If all the world’s a stage, for Michael Johnson that stage is a flat circle.
It begins in the Downey High School auditorium and ends in the Downey High School auditorium 49 years later with a production of the musical “Camelot.” The Modesto native is closing out a 37-year teaching career and four years as the drama instructor at Downey with the show that started his love for theater in the first place.
“I’d never seen a live play or musical or anything before that and was completely enthralled. Little did I know that almost 50 years later I’d be ending my teaching career with the musical ‘Camelot,’ ” said the 62-year-old. “It’s been a long journey, but who knows? We’re going to do some junior high performances … and maybe there will be a junior high student who will be sitting back where I was and say, ‘I want to do that.’ And they can very well have this job 30 years from now.”
The school will present its production of “Camelot” starting Friday, and it will run through the following weekend with its final show March 20. The show is based on the legend of on the King Arthur and his chivalrous knights of the Round Table.
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Johnson, a 1971 Downey High graduate, began his teaching career in the Los Angeles area in the late 1970s. He spent a couple of years there before returning to Modesto to teach English at his alma mater. Then he spent more than a dozen years at Davis High before returning to Downey in 2012 and taking over its drama department. He said the school’s strong tradition in the arts has helped attract students from around the city.
“We’ve had a great, thriving program for 60 years, including the last 25 years with Karen Lotko, who put on so many wonderful shows,” Johnson said.
Indeed, students have transferred from other Modesto high schools – including Davis and Enochs – to take part in the Downey drama and arts programs.
“Downey has such a good reputation in theater overall,” said Downey junior Bella Marseline. “And Mr. Johnson has worked so hard. We transferred here because of him.”
While Johnson has been leading the drama department for only four years at Downey, he has deep experience in the community with Modesto Performing Arts and producing theatrical productions for his congregation at CrossPoint Community Church. That experience, his students said, shines through in his teaching.
“I’ve learned how to run the light board and the sound board. But I’ve also learned a lot of life skills from him,” said senior Adam Reed, who is playing Sir Dinadan in the play. “He has become like a second father to me. He’s taught me to be a better man.”
Johnson’s swan-song production at Downey will have a cast of more than 40 with at least 20 students on the crew, from freshmen to seniors. They began rehearsals at the beginning of the year and have already put in, Johnson estimates, thousands of hours between building the sets and practicing the scenes.
“My standard is, if you’re going to do it, do it really well. People are going to say it’s a high school production no matter what,” he said. “But they can either say, ‘That was a high school production,’ or ‘That was a high school production?’ ”
WHAT: Downey High Performing Arts presents “Camelot”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday and March 18-19; closing matinee 2 p.m. March 20
WHERE: Thomas Downey Auditorium, 1000 Coffee Road, Modesto
INFO: Tickets $10 at www.showtix4u.com. The Broadway-style student production will have a live orchestra.