Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Toronto Emerging Artists’

Artists Profile: Britta Johnson – She’s Funny, She’s Sharp & She’s Pushing Boundaries with Musical Theatre Big-Wigs in “Life After”

by: Hallie Seline

Britta Johnson – Three-time Playwright in Residence with the Paprika Festival featuring her piece “Life After” – A New Musical to be shown at the Paprika Festival Fundraiser April 5th in the Tarragon Theatre Back Space.

HS: If you could describe yourself in five words, what would they be?

BJ: This is a hard question.
Whoops, that was five words.
So was that. My god.
And that. I can’t stop.
“Does not follow directions well.”
There. I did it.

HS: Tell me a little bit about your piece being featured as part of the Paprika Festival Fundraiser this Friday, April 5th.

BJ: “Life After” was born during my time as a playwright-in-residence with Paprika last year. I presented just a few plot sketches and songs in last year’s festival and had the amazing opportunity to return to it this year and let it grow into a more fully realized piece of theatre. The draft is still far from completion but it’s certainly at a point where I am ready to hear it and let an audience help me decide what the next step should be.

The story begins at the funeral of a man named Frank Carter, a celebrity self-help author whose car smashed into a truck just as his book was becoming a smash hit. The protagonist is his 16-year-old daughter, Alice, who finds herself running into some questions about the very nature of her relationship with a man who meant so much to so many but seemed like a stranger to her. The show hopes to examine some questions about life and death, celebrity and fame and coming of age. At its core, it really is a comedy (even though it talks about death an awful lot) and it features ten brand new songs.

HS: Any hints as to whom these Canadian Musical Theatre “big wigs” are who will be performing?

BJ: Well, the cat’s out of the bag! The names are on the facebook event. So I won’t just hint. I’ll tell you.

I am very pleased to announce that the reading will feature Sheila McCarthy, Trish Lindstrom, Steven Gallagher, Kelly Holiff, Laura Jean Elligsen and my incredible older sister, Anika Johnson. I can’t really believe I get to work with these people (except my sister. She had to say yes. Saying no would have been really bad form. But I’m still very excited she is involved). I have been doing some breathing exercises to ensure that I don’t pass out when I first meet the cast.

HS: How did you get started with the Paprika festival?

BJ: I was in my first year of university and found myself really craving opportunities to create my own work and connect with other people doing the same. I really took for granted how many platforms you are given for your writing in high school and how many resources you have access to just by virtue of the fact that that they all exist in the same building. Suddenly I was spending my days sitting in lectures about pre-renaissance chant music and trying to figure out how the hell to use an oven while neglecting my writing and composing, two activities that were central features to my lifestyle back in my hometown.  I finally decided to seek out some programs that would help to give me the structure I needed to get writing again, found Paprika online, applied for the Creator’s Unit and never looked back. Paprika has since connected me with my now dearest friends and collaborators and has given me the chance to work with some of the most inspiring theatre professionals in the city (not to mention the fact that there are sometimes snacks at the training days, which comes in handy because I still don’t totally know how to work my oven.)

HS: What has been the most notable experience or realization that you have gained from your involvement with the Paprika Festival?

BJ: That’s so hard to answer. I have had a countless number of hugely valuable experiences during my time with this festival. Perhaps the most important thing that I have realized is that the self-doubt never goes away and that’s ok. What I mean is that I often paralyze myself with self-intimidation. “Who do you think you are?”, “Your ideas are stupid”, “Why do you write musicals? You should be in an indie band or something if you ever expect to get dates” are all thoughts that often play on loop in my head and keep me from doing anything productive, even though I know deep down that creating is a valuable way to spend time whatever the outcome may be. Through my Paprika mentorships, I have realized that there is no amount of success that will make these thoughts go away. I have worked with Leslie Arden and Reza Jacobs, two of the most incredible theatre composers in the city who struggle with the same challenges. They both have explained to me that the trick is not to expect yourself to rise above these thoughts altogether but to learn to work with them and not give them too much power. They rarely reflect the actual quality of the work and even if they do, it was worthwhile to do the work anyways. The fact that the Paprika Festival focuses on process over product is something that has totally transformed how I go about creating. My goal is no longer to create something totally amazing. My goal is to challenge myself, to find the bravery to share my ideas even when they aren’t polished, to push my own boundaries even when it scares me and to dare to be dreadful.

HS: What is the strongest advice you have ever gotten as an artist and how has it affected you and your work?

BJ: Other than the afore mentioned valuable advice about feeling the fear and doing it anyways, I have learned a whole lot about process from working with Reza Jacobs on “Life After”. Reza has consistently encouraged me to just keep churning out new material and to not get stuck trying to perfect what has already been created. “Life After” has been the first show I have ever written for which I didn’t have a plot pre-conceived when I began. I applied for Paprika last year without a clue about what to write. (I honestly don’t know why they let me in. They asked me about my ideas in the interview and I was just like “Dunno. We’ll see.” And for some reason they had faith in me. Weird.) Reza always pushes me to just keep writing. If I have a thought, write it. If I have a question, write about it. Don’t get too stuck looking at what I have and trying to sculpt it into anything before it is ready. This process has been so freeing and organic and I think the concepts in the show are more complex because I gave them the time to be fully realized without stressing about what the show “needed to be.” The draft that has resulted is at times a little chaotic but ultimately more interesting.

HS: If you could choose one artists/musician/playwright to work with in the future who would it be and why?

BJ: Steven Sondheim. No question. He is the reason I tried writing musicals in the first place. He completely transformed everything about what I thought was possible in a piece of theatre. I have to hurry up and find out where he lives though. He’s getting old.

Also Tina Fey and Victor Borge (who is no longer alive but I didn’t think we were going for realistic situations here.) I could keep going… Shakespeare, Debussy, Carol Burnett. I guess you only asked for one. Sondheim tops the list.

HS: At In the Greenroom we like to discover how artists find inspiration, especially in their downtime. Where do you look to find creative inspiration?

BJ: All kinds of places! I have an incredible community of artists around me (some of whom I live with) and daily I am inspired and challenged simply by spending time and sharing my ideas with them. More specifically, when I am stuck writing a song I usually play music that I love, try to figure out why I love it and proceed to imitate it. It’s usually just a jumping off point and the music grows into being my own voice. But sometimes it doesn’t. I won’t tell you the parts of this show that are direct imitation but they are certainly there.

HS: What is your favourite place in Toronto and why?

BJ: That’s a hard one. Is it lame to say my apartment? I have amazing roommates, nice lamps and a good movie collection. Beyond that, Kensington Market (because I am very indie), the Island, Honest Ed’s, Future Bakery, Flip Toss and Thai (No. I can’t get into food places. I’ll never stop. There are so many food places I could say.) I love so many places. I love this city.

HS: What are you passionate/jazzed about these days?

BJ: So many things! I don’t know how to answer this…. Here are some things that I like… I’m really digging a Schubert piece I’m playing on piano right now. I just discovered the show “Portlandia” which I think may be one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. I’m obsessed with my friends. Honestly, I hang out with the most interesting and talented people. I have been so inspired by the other work I have seen in the Paprika Festival so far. The other two playwrights-in-residence, Jennie Egerdie and Sabrina White, are unbelievable. Remember those names. These two women are something special. I also just rediscovered Justin Timberlake’s “Futuresex/Lovesounds” and it’s taken over my life in a pretty extreme way. I’m just excited about this city and the people I know in it. A lot of really exciting work is happening. This was a poorly organized answer.

HS: It’s fantastic. Any plans for the near future?

BJ: In the immediate future, I have to figure out a way to finish off my school year without skipping town. I take procrastination to a whole new level, which makes this time of year a particular kind of hell.
Beyond that, I have a few writing projects on the back burner that I hope to invest some serious time in this summer. I will likely go visit my mom in Ireland (she moved to Ireland. How cool is that?), teach some piano lessons and keep on working on this show because it is far from completion. Honestly, I feel like I’m just getting started.
I also probably need a haircut pretty soon.

HS: What can people hope to expect from “Life After”?

BJ: I hope that people will laugh. I hope the story will ring true with the audience. I hope it will pose some interesting questions and look at loss and grief in a new and refreshing way. I hope that the music will heighten the story-telling in a way that is enchanting and entertaining. It’s hard to know what to expect. The piece is very much still in-process right now and I’m not even sure what features will be the most striking when I hear it read out loud. I look forward to learning as much as possible from having an audience in the room. I know for certain that the audience will bear witness to some dazzling performances. The cast I get to work with is world class. I also know for certain that it will make my mother cry so I will walk away feeling like I did something right. Saying that, I think my mother’s just deeply proud I kept up with piano practice and wear sensible shoes so the tears may not have to do with the writing. We’ll see.

Tickets for “Life After”, The Paprika Festival Fundraiser – $20 includes show, pre/post show receptions & talk-back.

For tickets go to the Tarragon Theatre website, call the Box office: 416-531-1827, or get them in person.

The 12 Annual Paprika Festival runs March 27th – April 6th at the Tarragon Theatre Extra Space.
For complete show descriptions & a detailed calendar of their productions and events check out the Paprika Festival website:

Shows have been selling out so catch them while you can!

Strong Shows in Small Spaces – Rarely Pure Theatre Opens The Pillowman


I sat down with Ryan Quinn and David DiFrancesco, director and actor of Rarely Pure Theatre’s The Pillowman running from Wednesday February 27th to Sunday March 3rd at the Propeller Gallery. Over hot chocolate and croissants, we talk about the show, get to know these gentlemen, discuss the benefit of strong shows in small spaces and explore the challenges and benefits when working with those you know so well. We even get a little playlist to listen to before the show!

The Pillowman – Trailer

Hallie Seline: Tell me a little bit about Rarely Pure Theatre and something that we might not know about the company?

David DiFrancesco: Rarely Pure Theatre was started around last January by a group of people from the University of Windsor. Essentially, its function is to be a hub that artists can come to when they want to put on work and Rarely Pure will help them do it. It doesn’t necessarily have to be people we have worked with either. When someone has an idea for a show they can just throw it at us and we’ll work on all of the ins and outs to help put it on.

Ryan Quinn: This is our second production with Rarely Pure Theatre and as for something you might not know, we are now doing a dinner theatre in Erin Ontario!

HS: Tell me about that.

DD: We are going up to Erin Ontario, which is just outside of Brampton to do two performances of The Pillowman before our Toronto run. It’s going to be a dinner theatre feel at an inn location. It’s a small town that doesn’t get a lot of theatre, so they are very excited to have us up there and if all goes well, it may be something that we can continue doing with Rarely Pure.

RQ: Yeah, and I think what’s interesting is that with a lot of dinner theatre, the dinner becomes part of the theatre, whereas this is going to be more like you sit down for dinner then after you see a show. It will definitely be interesting to gauge the reactions of our dinner theatre audience who may think they are coming for a certain kind of theatre and will be getting, I believe, something quite different and a little more hard-hitting and real.

DD: The Pillowman has some dark themes to say the least.

RQ: Oh yeah. Reading The Pillowman, at times, still makes me feel uncomfortable but I believe at its heart, it has a very beautiful story. That’s what captures me every time. I read it, I get caught up in it, I feel disgusted with what the characters do and with what they say, but at the end it’s rewarding and actually kind of heartwarming.

HS: What is one thing that we might not know about you?

DD: Well, this is Ryan’s first full directorial show that he’s taking up all on his own, which is really exciting.

RQ: Last year I had the chance to work with Lee Wilson, assistant directing on The Merry Wives of Windsor up at Theatre By The Bay. This year I really wanted to do some of my own work and then maybe go back to assistant directing and hopefully continue to go back and forth to really develop both skills at once.

This has been a really big undertaking but it has been incredibly rewarding so far.

RQ: I’ve also started doing a little bit of stand-up comedy.

HS: Oh, that’s fun! And what about you, David?

DD: I’ve got nothing…

We all have a good chuckle about that.

HS: We’ll leave David as a Man of Mystery. So, why The Pillowman?

RQ: It’s a show we’ve been talking about doing since we were in second-year University. It came up in Scene Study and all of us were completely taken by it. The aspect that I still love about The Pillowman is how it still surprises me. I go through the script and I write things down like ‘Ok, I know the show is about this, and trying to talk about this,’ and then I read it again and I can come out with something completely different. It is a show that poses a lot of questions and doesn’t necessarily assert answers.

DD: Because it has been such a fantasy project for us, we never thought that it was actually going to happen. One of our main actors, Davydd Cook (who plays Tupolski), moved to Greece and we just figured it was never going to happen with just the few of us but he sent us a message saying he’d be back for the Christmas holidays and a few months after so we jumped at the opportunity. We just decided that it was now or never.

HS: What has been the most interesting or the most challenging aspect about working on this play as an actor, for you David, and as a director, Ryan?

DD: I think for me, the most challenging aspect has been finding my character Michal’s mentality. Because the character is slow, having severe mental damage from being beaten by his parents for several years, it has been interesting and a challenge trying to get into his mindset, figuring out where his thoughts are coming from and really attempting to speak through the truth of the character.

RQ: For me, it has been working with people who I know so well and their processes, which I also know so well, and still making sure they challenge each other. It can be tempting to say that something is good enough or to say ‘that’s what I thought you would bring to the table’. I needed to make sure that we kept the rehearsal process fresh and challenging in hopes of achieving the best from everyone involved. And they’re so good at that, leaving the years of experience that they have with each other at the door, getting in the space and really trying to affect one another. For something that I thought would be a bigger challenge, it has turned out to be a great benefit in many ways. We can regroup quicker and dive into the material, working relationships a lot more smoothly without the reserve there is at times when actors are meeting for the first time.

DD: I think that is the most exciting part about it too. Getting to work with these guys on our own project. We’ve never gotten to work just the five of us outside of school on something we were all really passionate about. It’s great.

HS: What should people hope to expect when coming to see The Pillowman?

RQ: Well, it’s at the Propeller Gallery (Queen Street West & Ossington), which is a small, intimate space and it is a very emotionally and physically violent play, so I think that audiences can expect to be taken for quite the ride and really feel the heart of this story. Some of the best shows that I have seen in Toronto have been in small, intimate spaces with shows that pull the audience in and make them feel complicit. I think that’s really what we’re going to do with this show – make the audience question what they’re watching, question why they’re enjoying it and question the nature of violence in theatre or in art.

DD: We have commissioned a couple of artists who have devised paintings for our play and they will be showcased around the gallery for the week, as it still needs to function as a gallery space. I think with all of the elements that we’ve employed, from the actors, to the projections we’ll be utilizing throughout the show, to the images showcased in the gallery, it will make for a very overwhelming show, to say the least.

HS: If someone from the audience could have a playlist to listen to before coming to see The Pillowman, what would you recommend they include on it?

RQ: This is the best question.

Gustav Holst – The Planets Suite.
It’s just a very emotional and god-like suite. It is very intense but also very gentle at times

Aphex Twin – “Selected Ambient Works 85-92”.
This is a really great album of ambient music, which is also very slow and droning.

Set Fire to Flames – “Sings Reign Rebuilder & Telegraphs in Negative”, “Mouths Trapped in Static”
They are a group of improvisational musicians from Montreal who locked themselves in a house and starved themselves until they could write an entire album. It is the most raw, human thing I have ever heard because they just wanted to get it out there and to get out of the house, while still working to make something they could be proud of. It’s a little sadistic but it really made me think of the play.

Finally, there’s a great album by The Mountain Goats called “The Sunset Tree” or there’s a stripped-down acoustic version called “Come, Come to the Sunset Tree”, and it comes out of the lead singer’s experiences as an abused child. What I love about the album is how optimistic, child-like and full of wonder it is but always with that underlying darkness.

DD: For me, there is a song by The Tallest Man on Earth called “Kids on the Run”.
It’s about just looking back on life and not really being able to move forward, which is a lot of what my character deals with in the show.

270802_503688596348597_969923593_nHS: Now a little word association, for fun.

HS: Story-telling:

DD: The Pillowman
RQ: Danger

HS: Toronto:

DD: Crazy
RQ: Community

HS: Theatre:

DD: Awesome
RQ: Danger

HS: Pillow:

DD: Comfort
RQ: Smother

HS: Emerging Artist:

DD: Rarely Pure
RQ: Rarely Pure

HS: Favourite Spot in Toronto:

DD: The Stockyards (St. Clair Avenue West & Christie)
RQ: The Distillery District (Just south of Parliament & Front)

HS: Any last words?

DD: The seats for the show are very limited because we’re in a small art gallery and we can only fit approximately forty people, so there’s the possibility that there won’t be tickets available at the door. Advanced tickets are available at Search The Pillowman. Other than that, I’m just very excited for this show and we can’t wait to put it out there for you all.

RQ: Yeah, I’m really excited about the show. Every single person that we are working with in design, illustration, music, lighting, is so talented and so ‘on-the-ball’ with this piece. It really blows me away how beautiful the show has become and how much everyone has been able to contribute to our final product. We can’t wait for people to see it.

The Pillowman opens tonight until Sunday March 3rd.
Breakdown: Katurian the writer stays in and writes stories. That’s it. Brilliant but often grotesque tales, shaped by a twisted childhood experiment conducted by his own parents towards his brother, Michal, heard through the cracks in the wall separating the siblings. Now Katurian has been blindfolded and taken out of his home to face questioning at the hands of two brutal detectives, representatives of an ominous totalitarian state. His stories have put them on the trail of a serial child killer, and several lives hang in the balance as Katurian wrestles with his responsibilities to (and for) his art. Martin McDonagh’s play is a harrowing and blackly funny meditation on the tricky power of words to shape the world.
Where: Propeller Gallery (984 Queen W)
When: Wednesday, February 27th to Sunday March 3rd
Time: 8pm
Tickets: $10 and can be bought online here:

For more on Rarely Pure Theatre: