Former Stevenson High teacher and acclaimed playwright Joel Drake Johnson dies

  • Retired Stevenson High School teacher Joel Drake Johnson has died. The acclaimed playwright, whose work was performed in Chicago, New York and elsewhere, was 70.

    Retired Stevenson High School teacher Joel Drake Johnson has died. The acclaimed playwright, whose work was performed in Chicago, New York and elsewhere, was 70. Courtesy of Stevenson High School

Updated 1/14/2020 3:07 PM

A retired Stevenson High School theater teacher who found acclaim as a playwright is being remembered for his impact on students and his work for the stage.

Joel Drake Johnson, 70, died Saturday of cancer.


Johnson, who had homes in Chicago and Michigan, taught at the Lincolnshire school from 1985 to 2005. While a teacher and afterward, he wrote plays that were performed in the Chicago area and beyond.

A native of the Dixon area, Johnson earned degrees at Illinois State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Johnson came to Stevenson after teaching stints at Central Methodist College in Missouri and Highland Park and Deerfield high schools.

He and fellow theater teacher Cynthia Burrows, who also was hired in 1985, designed new courses to make more theater classes available. Johnson also helped budding student playwrights by developing the TBA: Playwrights Club.

"His impact is so huge," said Burrows, who retired in 2018. "He educated people who became actors and playwrights and teachers."

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State Rep. Daniel Didech, a 2005 Stevenson graduate from Buffalo Grove, was among Johnson's students. He described Johnson as "a friendly, welcoming teacher who created a space where everyone felt free to express themselves creatively."

In 2002, three of Johnson's students won prizes in a national youth playwriting contest, and he took great pride in their victories.

"I don't think anything has meant as much as when those three kids won their awards," Johnson said in a 2005 Stevenson High magazine article.

Burrows said she learned a lot from Johnson, too -- including the importance of trusting herself as an educator and being gentle with students.

"I learned that it was always about the students," she said. "It was never about us."

After leaving Stevenson, Johnson taught playwriting at Northwestern and DePaul universities. But writing plays was his primary focus.

Johnson wrote pieces that were produced at a number of Chicago-area theatres, including Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens. Outside Chicago, productions of his work were staged in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere.


His plays included "Four Places," "The End of the Tour," "The Fall to Earth," and the semi-autobiographical "Before My Eyes." A production of Johnson's play "Rasheeda Speaking" played off-Broadway under the direction of "Sex and the City's" Cynthia Nixon.

Johnson was nominated five times for a Jefferson Award, the Chicago theater community's version of the Tony Award.

In a 1998 Daily Herald interview, Johnson described one of the reasons he enjoyed writing for the stage.

"I'm interested in characters that despite their quirkiness and eccentricities ... keep plowing forward, keep working to improve their lives," Johnson said.

Johnson's husband, Larry B. Salzmann, said Johnson often wrote about underdogs whose voices needed to be heard.

"I am glad that his words will give him an immortality that most of us only can wish for," Salzmann said.

In addition to his husband, Johnson's survivors include two brothers and a sister.

A celebration of Johnson's life will be held in Chicago this spring.

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