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“It’s Funny. It’s Feminist. It’s a Sexy Thriller, Horror Musical!” – In Conversation with Anika Johnson & Barbara Johnston on their flagship show Blood Ties at NSTF

Interview by Hallie Seline

It’s a complete joy to connect with Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston of Johnson & Johnston, the power duo boss ladies behind Blood Ties at the Next Stage Theatre Festival. We spoke about where the inspiration for their horror musical came from, why they keep coming back to their flagship show after 10 years, and why the Next Stage Festival is like a big community party. 

Hallie Seline: This is your flagship show as Johnson & Johnston. How did the two of you meet and start creating together?

Anika Johnson & Barbara Johnston: We met as acting students at Ryerson Theatre school and wrote the first draft of this show for a festival of student work in our fourth year.

HS: So Blood Ties is based on a true story? How did you come across it?

J&J: One time Barb was stuck on a long car-trip with her family and her mom talking about this crazy day when her uncle shot himself in his bathroom and she and her friends had to clean up the mess.

HS: And what made you think “This has to be a musical!”?

J&J: Duh.

HS: This will be the fourth time presenting Blood Ties, right? The Next Stage Festival is all about bringing the work to the next level. What are you hoping for/exploring with this run of the show?

J&J: The first draft of Blood Ties was the first thing we ever wrote together, almost 10 years ago. Since then, we’ve written a whole bunch of other things, but for some reason we keep coming back to this one. In some ways, it’s the work that most unabashedly represents our taste – it’s funny, it’s feminist, it’s a horror musical, it’s a sexy thriller – and we’re excited to revisit it now as more seasoned writers and share a work that’s had some time to develop and grow.

HS: The festival is celebrating its 10th Anniversary and it’s been growing every year! Why do you think it’s so important for the theatre community and for the city for festivals like this to exist and be supported?

J&J: New work needs an audience, both for exposure and development. It’s hard for theaters to risk programming or developing a new show, especially a new musical, which takes years to finish. In a festival like Next Stage, we get the opportunity to fully realize an idea and then try it out in front of an audience – and audiences get the opportunity to see professional work from artists who may not otherwise have a platform. Plus, a festival is an event – like a giant family reunion. It brings the city together and builds community, which is so important. It’s a party. And we love to party.

HS: If your audience could listen to a song, album or playlist before coming to see Blood Ties, what would you recommend?

J&J: Maybe the soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides’? But actually.

Rapid Fire Question Round:

Favourite Horror Film: Scream and Fatal Attraction.
Favourite Musical: Sweeney Todd.
What you’re listening to right now: Current faves that made their way into Blood Ties somehow: Kimbra ‘Settle Down’, The Rolling Stones ‘Miss You’, Martha Wainwright ‘I am a Diamond’.
Where do you look for inspiration? For this show, classic 90’s sexy thrillers and the lives of ourselves and our friends.
Favourite place in the city? This month, we’re really into karaoke at the Duke on Queen East.
Best advice you’ve ever gotten? It’s not going to look the way you thought it would.
Describe Blood Ties in 5 words: The things we never mention.

Blood Ties


Photo of Anika Johnson & Barbara Johnston by Tanja Tiziana

Presented by Edge of the Sky
Playwrights Johnson & Johnston
Director Ann Merriam
Featuring Anika Johnson, Barbara Johnston, Jeremy Lapalme, Carter Hayden and Kent Sheridan
Musical Director Jeffrey Newberry

Sheila’s uncle shoots himself in his bathroom on the eve of her wedding, and when her three best friends arrive in town to celebrate they are instead faced with the task of cleaning up the considerable mess left behind. This flagship musical show by Dora-nominated team Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston has previously been a hit at SummerWorks, the Edinburgh Fringe, and on BBC America’s ‘Orphan Black.’ Based on true events.

Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst St.)

January 04 at 08:15 PM
January 05 at 07:00 PM
January 07 at 04:15 PM
January 08 at 06:30 PM
January 10 at 08:45 PM
January 12 at 05:15 PM
January 13 at 10:00 PM
January 14 at 02:00 PM
January 15 at 07:00 PM


A Sit Down Session with John Fray

September 23rd 2012

Interview by Ryan Quinn

John Fray is one of the cast members of Alumnae Theatre’s February, written by Lisa Moore and running September 21st to October 6th.

RQ: Perfect. So. John Fray.

JF: That’s me.

RQ: How’re you doing?

JF: Great! You?

RQ: Great. So, do you want to tell me a little bit about February and how your character, Cal, fits into it?

JF: Sure! It’s an adaptation of a novel written by Lisa Moore. Lisa adapted it herself. It is about the Ocean Ranger, which was an oil rig which went down off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982. My character is one of the workers on the oil rig. The story is predominantly about the wife of this worker and her son, and how my character’s death impacts their family. So, that’s where I fit in. Many of the scenes that I’m in are flashbacks to moments that happened in the past. I’d say the two main characters are Helen, who is the woman who loses her husband; and Johnny, the son. He’s ten years old when Cal dies. I’d say the play predominantly focuses on their relationship and the struggles that they went through: him growing up without a father and her having to take care of the kids all by herself. My character has some ghostly scenes where I come back and you don’t know if what you’re seeing is in her head or if I’m a ghost.

RQ: How does it feel exploring this piece of Canadian history? It feels like in a lot of American theatre, every important piece of history has been dissected multiple times by multiple shows; whereas this event was important in Canadian history but we don’t hear about it onstage or in novels or on film.

JF: It’s been really interesting. This went down the year I was born and I had no idea about it at all until I was asked to audition for the play. It’s been interesting learning about it and finding out about it. In terms of the process of getting into the character, for me, it’s been a very light experience because that’s who the characters is. He’s sort of this happy-go-lucky kind of character, often up for a good time, and very light hearted. So, that’s kind of the place that I’ve put myself in while working on it. Still, the subject matter might be pretty heavy, 84 men went down on the rig and died on it, which is pretty heavy stuff to think about, and it all could have been prevented. They had the equipment on board to deal with this but they didn’t know how to use it properly. But, despite all that, it’s been a pretty light experience for me just because of the nature of the character. That’s kind of the feeling I entered rehearsals with.

RQ: It sounds like even though you’re the reason for a lot of the heartbreak, you’re a light counterpoint to things.

JF: That’s right. I’m the reason for all this going down, but I don’t have to deal with any of it! You know what I mean?

RQ: Has there been an ongoing conversation between the novel and the play. Or, right from the beginning was the play its own entity?

JF: Right from the beginning it was its own thing. Michelle, the director, said “Read it if you’d like to read it, but don’t make that the point. Take everything that you’re getting from the script.” Turning a novel into a play, it has to be its own beast. You have to bring to it what’s inside of yourself. There will be things about the character, certain details that are perhaps described in the book and fleshed out in a certain way that will inevitably change with the actor that’s playing the role. They’re breathing a new life into it.

RQ: How do you think the show resonates for today’s audiences? On an emotional level, or a political level? Both?

JF: What you learn about this event as the show goes on is that why this happened was due to cutbacks. They didn’t want to pay to have men trained thoroughly. So, they were given a manual, and in this manual it described the procedures if such a storm happened and if they had to operate the systems manually, but it was just sort of handed out. There wasn’t any proper training. There were no courses to make sure they understood this information. It all had to do with cutbacks. Not wanting to spend the money. There’s actually an interesting scene in the play, one of the present day scenes, where Johnny’s going to get a job. The employer is talking about how they’re hiring him on to make everything more efficient. They want him to trim and make cutbacks. So I think all of that will resonate.

It’s funny. You have these companies that are so big and so expansive, dealing with so much money. You just sort of assume that everyone very skilled and highly specialized. You think it’s all taken care of, in case of an emergency, they have a plan, and everything’s sorted out. But it’s all an illusion. It’s often not the case.

RQ: It’s kind of easier to see that when you put a face or a family on the tragedy. I don’t mean to say that at its heart it’s a political piece…

JF: It really does put a human face on all this, though. Especially Cal. He’s kind of a simpler kind of guy. I don’t mean of low intelligence, but he is down to earth, likes to have fun, isn’t looking for a lot of complexity on his life. The simple things make him happy. The wife who he loves, is totally in love with, having a family and children with her. Living a good life with her is what he’s looking for, what will make him happy. So he goes to work on this rig without asking too many questions. There’s a job to be done, he’s ready to do it because he’s a hard worker and he’s got a family. There’s not a lot of questioning of “does this company know what they’re doing?”. Cal even admits that once they got in there and started on this operation, there was kind of an uneasy feeling. Everybody began to realize that they were, as he says, “taking their lives in their hands”. But, they continue to go ahead and do it anyway because that’s the kind of guys they were.