A theater major from Weston, Johnson grew up immersed in storytelling, theater, and performing. "I wanted to learn Grandnana's life and history. But when she was telling me about her life, my mind began running to other things.
"There was something standing between her stories and me. I looked at this woman and I couldn't see her," said Johnson, who is spending this summer with the Hudson (Mass.) Drama Workshop before moving to the Chicago area to pursue a graduate degree in performance studies.
The experience stayed with Johnson after her return to Oberlin last fall, and she realized "the wall between generations is not unique."
Out of this awareness evolved her senior honors project: the creation of Looking Eye to Eye, a performance piece designed to explore how women of different generations communicate.
During the fall semester Johnson brought together eight women residents from Kendal at Oberlin, a nearby continuing-care retirement community, and eight young women College students. Some of the older women were in their nineties.
To bridge the gap between the generations, over a period of six months she took them through an exciting and complex process that made use of their individual histories, voices, and styles of communicating.
The partners met twice each week to share life experiences. They also ate and took walks together, played games, and attended concerts. "The funny thing is that once we began, it seemed so natural, so obvious that we had so much to learn from each other," said Audrey Marcus '96, one of the student participants. By the end, most of the pairs had become lasting friends.
The project culminated late in the spring in an extraordinary theater piece described as "impressive for its scope and accessibility," by reviewer Sonja Kreftling in The Oberlin Review, the College's student newspaper.
A multimedia work, the piece merged music, text, movement, and slides into six long "moments" performed by the students. Interwoven with them were "partner pieces" created by each pair that focused on the places where younger and older connected. One "partner piece," presented by Kendal resident Libby Steele and student Marcus, highlighted friendship. "Like everything else we have done together, it was very difficult, and yet it was a cinch. It is not easy to make a friend, and yet the joy comes easily," Steele said.
"I came away with the feeling that I had been given a gift," wrote Kreftling. "This is not only an important and moving work of art; it prompts a reconsideration of the function of theater as a means of expression."