Augustana celebrates 110 years: Drama

Explore the history of drama at Augustana with professor Paul "Sparky" Johnson.

Murray Green, Camrose Booster - 07 June 2021

Augustana professor of drama, Paul "Sparky" Johnson.
Augustana professor of drama, Paul "Sparky" Johnson.

The University of Alberta Augustana Campus is honouring its past 110 years with celebrations this spring and summer.

One of the highlights of the campus is the drama department.

Longtime professor Paul Johnson shared some of his thoughts about his experience.

“I came to Augustana (what was then Camrose Lutheran College) in 1986. At that time, the institution had recently been given degree-granting status and was seeing a huge growth in all programs–drama being one of them. I joined Bob Moore as the second full-time drama professor, allowing us to offer a three-year degree in drama. Bob specialized in Acting and Scene Study classes. I covered the introductory Improvisation courses and the design and building of the sets for our productions. At that point, the department did two major productions each year,” revealed Paul “Sparky” Johnson, professor of drama at Augustana.

“The program evolved with the initiatives of faculty and students. Joel Morello took over for Bob Moore, and Kevin Sutley took over when Joel Morello left. Kristine Nutting has been involved with the department for a lot of years. They each brought and bring their own unique talents and interests to the program.

They added to areas where we were otherwise lacking: Clown and Mask; Vocal Masque; Movement; Directing; Voice and Speech. My specialty has always been in improvisation–specifically the work of Viola Spolin and Paul Sills–and that has always been a big part of our program,” shared Paul.

“We desperately needed a performance space. Productions were such a huge part of our program, and we were always having to scramble to rent or borrow spaces in which to build sets and mount our productions. Subsequent to that, we needed a space (workshop) in which to build our sets and properties,” explained Paul, on the working conditions.

Then a church was moved on site to create drama’s own space. “This was an exciting and challenging time. The Camrose Performing Arts Centre (formerly Camrose Lutheran Church) had been repurposed to house the performing arts in the community. When it was scheduled to be demolished, a group of individuals (including former City counsellor LeRoy Johnson) questioned whether the building could be saved, moved to campus and house the Augustana Theatre program. There was some worry that the community would lose the resource it had in the building, and the university would dominate its use. But, in the end, it was approved and, through significant grant from the Alberta government, the building was moved and brought to the place it now occupies on campus. I think this physical building really brought legitimacy to our drama program. Students have loved having a space to call their own, and take great pride in the productions and class projects we do there.”

It helped the department change and expand throughout the years. “The department has continued to evolve with the institution. As programs and majors have evolved, so too has the department. I’ve always maintained that a liberal arts program provides the best environment for a degree in drama, and I’m pleased that the university is taking advantage of that with its innovative and integrative programs.”

With Augustana reaching the milestone of 110 years, what happens next?

“Through our productions and other performances, I think the drama department has provided students (and audiences alike) with a world of discovery, giving application to the many and varied programs of study offered here. The drama department gives the community a glimpse into what we do at Augustana, and helps the institution connect with the public,” explained Paul.

“My hope is that we will continue to become more and more integrative, both with our diverse program offerings and with the community. It has always been beneficial and fun to have members of the community involved in our productions, and I hope that will grow and continue.”

This article was originally published in the Camrose Booster on May 4, 2021.