Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Umbrella Talk with playwright Justin Fleming

Welcome to our first Umbrella Talk with award winning playwright Justin Fleming, from Australia!

This week, Justin talks with us under our one big umbrella and tells us why Suzanne Millar and Dean Paul Gibson are some of the coolest directors on the planet; why he swiftly turned down a suggestion to collaborate on an OJ Simpson Musical; why he would never write a play about his life, but if there were to be one written about him, it would have dashes of romance, tragedy and “pearls of comedy”; and things that inspire him include fledgling theatre enterprises like one big umbrella!

Continuing reading below for all this and more.


Justin under our one big umbrella

Justin Fleming has been a friend of one big umbrella for several years now. In 2004, we produced a Meet N’ Greet with Justin Fleming in Toronto. The evening showcased readings from scenes of some of Justin’s most prominent plays and featured talented Toronto actors Ramona Katigbak, Grace Lynn Kung, Geoff Kolomayz, Amanda Levencrown, Sandy Pool and Jeff Orchard. We hope to produce one of Justin’s amazing plays here in Canada sometime in the future.

Justin Fleming's bio

Justin's plays include Coup d'Etat (Patrick White Award shortlist, nominee for BEST PLAY AWGIE award and winner of the Banff PlayRites Residency, Canada), Hammer (Ensemble Theatre/Festival of Sydney); The Cobra, Harold In Italy, The Ninth Wonder (Sydney Theatre Company); Burnt Piano (Belvoir Theatre, Sydney/Melbourne Theatre Company/Herbert Berghof Theater New York, Mainstage Theatre Co, Hobart/Dallas Theater Center/France Australia Theatre, Paris/Centaur Theatre, Montreal); Kangaroo (Square Brackets Theatre); and Junction (NIDA). Burnt Piano won the New York New Dramatists' Exchange Award; Burnt Piano was selected as the inaugural play for the Australia/Canada exchange between Melbourne Theatre Company and the Centaur Theatre, Montreal. The Myth of the Passive Citizen premiered in the Short & Sweet Festival in Sydney. As librettist, Justin collaborated with Thos Hodgson and Martin Charnin on Babel; and with Stephen Edwards on Accidental Miracles (WAAPA/Sydney Theatre Company), the English Tour and London season of Crystal Balls (Compact Opera/Sadler's Wells) and TESS of the D'Urbervilles, which toured Britain before its run at The Savoy Theatre in London's West End. Justin was recently librettist on Satango with Stewart D'Arrietta (Griffin Theatre Co/Riverside Theatres) and on The Department Store with Sarah de Jong. Current work includes plays, The Australians and Backbencher; a screenplay adaptation of Darcy Niland's novel, Dead Men Running; and the musical, For All It's Worth, on the legendary impresario, JC Williamson. Justin has been NSW Vice-President of The Australian Writers' Guild and a board member of The Australian National Playwrights' Centre. He was the inaugural Dr. Anne Clark Writer-in-Residence at St. Ignatius' College in Sydney, and has twice been awarded the Nancy Keesing Studio at the Cite Internationale des arts, Paris.

Justin divides his life between Sydney and Paris with his wife, Dr. Fay Brauer, who is an internationally acclaimed Senior Lecturer and author in Art History, Philosophy & Theory.


What do you drink on opening night?

It depends on the bar of the particular theatre. Ideally - a vodka and tonic about half an hour before the curtain goes up, and then a glass of wine at interval and several after the show. Noel Coward liked 72 dry martinis but I haven't reached that stage - yet.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

I would like Trevor Nunn to direct "The Starry Messenger". Or Harold Pinter to direct "Burnt Piano". I’d love to do another play with William Carden in New York. He is truly remarkable. I’ve just worked in Sydney with a brilliant though as yet not widely known director called Suzanne Millar, on "her holiness" which has been utterly inspiring. I am now beating her door down to do "Coup d'Etat" before everyone else will want her - though it would be damned hard to beat the amazing production at western Canada theatre directed by Dean Paul Gibson - I am dying to work with him again! His rehearsals are the most inspiring and entertaining possible - and the result breathtaking. I am hoping and praying that Simon Phillips will direct "origin", my big piece on Charles and Emma Darwin and evolution next year in Melbourne. Some Canadians will recall his wonderful production of "Burnt Piano" at the Centaur in Montréal. And Kate Cherry - now at Black Swan Theatre in western Australia - would be fabulous for a new play I’m writing soon. I would love to do another adaptation of a French classic with director Christopher Hurrell in Sydney - who is also extraordinary.

What scares you? What can't you write about?

Myself or anything autobiographical. What scares me about doing so is that if the play flops, it means your life is considered a train wreck or worse -dull. I also can't write a total monster. There must be something of salvation. I was most impressed with "downfall" - the movie on Hitler’s last days. There were moments when you felt his utter disillusionment. Of course he deserved it, but it is still better drama and more true to life if there is something human in there.
I also can't write most of what other people suggest I should write. Someone recently suggested I collaborate on OJ Simpson the musical. I swiftly declined.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

I am keen to write another science play. There's a possible commission being offered to me by a New York theatre and I think the play should be on the people through time who explained how our brain works. It is a dazzling story. Plenty of conflict, big ideas, big emotions.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (e.g. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)

As long as it's not a farce. There would have to be romance in there. I am very romantic about certain things. There has been heartbreaking tragedy in my life and there have been pearls of comedy. I don't recall any melodrama though my mother chased my brother down the hall with the wooden spoon when we were kids and whacked him on the bum. He had some of those fire crackers called "throwdowns" in his back pocket which explode on impact. so there was a loud bang and all of us - my mother included - collapsed in laughter. But I have experienced horror. working on "Tess of the d’Urbervilles, the musical" in London leaps to mind. in fact it pole vaults to mind.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

You have to be very careful because people lie. They don't lie when they say they didn't like the play. But they often lie when they say they did. I have got better at detecting insincerity - and they do it for the best reason - they don't want to offend, and especially on opening nights which are meant to be fun. But there is no doubt that praise in print - whether in a letter or in the newspapers - is seductive. and adverse criticism is depressing, though you do get better at moving on. praise from a respected critic is quite wonderful, and oddly, adverse criticism from a respected critic is easier to take because
you know they care. There's one fourth string critic in Sydney whom no one takes seriously whether he raves or pans, because everyone knows he can't distinguish a play from a production, a performance from a role, and has no inkling of the process from page to stage. so whether I receive a good or bad response from him, it's flimsy and worthless.

Where would you like your work to be produced?

Almost anywhere in Canada and the USA. The National in London would be nice - even the Cottlesloe - but it's the lion's den. For reasons which I cannot understand, my work in the UK has been confined to librettos for musical theatre or opera. This is pretty depressing, because I would like to do a play. I have done one play in Poland and would love to do more in Eastern Europe. It is fabulous. "Burnt Piano" was in Paris and I would love to do it in Berlin, where there are 130 active theatres.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

Oh, I make endless notes before I start on the computer. A notebook is a good idea, and I keep it very close at hand whatever I’m doing. I don't write down dreams or anything I think of during the night because as Jerry Seinfeld demonstrated, it is usually gibberish. I am amazed that only 20 years ago I was handwriting scripts and then typing them up on an old typewriter. But the ease of a computer is too good to be true.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

That I was a minor writer of major themes - not the other way round! If they said that my work was concerned with the individual against the world, I would think they were spot on. I would haunt their house if they said that any of the plays were 'high art" because that is not my intention. Yes, I do like the audience to do some of the work, but I refuse to believe that that cannot be a popular thing.

What inspires you?

Most forms of audacity. The company of brilliant people. The coming together of big ideas and big emotions. New and exciting directors. Vodka and Tonic. Red wine. And bold enterprises like one big umbrella.

Thanks for reading our first Umbrella Talk with Justin Fleming, your comments are more than welcome! On our next Umbrella Talk, we chat with Canadian Playwright Mark Leiren-Young.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Coming Soon: Umbrella Talk

Wow my first post on our blog! I am pleased to announce that we are launching Umbrella Talk, with playwrights from Canada and elsewhere, right here on our blog.

Next week, we will be kicking off our Umbrella Talks with international award winning playwright Justin Fleming from Australia. In the following weeks, we will be talking with Canadian playwrights Mark Leiren-Young, Andrew Moodie and Nicolas Billon.

We have come up with 10 interesting, somewhat fun and thought-inducing questions:

What do you drink on opening night?

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

What scares you? What can't you write about?

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (e.g. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

Where would you like your work to be produced?

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

What inspires you?

If you are a playwright that has been produced in Canada or elsewhere and would like to talk with us, please drop us a line at

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

I'll say it - I was very skeptical about this program when I first heard about it. I think I was especially ticked off by Andrew Lloyd Webber defining it as being innovative. Not to mention I had to see the promo ad nauseum when I was working at the Princess of Wales.

But the one thing I loved about that promo was the brief shot we'd get of John Barrowman, who was one of the judges of the UK version of the show. I had discovered him after an appearance in Doctor Who (as did many people) and then found out he was a West End star. I tracked down promo appearances on the web and just fell in love with his absolute joy in everything he does. The fact that he's attractive doesn't hurt either. Then I saw his performance in Putting it Together, a Sondheim compilation night, and that completed it. I was hooked.

Then he was announced as one of the judges for the Canadian version and my opinion shifted to one of excitement. A chance to see Mr. Barrowman up close? No way I was missing out on that.

So I found myself at the first public appearance of the 10 finalists of the show. Not that I noticed them. I was all about watching John Barrowman do his thing. He made a comment during the event that I just loved, "reservations should be left in a hotel lobby, not on stage".

I caught him doing an interview afterward and was really impressed by what he had to say. He was very careful to define it as an entertainment show, not a reality show. He said they were all talented and it was a matter of finding the right person for the role. They had chosen different types as part of that.

He talked about how the program was a way to create a Canadian stage star. And that gave me a bit of pause. Because it's true, we really don't have a system for that. And most of the people you would identify as Canadian stage stars had a high-profile television series - Cynthia Dale being the best example of this. So he was really on to something.

Then I saw the show itself. The early episodes showed us what training and feedback they were getting instead of mocking those who had auditioned. And once we got into the "reality" part of things, while I sometimes disagree with what the judges say about performances, I can't disagree that they know their stuff.

I did get to attend a taping and it turned out to be a wonderful experience, even if it was annoying that they wanted us to cheer and boo during the judges talking. That's really the one element I don't like, the amping up of the audience to the point of having them distract from what people are saying or singing. (They give people candies as they go in to get them on sugar highs.)

It's certainly been an interesting way to audition for a role. I've been on a discussion board talking about the show and one person keeps saying that he doesn't think any of them can do the role. The ones who have made it this far aren't novices, and I think there's one who can.

The other thing that is disturbing to me is that apparently they've held off on casting the role of the Captain. I can understand it on one level. You want to make sure the Captain has chemistry with Maria, so you need to wait until she is cast. Yet I hate that for a show that requires a year-long commitment, people are having to wait until the last minute to know that they're doing it and having to turn away other work in the meantime on the off chance that they may be in.

The show has done its job. I didn't want to have anything to do with The Sound of Music at the beginning but now I'm curious as to how the winner is going to do the role. It definitely is an effective way to sell tickets.

And every week, I adore John Barrowman more and more. I'm going to be sad to see the show go for just that reason.

For a taste of the show, here's a bit of Maria school, featuring the aforementioned Mr. Barrowman:

And yes, in my previous post I talked about not being too long between posts, then I wait a week. But soon we're launching Umbrella Talk, so keep your eyes peeled!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

So You Think You Can Write a Theatre Blog?

An abridged version of this article appeared in today's Fringe Harold.

In the last couple of years there has been a movement in the theatre community to write blogs. A well written blog can bring attention to your work. You can be Kelly Nestruck, who parleyed his blog Off The Fence into his current job as theatre reviewer in the Globe and Mail, which in turn recently spawned its own blog, Nestruck on Theatre. You may not have his level of success, but if you’re thinking blogging might be something you want to pursue, here are some handy tips.

Know why you are writing.
The Wrecking Ball writes to highlight political work from around the world. Daniel MacIvor writes to keep people updated on his various projects and to provide insight into his process. Theatre is Territory (Praxis Theatre) write to initiate dialogue within the independent theatre community and to highlight those who work in it. I do a little bit of all of the above. You don’t usually find fame and fortune through blogging and it is a huge time commitment, so it helps to be clear on what you consider being on topic. Your ideas will evolve as you blog and that’s ok. But being clear really helps generate blog entries.

Be frequent.
A new entry every day is ideal but really isn’t feasible unless you have copious free time (and who does?), or multiple contributors like Praxis. Your goal is to have regular readers. A week is probably the maximum before you start losing readership. More than a month between entries is the warning sign for a dying blog. I try to go no more than 4 days between entries.

Use hyperlinks.
One of the great things about writing online is that you can easily direct your readers to additional information using hyperlinks. Yes, they add more time to your writing but it greatly increases the value of your blog.

Let people know about it.
Once you post your blog entry, your blog software (I use Blogger but Wordpress is also popular) converts your text to RSS feed which allows it to picked up by online sites like Bloglines that consolidates feeds in one place for people to read. You’ll want to encourage people to subscribe to your blog. If you run your feed through something like Feedburner, you can set it up to allow people to post it on various places. I always post my feed to my profile in Facebook. (And if you’re not on Facebook,, you need to be.) Commenting on other people’s blogs are the best way to get your blog out there. They don’t even need to be theatre blogs – I do a lot of my commenting on Blue Jays blogs. Your potential reading audience is everywhere, so the more you put yourself out there, the greater chance of potential reach.

If you’re willing to put in the time, blogging is a great way to not only reach out to audiences but to help you clarify your own thoughts and ideas. And it’s amazing what you discover once you’re out there. Praxis has recently compiled a list of Canadian theatre blogs here, so check it out.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Head Colds suck

Still wrestling with the cold but the worst is behind me. The biggest challenge has been getting a night's rest so I find I have limited energy these days.

Have made it out to three shows - The Barbeque King, Totem Figures and Take It Back. I do have something to say about all three of them but that will have to wait for a new charge of energy. However, all three are highly recommended, so see them if you have a chance.

And in other news, Roy Halladay is going to be the Blue Jays representative at the All Star Game next week. Turns out he has the second best winning percentage in baseball. Should be first, if only his team would score him runs on a more regular basis.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Happy Daze

I've been sick all day today, meaning I'm missing out on the first day of the Fringe. I'm especially bummed out that I missed the opening of The Barbecue King. I directed its first production in the New Ideas Festival in 2000 and was looking forward to seeing where it ended up and getting caught up with composer Steve Thomas. Hopefully he'll be around and this show is definitely on my must-see list. I'll be writing about the shows I'm seeing over the next week.

It's been a busy few days (probably why my body made me sleep today). On Sunday I was at the taping of How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?, mainly so that I could gaze at the wonder, the bundle of joy that is John Barrowman. I had a lot of fun and I have some thoughts on the show that I'll share at some point when I can actually think.

I went to the Dora awards and was particularly thrilled that Stuart Hughes and Joseph Ziegler won for The Time of Your Life and Soheil Parsa won for Waiting for Godot. Sadly, I didn't get to see either one of these shows. I've been a fan of both Stuart and Joe ever since they performed together in Kiss of the Spider Woman at Toronto Free Theatre (and sadly there is nothing on the web about this fantastic production. Had it become CanStage by that point?) I had been dying to see them perform together again but when I had money I didn't have time and vice versa. With Godot, I really hate the play but love Soheil's work so much that I was willing to sit through it just to see what he was going to do. In that case, it was a strict time problem. But I'm really, really happy to see the three of them recognized.

Drowsy Chaperone beat out Nicholas Nickelby for best touring show, something that left me sad because as much as I love Drowsy (and I'm sure the fact it was homegrown factored in the vote) NN was such a tour-de-force that I feel it should have won.

And while I was at the Doras I missed another tour-de-force, Roy Halladay's 4-hit shutout of the Seattle Mariners. As Ken Fidlin put it:
The end result was a magnificent display of the art of pitching. And make no mistake, when a pitcher applies his craft as Halladay did that night, it is a form of art.

See, it's not just me.