Greg Johnson spent the past 28 years as the artistic director for Montana Repertory Theatre, a professional touring company housed at the University of Montana. This year, he retires with an extensive list of accomplishments: a track record of successful national tours featuring classic American plays, an education outreach program that serves more than 50 rural Montana communities and the Missoula Colony, a now-popular summer event where local and aspiring playwrights develop work with nationally renowned writers.
In April, On Golden Pond — the final show of Johnson’s directorial career with Montana Rep — will end its tour. In light of his next chapter, we asked Johnson about the challenges of doing cutting-edge theater and where he thinks the program needs to go next.
When you look back on Montana Rep, what are some of the highlights?
I think one of the things I’m proudest of is when the Rep ran the Crystal Theater for two years. David [McEwen] and Shirley [Juhl] really have had a commitment to local theater. They kept the prices incredibly low for us and we were able to do some stunning productions there, including Pillowman. Eventually, it got to the point of staff burnout where people were working without compensation. But, for a while, we were able to do some cutting-edge theater — I hate that term, but it’s true. I hope Montana Rep can find a way to do that kind of theater again.
Why is cutting-edge theater important for the Rep to do?
Once we lost the ability to do downtown work, it became a little more homogenized, I think. I call it “the golden handcuffs.” We’ve been locked into doing these Great American Plays — really interesting productions of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, and also Neil Simon and On Golden Pond, which are staples of the American entertainment industry. They’re wonderful plays that succeed nationwide, but these national tours don’t give you a wide berth of opportunity to choose from. Every year, I send out three plays to the presenters and they always choose the most commercial, because they want to sell tickets. I can’t tell you how many years in a row I put out Of Mice and Men. I stopped doing it. For them, it’s too depressing.
What stands out in terms of favorite productions?
Our productions of To Kill a Mockingbird. Unfortunately, because racism keeps rearing its ugly head every time you wake up, it’s relevant. But it’s also so iconic. When the Moscow Theater, with Chekhov and Stanislavski, burst onto the scene and changed world theater back in 1902, it was with The Seagull. So the Moscow Theatre always had an image of a seagull as its logo. Well, I think our logo could be a mockingbird for the same reason. It is our signature.
Let’s talk about the Missoula Colony. How has it evolved through the years?
In terms of my career, the Colony really stand out. It’s a bigger deal than I thought it would be, nationally. When I talked to both of the [candidates for artistic director], the thing they wanted to talk about most was the Colony. It’s given us more of a profile even than the national tours. These writers come here and then they spread the word. They always want to come back.
What were some of the most challenging productions you did with Montana Rep?
Biloxi Blues was really tough. It was a big set that was hard to set up and hard to fit into the truck and hard to adapt to smaller venues. We made the mistake of opening out of town, in Whitefish, and we were so unready. The actors were holding up walls. It was scary and we said, “This can never happen again.”
Another time, way early in my career, we had a casting issue with a show. It was an American adaptation of Moliere’s School for Wives about a man who falls in love with his young ward. The director came to me and said, “I don’t think this play is working. I’m really scared.” It was two days before dress rehearsal. I did a run-through and said, “Your right. It’s too creepy.” Because even if it’s funny, it’s creepy. And if it’s not funny, its very creepy. We were also doing Neil Simon’s Sunshine Boys, so we did that and canceled the other.
What are the challenges of being on the road?
Fitting a set into a truck. Unloading in Butte, Montana, when there’s a blizzard — which is every year. And the other thing is, the road can be dangerous. Back in 1999, when we did The Diary of Anne Frank, there was a van accident. The van spun out of control and one of the actors died. It was unbelievably tragic. I’ll never forget that day. The [On Golden Pond cast] is on the road now, until April 7. And on April 7, that’s when I will take the deepest breath of my artistic director career, because they’ll all be home safe for the last time.
The touring plays alway feature a combination of students and equity actors, and I’m always so glad to see the students usually holding their own up there on stage.
That’s one of the things I’m most proud of. I used to think working with the professionals, the students were going to raise their game. Well, that’s certainly true, but the professionals also see the students’ work ethic and it raises their game, too. They are reminded what it was like to be young and in love with theater. And then, we make it a point of hiring equity actors with talent, who are right for the part, but also … who are generous when working with the students.
What advice do you have for the new artistic director?
Give it a couple of years. Don’t change it radically because you’ve got this power base of support right now — people who want the Great American Story. But after two years, start playing with it. Turn the ship slowly, but turn it. If I were to stay on, I would change things up. But I’m not steeped enough in the new perspectives on theater. I’m not young enough.
I’ve always said that every five years, it’s time to strap on the mountain climbing gear and move the company to a new place. We’re at that point now, and I just didn’t want to put on the climbing gear again. That’s when you know it’s time to retire. Plus, even though I’m nostalgic about this place — I love the company, I love the students. I love the collaboration with every designer and every actor — but I’m not sad about leaving. I’m excited. I’m excited for me and I’m excited for the company.
What are your plans now?
I want to write mystery novels. I’m reading all of Gwen Florio’s books and taking notes! I’ve already got the outline for a story. Of course it takes place in Missoula … on campus. I don’t know if it will be good, but I’m looking forward to that. But first I’m going to take John Lennon’s advice and watch the wheels go round and round. That appeals to me. The other things will still be there, but I haven’t had the opportunity to just sit and take it all in. I think it’s time.