Joel Drake Johnson
December 28, 1949-January 11, 2020
Playwright Joel Drake Johnson died after an extended battle with cancer at the age of 70.
Joel got his start as a writer at Chicago’s critically acclaimed Econo-Art Theater, which produced his plays Beautiful Dreamer and A Slim and Crooked Genius.
As the Beaver was a critical and popular hit for Chicago’s Zebra Crossing Theater. His teleplay “A Moment of Rage”(co-written with VG ensemble member John Logan) was nominated for an Emmy award. Joel won Illinois Arts Council grants for Blind Hearts, The Fall to Earth and A Blue Moon.
Joel’s relationship with Steppenwolf Theater began in 2004 with the Jeff Award winning production of The Fall to Earth. Steppenwolf subsequently commissioned Johnson to write A Blameless Life and Tranquility Woods.
Joel was a member of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater Playwrights Ensemble. The critically acclaimed, Jeff nominated Four Places was produced by Victory Gardens in the spring of 2008 and was published by Northwestern University Press. It was subsequently produced in LA by The Rogue Machine Theatre, where it garnered critical acclaim that included five Ovation Award nominations, four nominations (including best play) from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and a Garland Award for Best New Play. Four Places was revived in 2019 in a production by the Den Theatre Company. His earlier works at VG, Before My Eyes and The End of the Tour, were also Jeff-nominated for Best New Play. The End of the Tour was chosen for inclusion in the anthology New Plays From Chicago and was also published by Broadway Play Publishing. Other plays at Victory Gardens included A Guide for the Perplexed and The Boys’ Room.
His play Rasheeda Speaking opened in New York City at The Signature Theatre as part of The New Group’s 2014-15 season. Under the direction of Cynthia Nixon, it featured Oscar winner Dianne Wiest. Rasheeda Speaking was subsequently nominated for best new off-Broadway play by the The Outer Critics Circle.
Joel was nominated 5 times for Best New Play by Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award Committee and he won the Chicago Dramatist’s Marquee Award for his career as a playwright.
Joel received his B.A. in from Illinois State University in 1972, and his MFA from the University of Illinois in 1978.
Joel taught English and Drama at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire for over 20 years. While at Stevenson, he was instrumental in the expansion of the school’s theatre curriculum. Johnson also helped budding student-playwrights at Stevenson by developing the TBA Playwrights Club.
Joel is survived by his devoted husband of 20 years, Dr. Larry B. Salzmann; his brother Ray Johnson (Becky Donoho); brother John; and sister Anne Lerette (Nate). He also leaves behind his large theater family who will dearly miss him.
Joel once said, “I am interested in creating stories with characters who, despite their flaws, their bad decisions, their selfish inhibitions, their awkward/comic interactions and tragic setbacks, push themselves on to an enlightened understanding of their place in the world.”
Joel, as a man, a teacher, and an artist, helped all of us to have a more enlightened understanding of the world.