I don’t necessarily think that the answer for theatre is to compete with Netflix. I think it’s in offering something different, and marketing it creatively.
Aside from English classes in high school, do we really know our contemporary writers and in particular, our playwrights? The Playwright Project which is running for the second year has put together a week-long festival featuring seven works that rotate each night in seven different neighbourhoods in Toronto, all celebrating one playwright. This year, they have chosen “Urban Cowboy” Sam Shepard (who is also an actor and television and stage director) as their muse.
In this Q&A with Co-Artistic Director Alex Johnson, she shares her perspective and inspiration for creating this festival, and offers some ideas for artists who are caught in the paradox of serving an audience with a demand for the arts while working with limited resources. We at BeMused share the belief that the performing arts community is stronger when we draw closer to each other, and pool our resources together towards the same objectives. It is very invigorating to know that artists feel the same way!
The Festival ends next Tuesday so check out the lineup of theatre companies involved and for the show nearest you. If you know the Cameron House, or need a reason to check it out, there’s also a line-up of live music performances as part of the festival.
How would you describe your role in the performing arts? Is it what you set out to achieve when you started your careers, or did it change along the way?
I would describe my role as “yet to be determined”. Which is totally a cop-out answer. Currently I am a freelance producer who co-founded The Playwright Project, and am also co-curating and managing a new performance space on the Danforth. I love both those jobs and I want to do them forever, but exactly what they mean to the greater picture of Toronto culture is very TBD. As founder of The Playwright Project, my job is essentially about sustaining that initial idea long enough, and articulating it well enough, that enough people get behind it. I would probably classify my role on the Project as a team-builder with her eye on the details.
It absolutely is not what I envisioned for myself. Two years ago, I thought I was going to be a young Martha Henry. But I think most people would agree that it’s all worked out for the (much, much) better.
What was the impetus behind the founding of The Playwright Project? What kind of reception have you received? Why did you feature Sam Shepard in this year’s festival?
The Project was developed through a lot of conversations, wine, and hot summer nights I shared with my co-founder (Daiva Zalnieriunas). We were looking to do something bigger than we had previously envisioned for ourselves, something that hadn’t been seen yet. We wanted to create a tighter community among theatre-makers, and also among audiences. We drew on the concepts of co-production and Summer Stock Shakespeare; co-production meant that many of us could get together to share our talents and resources towards a larger end game, while wummer stock meant we were working with particular communities in mind and bringing work directly to them.
The reception we received was incredible. It is probably not surprising to hear this, but the appetite for culture and events is ravenous all across the GTA. Furthermore, audiences want to share in things that are happening in other communities within their city. We wouldn’t have as many arts and culture organizations in Toronto if this were not true, if people didn’t see the value in cultural and artistic exchange.
Why Sam Shepard? Because he is feisty and urban and meaningful, fascinates audiences of all demographics and backgrounds, and supplies artists with a wealth of material. Plus he likes rock and roll. Why not Sam Shepard?
What do you see as the main challenges for theatre in particular, and performing arts in general? Could you share some examples of the kinds of challenges that you have faced yourself as a performing artist?
Of course funding and resources is a problem. I would say that the sheer volume of work being produced right now outweights the amount of funding we have, and it might be interesting to explore how multi-artist groups can work together towards larger projects to consolidate the funding into bigger group efforts. I also think the world is changing, and the practical realities of our audiences’ lives are changing. What they want to see, and are accustomed to seeing, has changed drastically in just the past two years. However, I don’t necessarily think that the answer for theatre is to compete with Netflix. I think it’s in offering something different, and marketing it creatively. I personally don’t know what the magic cocktail is, but would love to hear from someone who does.
What words of advice do you wish you had been given when you were first starting out?
Don’t follow too much advice. Engage with everything and everyone you possibly can. Listen to everyone. See everything. But ultimately get out into the world and learn for yourself.