While breathing in the world around her, Texas Tech’s Rachel Hirshorn-Johnston reflects on the importance of everyone’s story.
Have you ever met someone who can enter a room full of people and within moments command the attention of all with their warmth, energy and charisma?
Rachel Hirshorn-Johnston is that person.
The associate professor of voice and speech at Texas Tech University's J.T. & Margaret Talkington College of Visual & Performing Arts School of Theatre and Dance has been sharing her dynamic spirit and stories since she was a little girl growing up in the Midwest.
She knows we all have that story inside, desperately needing to be shared with someone – anyone.
“We're literally built to inhale our world and give it back,” Hirshorn-Johnston said.
In this age of technology, the ability to connect with one another is easier than any other time in history, and yet the reverse has happened. Social media, 24-hour news cycles, and yes, the recent pandemic have made communicating face to face a challenge.
As Hirshorn-Johnston explained, this is the most important time to tell our stories.
“Storytelling is an incredibly important part of life,” Hirshorn-Johnston said. “I think live communication is essential.”
And her story has been quite the ride.
Telling Her Story from the Beginning
Hirshorn-Johnston began her storytelling journey in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her sister, mom and dad.
“Yes, I grew up a hippie,” she quipped. “This is home of the hash bash and the naked mile where entire families would just strip down and run through downtown. The cops protected them and cheered them on. Entire families including children just to celebrate the human body in a positive way and health in the middle of winter.”
It should come as no surprise given the actor Hirshorn-Johnston has become that setting the scene for her storytelling career began when she was young.
“I'm two years old and our house backs up to a soccer field which has a little park,” she said. “There's a group of teenage boys carrying a six pack to the playground. I see them and I don't know what triggered, but I run out the backyard gate and go, ‘No! No!' And I just race across there and mom is kind of chasing me, laughing. And I chased them away. I thought something was wrong. This was wrong. What they were doing was wrong.”
Hirshorn-Johnston remained precocious well into her teen years. Even graduating high school wasn't a given until her wilder side was tempered.
“I almost flunked out of high school,” she recalled. “I had a brilliant high school counselor who suggested I make the announcements. This was a big public high school of 2,500 students and the announcements came in the middle of the day. So strategically, if I was there to do the announcements, I couldn't skip morning class and I couldn't skip afternoon class without getting caught. And what I realized is that I loved it.”
That love fired her pursuit of storytelling as an actor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC).
“The fact that my parents were both teachers and professors, they knew if you educate, you can do anything you want,” she said. “Education is your pathway to finding a way to live. Not just ‘here's your trust fund,' because there wasn't one.”
She would secure her Master of Fine Arts degree while diving headfirst into the world of acting on stage and screen never faltering from the goal of becoming an avid storyteller while leaning heavy on her roots.
“I definitely would consider myself more of a stage actor,” Hirshorn-Johnston said. “But I tell my students, if you know how to act for stage, you can definitely figure out how to harness the energy for the camera.”
Along the way, the desire to pass on knowledge and ignite the passion of others became a driving force thanks to friends, family, instructors and mentors. She began work as a voice and dialect coach while she continued her love of storytelling as an actor.
Hear some of Hirshorn-Johnston's thoughts on her mentor Lynn Watson, Professor Emeritus at UMBC.
Hirshorn-Johnston came to Texas Tech in 2015, earned tenure in 2021, and currently serves as the head of acting and directing while encouraging others to share their stories.
“I think a strong sense of passion and a strong ethical compass is essential,” she said. “Not just for story tellers, but especially for professional storytellers. You better be freakin' ethical and have a strong moral compass.”
Why We Tell Stories
To say the COVID-19 pandemic reshuffled how stories are told might be considered an understatement by Hirshorn-Johnston. The isolation, masks and social distancing made it hard to share those important stories – stories of love, loss, triumph and tribulation. For Hirshorn-Johnston, it all began with an anatomy lesson.
“It's anatomy specific to sound production – rib swing and if you spread out the surface area of your lungs, they can cover an entire tennis court,” she said. “We're literally made to inhale the world around us. But we tend to sort of protect ourselves by going calm rather than leaning in and breathing in our space and work.”
Hirshorn-Johnston emphasized that we have lived through and continue to live through a scenario where breathing in is a scary experience.
“Breathing in is not only the foundation of how we function as human beings, but how we intake information. You literally must breathe in the world around you,” she added.
Where has a global pandemic left storytelling? Hirshorn-Johnston believes it is now in a quite perplexing place where the culture of storytelling has been altered for the time being.
“I think live communication is essential,” Hirshorn-Johnston said. “It's the part I missed the most during COVID. There's a reason why live storytelling continues because you're not trending, you're breathing with another human at the same time. It's different energetically. We couldn't be doing this on Zoom. We wouldn't be breathing the same air, not sharing the same palpable human energy.”
Misinformation and a Lack of Breathing
Many people define doom scrolling as obsessively scanning social media and websites for bad news. From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, this became the norm for many people – so much so it has continued to this day.
Hirshorn-Johnston said the consumption of “bad news” stories does something to people – puts them on edge, disconnecting them from the healthy necessary interactions in which people share their stories and the result impacts one of our quintessential life functions, breathing.
“I was reading about long COVID; and then children and how nano plastics are eating your cells and it's all in your laundry detergent; Ukraine; and climate change,” Hirshorn-Johnston said. “I've stopped breathing. I mean, I'm alive. But, I've stopped breathing. So, where do we draw the line? We need some balance, maybe in our storytelling, because we can't say ‘No, I don't want to hear that.' Because that's happening in our world.”
Hirshorn-Johnston is a strong believer that misinformation is rooted in fear. Tall tales have survived centuries by capturing people's imagination and playing on their consternation.
“It's in your fight or flight nervous system,” she said. “And you get a reward, which is more readily felt because it's so immediate. I feel like since the pandemic, I've noticed with a lot of my students, myself included, have some really tingly nervous systems. It's our autonomic nervous system on fire – what's going to happen next?”
Hirshorn-Johnston said adapting to the environment a person lives in is key to making the connection when telling a story accurately and with a full understanding of the risks involved. It's something she admits has evolved to a degree over time.
Hear Hirshorn-Johnston's thoughts on sharing a space and connecting with people.
“I think what's evolved over time is a realization that we can hone what we are and use it to our advantage,” she said. “I just want to respect the fact that not everybody's going to want to connect with other people. So maybe it's acknowledging the truth in this space. I think everybody learns about ignorance and hate – that there's a big difference. But I don't think it's talked about enough.
“I try to welcome and embrace ignorance. I think there's fear of speaking or sharing because there's worry about being ignorant and accidentally hurting someone and not knowing. Look at language, which is changing all the time, oh my gosh. I don't even know the appropriate term to use here anymore. We would say this, but now it's something else and I don't know that I know it. That's ignorance. And ignorance shouldn't necessarily come with a negative connotation to it. It could be a teachable moment.”
Hirshorn-Johnston firmly believes face-to-face exchanges of ideas, thoughts and stories will create a more open and accepting environment to relate to others.
“I think this helps. I think what we do here helps,” she said. “Go back to the root of where some of these more questionable stories begin and you will be able to see where it perpetuated and who perpetuated it.”
A Personal Story
If it wasn't obvious before, connections are a quintessential part of Hirshorn-Johnston's essence. Family, friends, colleagues and students have been key to her ability to navigate the ever-changing landscape of storytelling.
“I think storytelling was supported and embedded in me by my parents,” she said. “And it was reading, and we went to the theater and it was affordable. It wasn't a form of elitism. There wasn't a stigma attached to it.
“My parents were really supportive. My dad came to see all my shows. My mom came to see lot of them. My dad even came to see nude roles.”
Hirshorn-Johnston was cast in a polarizing dark comedy in several years back that required full nudity. She accepted the role with a slight bit of nervousness but was put at ease with a direct question from her dad.
“He asked, ‘The question for you is, do you feel shame in doing it?' I answered with a no,” she said. “And when it came time for the show, he leaned over to the guy next to him and goes ‘I used to put diapers on that.'”
The connections Hirshorn-Johnson formed, allowed her to pursue meaningful areas of study such as vocal training and integrated therapies. The goal is to help those who may be living with some form of cognitive degeneration or roadblock such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or dementia. The latter diagnosis is quite personal.
In 2014, her father was diagnosed with dementia retiring after more than three decades of leading and teaching others. The Alzheimer's Association defines dementia as a general term for loss of memory, language, problem-solving and other thinking abilities that are severe enough to interfere with daily life.
“Sometimes I have to be the sender and the receiver,” she said. “And I feel like it's just so very hard. I don't know what happens in the brain. I don't know what they're getting when they're that far along.”
Hear Hirshorn-Johnston's recollection of her father's favorite thing to do at events and weddings.
In the case of her father, Seth, the dementia did interfere. He went from the enjoyment of retirement in Florida, to a long-term care facility in Lubbock. Dementia took away his ability to relay stories - stories he shared for most of Hirshorn-Johnston's life. It then became her job to secure the legacy of his stories.
“Well all you have left at the end of day is the stories,” she said. “That's all there is. That's it. You don't have your story, nothing else really matters.”
Sadly, Hirshorn-Johnston's father died at the beginning of January. His stories, however, live on through his family and friends.
A Story of Hope
The origin of storytelling is far reaching. From music to campus legends to oratory masterclasses, what is the future of storytelling? Hirshorn-Johnston knows part of the next step falls in line with some famous lines from Shakespeare's “As You Like It”; “All the world is a stage, and all the men and women are merely players.”
“I think we need to popularize the ensemble theater,” Hirshorn-Johnston said. “I think we need to think of supporting artists financially outside of New York, Chicago and L.A. So the more access we have to professional storytelling and ensemble-based storytelling, the more it will become mainstreamed and not just thought of, ‘Oh, I saw that on Broadway.' And Broadway's great, but we need a Broadway and.”
There are quite a few avenues for storytelling in the Lubbock and Texas Tech communities which has Hirshorn-Johnston excited. It creates those opportunities to share the space, the stories and experiences that are key regardless of the path people choose to share their tales.
“One way to engage audiences and create new storytellers is that we start at a young age of platforming the essential need of professional storytelling in their lives as being as important as food and water,” she said. “Because, like I mentioned, at the end of the day, that's all you have is your stories.”
Interested in hearing more from Rachel Hirshorn-Johnston? Check out Five Minutes here.
This story is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Seth Hirshorn.