Johnson Says High School Saves Drama

By PAT ANDERSEN
Rocket Feature Editor

High school drama is the salvation of the "floundering"' art of theater, according to Mr. Dwain Johnson, JM English and speech instructor.

He made the claim last week in a speech given to the Fellows' Wives' Drama Group of the Magazine club.

Johnson said that high schools can expose students to good theater in the midst of TV and movie "trash."

He said that theater is the number one art in our present society. "We are exposed to more. Just take a look at The Beverly Hillbillies, the motion pictures, the college and civic theaters, and Broadway.

"However, we shouldn't confuse quantity with quality. Television, for example, merely reflects our tastes and does not dictate them," he said.

Therefore, high school theater provides the hope to raise the quality of drama.

"Minnesota actually has a higher standard of high school theater than any other state in the Union, as far as the recognition of quality plays goes," he said.

"But most high school drama is just a cast-off of the English department. The school must have a play to finance the prom, which is an introduction to teenagers to the evils and sins of the adult world," he said.

There is much administrative unconcern connected, and worst of all, there is a complacency of the directors. Why knock yourself out? What's the difference?" he told the adult drama group.

"And yet there is a difference.These kids have not yet picked their avocations, and they're looking for something to attract their attention. Very often the answer can be tragic, but not always," he said.

He complimented high school dramatists.

"The high school actor is so very real in his emotions. It's not hard to make a high school actress cry on stage; her feelings are so close to the surface. All you have to do is crack it a little, and the truth will pour forth."

Mr. Johnson referred to the "Li'l Abner" tryouts at JM last week.

"In a few days, I will have completed over 200 tryouts for the musical. What a reward to see the violent enthusiasm of those kids."

Consequently, he feels morally obligated to teach the art of theater to the students.

"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.

Mr. Johnson invited more criticism of his productions.

"The one thing I've really regretted since I've been in Rochester is that I haven't received one nasty letter or telephone call. When a coach gives a bad performance, he hears about it. I've received compliments, but I want criticism. Then we can produce good theater, he said.

"One of the worst things my mother ever said to me came after one of my productions.

"Oh that was wonderful' she said. "The kids knew their lines so well'."

Mr. Johnson concluded by saying, "Don't patronize us. Don't feel that you should go to see our productions. But if you hear about a worthwhile show, go and tell others about it.

"What we want is a place in the curriculum such as music and athletics have. We can and will entertain you, but we want the rewards only if we deserve them" he said.


* Reading this for the first time in 2021, I feel compelled to comment on a couple of things. Firstly, the "introduction to teenagers to the evils and sins of the adult world" comment does not sound like my dad. He wasn't given to that kind of hyperbole, (religious or otherwise.) But then I remembered his audience on that day and the year in which he made the speech and I suspect what you see there is a skilled rhetorician knowing what will drive his point home.

He softened and became more empathetic towards his mother as the years passed. By the time he told me the story of her comment, he had made a vital realization: a Midwest farm wife with limited schooling was not going to be able to offer up the same assessment of his work as a Star Tribune theater critic. For Jensine Johnson, (who had directed small skits at an Elbow Lake, MN church) the kids knowing "their lines so well" was truly a relevant critique. It was probably one of the biggest challenges she came up against. Ironically, it was my father who taught me to meet people where they are and not where you would like them to be. He either discovered this after this interview or had a brief lapse!


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