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books: Split Personality

Linda Rae Johnson gives her audience something between acting and reading.


Johnson calls these tales from the past her "Linda Rae Stories." All of them require a bit of time travel as she tells them from the point of view of herself as a child between the ages of 9 and 13. Since the writing retreat, she began reading her stories out loud while she wrote because she felt that hearing them was as important as reading them. "I gave myself a reading and invited 50 family and friends to attend," she says. "I realized that it was through the act of reading the stories out loud that I was able to connect with the audience and the voice of myself as a little girl." That first experience was so good for her that she has slowly been making her way as a performance artist ever since. As Johnson gradually fine-tuned her readings over the years she has appeared before audiences in Virginia, North Carolina and New York.

What Johnson delivers is something between acting and reading. "I call myself a performance reader," she says. "It's in the art of storytelling, but even though I'm reading the story instead of just reciting it, I take you there. I become Linda Rae through the reading of them." Her voice drops into the honey-dipped dialect of Louisiana and through it you can almost here the cicadas chirping on a lazy summer afternoon. Johnson adds to her younger persona by dressing up in '50s-style clothing and playing music of the era as a background to her stories to help set the mood. "I call it Southern Louisiana dysfunctional style," she says jokingly. "My stories are about growing up with my mother and my stepfather, Bill, who is kind of the antagonist in these stories." Johnson's mother usually plays the role of peacemaker between Bill and the four daughters. Linda Rae's voice is one of the southern gothic: a sassy, know-it-all girl whose tales are equal parts comedy and tragedy. "Bill used to kill neighborhood dogs that wandered into the yard in the middle of the night," she says. "One of the Linda Rae stories is about my worry that I would find my best friend's dog dead in the yard the next morning."

Aside from their entertainment value, Johnson's stories are used to reach out to others.

"I've developed a format called 'Sharing Your Memories' and I do that in senior assisted-living and independent-living homes," Johnson says. "I read a few Linda Rae stories and then I ask the audience to share some of their stories."

Johnson's performance art started slow but when some doors closed, others opened. She has made a professional recording of her stories as well as a book of 16 stories called "Ouachita Girl" named after the Ouachita River in Louisiana. "I'm not quitting my day job," Johnson says. "But things are getting better all the time." S

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