Photo by Chris Smith
Melissa Johnston Price
The selectors said: “As an actor, Melissa Johnston Price has won countless accolades for her portrayals of complex and fascinating characters. As a theater entrepreneur, she co-created a thriving children’s theater company that educated and trained both audiences and an entire generation of local Richmond theater professionals. As a theater parent and colleague, she supports all organizations and endeavors that help to build and strengthen this community.”
While a third-grader in Falls Church, Melissa Johnston Price received her first laughter and applause from an audience while portraying a young girl who dared to enter a haunted house. “With that came gratification,” she says. “What a heady experience. It’s etched in memory.”
Her father, Lewis Zirkle Johnston Sr., worked as a professional city manager, and her mother, Margaret, was a university administrator. The family went where the municipal governmental and academic winds carried them — to Farmville, Chesapeake and Petersburg. Price arrived at different schools in towns strange to her, always the new kid. In theater, she found a place to be a part of, by playing a part.
She later majored in theater at Longwood College (now a university). “I learned by doing — and I’m still learning,” she says.
In her senior year at Longwood, her father died of a massive heart attack at age 55. Price and her older brother, Lewis, helped their mother move to Chesapeake.
“This situation was totally unexpected,” she recalls. “I was floundering in a fog, wondering, ‘Who are you and who do you want to be?’ So I saw an audition notice and I thought, ‘What the hell? Let’s give this a shot.’ ”
That first venue was the 300-seat Tidewater Dinner Theatre of the Stars, operated in Norfolk by Alan Sader (who later became the face of Christian Children’s Fund/ChildFund International’s public appeals). She was cast in a play called The Golden Fleecing. “I was a vain, ditzy blonde who wouldn’t wear her glasses; and so she kept falling over the furniture,” Price says with a hearty laugh. The show’s lead was Richard Roundtree — a few years after his titular role in Shaft. During one scene, Roundtree didn’t make his entrance; and the other actor on stage blurted, “Hang on; I’ll be right back!” This left Price alone; but she played through the void. “I got up, looked around, and started falling over the furniture.” Roundtree, a backgammon enthusiast, missed his cue due to playing the game. Afterward, she notes, “Richard taught me how to play backgammon.”
During the 1980s, Price took on roles at Richmond’s Haymarket Dinner Theatre, directed by impresario Bev Appleton, and this led to Shakespeare roles and directing teens in Godspell.
With actors Gayle Turner and Greg Tapscott, she formed the Richmond Theatre Co. for Children. By 1989, RTC was producing five shows a year, with five casts touring day-care centers in five states. To supplement her income, she took nontheatrical part-time jobs, and her burnished voice became useful for radio and television commercial work. She and actor Jeanne Boisineau started producing work in the Little Theatre of Theatre IV, and she was part of the actor-run Production Co. “We did some awesome shows; one down at Berkeley Plantation, and Bev Appleton, in this big cape, rode up on a horse; and the audience traveled from room to room.”
By 1990, she entered into the most important roles of her life, that of wife and mother of two. She began to recognize, however, that something was missing. She had not been on stage in eight years when Carol Piersol, founding artistic director of the Firehouse Theatre Project, called wanting to know if she’d ever heard of an Edward Albee play called The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?, and asking her to audition. Price hadn’t read the play — in which she portrayed the wife of a world-renowned architect who forms a relationship with an animal. Morrie Piersol directed her in a triumphant return. She’s worked ever since, and in the past year, her roles have ranged from a recovering alcoholic nun in Richmond Triangle Players’ High to Titania, queen of the fairies, in the Henley Street Theatre/Richmond Shakepeare production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Price describes herself as a physical actor who prefers to explore the character by inhabiting the role rather than analyze motivations while sitting around a table. Acting, she says, is a team sport. The key component, though, is remaining present. “I try so hard to listen as though I’m hearing it for the first time in every show,” she says. She’s had ample opportunities to put this to the test, including her award-winning 2012 portrayal in the Cadence Theatre Co.’s production August: Osage County, and when actor-director Billy Christopher Maupin cast her in several reverse-gendered shows, including Macbeth.
In February, she’ll play Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine opposite a favorite acting partner, David Bridgewater as King Henry II, in the Henley Street/Richmond Shake-speare production of The Lion in Winter at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Her eyes brighten at the prospect. “My goodness, it’s going to be incredible fun,” she says, then reflects. “I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been.”