“I am loving it, although I’m dead to the world tired,” the 63-year-old Minnesota native said Tuesday. “I am having a splendid time in the rehearsal hall, and it’s not lost on me that I get to get up in the morning and go do what I love, what other people do for a hobby. For some unknown reason, I got lucky enough to have be my career, and I just couldn’t be more grateful.”
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s life, “Little Women” (which premiered on Broadway in 2005) follows the adventures of sisters Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy March. Jo, an aspiring author, tries to sell her stories for publication, but publishers are not interested.
Her friend, Professor Bhaer, tells her that she has to do better and draw more from her personal experiences. Begrudgingly taking this advice, Jo successfully weaves the lives of herself, her sisters and their experiences growing up in Civil War America into this heartwarming and classic piece, according to a synopsis.
This is Johnson’s first full, adult musical at Ambrose since she helmed “Cabaret” in spring 2018. She originally scheduled the musical “First Date” in 2020, which was shelved due to COVID.
“I wanted to find a play that had good music, had a heartfelt story and that really offered a wide plethora of featured roles,” Johnson said Tuesday of picking “Little Women.”
“We had a lot of women and I wanted to find a show that had a lot of women’s roles where people could step into the spotlight,” she said, noting she loved the book as a child. “My tastes go towards ‘Cabaret’ and ‘Pippin,’ and those kind of sort of dark, edgy things. And this was a little too Pollyanna for me and how wrong I was in thinking that.”
As Johnson dug into the story (set in the 1860s), the inspiring characters popped off the page, and are thrillingly relevant to people today.
“It deals with the differences in the way that especially women in the 19th century sought to fulfill their dreams. And it also talks about the strength of making choices that are non-traditional and also the strength of making choices that are traditional, because sometimes that takes a lot of strength as well,” she said.
“It talks about being brave enough to risk going after your dream,” Johnson said. “The whole reason I’m in theater is because my parents, when I said I wanted to be a theater major, they didn’t say, ‘No, no, get a business degree.’ They stepped out of the way, and just said, blaze your trail. And I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to have that kind of independence and freedom.”
That applies to men and women, she noted. “How am I going to live my life? Do I do that which is familiar and safe? Or do I chase my dream?”
Chasing her dream since 5th grade
Growing up in northern Minnesota, Johnson fell in love with theater in 5th grade, when she had a part in a Christmas play.
“Even though I was an elf, I knew everybody’s lines,” she recalled. “I kind of gravitated towards wherever the biggest audience was.”
“I loved getting laughs and that’s being the center of attention. So I wasn’t the pretty girl, but I was the funny girl,” Johnson said. “I had a lot of friends. I was the funny sidekick, not only on stage but in life and it was a role that I liked playing and I still do.”
She earned her B.A. from The College of St. Catherine, and her master’s from the University of Minnesota. After acting across the country, Johnson taught theater one year at Iowa’s Luther College, and directed productions of “Cabaret” and “Fifth of July.” She’s also taught at Augustana and University of Minnesota, and at SAU since 1989.
Before coming to Ambrose, she toured playing the Carol Burnett role in the musical “Once Upon a Mattress,” another dream part. “Carol Burnett is my lifelong role model, who I aspire to be,” Johnson said.
As a director, she likes the darker material (in straight plays and musicals) because it’s mysterious and gripping. Among those favorites are “A Streetcar Named Desire” and “Glengarry Glen Ross.
“The dark side of human psychology is attractive to me because I tend to be a really upbeat, Disney happy sort of person. And so I am interested in that which I don’t understand,” Johnson said. “I’m drawn to those darker stories, but I have found that ‘Little Women’ is exactly what I need right now.
“It is feeding my soul of optimism, ‘cause it’s scary going into retirement. I don’t know exactly what the future is going to bring,” she said. “So I’m kind of back at where the college kids are right now, getting ready to graduate.”
Of the lighter shows, Johnson cited the wacky, wonderful “Drowsy Chaperone” at SAU as a standout.
A pinnacle achievement
In 2019, Johnson earned a pinnacle honor of her profession, The Kennedy Center Medallion from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
Each year, the eight KCACTF regions honor individuals or organizations that have made extraordinary contributions to teaching and producing theater, and who have “significantly dedicated their time, artistry and enthusiasm to the development” of the festival, according to the prize summary.
“Most importantly, recipients have demonstrated a strong commitment to the values and goals of KCACTF and to excellence in educational theater,” it says, noting the gold medallion is the most prestigious regional award given by KCACTF and is considered one of the great honors in theater education.
Region 5 encompasses seven Midwest states, and each regional festival chooses a student actor, director and stage manager to attend the weeklong national festival in April, in Washington, D.C. The Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship finalists each bring their scene partner to perform at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
“Kennedy Center, as an educator, forget about it. It doesn’t get any better than that,” Johnson said in 2019 of the award. “I used to be an actor; somewhere along the line, I happily crossed to be an educator. Their success is far more satisfying than any curtain call.
“I’d rather be in the wings applauding them,” she said of her students. “I don’t have children, but somehow feel I’ve birthed a lot of them.”
This year was the first time Johnson had two SAU students qualify for the national Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (KCACTF) in Washington, D.C., at the same time. Junior education major Peyton Reese and 2021 theater graduate Luke Peterson won the 2022 musical theater and directing categories (respectively) in their region.
Ambrose has had multiple winners in the festival over the years. Student awardees in design, performance, directing, playwriting, stage management, dramaturgy, arts leadership, and theatre criticism, are invited from all eight regions.
“Most of what I know as an artist is a direct result of her excellence as a teacher, director, mentor and friend,” SAU alum Kim Kurtenbach said of Johnson in 2019. “She has students working professionally all over this country as actors, directors, stage managers, costume designers, writers and producers.
“I believe that her influence plays a direct role in the growing theater community here in the Quad-Cities,” Kurtenbach said. “She has been an example to all of us, of hard work, dedication and a continued pursuit to excel in our craft.”
Johnson is incredibly appreciative of the support from the KCACTF and the myriad number of people in the QC she’s helped nurture.
“I tell you that my students present and former have served such an important place in my life, that I am forever grateful to them,” she said.
In March 2021, Johnson’s innovation during COVID, with KALA-FM (the public radio station on campus) helped win a first-place national award at the annual Intercollegiate Broadcasting System. SAU won Best Radio Drama at the 2021 Intercollegiate Broadcasting System awards.
It honored the Theatre Department’s fall 2020 performance of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, “An Enemy of the People.”
Two highlights of Johnson’s career have been when she’s acted in exceptional, dramatic plays – the lead in “Wit” at the former Curtainbox Theatre Co. in 2010, and the wife in “The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?” at the QC Theatre Workshop in 2019.
“Wit” – directed by Phil McKinley – “was a really important story to be told about people going through adversarial times and cancer, to be specific,” Johnson said. “The Goat” – directed by Cait Bodenbender “was such a controversial dark play,” she said.
“But it is such an incredible experience, where Albee combined the classics of the Greeks and the size of those characters and stories and emotions with a contemporary telling and also an exploration of taboos,” she said. “And how do we do deal with our lives when they are turned upside down? And when do we become culpable in close-mindedness?”
Johnson co-founded the summer company Mississippi Bend Players at Augustana College (which began in 2017), and directed Neil Simon’s “Brighton Beach Memoirs” and “Biloxi Blues,” as well as the Tennessee Williams classic, “The Glass Menagerie” for it.
Changes and the future
SAU theater department chair Dan Rairdin-Hale is staying on faculty, but Johnson and theater professor Kris Eitrheim (who’s taught stagecraft, scene design, stage lighting, American film, advanced stage technologies and computer-aided design for theater) are leaving after the spring semester.
“Cory Johnson and Kris Eitrheim are retiring this spring after a combined 64 years of valued and dedicated service to St. Ambrose University and its students,” SAU spokesman Craig DeVrieze said. “Their positions were not eliminated. The university continues to offer theatre as a minor and theatre programming.”
In October 2020, Paul Koch, SAU Provost and Vice President for Academics and Student Affairs, said that following a review process and recommendation, the university decided to close the theater major, and no incoming students starting fall 2021 could declare that as a major.
Over 2,800 people signed a petition in 2020 opposing elimination of the theater major, which has produced many students who have won KCACTF regional honors. Johnson declined to comment on the status of the department Tuesday.
St. Ambrose is finalizing plans to add a theater instructor and will continue to offer theater programming and courses, DeVrieze said Tuesday.
Johnson and her husband are moving back to a family cabin north of Brainerd, Minn. (on the Whitefish chain of lakes), three hours north of the Twin Cities. She has often spent summers there, and her sister owns a fishing resort there.
“Little Women” music director Ron May has collaborated with Johnson on Circa ‘21’s “Disenchanted” last fall and teaching SAU musical theater classes.
“He is so talented and his knowledge of music really helps fill the gaps where mine is fledgling,” she said, noting she also designed costumes for “Little Women,” and Andrea Moore choreographed.
The performances are Friday and Saturday, April 29 & 30 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, May 1 at 3 p.m. Tickets ($15 general public, $12 faculty/staff/alumni/senior citizens, and $10 for 18 and under) are available HERE or by calling 563-333-6251.
If you buy five tickets at any price point, get two general admission tickets free (call 563-333-6251 for group sales). SAU students with current valid student ID are free.