Story of Hosea a Hamilton Fringe Festival hit

TORONTO, ON—Last year the hit of the Toronto Fringe was Ins Choi's Kim's Convenience—a play loosely based on the story of the Prodigal Son. This year, Diane Johnstone's Desperate Church Wives—based on the biblical book of Hosea—got standing ovations at the Hamilton Fringe Festival.

Johnstone caught the acting bug young, producing her own neighbourhood shows to raise money for muscular dystrophy research. As a teen growing up in Westport, Connecticut, she'd often take her young charges to the Westport playhouse. Despite these early beginnings, Johnstone grew up to be a secretary and administrative assistant.

"But every holiday I'd be the one dressing up and making those holidays bigger than they were."

After she "grew tired of being a secretary" and started acting, Johnstone struggled with both her calling as an actor and the financial struggles acting brought. It was on the way to yet another temporary administrative assignment that a discussion with her husband led to him telling her to "go into acting full time.

"I wasn't happy doing anything else," she remembers. "(Acting) makes me happy."

Inspired by comics like Lily Tomlin, Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball—and especially Whoopi Goldberg in her one-woman show Fontaine…Why am I Straight?—Johnstone began writing and performing in her own shows.

"Desperate Church Wives is my fourth show," Johnstone says of the one-woman hit that has its roots in her experiences as an exotic dancer about 15 years ago. Now, both a "born-again believer and an ordained reverend" Johnstone drew the characters from both her own life and from people she's met over the years: Grandma Word, sleepy Pastor Hortense, Clarissa the faithless betrayer, humiliated Reverend Hosea, reformed stripper Barbara, and the harlot wife, Gomer.

"People in the sex industry are shunned by society," she says, adding that the Church fails to tell the stories of the Gomers and Rahabs.

"Desperate Church Wives is really a story about love…that touches on the subjects of adultery, abortion, judgment, keeping secrets, forgiveness and love," says Johnstone.

Social media, positive reviews and the usual Fringe word-of-mouth led to sold out shows and standing ovations at five of the seven showings.

"When I'm doing the shows I don't read the reviews. My husband reads the reviews and I can tell by his face," she says. "I don't want to be moved either way. I want to stay committed to the work and sometimes that's hard to do."

Johnstone plans to bring Desperate Church Wives back to Toronto this fall. A grant from the Ontario Arts Council will help her find a bigger venue and hire someone to help with the promotion. Eventually she'd like to see the play developed into a television series.

"Even though I did this last year at the Toronto Fringe and got four stars and critics' pick, it's still just is sinking in. It humbles me to see people stand up and give you a standing ovation."

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