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A Chat with James Graham on LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS LEMONS at the 2017 Toronto Fringe

Article by Megan Robinson

James Graham, of the Toronto-based ensemble The Howland Company, enjoys wandering through bookstores and letting play titles and covers jump out at him. And when they do, they get added to a list. It was in March of 2016, in London, England, that the catchy and memorably titled Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons by British playwright Sam Steiner caught his eye on a bookshelf in the National Theatre bookstore.

When The Howland Company was approached by Slow Blue Lions to work together on a Fringe show, he pulled out the list where he had noted Lemons as a possibility for future productions. The script fit the sort of criteria that the practical company looks for when choosing a play; the right length, about young people, the right amount of characters for the particular project. Plus, the rights were available.

“It’s always exciting when one of those plays that intrigues you finds its way to the front of the line,” he told me, in reference to Lemons making it off the list and onto the stage at this year’s Fringe Festival [and recently announced as PATRON’S PICK!] (And when life gives you Lemons… you put it on at the Fringe…. Sorry, I had to.)

The ambitious 60 minute show, with north of 200 lighting cues, follows Bernadette and Oliver as they navigate their relationship under the newly imposed law that restricts every individual to a daily limit of 140 words. There was a lot to cover in my interview with James Graham, who plays Oliver in Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons. In way more than 140 words, we spoke about working with director Harveen Sandhu, how language shapes relationships, and the importance of silence.

Photos of Ruth Goodwin and James Graham by Dan Abramovici

Meg Robinson : Tell me your favourite line from the show.

James Graham: I have tons of favourite lines. It’s so well-written. (he thinks for a while) At the end of one of the fights in the first half, Bernadette, Ruth [Goodwin]’s character, is kind of trying to explain to Oliver why this law might not be a bad thing and she tells him, “You can’t pigeon-hole me, I’m a million different things.” And I say to her, “How are you going to explain all those things in a hundred and forty words?” And she says, “I don’t know, maybe I’m not going to explain them.”

And I say, “Then nobody is going to know who you are.”

If there’s one part of the play that really speaks to me it’s that one. Because for all of the questions the show brings up (How do we know who we are or who someone else is? Are we defined by our language? Are we defined by the words we are able to use to describe ourselves or are we something regardless of language?) That exchange really encapsulates them for me.

And I remember when I first read the script, that was an exchange that really rang true for me.

MR: What were your thoughts when you first read the script?

JG: I loved the form and how Sam Steiner, the playwright, wanted to structure that journey of before the bill and after, and the differences between those two worlds.

What was intriguing to me was exploring how we talk to one another and how we take language for granted. How we use it to lie to each other and to actually walk around the truth, sometimes, as opposed to using it to speak as honestly and potently as we can. I think the premise of Lemons and the removal of that language forces these people to live in silence and in that silence you’re forced to really talk to one another and I thought that was a really powerful thing to explore.

MR: What moves you about the relationship between these two characters? 

JG: What moves me is watching a couple lose each other and find each other again. One of the themes of the play is how can you know someone else? Is it even possible to know someone? Does love exist without words?

I think the dynamic in the middle of the play is two people who lose touch with why they connected in the first place. And it’s painful. They have all the words in the world and they don’t communicate with each other.

And then this devastating law gets passed and it’s beautiful to watch them find each other again. And listen and communicate. And when they have to really choose something to say to each other, the stuff they choose really means something. At the end, there’s a lot of uncertainty, but it ends with a reveal of something that’s been left unspoken for some time.

Whether it means that their relationship is going to survive, well, the play leaves that open, but at the very least there’s an offer made; that I’m going to be honest with you. I’m going to share this thing. And I think that’s a really beautiful journey. And as a result that’s something that I’ve been curious about and exploring in my own relationships.

MR: When you are immersed in a show it can start to, like, tint your everyday life. You start to see things through a show-lens. How has being in the show shifted your own perspectives?

JG: I’ve been more curious about relationships – the language of relationships and how we talk to one another. I’ve gone on a few dates over the course of the process and have noticed the way that new couples or people who have just met each other talk, what things they choose to reveal to one another, what rhythms develop between two people. That’s been interesting.

Silence and the power of silence versus the need to articulate everything has been something I’ve noticed a lot more. And I think part of the play, part of Oliver’s journey, is towards acceptance and not a passive acceptance but a kind of presence. And I think silence is that state. It’s the state of acceptance of the world. And language sometimes can be the means to fill a void. That distinction has made itself more clear in my life.

So whether I’m a better communicator now than I was at the beginning of the process is probably not the case…

MR: But there’s an awareness?

JG: There’s an awareness, which I find kind of great.

MR: How did your director, Harveen Sandhu, get involved?

JG: I’ve been a huge fan of Harveen’s work as an actress for a long time. You see her once on stage and you know immediately how extraordinary of an artist she is; her intelligence, her emotional intelligence, her clarity, her discipline and dedication is all there in her work.

When Ruth and I we were brainstorming directors, I had a thought that maybe this would be something she would be interested in.

And I think one of the things that The Howland Company strives to do is to give space for talented people to step into a number of different roles. I think Harveen should do this. Canadian theatre would be in really extraordinary hands if she continued to explore directing as another form of expression. Because she really has a gift for it. We’re very lucky.

MR: If you could give the show another title what would it be? 

JG: I like the title! The first thing that comes to mind is 140. But I think that’s too on the nose. I don’t know.

MR: One last question – do swear words make the cut?

JG: Mhm… but then they disappear.

MR: They realize it’s not worth it?

JG: Well that touches on a point that the play tangentially gets to, which is that while the law does allow people to communicate more clearly with one another, what you lose is the joy of language – the expressiveness of swear words. You get down to a kind of bare essentials but I think you lose a great degree of expression and warmth and joy that we take in word play.

MR: Did you come up with a title yet? 

JG: I think maybe I would just call it Fewer Lemons? The citrus play… Lemons X 5

MR: Titles are hard.

JG: Let’s stick with what we have. It’s pretty great.

Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons Lemons

A Co-Production with Slow Blue Lions & The Howland Company
Written by Sam Steiner
Director – Harveen Sandhu
Cast – Ruth Goodwin, James Graham
Stage Manager – Sam Hale

A new law will limit the number of words you can say in a day: max 140. Soon you will have to speak without words, ‘say it all’ with no language; the ‘inarticulate speech of the heart’ is no longer just a song. The young Bernadette and Oliver meet just as the law is about to be enacted. Now their love must grow within its limits. They struggle with its rules, with obedience, with themselves, and with how they are going to live. They must make words count, and yet learn to talk without them. Political change becomes very personal.

1115 Queen St W

14th July – 9:15pm – Sold out
16th July – 1:00pm
16th July – 8:30pm *PATRON’S PICK*


t: @TheHowlandCo
f: /TheHowlandCompanyTheatre
i: @thehowlandcompany

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