Five Minutes With Margaret Johnson

Today’s FOTF finds me chatting with Montana Educator and Theatre exemplar Margaret Johnson.

If teaching Speech and Drama for 37 years (wow) weren’t enough, Mrs. Johnson has also published two highly successful books (The Drama Teacher’s Survival Guide, 1 & 2), maintains a regular blog, and has directed over 190 stage productions, including everything from Shakespeare to Broadway Musicals. Upon retiring from teaching, Sentinel High School (Missoula, MT) also named their school theatre in her honor, and she recently received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the Montana Theatre Education Association. In addition, Mrs. Johnson also still takes the stage on occasion, and teaches theatre for the University of Montana’s Continuing Education MOLLI program (Montana Osher Lifelong Learning Institute).

In 1992 she was the first drama director inducted into the Montana Forensic Educators Hall of Fame, and in 2000 was the first recipient of the Montana Theatre Educator of the Year award. In April of 2007 she was honored for her years of teaching by the Fine Arts Department at the University of Montana’s Odyssey of the Stars.

Join me for the next five minutes and share in one of my most spirited interviews with a truly remarkable woman, who is quite honestly, a living legend in regards to MT Theatre and Education. I have no doubt, you’ll be greatly inspired (as was I) as you read!


1. Who has been your greatest influence (personally or artistically), and how?

My mentor was Macalester College’s Theatre Director, Mary Gwen Owen. What a force of nature she was in the Speech Department, with her suits, hats and jingly bracelets. She became the mom I no longer had. She taught all of us about the world from pieces out of The Atlantic Monthly and The New Yorker. She would not accept anything but the best we could do—no slacking.  She was the only democrat in the Speech Department and was absolutely in heaven when President Kennedy was elected and never let her colleagues forget it!

Her office was a dramatic escape from the academic world, with a fainting couch, shelves of books, long flowing shawls, a candelabra, more books, dim lighting and the smell of citrus.  She never addressed us by our first names but rather our last– I can still hear her yelling, “Friedl!”

When I started teaching I may not have called all my students by their last names but I had the yelling thing down! I never accepted anything but the best my students could achieve. If it was only to walk on stage and say “Hi” or build a crooked table, that was fine.

I created, off my classroom, an office with a fainting couch, books, peacock feather wallpaper and a great dark purple chandelier, never realizing until years later that I had emulated her office. And yes, when President Obama was elected our first black president, I was ecstatic

2. Which production has had the most impact on you, and why?

This is a most difficult question because so many were wonderful for a variety of reasons—whether they be Shakespeare, Broadway Musicals or the typical high school fare. Some showcased great musical talent; some had wonderful actors/actresses, while others were unique in the technical aspects.

When you are teaching a year long course of theatre and part of the curriculum is to produce two shows using everyone in the class as actors and technicians, some of the participants are not as gregarious as others. To see them succeed and feel pride in their accomplishments cannot be touched.

This is what teaching is all about. So to answer your question, I would have to truthfully say, every production had an impact—a few times for the wrong reason—but we learned even more from that!

3. Is there a “secret to your success”? If so, what? And if not, why?

Creativity and talent have to play some part in anyone’s success as well as organization but the big secret is HARD WORK!  It required hours and hours of extra time and energy.  But I think most importantly, I came into the school, knowing that the athletic department was the single most important activity in the school and it didn’t make any sense to buck that or to upset the administration with producing ‘questionable’ plays. Rather, I started out slowly and safely, doing good, solid theatre, picking some tried and true classics and doing them well.  I included musicals in conjunction with the music department as well as children’s shows during the holidays. Slowly I began involving several of our coaches and athletes.

I established a stable, quality theatre program and as the years flew by, did some very adult productions such as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Elizabeth I, Tom Jones, Stalag 17 and Hotel Paradiso. If you came to a production at Sentinel High School you knew you would see good theatre. The biggest reward for my success was when I retired, after 37 years; the theatre was named after me.  There is no greater honor I could have ever asked for and it came as a complete surprise.

4. Is there a particular moment that had a great effect on your life or career?

You need to be a realist about your expectations.  Although I loved ballet, a 160-pound ballerina wasn’t going to happen.  I also loved to cook but science and I didn’t get along particularly well.  Luckily when I was a freshman in high school I tried out for a play, got a major role and when I entered the stage for the first time, I was met with wonderful laughter. All my friends, who were brighter, prettier and more popular, got walk-on roles. I knew then this was my calling and I never turned back. Did I think I would make it on Broadway, no, but I knew that I excelled at this ‘stage’ stuff and that was what I would pursue when I want to college.  Yes, there was no question, I was to go to college, major in something where I could make a living and then possibly consider marriage.

I went to college, majored in Speech/Drama, taking every course offered, not just those required for a education degree, received a teaching certificate and got my one and only teaching position at one of the largest school districts in the state of Montana, never once feeling that it was a job.

5. If you could share your most precious pearl of wisdom…whether about life, theatre, dogs, cowbells, whatever…what would you want to pass along?

Have a partner for life! Marry the man whom you love and who loves you enough to let you pursue your dream—often taking second place.  Who, even on his honeymoon, traveled to Spokane on the train, with 24 students and three chaperons, to perform Annabelle Broome for the children at the Shrine Hospital. Little did he know then that he would continue to be a chaperon for my students, design and build sets, silk screen posters, take thousand of pictures, create wonderful costumes for Midsummer Night’s Dream, and handle the coke concessions for basketball and wrestling tournaments.  I could not have had the wonderful, fulfilling career without him including my two books, The Drama Teacher’s Survival Guide [A step by step tome on play direction] and The Drama Teacher’s Survival Guide #2 [Activities, exercises and techniques for the theatre classroom]. I was one very lucky woman!