By David Boyce
A month ago, Liberty High School theatre teacher Don Johnson was unsure whether or not he had to deliver a speech on April 9 when he would receive the Ed See Outstanding Theatre Alumnus Award from the University of Central Missouri’s Department of Theatre and Dance.
“If I have to make a speech, it will be brief,” Johnson said. “It is quite an honor to get this award. Of course, when they contacted me and told me I had been chosen, my first response was, ‘Are you sure? Why me?’ They said why not you!
“I don’t do well with this type of recognition, but it is a great honor. I am excited about it.”
Johnson’s fascinating journey, in the academic theatre world to his present spot as the Department Chair for Liberty High Performing Arts, would take more than a few minutes to tell. He grew up in Raytown. As a high school junior, he remembers telling his theatre teacher that in 20 years, he was going to return and take her job.
“She said ok, you do that,” Johnson said. “Twenty years later I did. She had already gone on to another location. I came in 20 years later after I said that and did take the position.”
From 1999 to 2008, Johnson was the theatre teacher at Raytown South. Johnson joined Liberty Public Schools in 2008. He currently teaches four classes of stage craft and a combined class of advanced theatre and technical theatre.
When asked if he has had any students come up to him and say they will come back to Liberty and replace him as a theatre teacher, Johnson said yes.
“I say you just come on back and do it,” Johnson said. “And I have kids who have said, ‘I don’t want your job, Mr. Johnson.’”
In Johnson’s eight years at Liberty, he has definitely taught students who have the passion and talent to one day teach.
As Johnson was talking over lunch about receiving the Ed See Outstanding Theatre Alumnus Award one afternoon in mid-March, there were students working on stage sets. Liberty was a week away from District competition at Liberty North, preparing to perform, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Students put on a 2½-hour performance of it for their community February 18, 19, and 20. For competition, the performance is reduced to 30 minutes.
“As far as the script goes, it is a new script,” Johnson said. “They have to relearn it.”
At District, Liberty competed against seven other schools, and the top two make it to state competition later in April. Both Liberty and Liberty North, which performed “The Boys Next Door” advanced.
“It is a long commitment for the students,” Johnson said. “When they audition after Christmas break, they know they could be busy with this show until the end of April.”
Liberty High has finished first in state the last two years. Two years ago, Liberty High received best actor and best actress honors. Last year, the school had students who won best actress in the state and best supporting actor in Missouri.
“I always try to stress that if it is worth doing, it is worth doing right,” Johnson said.
Johnson believes kids are kids, regardless of socioeconomic status.
“Sometimes kids have a little bit more than others, but what it boils down to is they all want the same thing,” Johnson said. “They want your attention. They want to build relationships and be able to trust you and know you have their backs.”
Johnson knows as well as anyone the twists and turns a life’s journey will take. He didn’t take the road of going from high school to college, graduate in four years, then receiving a Master’s right after getting a Bachelor’s. He was a non-traditional college student. He started at Central Missouri in the 1980s and quit. Later, Johnson got an Associate’s Degree from North Central College in Trenton, Missouri.
By 1994, he earned his Bachelor’s in Science in Education in Speech and Theatre, with a minor in English at UCM. Johnson was a middle school substitute teacher and also worked at American West Airlines for four years before becoming a fulltime teacher at Raytown South.
In 2001, Johnson started work on his Masters at UCM. He received his Master of Arts in Theatre in 2006. Through all these years, Johnson stayed in contact with See. See is a big reason why Johnson is honored to get the Ed See Outstanding Theatre Alumnus Award.
“I have known Dr. See for 35 years,” Johnson said. “It is quite an honor to be recognized with an award he had established and has his name attached to. He has been quite the mentor to me over the years. He has watched me grow, starting as a teenager in high school, and how it took me a while coming back as a young adult to finish up.”
Johnson understands there are students in his class who might never take another theatre class, but there are important lessons that can be learned in one semester or one year in a theatre class.
“I tell kids all the time that this may be the only theatre class they take, but there will be something they learn here, as far as how to get along with others,” Johnson said. “My biggest thing is students need to learn to be tolerant rather than judgmental. I hope they learn it is a big world we live in, and that none of us are alike nor do we look alike. They are going to work with people they might not like. There might be some people in class they don’t like. They need to learn this now, when there are people who will pick them back up after a mistake and dust them off, so they can try again. I want them to know it is ok to make mistakes, as long as they learn from them. If a person continues to repeat them, they are not learning.”