Artists Profile: Britta Johnson – She’s Funny, She’s Sharp & She’s Pushing Boundaries with Musical Theatre Big-Wigs in “Life After”
by: Hallie Seline
Britta Johnson – Three-time Playwright in Residence with the Paprika Festival featuring her piece “Life After” – A New Musical to be shown at the Paprika Festival Fundraiser April 5th in the Tarragon Theatre Back Space.
HS: If you could describe yourself in five words, what would they be?
BJ: This is a hard question.
Whoops, that was five words.
So was that. My god.
And that. I can’t stop.
“Does not follow directions well.”
There. I did it.
HS: Tell me a little bit about your piece being featured as part of the Paprika Festival Fundraiser this Friday, April 5th.
BJ: “Life After” was born during my time as a playwright-in-residence with Paprika last year. I presented just a few plot sketches and songs in last year’s festival and had the amazing opportunity to return to it this year and let it grow into a more fully realized piece of theatre. The draft is still far from completion but it’s certainly at a point where I am ready to hear it and let an audience help me decide what the next step should be.
The story begins at the funeral of a man named Frank Carter, a celebrity self-help author whose car smashed into a truck just as his book was becoming a smash hit. The protagonist is his 16-year-old daughter, Alice, who finds herself running into some questions about the very nature of her relationship with a man who meant so much to so many but seemed like a stranger to her. The show hopes to examine some questions about life and death, celebrity and fame and coming of age. At its core, it really is a comedy (even though it talks about death an awful lot) and it features ten brand new songs.
HS: Any hints as to whom these Canadian Musical Theatre “big wigs” are who will be performing?
BJ: Well, the cat’s out of the bag! The names are on the facebook event. So I won’t just hint. I’ll tell you.
I am very pleased to announce that the reading will feature Sheila McCarthy, Trish Lindstrom, Steven Gallagher, Kelly Holiff, Laura Jean Elligsen and my incredible older sister, Anika Johnson. I can’t really believe I get to work with these people (except my sister. She had to say yes. Saying no would have been really bad form. But I’m still very excited she is involved). I have been doing some breathing exercises to ensure that I don’t pass out when I first meet the cast.
HS: How did you get started with the Paprika festival?
BJ: I was in my first year of university and found myself really craving opportunities to create my own work and connect with other people doing the same. I really took for granted how many platforms you are given for your writing in high school and how many resources you have access to just by virtue of the fact that that they all exist in the same building. Suddenly I was spending my days sitting in lectures about pre-renaissance chant music and trying to figure out how the hell to use an oven while neglecting my writing and composing, two activities that were central features to my lifestyle back in my hometown. I finally decided to seek out some programs that would help to give me the structure I needed to get writing again, found Paprika online, applied for the Creator’s Unit and never looked back. Paprika has since connected me with my now dearest friends and collaborators and has given me the chance to work with some of the most inspiring theatre professionals in the city (not to mention the fact that there are sometimes snacks at the training days, which comes in handy because I still don’t totally know how to work my oven.)
HS: What has been the most notable experience or realization that you have gained from your involvement with the Paprika Festival?
BJ: That’s so hard to answer. I have had a countless number of hugely valuable experiences during my time with this festival. Perhaps the most important thing that I have realized is that the self-doubt never goes away and that’s ok. What I mean is that I often paralyze myself with self-intimidation. “Who do you think you are?”, “Your ideas are stupid”, “Why do you write musicals? You should be in an indie band or something if you ever expect to get dates” are all thoughts that often play on loop in my head and keep me from doing anything productive, even though I know deep down that creating is a valuable way to spend time whatever the outcome may be. Through my Paprika mentorships, I have realized that there is no amount of success that will make these thoughts go away. I have worked with Leslie Arden and Reza Jacobs, two of the most incredible theatre composers in the city who struggle with the same challenges. They both have explained to me that the trick is not to expect yourself to rise above these thoughts altogether but to learn to work with them and not give them too much power. They rarely reflect the actual quality of the work and even if they do, it was worthwhile to do the work anyways. The fact that the Paprika Festival focuses on process over product is something that has totally transformed how I go about creating. My goal is no longer to create something totally amazing. My goal is to challenge myself, to find the bravery to share my ideas even when they aren’t polished, to push my own boundaries even when it scares me and to dare to be dreadful.
HS: What is the strongest advice you have ever gotten as an artist and how has it affected you and your work?
BJ: Other than the afore mentioned valuable advice about feeling the fear and doing it anyways, I have learned a whole lot about process from working with Reza Jacobs on “Life After”. Reza has consistently encouraged me to just keep churning out new material and to not get stuck trying to perfect what has already been created. “Life After” has been the first show I have ever written for which I didn’t have a plot pre-conceived when I began. I applied for Paprika last year without a clue about what to write. (I honestly don’t know why they let me in. They asked me about my ideas in the interview and I was just like “Dunno. We’ll see.” And for some reason they had faith in me. Weird.) Reza always pushes me to just keep writing. If I have a thought, write it. If I have a question, write about it. Don’t get too stuck looking at what I have and trying to sculpt it into anything before it is ready. This process has been so freeing and organic and I think the concepts in the show are more complex because I gave them the time to be fully realized without stressing about what the show “needed to be.” The draft that has resulted is at times a little chaotic but ultimately more interesting.
HS: If you could choose one artists/musician/playwright to work with in the future who would it be and why?
BJ: Steven Sondheim. No question. He is the reason I tried writing musicals in the first place. He completely transformed everything about what I thought was possible in a piece of theatre. I have to hurry up and find out where he lives though. He’s getting old.
Also Tina Fey and Victor Borge (who is no longer alive but I didn’t think we were going for realistic situations here.) I could keep going… Shakespeare, Debussy, Carol Burnett. I guess you only asked for one. Sondheim tops the list.
HS: At In the Greenroom we like to discover how artists find inspiration, especially in their downtime. Where do you look to find creative inspiration?
BJ: All kinds of places! I have an incredible community of artists around me (some of whom I live with) and daily I am inspired and challenged simply by spending time and sharing my ideas with them. More specifically, when I am stuck writing a song I usually play music that I love, try to figure out why I love it and proceed to imitate it. It’s usually just a jumping off point and the music grows into being my own voice. But sometimes it doesn’t. I won’t tell you the parts of this show that are direct imitation but they are certainly there.
HS: What is your favourite place in Toronto and why?
BJ: That’s a hard one. Is it lame to say my apartment? I have amazing roommates, nice lamps and a good movie collection. Beyond that, Kensington Market (because I am very indie), the Island, Honest Ed’s, Future Bakery, Flip Toss and Thai (No. I can’t get into food places. I’ll never stop. There are so many food places I could say.) I love so many places. I love this city.
HS: What are you passionate/jazzed about these days?
BJ: So many things! I don’t know how to answer this…. Here are some things that I like… I’m really digging a Schubert piece I’m playing on piano right now. I just discovered the show “Portlandia” which I think may be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I’m obsessed with my friends. Honestly, I hang out with the most interesting and talented people. I have been so inspired by the other work I have seen in the Paprika Festival so far. The other two playwrights-in-residence, Jennie Egerdie and Sabrina White, are unbelievable. Remember those names. These two women are something special. I also just rediscovered Justin Timberlake’s “Futuresex/Lovesounds” and it’s taken over my life in a pretty extreme way. I’m just excited about this city and the people I know in it. A lot of really exciting work is happening. This was a poorly organized answer.
HS: It’s fantastic. Any plans for the near future?
BJ: In the immediate future, I have to figure out a way to finish off my school year without skipping town. I take procrastination to a whole new level, which makes this time of year a particular kind of hell.
Beyond that, I have a few writing projects on the back burner that I hope to invest some serious time in this summer. I will likely go visit my mom in Ireland (she moved to Ireland. How cool is that?), teach some piano lessons and keep on working on this show because it is far from completion. Honestly, I feel like I’m just getting started.
I also probably need a haircut pretty soon.
HS: What can people hope to expect from “Life After”?
BJ: I hope that people will laugh. I hope the story will ring true with the audience. I hope it will pose some interesting questions and look at loss and grief in a new and refreshing way. I hope that the music will heighten the story-telling in a way that is enchanting and entertaining. It’s hard to know what to expect. The piece is very much still in-process right now and I’m not even sure what features will be the most striking when I hear it read out loud. I look forward to learning as much as possible from having an audience in the room. I know for certain that the audience will bear witness to some dazzling performances. The cast I get to work with is world class. I also know for certain that it will make my mother cry so I will walk away feeling like I did something right. Saying that, I think my mother’s just deeply proud I kept up with piano practice and wear sensible shoes so the tears may not have to do with the writing. We’ll see.
Tickets for “Life After”, The Paprika Festival Fundraiser – $20 includes show, pre/post show receptions & talk-back.
For tickets go to the Tarragon Theatre website, call the Box office: 416-531-1827, or get them in person.
The 12 Annual Paprika Festival runs March 27th – April 6th at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space.
For complete show descriptions & a detailed calendar of their productions and events check out the Paprika Festival website: paprikafestival.com