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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

2014 Fringe Preview – 52 PICK-UP with The Howland Company

Interview by Bailey Green

I interviewed Paolo Santalucia, James Graham and Ruth Goodwin about The Howland Company’s inaugural show for the Toronto Fringe, 52 PICK-UP written by TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi. The show tells the story of a relationship, from coming together to falling apart. The Howland Company chose to have a rotating cast of four different couples (two male/female couples, one male/male and one female/female) who each perform two shows over the run.

Bailey: Tell me about the show in simplest terms, what is it about? What’s unique about it?

James: Well it’s about the whole duration of a relationship from beginning to end. The story is told in 52 scenes, some are three pages and some are ten seconds long. Each scene is written on a playing card. At the beginning of every show the actors throw the cards up into the air and then they play out the show in the order that they pick up the cards. If it was a standard production of this show, with two actors for the whole run, each show would still be unique because scenes would be highlighted in a different way with each different order. But The Howland Company is doing something a little different with this piece.

Courtney Ch'ng Lancaster & Ruth Goodwin

52 PICK-UP: Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Ruth Goodwin

Ruth: 52 PICK-UP is about falling in and out of love. The structure of it is unique (being in a different order every night) but the play stands out because of how relatable it is. Each scene is written like a conversation that any of us could have had with a significant other. TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi have really touched on the universal moments (good and bad) that many couples face. And for that reason, its random order makes so much sense. It’s almost like playing back your memories of a relationship. They come to you in moments or flashes – sometimes when you least expect them to and that’s kind of how 52 PICK-UP works.

Paolo: For co-director Courtney [Ch’ng Lancaster] and I, part of what we wanted to do with this piece is heighten the super-changeable aspect of each relationship. Each night would already be so different and so we thought why not push that further in a theatrical way? Each relationship in and of itself is different, so we thought let’s embrace that and cast multiple groups of people to highlight some different kinds of relationships. The scenes range from the first meeting to the first fight to the first time sleeping together. So what does that mean when it’s two men who just slept together for the first time, what does it mean when you’re actually watching a couple in real life act out a version of their relationship onstage together and what do these scenes mean for two women? It takes the play out of a context of “this is how men and women are in relationships.” It removes that aspect from the production and doesn’t allow the audience to make universal assumptions of how men and women behave. The play itself doesn’t actually go there, it remains open-ended while highlighting the reasons why people come together and fall apart. TJ and Rita, the playwrights of 52 PICK-UP, actually said that no one has done this to the play before and they were excited about that exploration.

Bailey: What has the experience of the rehearsal been like?

James: Well I just get to parachute in and have a blast every week or so and just try to keep my head above water. I think Paolo can speak more to that.

Paolo: It’s been really exciting and very scary for lots of reasons. Each person brings to the table their own set of experiences and absolute truths about relationships. Everyone in the company has a relationship to relationships. [For example] some people are talking about financing a home for the first time, or people are in the midst of moving in together or people are coming out of a relationship or beginning a new one. There’s a variety of experiences that people can speak to with this play.

Ruth: The process has been scary. Scary. And also… scary! There’s a lot to cover…and no order. It’s also been a lot of self-reflection on relationships in general. It’s kind of hard not to put yourself in your character’s shoes. We jump around in the story so much. Some scenes are so short that you really have to define what each moment means to you. Luckily we have really supportive directors who are patient with us.

Ruth Goodwin & Alex Crowther

52 PICK-UP: Ruth Goodwin & Alex Crowther

James: One of the great things about this project is that the actors can all jump into these scenes and this world very easily. We can identify very clearly with this subject matter. On some level that is one of the reasons the Howland Company was formed, for a group of young actors to find plays and projects that spoke to experiences that as artists in our mid-to-late twenties we can step in and offer something (without always having to tear our hair out.)

Paolo: Yet at the same time it is incredibly challenging. The only thing Courtney and I can attribute it to is studying for an exam. On the day you know there’s a task you’re going to have to complete and the variables on that task are going to be something you can prep for. You’re going to know what the questions might be about just as you’re going to know what the scenes are. But the way they’re presented to you and what your emotional response will be in the moment? There’s no way to prep for that. All we can do is help the actors and in turn help ourselves.

Some scenes have one line in them and they’re only spoken by one character. But that doesn’t mean the inner life for the other character is any less intense. For example there’s one scene where the woman calls the man, he picks up the phone and she hangs up. With each couple we’ve explored what that scene means at different moments in the show. We spent a lot of time on text work. Each couple created a timeline for themselves so they had a linear progression of this play for themselves. Each group is different, some scenes that people have at the beginning of the relationships others have at the end. What James and I have as our storyline, and what it’s based on for two men, is completely different than what for example Ruth and Alex are finding as a man and a woman coming together. A man and a woman have had many relationships of this kind and this is just one along the way that really sticks out for them whereas for us [James and I], and with Courtney and Kristen, we’re exploring that it’s the first time for one of the lovers that they have been in a same sex partnership. The text lends itself to that. Rehearsal has been really like four different plays.

James: It makes the run an experience. One of the things we discussed is how are people going to review this play, because of the way that it is structured? It didn’t bother us because one of the challenges is that we’re offering a whole experience, as opposed to each individual show or couple being self-contained. The experience of the whole seven shows is the experience of 52 PICK-UP. Whether you see one, two or all four couples if you’re a Fringe all-star, you will get your own experience of the show. That’s where our focus is and we hope, for those that do come more than once, to hear about their experiences!


Full cast of 52 PICK-UP featured in their YouTube campaign. Click here to watch.

Bailey: Tell me about The Howland Company, how you came together and for what purpose?

Ruth: James and I met in high school doing awkward tween theatre. When we both moved back to the city after school we decided to start something that we both wanted to be a part of. That’s how The Howland Company’s Reading Group got started. Then James brought Paolo in—who he met doing slightly more sophisticated tween theatre—and we each approached actors in the city that we wanted to work with to invite them to join us.

James: We began to recruit people and each of us went off and looked for people of a similar mind, people who wanted a chance to work, work together, a chance to make theatre about our generation, which spoke to us more, and hopefully contribute to a new generation of Canadian stories. And what does that mean? Not that we’ve figured it out, by any means, but to join the conversation. Most of all we wanted people who were willing to be patient. We wanted to create something with long-term aspirations. The idea was that we would take our time to build an ensemble and establish a relationship with the community. We wanted to start a dialogue between the next generation of theatre companies and hosting the play reading series every two weeks was part of that. We had no idea what we were going to do for our first show and then this show just fell into our laps. That patience has really paid off.

Paolo: How do we as a group of young actors take these artistic tools and keep working without always saying what’s the next production? What’s the next thing? It’s not about the production, it’s about how do you contribute to the community and use your artistic voice to further the conversation. 52 PICK-UP is absolutely about hopes and fears for the future.

James: What happens from here remains to be seen. On the simplest level, we’re a group of young actors who wanted to make work together, to find a community where we could practice our craft, take risks and contribute our voice.


Presented by The Howland Company as part of The Toronto Fringe


52 PICK-UP: Cameron Laurie & Hallie Seline

Directed by Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster & Paolo Santalucia

Where? Tarragon Extra Space

When? July 3rd-13th, 2014

Tickets: Can be purchased via or by calling 416-966-1062


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#52PickUpHC @TheHowlandCo
Youtube: The Howland Company


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