The Playwright Project launched last year as an accessible and peripatetic festival that rotated seven plays by Tennessee Williams through seven Toronto neighbourhoods. This year, the focus is on Sam Shepard, America's urban cowboy dramatist. Alex Johnson, the project director, explains the plan that will bring Shepard plays to a Leslieville pub, a café in the Beaches, the basement of a Danforth pizza parlour and four other venues scattered across town.
Why a festival devoted to a single playwright?
To be honest, the format came before the playwright did. Seven companies coming together and rotating their work through different neighbourhoods of Toronto: that was the first idea. It is getting increasingly difficult for somebody on the Danforth, for example, to take five hours, and pay the babysitter and pay the gas and travel all the way downtown to take in something at Canadian Stage. Not that I have anything against Canadian Stage, but to localize it and bring it to them, a little like summer stock Shakespeare. Make it as uncomplicated as possible: you just walk down the street.
So how did you pick the playwright?
We took on Williams because he had a huge body of work that all of our artists, who had different aesthetics, different backgrounds and different resources, could bring [their] imagination to. He fit a very tall bill, with all these crazy requirements and logistics. In our second year – we did not want to be a Tennessee Williams festival – Sam Shepard also fit that bill.
The one other city I know with a one-playwright festival is Winnipeg. The Manitoba Theatre Centre launched BeckettFest in 2001; this year they did Stephen Sondheim. Next year, it's Anton Chekhov…
I did not find out about what was going on in Winnipeg until after we launched. It's on my things-to-do list to reach out to them.
It raises a lot of issues about which playwrights are selected. Why Shepard?
From a producer's standpoint, he's got amazing sex appeal: men being men, and lassoing women on stage. And I also think there is an intellectual sex appeal, too. I am reminded of Leonard Cohen: he marries the sacred and the profane really beautifully. He discusses content that might seem low or crass and brings it dignity and elegance, that treats it like an important part of the human condition we need to discuss.