Tuesday, October 4, 2022

19 Questions with Playwright Falen Johnson

Theatre Aquarius opens their season tonight, with the modern comedy Salt Baby. Written by Falen Johnson, who grew up in Six Nations and nearby Brantford, Salt Baby explores one woman’s journey of self-discovery to learn how she fits in to two very different worlds- finding out who she is in the process.

In addition to her work as a successful playwright, Johnson has also written for television and has hosted CBC podcasts and radio shows, including the CBC podcast BUFFY, about singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie. In 2020, Johnson’s work was acknowledged by Maclean’s magazine when she was named one of their “20 to watch in 2020.”

Beyond James posed 40 questions to Falen Johnson from our question bank, and asked her to pick and choose which questions she wished to answer (minimum of 15). The unedited responses formulate the interview below.

1. First thing that comes to mind when you think of Hamilton.
Sneaking into bars when I was 18. I dated a musician and I would carry a snare drum or other equipment into venues where he was playing. It worked every time. Sorry dad.

2. When did you first start writing plays?
My first experience with writing was in high school. My friend Whitney and I were drama dorks and would write sketches that I am certain were horribly embarrassing. I recall one time we both used British accents (shudder).

But my first stage experiences were when I was a kid in church plays. My grandma is an avid church goer and so us kids often went to Sunday school. Each Christmas and Easter we would be in plays. My sister was always the lead. I have fond if somewhat strange memories of playing one of the thieves crucified beside my sister, who played Jesus. She had a paper mache chest. You can’t make this stuff up.

3. What is your writing process like?
Depends what I am writing but I think I, like many writers, procrastinate. Prior to the pandemic I loved to write in coffee shops but I haven’t returned to that. I taught myself to write at home which was a bit of a curve but now works for me. Only thing is now I don’t get out of the house like ever.

4. At what point in your life did you realize that you wanted to pursue the arts professionally?
Might be corny to say but I think I always knew. I grew up on the rez with no cable, and in the time before the internet. So I often found myself outside playing, making stories up. I always loved the arts and when I was in high school it was the only thing I ever really felt good at.  My folks were supportive (albeit a bit nervous) and let me pursue the arts.

5. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
It sometimes feels like the next thing is always the hardest. Theatre school was really hard. It was 3 years of getting my ass kicked. But then writing was hard too. Making audio work is often hard and can be scary but I think I have learned to embrace the fear. You always come out maybe a little bruised but stronger.

6. What do you like to listen to?
During the pandemic I finally got my record playing up and running so I have been enjoying my modest but growing record collection. I have been really enjoying collecting original pressing of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s albums.

7. What is your signature meal to cook at home?
I have started to eat less meat but I still do love to slowly cook a large piece of meat. Any kind! An all day kitchen cook is the perfect remedy to sitting at a desk most of the week.

8. Name the first play that made you love theatre.
A Streetcar Named Desire. I was cast as Blanche DuBois in high school. I was 1 of 3. Lol.

9. What was the hardest scene to write in Salt Baby?
The end. Always the end. During the workshop production I was writing the final scene until the night it went up. After that workshop closed I went back in and changed it. Took a while to find it but when I was weeping in a coffeeshop I knew it was right. Sometimes you have to see it with an audience to find what’s missing.

10. What animal scares you the most?
Easy. Possums. Gross.

11. Describe one experience that changed your life.
Years ago Delaware playwright Daniel David Moses nominated me for an award through the Ontario Arts Council. It pushed me to quit my admin job and start focusing on art full time. It was a terrifying leap to make but I am glad I did. I wouldn’t be here without that push.

12. Name a Hamilton-based artist that inspires you, and why.
My sister! Naomi Johnson. She is a visual artist but also works in arts admin. She is a brilliant artist and I wish she would paint more.

13. What was your first experience with Theatre Aquarius?
Seeing my friend Whitney play Desdemona in a production of Othello. I was in awe.

14. What are you most looking forward to in this upcoming production of Salt Baby?
Whenever the show goes up it always feels like I get to see my grandpa again. It’s nice to visit with him.

15. What talent do you wish you possessed?
Musical. I wish I could play an instrument. I can, kinda but not with any proficiency.

16. What are the first three things you do every morning?
Walk the dog (Lt. Reg Barclay), drink coffee, put on the news.

17. Where was the last place you traveled for work or pleasure?
I covered some of the papal visit for CBC’s The Current. So I was out in Edmonton and Quebec City. It was a whirlwind trip.

18. What advice do you have for an artist who might be interested in pursuing a career as a playwright?
It’s advice my mentor Yvette Nolan gave me while writing Salt Baby, she said, “No one wants to see you know the answer they want to see you find it.” So don’t try to know everything

19. Name three things that have no monetary value that you own, but you love dearly and will keep forever.
When my great-grandma passed we had to clear out her house. I wanted this little doll I had given her when I was 3. That is really important to me. I also have her copy of the Indian Act from 1924. And I have a greeting card from my grandfather that he gave me when I was 16 and going on my first big trip to the UK. The card says, “don’t get airsick and don’t get homesick.” That card means a lot to me. I couldn’t find it for years and just last fall it fell out of a book and I just cried and cried. I won’t lose that again.

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