Greg Johnson will retire this spring after 29 years as artistic director of the Montana Repertory Theatre.
"It's been an incredible run for me personally and professionally, to have been in this job for all these years," he said, calling it "a great gift" in his life.
The Rep is a professional theater-in-residence at the University of Montana that specializes in classic American stories. Under Johnson's tenure, the Rep toured "To Kill A Mockingbird" in 1997 around the country, a model that it's followed to the present day.
Johnson has brought "tremendous passion" for live theater to his work, said Stephen Kalm, dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts. He added that Johnson has emphasized "the importance that has in our lives and the impact in our community and on this campus, and I think that passion has expressed itself through the leadership of the Rep."
Johnson said that he's now past retirement age, and felt that it was time to step down.
"Every five years or so with the Rep, there's a little bit of a hill to climb," he said, a process of re-energizing and evaluating the next steps. When he looked ahead to the next five years, he thought the challenges were manageable but he wasn't interested in taking them on himself.
Johnson plans to continue splitting his time between Missoula and New Orleans. He couldn't yet say what artistic projects he wants to pursue.
Johnson will step down on May 15, meaning he'll oversee one last touring production: "On Golden Pond" by Ernest Thompson.
Johnson said a search committee has convened. Kalm said he'll soon send a request to Provost Beverly Edmond to begin a national search for a replacement. He said the request is standard practice for filling any position on campus.
"Because of the nature of what the Rep does and the interface it has with the theater industry outside of the community, I don't think we can have a temporary replacement," he said.
Johnson, who was born in New York and grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, worked in the theater industry in New York City for 15 years. In 1990, he moved to Montana to take over as artistic director of the Rep.
While he came out West with an open mind and no expectations, he imagined that he would stay perhaps for five years.
"I fell in love with Missoula that first year. The people, the mountains, the ease with which people smile at you and say hello. To a city kid, that was pretty seductive," he said.
Johnson helped build the Rep's tours, first focusing on the West and then going national in "Mockingbird" in 1997. With a well-received production, it became the company's signature play and set the model for its countrywide tours.
Another personal career highlight to Johnson was the 2008 revival. They performed it the day after Obama's inauguration, an alignment of subject matter and national politics that led to another successful tour. To cap it off, this year he and the Rep brought a production of "Mockingbird" to China, a first for the company.
Johnson has championed theater in numerous ways through his career, Kalm said.
"The Montana Rep has offered so many great opportunities for our students and for our faculty and for audiences around the United States, and certainly audiences in Montana that have the Rep every year," Kalm said.
The Rep tours with both professional equity actors recruited out of state, plus University of Montana students or recent graduates, some of whom are given the chance to tour with professionals the first time and earn an equity card.
Johnson has also staged chance-taking contemporary works in smaller venues around downtown Missoula over the years. He estimates that about 40 of those were at the former Crystal Theater on the Hip Strip. "It was always a dream to have a downtown theater," he said.
Along with Marsha Norman and Michael Murphy, he founded the Colony, a playwrights' gathering held in Missoula each summer. The weeklong get-together brings top writers from around the country for workshops and staged readings to help their peers develop. As an extension of the Colony, he launched a short play series to help cultivate local writers throughout the year.
The Rep also has an annual Education Outreach Tour, which reaches nearly every county in Montana with a literature-themed production.
"He's been a real advocate for spreading the gospel of live theater," Kalm said, particularly for its importance in an era dominated by digital entertainment.