Dwain Johnson: the Centenary

Dwain Johnson [1921 - 2011] was a Minnesota high school teacher and a pioneer of educational theater and media production. During a career that spanned the '50s through the '80s, he brought several theatrical and television "firsts" to southern and central Minnesota. He built what is believed to be the very first instructional television studio in the country and he developed widespreach recognition for his professional-level theatrical productions that set attendance records.

"Mr. J" began his career in Staples, MN in 1955 and then moved to Rochester where he taught at John Marshall High School and Mayo High School until he retired in 1984. He was a deeply committed and effective teacher whose mantra was "Give them a taste of success."

This web site is an online overview of his career, accomplishments and philosophy. It's part of the centenary observance of Dwain's birth and it hopes to be a steppingstone to further the discussion about what happens to live theater in the post-pandemic 21st Century.

The site has been curated by me-- his daughter, Robin.

"And if we teach discipline and the truth... and if we accept the fact that the results will be good... and if we demand and insist that it will be good, then we can produce solid, artistic theater." - Dwain ("Mr. J") Johnson

JOHNSON'S PHILOSOPHY

Dwain Johnson saw high school educational theater as a legitimate and vital component of young persons' civic development at a time when "putting on a class play" was considered simply a way to finance the prom. He went further--- sincerely believing that high school aged men and women were capable of turning out quality performances and could rise to professional levels of focus and discipline. He was a fierce advocate of teaching a strong work ethic to his students and believed the theatrical arts should embrace its power to create tastes rather than merely reflect them. READ MORE

Click on each white bar below for a dropdown list of plays:

The Gustavian Players (as actor)
1942
A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court
1942 Gillean
1943 Thunder Rock
n/a The Powers That Be
St. Cloud State University (as actor)
1958
Macbeth
Rochester Civic Theater (as actor)
1960
Life With Father
1961 Arsenic and Old Lace
n/a Detective Story
Staples High School (as director)
1955
The Night of January 16th
1956 Arsenic and Old Lace
1956 The Man In The Bowler Hat
1956 Our Town
1957 The Imaginary Invalid also actor
1957 The Cat and the Canary
1957 Annie Get Your Gun
1958 Time Out For Ginger
1958 Dino
John Marshall High School (as director)
1961
The Night of January 16th
1961 The Doctor In Spite Of Himself
1961 The Cat and the Canary
1961 The Wizard of Oz
1962 Dark Victory
1962 Oklahoma
1962 Second Childhood
1962 The Crucible
1962 The Clown Who Ran Away
1963 Li'l Abner
1963
My Three Angels
1964 Charley's Aunt
1964 Medea
1965 Love Rides The Rails
1965 The Miracle Worker
1965 Arsenic and Old Lace
1965 Hansel and Gretel
1966 The Unsinkable Molly Brown
1966 Annie Get Your Gun
1966 The Unwicked Witch: An Unlikely Tale
Mayo High School (as director)
1966
Calamity Jane
1966 The Heartless Troll
1967 The Imaginary Invalid
1967 Winnie The Pooh
1968 Slaughter of the Innocents
1968 Life With Father
1968 The Boy Friend
1968 The Clown And His Circus
1969 The Glass Menagerie
1969 Merton of the Movies
1970 Because Their Hearts Were Pure
1970
Saint Joan
1970 Where's Charley?
1971 The Bad Seed
1972 Teahouse of the August Moon
1972 Blithe Spirit
1972 Annie Get Your Gun
1973 Detective Story
1973 David and Lisa
1974 The Doctor In Spite Of Himself
1975 Once Upon A Mattress
1975 Everybody Loves Opal
1975 The Monkey's Paw
1975 The Man in the Bowler Hat
1975 O--B--A--F--G (K-M-R-N-S)
1976 A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum
1977 Cyrano de Bergerac
1978
Anything Goes
1978 The Miracle Worker
1979 The Cat and the Canary
1980 Oklahoma
1980 Harvey
1981 Tartuffe
1981 Bye, Bye Birdie
1982 Arsenic and Old Lace

NOTES FROM THE DIRECTOR

Mr. J. began to write "Notes From The Director" in his play programs sometime in the 1960s. I have transcribed the notes that were readily available. Although the collection is far from complete, it is extensive enough for the reader to get a feel for how he grew as an instructor, what his values and priorities were and what preyed on his mind. Two Notes in particular stand out: his declaration of optimism from Cyrano de Bergerac in 1977 and his end-of-career self-assessment written during his final show, Arsenic and Old Lace, in 1982.

If anyone has a program from a show not listed here, I am very interested in adding the Note section to its collection. Please reach out. READ MORE

DIRECTOR'S KIT

Coming soon!

STORIES FROM A CAREER

Over the course of his 30-year career, "Mr. J" made a huge impact on the students with whom he worked. From the blind student cast in a sighted role to the special education students cast as villagers, to the students who felt rejected by every other area of their lives, Mr. Johnson lived up to his credo: give them a taste of success. In this section, I have gathered stories-- funny and inspirational-- that encapsulate his approach to American education and to his students. And let's not forget the piglet with stage fright! READ MORE

INSTRUCTIONAL TELEVISION

In the late 1960s, Johnson worked with two students to wire the Mayo High School building for in-house television. He went on to create The Spartan Scene, a daily, 15-minute news program which became the first of its kind in the nation.

A few years before his retirement, Johnson left the classroom and pioneered the newly created Rochester Instructional Television Studio. His belief that electronic communication could open doors to educators was internet-thinking before its time. READ MORE

REVIEWS & PRESS

During much of Johnson's career, Rochester newspaper "column inches" were regularly devoted to amateur arts and athletics. Even though the stereotype existed that amateur efforts weren't as worthy as professional ones, (see Jim Cavanaugh's thoughts,) Pauline Walle, in particular, was an early and devoted chronicler of high school theater. The Rochester community boasted a robust theater-going audience, one that found time to attend educational productions alongside New York offerings and the newly-built Guthrie Theater. This section shares some of what the media and the audience had to say. READ MORE

Click to read Mr. J's blog!

Career Highlights Click on each tab below to read summaries

When my father discovered that I had inherited his passion for theater, he talked to me about meaningful moments in his theatrical development. He never felt that he was a particularly good actor but there was one time in college when he believed he had a significant breakthrough in finding a character's truth. This had a monumental impact on him.

Ironically, he could never remember the name of the play! He just described the moment--- the line "He was... my son" when character and actor became one.

I was bequeathed his theater collection and set to the task of curating it. In the process, I found a Gustavus program for a play called Gillean that I thought could be the one. I Googled it but came up empty. Years later I thought I'd have another go and, lo and behold, there it was in an antiquarian bookshop in New York.

I read the play and it is indeed the one Dad remembered. Sadly, in my opinion, it hasn't aged well. Nevertheless, I appreciated the chance to connect to that young actor who discovered the magic of theater through its pages.

Dwain Johnson as Jonathan Brewster in Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace is the only show that appeared at every touchstone of my father's career. He directed the show first at Staples High School in 1956 and then acted in it a few years later upon moving to Rochester. Another production followed at John Marshall High School in the late '60s and it was no surprise that, in 1982, he chose it to be the final show he would ever direct. I played Abby in that production and I am immensely proud to be a part of that particular legacy.

Mr. J was constantly innovating. He brought the first musical to Rochester and the first dinner theater. He cast students from the special education program and students who had severe physical limitations decades before inclusion was widely considered.

In 1976, he had an idea. What about an evening of three one-act plays running simultaneously in different parts of the high school and repeated three times? The audience would be divided into thirds. On each ticket was printed the order in which they were to view the evening's offerings. The shows were synchronized and ended at the same time so the audiences were given time to stroll to their different locations and the plays would begin again.

The Monkey's Paw, the creepy stage adaptation of W.W. Jacobs' chilling short story played in the main auditorium. The Man In The Bowler Hat, written by A.A. Milne (yes, that A.A. Milne) was staged in the round in the student union. The final play was a truly experimental one. It was produced in the school's planetarium, (lucky Mayo--- it had a full planetarium!) and was a collection of abstract sound effects and dialogue along with an experimental light show. Sadly, I do not remember if the book was a professional work or a local product. More details on this show do not appear in the archives, not even the title.

STUDENT LEARNING Dwain wasn't one to avoid challenging his tech students. With the "Triple Play," stage management rose to the task of running three plays simultaneously and in seperate locations while the house management crew wrangled three groups of audience members between performances. Each evening came off flawlessly!

Rochester's first dinner theater

John Hardy of John Hardy's BBQ

The Doctor In Spite Of Himself was Rochester, Minnesota's very first dinner theater. The play was acted-- not in a static playing area-- but amongst the tables and chairs. Johnson tasked his young actors to improvise their blocking each night in order to cover the entire playing area. In addition, they were to break the fourth wall and play directly to individual members of the audience occasionally.

STUDENT LEARNING To develop these skills, he never held rehearsals in the same place twice. The cast practiced in the hallways, in the gym, in the library and even outside. They adjusted to differently sized spaces and various acoustics. When Mr. J felt they were getting too comfortable, he would change their focus points and demand they adapt to whatever was placed in their way. The cast also developed the discernment to improvise only when it was effective which resulted in some side-splitting gags.

The evening's meal was catered by John Hardy. Johnson discovered Hardy's BBQ shortly after John came to Rochester and quickly became a vocal fan. His personal esteem for John meant that, for him, there was simply no other choice for the menu-- it had to be John Hardy's. Again, the student House Management staff was challenged-- this time to be a professional-level server staff. The evening was joyous!

The infamous body-builders

During its two-night run in 1963 more than 4000 people saw Li'l Abner. The second-night crowd set a record for the "largest audience ever to attend a theatrical performance in the history of Rochester." It made a profit of $1000.

In addition to his skills as a director and educator, Dwain Johnson was a savvy producer. In 1966, when Mayo High School opened, Johnson became the head of the theater department and was offered the chance to receive a budget for his newly formed division.

He turned it down. He refused to accept a dime.

"The minute I take their money will be the minute they will start dictating to me how the money is to be spent," I remember him telling me. And so he refused and struck out on his own. The theater department spent the money it earned. And he never had to defend a choice of play or a budget again.

During the early years, his plan was simple: produce plays that were cheap to do and would draw large crowds, augment with summer children's' shows and then spend the profits on an expensive straight play or musical at the end of the year. In a few short years, he could keep the accounts in the black but he never sat on excess long-- he always put it back onstage. I could be wrong about this but I believe his was one of the very first high schools to successfully sell season-ticket subscriptions.

Roxanne, (Sue Sheps) confesses her love for Christian to Cyrano, (Don Harreld) who secretly loves her.

In the Johnson household, nothing tops Cyrano.

Oh, there were almost countless individual triumphs and favorite moments but, as a whole, nothing outdid the immense achievement of Edmund Rostand's glorious romance. And speaking of romance, Cyrano was the only play my mother ever requested my father produce. He did it for her.

I think the reason why I can't abide condescension towards amateur theater is because I saw Cyrano. I saw the full culmination of my father's passion and his belief that young people could move mountains and the world could be a better place. It was a better place for those two and a half hours.

The fact that the show's three young leads went on to extraordinary careers--- Don Herrald in education, Sue Sheps in bioengineering and John Uhlenhopp in opera--- doesn't surprise me a bit. Mind, I'm not crediting my father with their accomplishments. I suspect the seeds were in place the day they auditioned. But I'd like to think that the experience of Cyrano seriously contributed to making them into the people they became.

Assistant to the Director Meg Robsahm (on right) with Paul Erdman and Robb Spencer

Everybody Loves Opal was a charming little play that was, in and of itself, not hugely memorable. It lacked the enormous audience turnout of Li'l Abner, the dramatic impact of Cyrano de Bergerac and the first-of-its-kind element of The Doctor In Spite Of Himself. What it did feature was a testament to Johnson's devotion to his backstage crews.

So many amateur theaters-- especially high school theaters-- treat the technical work as something a student does only if they were not cast in a performing role. The attitude of "I guess I wasn't good enough to get a part, so I'll do props" wasn't acceptable to Johnson and he worked hard to build up the technical half of Mayo High School's theater department. He succeeded to the point where students vied for coveted crew assignments with the same fervor others competed for roles.

The positions of Stage Manager and Lighting Chair were year-long positions, demanding a professional-like commitment and focus. The technical skills the students learned on Mr. J's stage crews were genuinely impressive. After growing up watching this philosophy put in practice, it's no surprise how offended I was years later when I was shown a brand-new high school auditorium lighting board and was told by the vice principal, "Oh, we won't let students touch this thing!"

Opal came with probably the single greatest technical triumph of Mr. J's career: an elaborate sequence of mechanical and comic genius that started with a toy carousel turning and ended with the ceiling collapsing. Every night each moving piece came off flawlessly and every night the students learned to meticulously quality check to ensure another success.

Theater teachers! Don't forget to challenge your tech crews!!

Audio

Remembering the Scopes Monkey Trial

Rare interview of Clarence Darrow, circa 1932

Dwain was inspired by trial law and particularing by Clarence Darrow. He wrote several papers on Darrow's work, including the Scope's Monkey Trial.

If you see the Scopes and Darrows tabs above, but do not see the panes under them, try refreshing the page or clicking on Darrow and then Scopes.

Dwain Johnson as the college radio man and as Moliere'sThe Imaginary Invalid.