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Britta Johnson: an interview on writing, success, and "getting it wrong"

Britta Johnson is taking Toronto by storm. Her show Life After, co-produced by Musical Stage Company, Canadian Stage, and Yonge Street Theatricals, ran at the Berkeley Street Theatre to rave reviews. The Toronto Star said, “for Canadian musical theatre, Britta Johnson is one of our great hopes.” The National Post said it had “a Sondheim quality, and we’re in his territory.” NOW Magazine said the “real star is Johnson, who, judging from this score and the maturity of her vision, has a long career ahead of her.”

Johnson, 26, already has a number of shows under her belt, including Brantwood: 1920-2020, Jacob Two-Two and the Hooded Fang, and Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy.

She is the inaugural recipient for Musical Stage Company’s The Crescendo Series, which offers an “unprecedented breakthrough for a composer of musical theatre in Canada through a three-year residency and a commitment to produce three of their new musicals.”

Needless to say: she’s one to watch. And for emerging writers like myself, one to learn from. I had the great pleasure of speaking with Britta about Life After, her upcoming shows, her writing process, collaboration, and more. (Heck, you'll even hear her favourite app to combat procrastination!)

Life After

SIMMONS: You started Life After when you were 18, right?

JOHNSON: 18, 19––that year of my life is when I started.

SIMMONS: It’s had a fairly long developmental process.

JOHNSON: I wrote the first couple of songs for it when I was 18, but it’s lived in me for a long time. As far as the actual work––it’s not like I’ve been working consistently. I put it away for years, did my degree, put it away for years again. There were kind of three big swells of work.

One would be to prepare for my first reading of it in the Paprika Festival. That’s when I first started to work on it. I was a playwright in residence. For young writers, [Paprika] is a great organization. I put it away for a long, long time. I did my degree, figured out my life––no, I didn’t figure anything out. [Laughs.] Then, the next swell would be when I got a spot in the Fringe with that draft, the Paprika draft. In the month leading up to Fringe, that was a huge push of work. And another, obviously, big push of work to get it up for Canadian Stage.

I do think there’s something to be said for letting a show live inside of you for that long, because even when I wasn’t working on it, it was in my brain as I grew, took in the world, took in my questions about the world, and thought about what I like in theatre and what I don’t like. I think it was gestating, for sure––but only three big work periods.