In theatre, it’s one thing to have an idea. It’s another to actually see the idea through. And it’s another thing entirely to see it happen a second time.
“It’s nerve-wracking because we’re not new anymore, so it’s not as easy to get people excited about it as it was last year when it was a new and shiny thing. Like, ‘Are those scrappy kids going to pull it off?'” says Alex Johnson, project director of The Playwright Project, which is about to launch its second edition. By “those scrappy kids,” Johnson is referring to the collective of independent theatre companies that joined forces last year to create The Tennessee Project, a week-long festival that toured a series of Tennessee Williams one-act plays through seven Toronto neighbourhoods. The idea was that each play would perform in a new venue each night, but that those venues would be familiar places like bars, restaurants, or community centres, and the crews would not only perform in neighbourhoods (from North York to Greektown to Roncesvalles), but would volunteer for local projects and organizations as well. It was an ambitious gamble for a bunch of young theatre-makers frustrated by a lack of time and resources to stage their own work. But according to Johnson, it was a resounding success.
“If it wasn’t a success, I would not be doing it again,” she laughs. “I think we found something that worked last year and was embraced by these neighbourhoods, and really did go quite far in connecting Toronto as a whole over those seven days.”
There have been a few changes to the festival in its sophomore year. There is new talent, new neighbourhoods, and a new name. This year’s title, The Playwright Project, opens the event up to any wordsmith of the organizers’ choice. This year, the man of the hour is Sam Shepard, famous for his plays True West and Buried Child (and for his role as Ryan Gosling’s father in The Notebook). Actually, Shepard has already been appearing all over the city this year, with a production of True West at Soulpepper, Cowboy Mouth at the Cameron House, a documentary (Shepard & Dark) at the Bloor Cinema, and Patti Smith’s exhibition and concerts at the AGO (Smith and Shepard wrote Cowboy Mouth together in 1971). So TPP seems right on the Shepard trend.
“For some reason it seems that people want to do, see, and hear stories about lost families and lost youth…There’s a whole community of Shepard lovers out there right now,” Johnson says. She announced the new festival theme in January. For her, using well-known writers as the connecting link through the festival has worked on a few levels so far.
“I think places like Soulpepper, and, to a lesser extent, Canadian Stage, have sort of carved out a niche for themselves about doing well-known playwrights,” she says. “That’s really what they do and they do it well. But you see less of that in the indie, grassroots community where people are creating work for themselves. So I don’t think it hurts to carve out that niche for ourselves in a community that isn’t doing it so much. They’re also great friggin’ plays and great playwrights—you can’t argue that going in. With a project as big and complex as this is, knowing that the material is solid is very useful.”
But despite the festival’s name, the playwright isn’t actually the most important part of the concept. The community-focused structure is still TTP‘s strongest feature: seven companies performing seven plays in seven neighbourhoods over seven days.
“Some people loved, loved the fact that it was local, that it was in their neighbourhood, and they were going to unconventional-but-familiar spaces with their fellow neighbours…And then other people experienced it on a much larger scale, and for them it was about discovering different parts of Toronto,” Johnson says about last year’s inaugural festival. “People engaged with it differently, but most of the non-theatre people I spoke to all found that it was Toronto-centric, and it was very much about Toronto. The playwright was a connector, but it was really about the city.”
Even though it’s still a young project, TPP has gotten noticeably less “scrappy” this year. A few of the venues are traditional performance spaces, including a newly renovated location in The Magic Oven restaurant on the Danforth. Even some major performers like David Fox, Julian Richings, and Terminus‘s Adam Kenneth Wilson are taking part. If all continues in this vein, Johnson and TPP won’t have to be scrappy for too much longer.