnson as stage and artistic director for JCJC productions. He explained the teacher/performer that has the talent to be on the stage, also needs the support to continue to perform.
“All educators in this discipline must be encouraged to perform as often as possible and be given the means to do so by an enlightened administration,” said Mulholland. “I commend the administration at JCJC for recognizing this and actively promoting the idea among their faculty. I also commend Nikki for seizing the opportunity as frequently as possible and with full commitment to the process and to the result.”
Johnson’s Musical Theater Workshop students can attest to the quality of Johnson’s guidance. Sophomore music and theater major, John Wright of
JCJC musical theater producer and director, Nikki Johnson (center right) gives her Theater Workshop students some directions about their performance.
Yazoo City said he never had professional training before he came to JCJC.
He explained, “When I was in high school I was very involved in theatre but I never had someone to guide me through the acting or the theatre process. Mrs. Johnson inspired me to not just play a role but to become that person. She has not only helped my acting but also my singing. She has inspired my music career in many ways and is one of the biggest musical influences in my life.”
Johnson said she is proud of the three productions she has produced and served as musical director for the spring shows at JCJC. Her credits include, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “Beauty and the Beast”, and “Cabaret”. Overall she said there’s one lesson she hopes her students remember and develop when they leave her class and stage. “A love for theater, stage and music is important, but most of all I want my students to appreciate what it takes to get a music degree or to pursue a performing career,” said Johnson. “For most folks, the sacrifices are too great.”
For example, theater performances my last a couple of hours however Johnson reminds her students that life on the stage is not easy. The JCJC musical theater cast practices about 120 to 160 hours outside of school time over the two months preparing for the spring show. Professional performers can have even more grueling demands. Johnson explained anyone who catches the ‘theater bug’ is drawn to the stage despite the sacrifices.
“When I took a two year break from performing I was miserable! I must have the outlet of the stage to stay sane. Without my own time in the spotlight, I would envy my students’ opportunities. Being on stage makes me a better teacher in every way. I’m happy, sympathetic, practicing what I preach, and always learning. All this gets passed on to my students.”
The culmination of her experiences as Director of Choral Activities at Gulfport High School for two years, which inspired students to earn superior ratings in local, state, and national competitions, her stage appearances in “Beauty and the Beast”, “Sweet Charity”, “Into the Woods”, “Clue: The Musical”, “The Taffettas”, “Stardust” and “Some Enchanted Evening”, and now teaching have all brought her back to the place she calls home; the stage.
“Performing is an internal competition with myself and I’m always trying to be better. I am not sure what my next ‘role’ will be, but I hope that I can enjoy many more years on the stage.”
Photos and story written by: Teresa Martin, JCJC Media & Public Relations Director