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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.

SIMMONS: How is that different from other shows you’ve worked on?

JOHNSON: I mean, Brantwood was insanity. It was: “don’t… stop… writing!” because we had so many songs to write. Everything else has always been kind of just making it to the finish line for a production. We’ve been lucky to work on a lot of productions, but it’s been short, intense spurts of writing. I hope that, as Canada gets more acquainted with the process of writing musicals, the process can spread out and be longer. It’s a tricky thing to write a musical and there’s a lot going on. It’s certainly contrasted to our other processes because we’ve written and written and written and then it opens.

SIMMONS: What were the major changes to Life After that you made from Paprika to Canadian Stage?

JOHNSON: It’s changed so much. The core of it has always been the same––there’s two songs that were the first songs that ever got written for it that pretty much have never changed. “Did I Grow,” and “Poetry,” Alice’s two big songs. What the show was about, what it was trying to explore, has always been the same, but the mechanism with which it explored it changed. It went through a long time where it really read like it was a show about an affair––the mystery was the central point.

And then, as I grew, it became clear that’s not the point. We don’t care about that; that’s her trying to find a solution where there is none. It’s about her journey of releasing the need for that logic. That changed the way the story worked and the mechanism of the mystery changed. That’s something we discovered at Fringe.

Between Fringe and [Canadian] Stage, I knew what I liked best about the show. I liked how quickly it moved, the imagination of it, how fast realities changed, and how experiential it was from a first-person narrative, from Alice’s point of view. The second half of the show did a better job of that in Fringe than the first half. So I went in and tried to make the whole thing exist in that world, in that heightened emotional world, where many realities can exist at once and memory can exist alongside present. All that stuff that you can actually really talk about with grief because music can carry that.

The pillars of the story remain exactly the same, but I think I rewrote almost every second of it. It’s funny because some people think nothing changed because the core of it is so similar, but every beat was re-written between Fringe and [Canadian] Stage. [Laughs.] Some songs were just lyric changes, but mostly, especially the first half––nothing was the same.

SIMMONS: That’s insane!

JOHNSON: Yeah, right?

SIMMONS: How was the experience of the major downtown production, and the articles, and the interviews?

JOHNSON: It was wild. I completely left my body––it still kind of feels like a dream. I would say the rehearsal process was one of the most joyful experiences of my whole life. It was amazing and inspiring. The team we had!

My sister Anika stepped into the dramaturgical role for this production, which was transformative because she’s my collaborator and my ally and, also, one of my favourite artists. Having her by my side every step of the way as a sounding board, helping me generate these ideas, really transformed the piece.

Lynne Shankel, who was our orchestrator and music supervisor, too, is such an inspiring and interesting artist. And Robert [McQueen]. The four of us made this dream team. The speed with which the rewrites were happening and how much I trusted everyone’s opinion around me––in rehearsal, I was writing and re-writing but it felt like everything was flowing and so exciting. When we got it wrong, it was so funny.

The cast is so cool and fun and smart. It was everything you want as a writer. It was why you do it. It was really, really hard work, but exciting and empowering work.

Then the run was just weird, honestly––it was weird to have something out in the world like that. It was exciting. But it was also vulnerable and scary and hard to let it go. I’ve never not played my own show before, so, after opening, when it was like I wasn’t needed anymore––it was really weird. It felt brave in a new way, because I had absolutely no control. My mom says that’s what parenting’s like, but I don’t know.

SIMMONS: You mentioned when you “got it wrong” in rehearsal––do you have a favourite “wrong” moment that you wrote, trying to solve an issue?

JOHNSON: Oh my god, the intro of the teacher’s song––I wrote like twenty times. Because there’s so much that needed to be––it was such a bizarre scene and that song existed kind of halfway between reality. Trish [Lindstrom], who played the teacher, is the type of actor who knows immediately when it’s right. I wrote some of the most insane intros to that song where she was saying things no human would ever say. There was one version that went on for like three minutes and she was scrambling around, saying the wrong thing. It was just terrible writing. As soon as we got it on our feet we all looked at each other and were like, “oh my god, no… no no no no no.”

SIMMONS: That’s really encouraging to hear. [Laughs.]

JOHNSON: There are versions of things in the show that I can’t believe I ever thought would be a good idea. I would see them all the way through––it would be printed, the music director would teach it, and three days into rehearsal I’d suddenly be like “oh my god, this is the most embarrassing, this is the worst thing I’ve ever seen!” [Laughs.]

Upcoming Projects

SIMMONS: What are you working on right now?

JOHNSON: Just two things right now: [Anika and I] are in rehearsal for Trap Door, our show out at Sheridan with Morris Panych (used to be called Small Wonder). We workshopped that last year through [the Canadian Music Theatre Project]. Now we’re doing a production––it’s the first time it’s ever been on its feet so we’re still very much writing it and re-writing it.

And then we are getting ready for a workshop, also, that is going to happen in the first chunk of December for the next project in the Crescendo Series, which is a project with my sister Anika [Johnson] and in co-pro with Musical Stage Co. and Outside the March. We’re getting ready for that right now and trying to push out some semblance of a first draft to start with on day one.

SIMMONS: Does that have a title yet? Are you allowed to spill the beans?

JOHNSON: Title is TBA, but it’s a site-specific, immersive musical set at the funeral of a cult leader. It’s kind of experimental, more electronic sounds, really exceptionally strange. I feel privileged that I get to work on such contrasting back-to-back. [Laughs.] Even though both are very much about death; it seems to be the only thing I know how to write about. But it’s a different take and a different sound and a different, you know, theatrical world.

SIMMONS: Can you talk a bit more about Trap Door?

JOHNSON: It’s a young collaboration and it’s a beast of a show. There’s only so much you can know writing alone in your house and only so much you can know hearing it read to you. So much of writing for the stage has to be if the action makes sense on its feet, and the character’s intent makes sense on its feet, and if it breathes in the right places.

We’ve been learning a lot from seeing it; the second act, specifically, is really young. We just finished writing it this summer. We’re still just figuring out how to make it work. We’ve gotten to the point where we release it and it’s set for now and in next production we change ten thousand more things. I think that’s the way it goes with a new musical, because there’s so many moving parts and there’s only so much you can know. It’s a huge cast and many characters and we’re really excited about the direction it’s going right now. And it’s really cool to work with someone like Morris who––the scope of his vision is beyond anything we could ever dream of.

The Writing Process

SIMMONS: What does your writing process look like? Do you have a routine?

JOHNSON: I wish I had more discipline. It’s kind of all over the place. The truth is Life After is the only one I’ve written by myself, and even with that, the collaboration element of it was so huge. It started to move so much faster once Anika was in place as the dramaturge. The process would start with conversations, I’d go away, and come back.

I definitely write better at night than I do in the morning. I could write far, far into the night, until the sun comes up if no one stopped me. And no one does stop me. Well, my body does.

Writing alone, it’s a lot of walking around and writing piles and piles of little bits of things and motifs. My phone is filled with voice memos that sound like nothing.

SIMMONS: Oh god, me too!

JOHNSON: When Anika and I work together, it’s easier, there’s a schedule, ‘cause we have to be together. We often will listen to things that make us think about the world of the show or the character, how the character would sound, what we’re trying to write. We switch off piano and walking around. Again, it’s generating a lot of ideas that we don’t use, but keeping them around.

It’s definitely non-linear. Often I find, if I’m working on a song, I will work on one idea for a song for days and days, realize it’s wrong, and then write the right one in, like, a half hour. All that work helped with that, somehow, even though it was barking up the wrong tree. Does that ever happen to you?

SIMMONS: Oh yeah!

JOHNSON: I wish I had more discipline, it was more linear… it happens when it happens and I walk around a lot and I cry a lot and I sing a lot into my phone. I don’t know. [Laughs.]

SIMMONS: Do you have any weird writing habits, or superstitions around writing?

JOHNSON: Nothing I can put my finger on. Except that, if anyone looked in on me writing alone, or when I’m writing with Anika, we’d look insane. There’s a lot of pretending to be the character and moving around and, if it’s a sad song, crying and shouting… it’s absolute insanity. I think it’s somehow less weird when there’s two of us, but when it’s just me, it’s like… probably if someone saw me, they’d think I’d lost my mind.

SIMMONS: So you really put yourself into the characters––you’re performing, you’re acting.

JOHNSON: Well, especially when you’re writing a song for a character, you have to figure out what their speaking method sounds like––what do they sound like. Especially when you’re writing a song, you have to go to so extreme, I feel like you have to exist as them as a cartoon for a bit and you’re gonna find whatever motifs kind of represent that.

Getting Started

SIMMONS: How do you get started on a musical, on a scene, on a song? What’s the first thing you do?

JOHNSON: It totally varies, it depends on what the moment is. If it’s a single-voice, character-driven song, it's a lot of monologuing as them, walking around, talking back and forth if I’m not alone. A lot of noodling on the piano, noodling until you figure out a list of sounds that that would sound like. Sometimes it drops as a complete idea out of the sky, and then sometimes you’re weaving together little bits and bobs to create something that has momentum.

If it’s a big group number, then it’s more linear, because it’s not about getting inside, it’s more about finding an idea instead of finding a character voice. That looks different, too, finding what is the central idea that this whole thing can represent.

Collaboration

SIMMONS: You've mentioned collaboration a few times now: can you elaborate about how you’ve collaborated? Do you have any tips?

JOHNSON: The most important thing for collaborating––I don’t think there’s any right way to do it––is finding the right collaborators and never letting them go. [Laughs.] ‘Cause artists who you trust and respect could also be the wrong ones. But when it’s the right one, keep them around, and keep thinking about the different ways you can exist together. Find people who understand your style, who you jam with, creatively, and whose ideas you trust.

I was so lucky to find that in my sister, who’s my family, who has all the references I do, but also offers so much that is different to our process. Life After, of course, would not have been possible without her.

Whether or not the person is a member of the creative team, surrounding yourself with voices that you trust to be sounding boards for you, where you can sound ideas off of them that aren’t even complete, that are still vague, who understand your brain enough to do that––I think that’s the only way I’d ever be able to work alone.

Procrastination

SIMMONS: Do you struggle with, or how do you combat, procrastination?

JOHNSON: Oh. [Laughs.] Oh my god, I’m the worst. I don’t know how to write without a gun to my head. Have you figured it out? I have no tips for that. I’m the absolutely worst. Again, the gift in this is that Anika has a lot more discipline than I do.

I truly don’t know. I don’t know how to write unless I absolutely have to. But when I have to, you just do, because you have to and your life will fall apart if you don’t. [Laughs.]

Discovering Self Control, the app on the computer––that was a big deal for me. Where you can turn your internet off and it won’t turn back on. That helped me.

SIMMONS: Yes, I have that, too! It’s open on my computer right now! It may be the best app ever.

JOHNSON: It’s really the only reason that anything’s ever made it to the stage. That, and, again, Anika, because she doesn’t struggle as much as I do with that.

comparisons

SIMMONS: How do you deal with comparing yourself to other writers? Sometimes I listen to Sondheim and I want to curl up in a ball and cry and never approach a piano again. How do you cope?

JOHNSON: I mean, not well, I’m a disaster of a person. [Laughs.] I guess… by remembering that they probably do the same thing. And that it probably took a lot of pain and a lot of shitty writing to get to that amazing thing that you’re listening to. So allowing yourself the same grace that they had to allow themselves to get there. It’s also okay––there’s only gonna be one Sondheim and that doesn’t mean everybody else should stop writing. You know what I mean?

But I do get, oh my god, I’ve had many tears… I remember when I first looked at his Wikipedia and saw how old he was when he wrote the lyrics for Gypsy and I was like, “oh, well, kill me now.”

SIMMONS: I felt that when I saw Life After! [Laughs.]

JOHNSON: And I lost my mind when I wrote that, it was so hard! And I would still change a thousand things about it. So you can think that, but the inside of it doesn’t feel that way and I bet the inside of Sondheim doesn’t feel that way, either.

quick questions

SIMMONS: What is your favourite and least favourite part of the writing process?

JOHNSON: Favourite: rehearsal, definitely rehearsal. ‘Cause you are not alone any more, it’s active, it changes from generating material to problem solving, which I like a lot better. And it’s not just you and your brain. So much becomes clearer as soon as it comes out of someone else’s mouth.

Least favourite: starting. Being alone with nothing… which is a lot of how you spend your time when writing. I wish it was less time of that.

SIMMONS: Are you a plotter or a pantser? Meaning do you plot like crazy or do you fly by the seat your pants?

JOHNSON: Fly by the seat of your pants, absolutely. It looks like absolute chaos until it looks like something. That’s the truth.

SIMMONS: What musical do you wish you’d written?

JOHNSON: Into the Woods.

SIMMONS: Was that your first musical?

JOHNSON: It was my first Sondheim. I saw a lot when I was much smaller, but that was the first one where was like, “oh my god, what’s possible!”

advice for aspiring writers

SIMMONS: Last question: what advice do you have for aspiring writers?

JOHNSON: I think… just write. People stop writing when they expect that their first idea is the right one. People who, because they're talented, think that it all is going to be gold. [They] don’t allow themselves to be bad and have bad ideas and the patience to have lots and lots of bad ideas. That’s what all my mentors said: “just write, just keep going.” And you might never come to a good [idea], but write because you love it and write because it’s your job and don’t write because you think you’re excellent, because a lot of it isn’t going to be excellent.

Colin Simmons is the editor of the Musical Theatre Insider for CMTWC. Read his bio here.

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