Published in KPBS On Air Magazine April 1997

What she teaches is ABC; what she directs is no child’s play.   But there is a through-line in the life of Christina Courtenay. As an actor, director and first-grade teacher, what she loves most is presenting challenging material that makes people think.

“I like working with anything that keeps the audience off guard,” says the quick-talking, quick-thinking 50 year-old, and you know she brings that energy and philosophy into the classroom, too.   She has a huge following of former students, and a devoted theater audience as well.

It all started back in Kansas City, when, at age 6, she saw Mary Martin’s traveling production of “Peter Pan”. “For years,” Courtenay admits, “I believed in Peter Pan just like Santa. I became obsessed. I memorized all the words, rewrote the script, and produced the play in my backyard, including lighting and sound.”

Three years ago, everything came full circle.   The Lemon Avenue School mounted a mammoth production of “Peter Pan”, involving the entire student population — 500 kids. The script they used was a “beefed-up” version of Courtenay’s age 6 original.

By the time she was 8, Courtenay knew she wasn’t in Kansas any more. The first big move was to Laguna Beach, and then Escondido to the family ranch, where she grew up riding horses and climbing trees. “Plenty of time for my imagination,” she says, “and make-believe stuff carries you over to theater.” She acted in junior high and high school productions, then at Palomar College and SDSU.

But then, she left the theater for fifteen years, “and I still don’t know why.” She got married at 23 (divorced at 37), had two kids and started teaching in 1970.   But she never forgot her father’s words to her, as he lay in a hospital bed following an accident, having broken almost every bone in his body. “Through a respirator, he said to me, ‘Be true to yourself.'”   And she has been.

When she re-entered community theater, and was acting in “Watch on the Rhine”, she fell in love with her onstage husband, Jim Johnston, whom she married in 1989. Over the years, they’ve acted together several times (most recently in “King Lear” at the Fritz, where she played the title role and he played Kent).    He’s directed her, she’s directed him, and he’s designed sound for all her productions.

Courtenay is very careful about the theater work she chooses.   Given her commitment to teaching, she can only do three plays a year: two as director and one as actor.

She confesses that “most theater I like I don’t understand the first time I read it. What I like may be a little weird, ribald and strange on the surface.   But they also have to be really moral pieces. I like them to go at the audience in the exact opposite direction, to get them to think.   Call it my Celtic black humor.”

That description aptly applies to some of her best work, from her mind- and gender-bending Master’s project production of “Cloud 9” at SDSU in 1991, to her chillingly wonderful direction at the Fritz Theatre, which she considers her home: “The Baltimore Waltz”, “Coyote Ugly”, “The Living” and “Hot ‘n’ Throbbing”.

And now, she adds to her growing list of quirky credits with “Weldon Rising” (Diversionary Theatre, April 4-May 10) by Phyllis Nagy, a piece that contains all Courtenay’s favorite theatrical elements:   dark humor, thought-provoking themes, and a non-narrative, non-linear form.

“At first it seemed so dark and sad,” she says of the apocalyptic tale, “but the more I read it, the funnier it gets.   It’s purgatory comedy.   Like “No Exit” with 26 cases of beer…   The play is about fear and loss, and also about hope, love and the human spirit.”

“Weldon Rising” takes place on a back street in New York’s meat-packing district on the hottest evening of the year.   The characters are two gay men, two lesbians, a “stunning young transvestite without a permanent address” and a “very young… beautiful and dangerous boy” [author’s notes]. Four of them (including the self-effacing Natty Weldon) witnessed a hate crime and did nothing to stop it.  

There’s a lot about courage and cowardice, beauty and violence, men and women, and the schisms in the gay community and in our society at large. The specter of AIDS is a shadowy, unspoken presence.

“This hate crime kicked off the end of the world,” says Courtenay. “The temperature goes up to 180. Buses and cars explode.   Bridges collapse.   It’s so purgatorial, in style and tone, that these people could all be dead, and they could’ve watched this awful act ten or a hundred years before, and they’re still trying to work it out, trying to make meaning out of an event with no reason… It’s not just about gay issues; it’s about multicultural issues and isolationism, separation and pulling together.”

Playwright Nagy, a New Yorker living in London, also wrote “Girl Bar” (coming to Diversionary in July, just after its 10th anniversary coup — the San Diego premiere of Terrence McNally’s “Love!   Valor! Compassion!”).

“I love working at Diversionary,” says Courtenay, who won acclaim for her performance last year in “Why We Have a Body”.   “The audience is right with you.   It breathes with you…   In this play, they have to be able to see terrible things and laugh. It has to be laughter and tears, laughter and tears.”

©1997 Patté Productions Inc.