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A Chat with Alex Johnson. The Playwright Project A Year Later: Sam Shepard May 1-7th

by Ryan Quinn

Q: Here with the brilliant Alex Johnson. The Playwright Project kicked off last night to a great start. Tell me a little bit about what you’re doing with the project this year.

A: It’s the exact same format as last year with a different playwright and several different venues. We wanted to rebrand as The Playwright Project and move away from being a Tennessee Williams festival. We never had any interest in being a Tennessee Williams festival; it’s more the format, the community-mindedness, and the artistic collaboration that we were interested in. So, we rebranded as The Playwright Project and went with Sam Shepard for a number of reasons. I guess the first and most important one was that we’re all absolutely in love with him. He’s exciting, he’s a little filthy, you know, “the sacred and the profane”. There’s great music in his plays, huge amounts of live music, that awesome, bluesy, folksy stuff. There’s all that sweaty, New-York-in-the-60’s experimental theatre, but there’s also some really down-to-Earth and conventional work. So, there’s a huge variety. Also, they’re plays our generation can really sink their teeth into. They’re restless and young and urban. So, it seemed like a good fit for the people we were working with.

Q: And who are you working with this year?

A: So, we’ve got Heart in Hand Productions, who actually just did a Sam Shepard play. They did Cowboy Mouth at the Cameron House, which is also a venue that we are working in this year. Those girls are great and they were very keen to re-enter the world of Shepard and investigate a different play with us. They’re also this great team of babes doing a really masculine Shepard play, so I’m really excited about that. They’re doing Fool for Love. Peter Pasyk from Surface/Underground will be joining us, doing When the World Was Green. He was just chosen to be the 2013/14 Urjo Kareda Resident at Tarragon Theatre, so that’s amazing. Theatre Brouhaha and Red One Theatre Collective are both back on the project; they were with us last year as well. We’ll actually be working in Red One’s new venue, The Storefront Theatre, which those boys are also running. We’ve also got Alec Toller, who is more known for being a filmmaker. He’s got a film coming out called Play, that Kelly McCormack was in, and it’s about theatre. He’s doing Angel City which is very cool because it’s really film noir and cinematic, so I’m really curious to see how this filmmaker meets this live filmic piece. Natasha Greenblatt and Pomme Grenade Productions, who just did The Peacemaker at Next Stage, which was a huge hit. She will actually be doing Cowboy Mouth. Lastly, and this is really exciting, Alex McCooeye has adapted a Sam Shepard short story called Saving Fats into a play. Alex and I actually worked on his adaptation of a Poe short story about a year ago with the incredible Greg Kramer who sadly passed away a couple weeks ago. Alex is a really great writer with an amazing eye for adaptation, so I’m really excited he’s taking this adventure on. Jeremiah Sparks is in it, so, yeah, it’s going to be great.

Q: Are you doing it in the same venues as last year?

A: Yeah, so we are back in the Curzon in Leslieville. I was in there the other day and since we were in there last year, it’s been revamped into this amazingly Sam Shepard-like space. It’s the coolest. There are these white embossed animal heads on the walls, and it’s all…country. It’s so cool. It’s so cool. I walked in and I was just like “Why? This is so perfect. This is touched by God”. We’re also back in the Magic Oven. The interesting thing about that space is that once the Project is done for this year (although we’re already vamping up for next year), I’m partnering up with Tony at the Magic Oven to turn that downstairs space into an actual year-round, multi-disciplinary performance space. Tony has built a full kitchen and bar in the back, so it’s going to be fully operational by the fall. I will be managing and programming everything in that space. I mean, there’s not a lot like that out there on the Danforth. You have the Fraser Rehearsal Studios, the Danforth Music Hall, you’ve got the Red Sandcastle, but it’s significantly more south. We’re really going to try to engage with the Danforth community and be a new place where culture can happen. It’s really exciting. We have not confirmed a name for the space yet. We jokingly call it The Tragic Oven.

Q: That sounds horrible, haha. That’s a horrible name.

A: I know! We’re just going to program Greek tragedies. So, yeah, we’re back there. I think everything else is new. We’re at the Storefront; we’re at the Cameron House…oh! The Cameron House is partnering with us this year to be the post-show hub every night. So at the Cameron House every night at 10pm, Cameron House records and our director of music Gaby Grice have co-curated a whole line-up of Shepard-y music in that bluesy, folksy, rock and roll cowboy vein. So, every night at 10pm, a whole different lineup of Shepard-y music at the Cameron House. So, that’s going to be a blast. We’re also in some other great spaces, the May Café in Little Portugal, Lazy Daisy’s in The Beach, Annette Studios in The Junction. I’m really excited about the venues.

Q: Now, sometimes you call it a project, and sometimes a festival. It also kind of seems to walk a line close to being a repertory season. Where is that line?

A: It’s so funny that you bring that up. We were just talking about this last night, actually, that the language that we use needs to be paid close attention to because the end result is festival-like but the process is not. The process is much more collaborative and about the seven companies as well as the administrative body supporting each other as opposed to them working independently of us until show time like you would for Fringe or Summerworks. So, the process is much more, as our initial vision from last year stated, about creating a tighter-knit community of artists who work toward one communal goal together. In that regard, I don’t think you could call us a festival.
I like what you said about thinking of it almost as a repertory season. It’s like a really fast, really intense repertory season that goes down. If I can find a more succinct way of phrasing that, I might steal it from you for next year. I actively avoided calling it a festival last year, but the language sort of just became easier to use. People understood more what the end result was, what May 1-7 would be. But, yeah, I think I want to go back next year, for 2014, and re-examine what we call ourselves.

Q: Do you feel like the community has gotten more tight-knit since the festival last year?

A: Yeah, I mean, I don’t think we’ve changed the theatre scene. I think what Playwright Project has served to do is broaden many of our artists’ connections and resources. They now know, in some cases, almost a hundred new people that they can access in the community and that they can share with. The thing is, though, everybody works differently. Everyone has their own process. Some are more about reaching out and bringing people into the fold, and some people are much more isolated. One is not better than the other. Some people work better in isolated think-tanks, and some work better with an “it takes a village” mentality. So, I wouldn’t qualify the festival as being some giant community. What I know it is, is an opportunity to access things that you wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. And you’ve got a really strong support system under you. So, like, the Playwright Project team and I are here to handle the things that could take away from your artistic focus and clarity of vision. We are here to enable you to do what you want to do.
But, in the bigger picture of things, is the Toronto community getting tighter? Yeah. I think it is. I think I see things changing and I see the grassroots stuff growing and I see people reaching out more.

Q: What have you learned since last year that’s been implemented this year?

A: It’s so funny. We were talking last night about how at the end of last year we went “Oh alright, we know what to do now. We know now. We get it now. We got it”. And now it’s coming up to the end of the rehearsal period and I’m like “Oh wait. I still don’t know anything”. What have I learned? I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that people want to help. People want you to call them up and present them with an idea and a way they can get involved. I’ve also learned a lot of practical things. I’ve learned how to rent a van and how to hang a piece of black fabric. I’ve learned a lot about Equity and the new agreement and the festival waiver.
I have learned that it is very important, whether you’re an arts institution, or an organization, or a collective, or an individual artist, every project and every endeavour needs to have a personality. It needs to know what it is and have a clarity of what it’s doing. When our logo started going into development and our amazing graphic designer Lisanne Binhammer was sending us sheets of proposals, picking it was remarkably hard because we didn’t yet have that seed of exactly as an organization, what our personality was. As the logos started to come in, I started to see it. Started to visually see what we look like on paper, and it helped us to better understand what we are. We’re this scrappy, spirited group of young people, and trying to fight it and become something more polished is not helpful. I was at the Shakespeare in the Ruff gala and they know so well who they are as an organization. They have such a specific sense of humour and how they put themselves out into the world is so clear. I’m becoming more and more aware of how important that is. I mean, I guess, in simple words: branding. The importance of branding. You can’t engage people if you don’t know who you are. You can’t get them on your team if you don’t know who that team is.

Q: Looking into the future, in five years, where would you like to see the project?

A: There are a lot of internal things I would like to see change. Just in terms of, you know, office space. Things that would make the daily practical work easier. I think much of our personality is that every year, we’re going to be different. Last year was Tennessee Williams, and this year is Sam Shepard and there are cowboy hats everywhere and the music at the Cameron House. If it’s Ibsen (and it won’t be, but hypothetically), if it’s Ibsen, the personality of that week in May will be entirely different. Instead of having music at the Cameron House, we might have…sad Norwegian poetry nights. Every year there will be a different flavour to what we do.

Q: An atmosphere?

A: An atmosphere, yeah! And secondary programming will arise from that, and different people we can work with will arise from that. Different things these neighbourhoods can engage with and see that they wouldn’t normally. I want to be surprising people five years down the road with what we do. I don’t want to sit still too long. As I said, we’re already in talks for next year, and it will be surprising. I can tell you right now, the format will not be changing, but some things will be and it’ll surprise you. You’ll like it.

The Playwright Project: Sam Shepard runs May 1st-7th
For show listings check out our complete Toronto Theatre Listings page.
For exact venue schedule and ticket purchase go to The Playwright Project’s website!

Both Sides of the Wall: Natasha Greenblatt, Political Theatre & The Peace Maker

January 3, 2013

By: Alex ‘Addy’ Johnson

Even for the most well-read and curious person, it is difficult to get your bearings when trying to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Combine centuries of history with modern-day media noise and I’m not entirely surprised that, yes, if you Google it, there is an Israeli-Palestinian Conflict for Dummies.

But when you’re feeling particularly confused and ill-informed, and you would totally read all about it on the Globe and Mail site if it wasn’t for that pesky pay wall, it might be comforting to know that you’re actually part of a greater conversation – the social discourse aimed at creating more social discourse around the issue and, hopefully as a result, more understanding.

This was the bulk of my conversation with Natasha Greenblatt, the woman behind The Peace Maker opening tonight at the Next Stage Festival.

“It’s been a difficult conversation to have,” she says. “It’s been a bit taboo. But that’s changing. Obama started to change the language around it – not quite enough in my opinion, but he started to change the language. The paradigm is shifting. It’s a good time to push that conversation.”

In 2009 (not a particularly calm time in the Middle East), Natasha went on Birthright – the free heritage trip to Israel offered to all young Jewish people. Following that she spent two months in the West Bank volunteering as a drama teacher.

“When I started out I definitely felt [the conflict] was hard to talk about. I didn’t know enough. So I went to find out more.”

I asked her if she feels she knows enough about it now.

“I know enough,” she said, “to know that I have to talk about it.”

The Peace Maker, directed by Jennifer Brewin, is the story of Sophie, a young Jewish woman loosely based off Natasha, herself, and her struggles with ‘identity and justice and the desire to ‘make-peace’ in the Middle East.’ In Natasha’s own words it was inspired by her “time on both sides of the wall.”

The Peace Maker at The Toronto Fringe

Natasha fearlessly refers to The Peace Maker as “political theatre”. I say fearlessly because, like anything with the word political in front of it, a person is bound to get some mixed reactions. And when it comes to theatre, a handful of didactic bad eggs have given the whole genre a bad rap. But I would argue things are turning around, thanks to industry contributors like Praxis TheatreDocket Theatre, Michael Healey’s Proud, and Studio 180.

“I’m very inspired by the work Studio 180 does,” Natasha says. So inspired, in fact, that she wrote a piece for the Studio 180 blog wherein she described her bike ride home from The Normal Heart, absolutely elated with the “realization that people can talk about politics on stage, and it can be emotional and interesting.”

Her blog post continued: “There is sometimes a taboo about ‘political theatre,’ a sense that it is cerebral, or boring, or only for people that know a lot about the specific politics of the play. I have, at times, felt slightly sheepish writing my ‘Israel-Palestine play’. But I now strongly believe that political theatre is really just like any theatre, and that Israel and Palestine was just where my heart was living in 2009 when I     started writing this play. And ‘political theatre’ is for everyone, as long as it’s good theatre.”

Here’s the conundrum about political theatre that has always mystified me: Good drama is personal – the playwright puts their heart into it. And politics are personal – never bring elections up at family dinner. But good drama is also about two things pulling in opposite directions, presenting various perspectives. So how does a dramatist keep that opposing tension going when their heart lies strongly on one side? Natasha admits she struggled with this.

“It was very upsetting to be living in Palestine and seeing people confined. Not able to move because of checkpoints, and in some places really oppressed because of who they were. And I was critical in general of the notion of a state that is for one group of people. But,” she continues, “of course everything is more complicated. Palestinian people will tell you about things that are wrong with their government. And ultimately I can’t convince people to think a certain way. I just have to present a theatrical dilemma and allow people to take whatever they take from it.”

I asked Natasha if she would ever consider touring The Peace Maker to the Middles East.

“I’ve thought about it,” she says. “However, it’s a play about being a North American in a place that is completely different. Sophie is the eyes of the audience. It’s about being an outsider. It can be seen as an allegory for how Canada sees itself in politics as a peace maker, and that doesn’t always work out so well.”

However, while she hasn’t completely abandoned the idea of touring The Peace Maker to the Middle East, it exists in Toronto here and now for all of us to see including (but not limited to) a full band that Natasha described as “wicked.”

With Samuel Sholdice heading up the music, the band features four high school students as well as music from the actors and the well-known Maryem Toller. All told, The Peace Maker features two violinists, a bass clarinetist, a trumpeter, an accordion, two guitars, one piano, and an additional clarinet.

“The musicians transform between Israelis and Palestinians and that function is important to me because it’s about context. So often your identity is defined by context. This person is this person because they grew up on one side of the wall and not the other. The main character believes that music can bring peace and heal everybody and then she finds out that it’s a lot more complicated than that. However, there is still something true in her vision – that music is a universal language. And people can connect to music in that moment and forget all of the baggage that they have, which consists of many things, but it’s also context.”

And now friends, I leave you with:

Natasha Greenblatt’s Top Tunes to Listen To As You’re Getting Ready to Go Out and See The Peace Maker.

– Flatbush Waltz

– Ammunition Hill

– Rafeef Ziadeh – We Teach Life, Sir! (Spoken word poem)

– Leonard Cohen – Old Revolution

Artist Bio:

Natasha Greenblatt  – Writer/Producer

A graduate of the National Theatre School, Natasha is an actress, writer, educator and director. She has played Anne Frank in Montreal and Hamilton, and won a Dora Award for Get Yourself Home Skyler James, a solo show by Jordan Tannahill that traveled to high schools in the GTA. She wrote and performed We Lived in a Palace, presented by SummerWorks. She is currently facilitating the Paprika Creator’s Unit and acting in the television show Bomb Girls.

Getting to Know You with Gab and Chad – Episode 1: Alex Johnson

Alex Johnson is the Project Director of the soon to be announced Playwright’s Project. Check out what she has to say about life with actor parents, the Playwright’s Project and what she thinks about the Toronto theatre scene.

Talking Tennessee with Alex Johnson

April 16, 2012

By: Ryan Quinn

This past week, I met up with director Alex Johnson, contributor for this site and co-creator of the Tennessee Project. I met Alex during my time in Windsor, but was really interested in getting to the heart of the Project and what she hopes it will accomplish in Toronto. This is the beginning of my series on the Tennessee Project, and I look forward to experiencing it with you, the reader.

Read more

Pressed for Prest

By: Alex Johnson

I was late to the Gregory Prest party. My invitation got lost in the mail. The man of the hour had been winning audiences over regularly with performances in White Biting Dog, Death of a Salesman, and Ghost, while I sat at home watching Dance Moms – all of them.  With his current rendering of Edmund in Soulpepper’s Long Days Journey Into Night, I am at the party, and deep into the free champagne.

Gregory was kind enough to meet me before a Saturday night show and I came face-to-face with Gregory Prest: The Actor’s Actor. Present, eager, aware, quick to laugh and refreshingly at ease with the occasional uneasiness of the actor’s job.

 Read more in Featured Articles.