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“Working With Your Ex, The Genius of Jason Robert Brown & On Dating Another Artist” In Conversation with Tess Benger & Daniel Greenberg on reconnecting for THE LAST FIVE YEARS

Interview by Megan Robinson.

Performers Tess Benger and Daniel Greenberg have quite the history.

The stars of the upcoming two-person musical, The Last Five Years at Wychwood Theatre, both studied musical theatre performance together at Sheridan College, and, perhaps more interestingly, also dated for almost five years. So, when it comes to performing this relatable love story about two passionate artists, Benger and Greenberg are in the unique position of drawing from their own relationship. After all, they know intimately what each other was like as a twenty-something-year old dealing with the ups and downs of first love.

Seeing this particular story performed by artists who share a romantic past is what Benger considers one of the biggest reasons to come out and see it.

“We’re putting this show up in ten days and four years!” she tells me during our interview.

This highly popular musical by lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown is loosely based off one of the writer’s romantic fallouts and is told following two timelines, switching between each character’s point of view. We meet the character Jamie at the beginning of the relationship, whereas we meet Cathy at the end. While his story moves forward, hers goes backward. Only briefly, in the middle of the show, do their stories intersect.

In this candid interview with Benger and Greenberg, we talked working with your ex, the genius of JRB’s work, and what they’ve discovered about themselves through their work on the show.


MR: Can we talk about how you approached working together? Did you talk about boundaries, or did you just dive in?

DG: Back in the kind of genesis of this whole thing, I was chatting one day with Stephanie Graham, our director, and she asked me if there were any girls who I had imagined doing the show opposite and I kind of looked through my Facebook friends. One of the names that stuck out for a multitude of reasons, most so the fact that we dated for four years so many years ago, was Tess! This is a show about a relationship, similar to the length of our own, about two 20-something-year-olds, which we were at the time we dated. So I said to Steph, “Tess could really do this,” and Steph said that she was on her list too, so I reached out the next day.

TB: My side of that was I was doing a show out in Edmonton and I got this Facebook message and to be honest, since breaking up, we tried to keep in touch but that’s complicated to do. I didn’t know what he was up to in his life. I wish I had video recorded some of my friends reactions to telling them about this because Daniel and I were in the same year at Sheridan so we have a tribe of friends that were a huge part of our relationship and know all about our history. So I was like, “Could I do this? Do I want to re-live this?” But luckily, Daniel’s in a really happy relationship. I’m in a really happy relationship. So there was never really a risk of this messing with our lives and I said yes right away. There was nothing else that was going to get in the way.

MR: Daniel, why is this a show that you’ve always wanted to do?

DG: I’ll be honest, at the beginning I just wanted to sing the crap out of the score. I’ve heard it sung numerous times by certain singers who I idolize and I just wanted to do it, I wanted to be able to say that I’ve done it.

MR: So it’s a bit of a dream role?

DG: Yes, it absolutely was.

MR: I find Cathy a perplexing character. She is an actor, she is struggling with her career, struggling to be happy for Jamie (her partner). Tess, as an actor yourself, what has it been like to portray the challenges of this character?

TB: There’s not one thing that happens in this show that I can’t understand. Where I’m at right now in my career, there’s not one moment in the show where I go, “How could that have happened?” And I might see another production and be like, “Jesus Christ Cathy, get your shit together!” or “Jamie stop being such an asshole!” but maybe it’s because it’s Daniel, and maybe because it’s me, I see how human it is. Because for so long there was so much love with Daniel and I. And as two people who were so good together but didn’t work out, because of little reasons… I just see the truth in it.

MR: Do you think it is hard for two artists to date?

TB: Yeah, I do. Actually my partner is an actor and he’s transitioning into a director. And it was only two nights ago that we had the “we thought this was going to be easier” conversation.

We met at the Shaw Festival as actors, and in our first season we fell in love and we thought “Oh my gosh, we’re going to work here forever.” And it’s just hard.

And there’s always going to be dark moments and we will push through it and there is a lot of hope and there’s a lot of positivity surrounding that fear, but the fear is real.

DG: I think there are wonderful benefits to both people in the relationship being artists. Our lifestyle is a really nomadic lifestyle and it takes you all over the place for a couple weeks at a time, or a couple months at a time, and everything is new to the individual so often that having an artist as a partner, they understand what that lifestyle is. You understand the kind of ebbs and flows that this lifestyle brings you as a person.

TB: Even this! Saying to your partner, “I’m going to do a show with my ex-girlfriend where we unpack all our baggage in ten days. We have to kiss and get married, okay? See you in ten days! And please buy a ticket cause I can’t get you a comp!”

DG: And artists have to be understanding because they have done that too. They know where you are coming from. But say someone who works in an office tower somewhere might not feel great about that.

MR: But even someone who understands it might still have their reservations about it, right?

TB: And even someone who works in an office tower might be very cool about it.

DG: Sure, of course.

MR: If you could give your characters any advice what advice would you give them?

DG: For Jamie I think he needs to ask for time and space from his partner and just trust that it’s going to be okay.

TB: This is a hard one. The thing that comes to mind is trust. Trust the universe, I guess? The thing is I think Cathy is talented, and I don’t know if being a broadway actor would be the result if she trusts, but I think happiness would be.

Cathy really thinks through all the thoughts in her songs so I understand her brain and I wish I knew what she needed because Jamie’s success shouldn’t ruin her. But I think it’s just trust and self-love.

MR: If you could rewrite the ending would you change the fate of their relationship?

DG: No. I don’t think I’d change it. Their story is so their own. It’s so perfect and tragic. It’s a very real story about two working artists, who just unfortunately go off in different directions.

MR: Have you guys discovered anything new about yourself through portraying these characters and this particular struggle of being a working artist trying to make love work?

DG: For me, keep communicating. Be honest with yourself. Be honest and forthright with your loved one. You’ve got to trust your love. You’ve got to trust that they will be okay.

TB: I think as a partner giving space. I think knowing who I am coming to a partnership as a complete version of myself. I think there are a lot of holes in Cathy that she keeps trying to get Jamie to fill. And the more time I take with myself doing what I need to do to feel really wonderful just makes me a better partner, so I think that’s a nice reminder.

The whole thing has also been a reminder of a really important time in my life; which was our relationship. I think to protect yourself in a breakup there comes a point where you kind of pretend it never happened and that’s been a really interesting thing… I wouldn’t say difficult… but I’ve learned that I did bury this. And how lucky am I as an artist to get to unpack it through some of the best music ever?

MR: What is a lyric that particularly speaks to you and why?

DG: There are a lot of lyrics…

TB: Oh, you know what I like? It’s at the wedding, in “The Next Ten Minutes”, when we sing “I’m gonna love you ‘till the world explodes”. I heard that for the first time today. I don’t know if you saw that, my reaction, I was like, “THAT’S GREAT!” It’s so good. It feels very good to say these words. I’ve never felt so human on stage.

DG: Also in “The Next Ten Minutes” for me, Jamie says, “There are so many lives I want to share with you.” And “There are so many dreams I need to share with you”. It’s so true. The person who is your person, the person who you love, you just want to do absolutely everything with.

MR: We’ve talked a lot about love, are there any other themes in this show that stick out to you, or that you’ve enjoyed exploring?

DG: It’s hard to talk about the show ignoring the relationship because the show is about the relationship. I think the show takes a look largely at the balance of work life and love life in both these characters. They find personal success in their industries very differently. He becomes very successful way faster than he thought he was ever going to. Whereas she tries and tries and tries and she’s super talented and she does get success but maybe not success that is as reassuring. But when one partner is super successful and the other partner isn’t, how to balance that?

TB: Time! I guess, because “The Schmule Song” wasn’t my song so I never listened to it and now that I’ve heard it a bunch in the runs and Daniel sings it to my face, I’ve recently really felt that time is something, especially I think as an artist… Give yourself time. Take time to pay attention.

MR: Can you each ask each other one question?

TB: What’s it like doing this show with me!?

DG: Honestly, I get flashes of our relationship ages ago. There are moments where I’m like, “She’s pretty cool. She’s pretty great. I got a lot of feelings for her.” But on the flip side, I’m like, “Oh my god, Tess, relax please.”

(Tess laughs)

DG: I think that probably goes both ways though, I think Tess probably thinks the same about me.

My question: Was your initial reaction to me asking you to do the show, and be honest, was it immediate or did you have to…

TB: …It was immediate! I checked with my boyfriend to make sure he was comfortable with it and then I said yes right away. That’s your question!?

(they laugh)

MR: Final question, how do you feel that each other has changed and grown since school, now that you’re working with each other as professionals?

TB: Daniel’s gotten more confident, more self-deprecating. His neck has gotten bigger, which I noticed in a scene. And his voice has grown a lot. As a performer he’s grown so much. You know there’s only so much people can do in school. You really learn by doing in this business.

DG: Tess has always been a fantastic actress, fantastic performer. One of the big things I’ve seen spending these last 9 days with her is she’s really become more comfortable, more confident with who she is and she’s able to bring that into her work and it’s a really lovely thing to see. She’s so open-hearted and talented and caring and ridiculous but all in the best ways. It’s.. it’s really been quite an experience to have her agree to do this with me. Just cause we both have grown so much in very different ways.

TB: Mostly his neck though…

DG: Apparently!

(they laugh)

The Last Five Years

Who:
Directed by Stephanie Graham
Music Direction by Chris Tsujiuchi
Starring: Tess Benger & Daniel Greenberg
Lighting Designer: Jareth Li
Stage Manager: Thalia Kane

What:
The Last Five Years is an emotionally powerful and intimate musical about two New Yorkers in their twenties who fall in and out of love over the course of five years. The show’s unconventional structure consists of Cathy Hiatt, the woman, telling her story backwards while Jamie Wellerstein, the man, tells his story chronologically.

Where:
Wychwood Theatre, Artscape Wychwood Barns
601 Christie Street, Studio 176
Toronto, Ontario
M6G 4C7

When:
Five performances only!
July 27th: 7:30pm
July 28th: 1:00pm & 7:30pm
July 29th: 1:00pm & 7:30pm

Tickets:
$30 – General Admission
$25 – Arts Worker
TheLastFiveYearsYRG.brownpapertickets.com

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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

blood

Photo of Anika Johnson & Barbara Johnston by Tanja Tiziana

Who:
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

What:
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.

Where: 
Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst St.)

When:
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

Tickets:
fringetoronto.com

In the Heights Review

By: Erin Reznick

In the Heights Poster

As I was walking towards the entrance of the Toronto Centre for the Arts last night, I began to feel the rush of excitement that I usually get when I’m about to see an anticipated show. As a music theatre graduate, I have religiously listened to the original Broadway cast recording of In the Heights. Hearing Lin Manuel-Miranda passionately spit out verse after verse of poetic rap and hip hop or listening to actresses like Mandy Gonzales and Karen Olivo belt their tits off made me itch to see the show on Broadway. So when I heard that the non-Equity tour of the show was making it’s way to T.O. I couldn’t contain myself.

In the Heights, a musical which won four Tony Awards, a Grammy and was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for best drama, follows the lives of the small community of the Washington Height’s Bodega over three days. The lead character Usnavi (played on opening night by understudy Jeffrey Nunez), struggles with his sense of home. Orphaned at a young age after his parents emigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic, Usnavi aches to travel back to his parent’s birthplace to experience the stories that were once shared with him.

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