Interview with the Playwright of Serving Elizabeth - Western Canada Theatre

Playwright: Marcia Johnson

 Playwright and actor Marcia Johnson was born in Jamaica, emigrated to Canada when she was six, and is currently based in Toronto, Ontario. She studied acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in California and honed her skills in writing seminars with American playwright Natalie Goldberg in New Mexico.

Marcia’s been a playwright for many years. Her plays include Perfect on Paper, which debunks the myth of romantic love propagated by romance novels; Binti’s Journey, an adaptation of the teen fiction novel, The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis; Courting Johanna, based on a short story by Alice Munro entitled “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage”; and Late, an expressionist play that portrays the turbulent emotional journey of a woman who has lost her love.

Serving Elizabeth, her most recent play, will have its world premiere here in Kamloops!


Interview with Marcia Johnson

What is your process when you set out to write a new play?

I like to write a one-pager with a list of characters and their attributes. I sketch out the world in which they live, the setting (time and place) as well as a rough arc of the story. Then, using that document as a guide, I write a 6- or 7-page scene or mini scenes. I will show this sketch to a good friend who will give me feedback. Then I will start the full script.

Particularly for Serving Elizabeth, how long did you have this idea for a play? And why did you choose to write it at this point in your life?

I got the idea to write Serving Elizabeth when I saw the call for the Thousand Islands Playhouse (TIP) Playwrights Unit. Since the Unit was convening in the year of Confederation’s one hundred and fiftieth anniversary, it was asking for script ideas that addressed the effects of colonialism. I sent out a one-page proposal describing my reaction to seeing an episode of The Crown the night before. I had been disappointed that that episode, ‘Hyde Park Corner’, about the royal visit to Kenya, did not give meaningful speaking roles to black actors. I said that I wanted to redress that. They accepted me. We had monthly meetings from April to December when each member of the Playwrights Unit got a public reading of their script.

You play Mercy and Patricia in this world premiere of Serving Elizabeth! When you wrote the play, did you envision yourself playing these roles all along?

Other actors had been brought in to read those roles throughout the course of the play’s development so I had gotten used to the idea of someone else playing Mercy and Patricia. When we were casting a workshop/reading of the play in November 2018, Brett Christopher (TIP’s Artistic Director) suggested that I play the parts. I was happy to! It’s actually easier to act in the show than sit aside as the writer.

How does it feel to be able to be a part of a script that you have toiled over?

It is really satisfying. The team is really talented and everyone is elevating the script. I’m thrilled.

And, how does it feel to watch your script come to life in the rehearsal hall right before your eyes?

 It doesn’t feel like my script anymore. I watch the rehearsal of scenes that I’m in as though it’s a brand new script by someone else.

Kamloops is so lucky to have this story told here first!! What do you hope audiences take away from this show?

 I hope that people will understand that there is more to any story.

Do you feel that taking on subject matters that cause conversations are risky for you in your current position in Canadian Theatre?

 I don’t feel that I took a big risk, because I created a play within a play. I got to tell the story that I wanted to tell (in a nutshell “Black people have voices!”).

And how, moving forward, do you (we) strive to make these conversations more commonplace?

My goal, as a writer, is to give voice to the marginalized and under-represented. But, I can’t do it alone. Thank goodness for theatre companies like Western Canada Theatre and Thousand Islands Playhouse for trusting that their audiences would be open to hearing a different viewpoint. Moving forward, I think the best thing that people could do is to have an open mind and to patronize art that shows a different point of view.

Any hints on what we can look forward to next?!

I have just finished the first draft of a play set in Toronto in the 1850s. It’s inspired by the real life a millionaire business man and city councillor who happened to be black. I’ve also mashed it up with Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew. I’m really excited about it.