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Anything But Make-Believe

Photo of Corinne Johnson

June 2017 | by Ted Stephens III ’01, ’04


Some might say Theatre Professor Corinne Johnson, PhD, is blunt. (She is.)

That she says what is on her mind. (She does.)

That she's been a great mentor to SAU students for nearly 30 years because she keeps things real. (Always.)

Jessica Karolczak, Class of 2020, knows this. After she and her scene partner took fourth place at the Region 5 American College Theatre Festival Irene Ryan Acting Scholarship competition earlier this year, Johnson gave Karolczak a warm smile that quickly morphed into a serious look. "‘Don't expect this every year. This is extremely rare,' she said to me. It was a reminder to stay humble and to keep working hard, no matter what success might come your way.

"Cory is down-to-earth, honest, and humble. She always reminds me that there are numerous possibilities to explore, so why stop after one?" she added.

"She's not perfect," Shannon Rourke '16 said, having just stepped out of a rehearsal for Ah, Wilderness! at the world-renowned Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where she's currently a stage management intern. "That is what makes her great-being just fine with being imperfect is one of the things that she taught me," Rourke continued. "She has had ups and downs all throughout her career. She's not afraid to talk about them. She's not afraid to be real."

Johnson is quick to confess, "I have so much pride in the ways that students have gone out and surprised me with what they've chosen to do with their theatre degree. When I was pushing students to go out and act professionally, or to move out of the Quad Cities for more opportunities, it was my ego getting in the way."

She goes on to talk about alumni who have stepped out into the world to do big, surprising things. She rattles off their names and is quick to tell a story about each of them. Daniel DP Sheridan '05. Jenny Stodd '06. Kimberly Kurtenbach '96. Brian Hemesath '94. "Frumah" Sarah Zoller '98.

The list goes on and on and on.

Yes, graduates have gone on to win Emmy Awards. ("And boy is that ever thrilling!") But they also have remained in Davenport to manage a junior theatre program. They have also stayed close to home to create an acting program to help autistic children find an outlet for their emotions. It's those examples of graduates fully grounded in the world, and in the mission of St. Ambrose, that get her most excited.

"I recently flew out to New Jersey to watch a recital for a performing arts academy Jenny Stodd started," Johnson noted. "There were probably 600 people in this huge theatre, parents crying and beaming with pride as their child performed. It was a reminder that this work isn't about taking the bow at the end of a performance. What is more fulfilling to me is sitting in the bar with an alum afterward talking about how absolutely thrilling it is to be the one applauding in the back of a dark theatre rather than being the one taking the bow in the spotlight."

Earlier this year, however, it was Johnson who was in the spotlight, with more than 1,000 students, educators and family members, rising from their chairs for a much-earned standing ovation, when she was honored with the Gold Medallion Award from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. The award is one of the greatest honors in theatre education.

"It was one of the most humbling moments of my life," Johnson said. "To be recognized by my peers meant so much to me."

To those in attendance at the festival, she spoke frankly-in typical fashion-about how she had changed over her teaching career, and how she was okay with admitting that advice she had given in the past was wrong.

"For so many years, I was passing on advice from a former professor of mine. ‘If you can do anything else in life other than theatre and be happy, maybe you should do it," she said. "But if theatre is your passion, go for it."'

After watching students and alumni stretch themselves, risk and overcome disappointment, or even sometimes not overcome it, she tempered that advice. "I see a lot of students taking the safe route-students coming up to me and saying, ‘You know, I'd really love to do this. But...'

"Happy is one thing. Fulfilling is another. Theatre is hard. It is also real. I absolutely believe in this degree," Johnson said. "We might not make a difference the way a doctor does on an operating table, but we still change lives in the ways we touch humanity."

Rourke believes she is most certainly on the path to a fulfilling career. And life. "For me, Cory was an example-of how to be professional in your career, and how to have a life beyond it," she said. "She was proof, right in front of me, that what I wanted to do was within reach. I just needed to take the risk."

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