When St Mel’s Musical Society staged ‘Oklahoma!’ at the Backstage Theatre in Longford last month, it marked a milestone for one of the group’s longest-serving members, Sylvia Johnston. The staging of the American classic marked Sylvia’s 21st year of involvement with the society, which the Longford native joined back in the early 1990s, and she has been a familiar face to audiences ever since.
Many families in the area will also know Sylvia from her work as Special Needs Assistant at a local school: “I’ve been working at Stonepark National School for the last seven years and I’ve been looking after the same pupils all the way through. Unfortunately, they’ll be moving on to secondary school after the summer, so I’ll have to say a few emotional farewells in a few weeks’ time. After that, I’ll work with some of the infants who will be starting school in the autumn.
“I joined St Mel’s Musical Society in 1992, and the first production I was involved in was ‘Oliver’,” Sylvia says. “Since then, I’ve choreographed four or five productions for the group, and I’ve been the dance captain in a number of others. I perform on stage in all the productions as well.”
Sylvia traces her love for performing all the way back to her childhood. “I grew up in Shroid, just outside Longford town. Unfortunately my parents have both passed away but they had a huge influence on me getting involved in music and dance,” she admits. “My father, Billy was a huge fan of Irish trad music. He played the button accordion and we would often have a céilí in the house. I’d play along with him on the piano accordion and my mother, Mary would sing along with us.”
With a great love for dance, Sylvia decided to focus on that area and became a regular at competitions throughout the country: “I’m a fully-trained Irish dancer, and I started out by taking lessons at Kitty Carberry’s school of dance. I took part in the Scór na nÓg and senior Scór competitions, and I also helped the younger competitors with their preparations.”
Apart from St Mel’s Musical Society, Sylvia is also involved with a number of other local performance groups. “Down through the years I’ve also lent a hand to the people at St Christopher’s when they’ve been organising their pantomimes and Christmas concerts,” she explains. “Through St Christopher’s I got to know Evelyn Kelly, and she introduced me to the Backstage. Acting isn’t my thing, but I have choreographed plays for them.”
And what project does Sylvia have lined-up next?
“The Musical Society just finished up its production of ‘Oklahoma!’ last week, so I’m turning my attention towards the Brian Murray Variety Group now. I was always heavily involved in the Tops of the Town when it was running, and in a way it’s a sort of continuation of that. The show is run to raise funds for the Irish Cancer Society and it will be staged in the second half of November. We’ll begin making preparations in the next month or so – at first we’ll get together about once a week, and as the show draws nearer the rehearsals with get more intense.”