Member Profile: Christopher Johnston, Renaissance Writer

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In another era, Cleveland-based freelance journalist, playwright and director Christopher Johnston might rightfully be called a Renaissance man. Along with authoring more than 3,000 articles in regional and national publications ranging from Cleveland Magazine to, he served as a contributing editor for Inside Business and Cleveland Enterprise. His book, Shattering Silences: Strategies to Prevent Sexual Assault, Heal Survivors, and Bring Assailants to Justice, was published by Skyhorse in May. Along with directing productions for Cleveland Public Theatre, Playwrights Local, the Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square and many more, his plays have appeared at, among others, Cleveland Public Theatre, Notre Dame College and in New York City at the West 78th Street Theater. Currently he is writing a biography of a Green Beret who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is developing two other book projects — one about successful programs to combat human trafficking and another about a unit in the Marines that suffered the highest loss rate in U.S. Marine history during the Vietnam War. His one-act play “Black Mongoose and His Lil Purple Butterfly” will open at Convergence-Continuum Theatre on Sept. 20 and his full-length documentary play about human trafficking, “Live Bodies for Sale,” will premiere at Playwrights Local Theatre in November 2019, both in Cleveland.

Wow! That’s a lot. How do you marry the demands of writing and theatre?

I came out of a marketing job, where you had to pretty much write whatever people needed — annual reports, whitepapers, press releases, a mix of different things. I also completed a playwriting internship at the Cleveland Play House during the 1989-90 season. Once I started freelancing in 1987, I wrote a lot of articles and some video scripts, including two half-hour television programs for University Hospitals Case Medical Center, one on orthopedic and sports medicine and another on overcoming cancer. With both, you are creating characters and telling a story from scratch and getting information from key players. It seems quite natural to switch from one medium to the next, such as articles to books to plays — it’s just a different format.

Journalism and theatre also operate pretty much on different schedules; I write during the day and do theatre at night. I’ve made a lot of good friends and developed relationships in both so they feed on each other in that way as well.

How did you get involved with the topic of sexual assault?

I grew up in a family that believed strongly in justice and equality so a goal was to use my journalism background to address racism and other social issues. In 2009, I began reporting on the Anthony Sowell serial rapist/murderer case in Cleveland and started to meet the people in the professions providing solutions to sexual violence. In 2016, I wrote a cover story for the Christian Science Monitor on Cleveland programs and efforts to combat sexual violence that were a direct response to that case. It lit a fire under me — I had seen how this affected friends, family and women in general. So I continue to pursue the topic, attending symposia and interviewing key players, including survivors, law enforcement and advocates, and at one point was even embedded with the Cuyahoga County sexual assault task force. And more and more material began to emerge. I wanted to develop a solution-based approach that would not only help prevent assault and help recovering victims and survivors but also effectively deal with offenders.

Along with serving on panels with other experts, another one of my goals is to go out and educate the community through programs at churches, universities and other public institutions. It’s important to initiate a dialogue, too, for example, to encourage parents to make children aware of their bodies and know what touching is appropriate and what is not to protect themselves. It’s also important to encourage individuals to consider what they can do in their own communities to prevent trafficking and sexual assault. This is a passion project for me — I’m not as concerned with book earnings but more with parlaying it into teaching and public speaking opportunities to raise awareness.

Which do you prefer, theatre or writing?

Journalism is my first love and it’s also mostly what pays the bills; but theatre is a personal passion of mine, and directing jobs sometimes pay fairly well. I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years and like all of us, have seen it change and shift, especially as people need more web content and print publications are folding. That said, however, there are still a lot of opportunities in journalism. And the drop in pay seems to have stabilized and is even going up in some cases; the pay rate for one publication I write for went up 50 percent.

You mentioned that you don’t do content writing – pretty unusual for freelancers these days – so how to do you make it work financially?

Most of my time is devoted to writing articles and books and I also teach and do corporate work. In fact, I’ve stepped back from directing to do more writing. And right now, along with my book and other projects, I’m working on ramping up my public speaking opportunities. Even though I’ve taught writing and playwriting at Cleveland State, I’m working on honing the basics and putting up videos on my website to get bigger venues, which can also pay well.

What advice would you give to writers who are considering joining ASJA and making freelancing a career?

I joined ASJA about 10 years ago and have gotten so much out of it — it’s an instant national network. Everyone is collegial and friendly, whether you’re moderating a panel or asking for advice on writing a book proposal or pitching publications. I can’t say enough good things about ASJA, and because it’s helped me so much I try to give back however I can, such as attending and volunteering at the annual conference.

Regarding freelancing, and I know this has been said before many times, it comes down to doing the work every day. You can’t pipe dream or talk about it — you just have to do it. That, and identify the things you want to really write about. It’s not always about choosing projects that just make money; there needs to be some passion for the subject as well.