Barry McNamara  |   Published November 03, 2016

‘The Crucible’

Senior Ellen Johnson to direct Nov. 17-20 production of classic play
  • Senior Ellen Johnson of Kewanee, Ill. will be directing The Crucible. Productions will be staged Nov. 17-20 at the Fusion Theatre.
Few Monmouth College students have experienced more theatre in their college careers than Ellen Johnson ’17 of Kewanee, Ill.

Johnson is directing her second play at Monmouth College – Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, which will be performed Nov. 17-20 at the Fusion Theatre, 230 South Main St.

That’s an impressive feat for a student, especially one who is not even a theatre major.

“I’ve done just about everything here,” said Johnson, an elementary education major. “It’s going to be cool to put on an application that I’ve done this, this, this and this.”

That includes acting, stage managing, business manager, designing and directing. At the annual regional Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival last January, Johnson was a finalist in the Regional Costume Design Competition.

Johnson is also a member Alpha Xi Delta women’s fraternity, as well as three honor societies: Kappa Delta Pi (education), Alpha Lambda Delta (freshmen) and Alpha Psi Omega (theatre). She serves as president of the latter society.

And during last month’s fall break, Johnson attended the Statera Conference in Colorado, where she discussed gender balance and how to bring women into full and equal participation in the American theatre. The experience stemmed from a SOFIA project in 2015 with three other students, led by former faculty member Emily Rollie.

“When I was considering Monmouth, everybody talked about all the opportunities that students have,” said Johnson, who also studied drama and performance during a semester abroad in Scotland. “Monmouth definitely allows you to jump in feet first. It’s a wonderful opportunity that Monmouth has given me.”

Johnson’s first directing experience came last school year, when she co-directed Night Sky with student Jill Turley ’16.

“I’ve never taken a directing class,” Johnson said. “That experience was like my training wheels, working with another director. I loved it, and I wanted to do it again. Now I get to go out on my own.”

Johnson initially sought to direct a show from the United Kingdom for Monmouth’s current theatre season, but the rights were difficult to obtain. So the theatre department offered her the opportunity to direct The Crucible, which she called “one of my favorite shows” and one that is widely regarded as one of the greatest American plays.

First produced in 1953 as an allegory of 1950s McCarthyism, Johnson says The Crucible is about “authority on many different levels.”

“Almost everyone has read it,” she said of the play, which is a dramatized and partially fictionalized story of the 1692-93 Salem witch trials that took place in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Johnson is so drawn to The Crucible that she even traveled to the Salem area earlier this year, where she took lots of photos to use for reference and inspiration.

“It’s cool that I get to push the boundaries with the show a little bit, although there are some strict rules that we are asked to follow, such as not changing the characters’ intentions, and that roles need to be played by people of the playwright’s intended gender and ethnicity,” she said.

One area where Johnson exercised her freedom was in the design of the set, which will feature a tri-level cross, with the heights representing different levels of authority. She collaborated with Professor Doug Rankin, who she said has come up with “an amazing set.”

She also took some other creative liberties, which theatre-goers can see for themselves when they come to the play.

“The Fusion is a great space to do what you want to do,” Johnson said of the College’s downtown theatre. “You’re not confined to the traditional proscenium.”

The lead roles of John Proctor, Elizabeth Proctor and Abigail Williams will be played by, respectively, Johnny Williams ’17 of Kewanee, Ill., Galen Hughes ’18 of Genoa, Ill., and Amanda Grissom ’19 of Eldridge, Iowa. Several members of the cast and crew are coming straight to the production from Oedipus Rex, which closed Oct. 30 at the Wells Theater.

“That will be one of the challenges,” said Johnson, who was interviewed on Oct. 27, the opening day for Oedipus Rex. “We’ll only have two weeks of rehearsals, and we’ll need to build the set and polish and perfect the production. We’re working hard to tie it all together.”

But Johnson is confident the department’s spirit of community will rally once again.

“I was drawn to Monmouth College by the sense of community I felt,” she said. “I use that word a lot when I describe Monmouth. Every show becomes like a family. Within the community of Monmouth College is a wonderful community of theatre.”

Johnson is unsure of her plans after graduation next spring. She said she could envision merging her teaching major with theatre, which she calls “my passion. Ultimately, I could combine the two, but I’m not sure where life is going to take me.”

Tickets are $6 with a Monmouth College ID, $7 for students and seniors, and $8 for adults. They can be purchased online.
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