THE OTHER THREE SISTERS written and directed by Johnnie Walker, with Jamie Arfin, Julian De Zotti, Morgan Norwich and Alexandra Parravano. Presented by Nobody’s Business and the Fringe at St. Vladimir’s (620 Spadina). Opens tonight (Thursday, July 5) at 6:30 pm and runs July 6 at 11 pm, July 8 at 9:15 pm, July 10 at 2:45 pm, July 12 at 5:15 pm, July 13 at 9:45 pm, July 14 at 7 pm. 416-966-1062, fringetoronto.com. See listing.
All you have to do is share drinks and nachos with Johnnie Walker and Morgan Norwich to understand their special bond.
They can make each other crack up with just a glance. When one begins telling a story, there's head-nodding from the other, as if they know just where the narrative's going. But they don't interrupt. They let the other make their point, finish and get the inevitable laugh.
In fact, that sums up the working relationship they've established in their near seven years of collaboration, most recently on two successful solo shows: the Fringe hit A Maude-Lynne Evening and the SummerWorks smash Redheaded Stepchild.
The former was written and performed by Norwich, with Walker directing; the latter was written and performed by Walker, with Norwich directing. Kinda adorable, right?
"We just don't like anyone else," jokes Walker, sipping a glass of cider and then reaching into a big plate of nachos.
"When you're doing Fringe stuff, it's always about how to get people on board with your passion, because you're not getting them with money," she says. "It's just the two of us in the company, and at the end of the day he's the only other person I know who is 100 per cent committed."
The duo also share an offbeat sensibility and look. Walker's a curly-haired ginger with glasses and a wicked tongue, while Norwich has the dramatic features of an Almodóvar muse.
They met at a U of T drama class when, during intros, Walker said his name was "John - or Johnnie if you're not into the whole brevity thing" - and Norwich later acknowledged his Big Lebowski reference. He in turn admired her retro Sixteen Candles T-shirt.
Like I said: adorable.
They both suggest precocious, bookish kids who probably had an awkward childhood and are trying to navigate their 20s. That's one of the themes, incidentally, of their new collaboration, The Other Three Sisters, a contemporary riff on Chekhov's classic.
Walker had wanted to collaborate with Norwich, Jamie Arfin and Alexandra Parravano, who had all taken part in one of their first shows, 8 Girls Without Boyfriends, years earlier.
"I was thinking it'd be hilarious to do a show with these three women as sisters," he recalls. "And then I thought, ‘What would I call it?' And of course The Other Three Sisters came up as a working title. It started as a joke, but the more I thought about it, the more the Chekhov reference made sense."
Instead of setting the play Russia, he's set it in Etobicoke. And it came about because every conversation he was having concerned dissatisfaction with work, school or relationships - things those unhappy Prozorov sisters could relate to.
"The Chekhov was all about longing for your life to get to the next part - the part when it's going to be good," he says. "‘We'll move to this cooler place, get a job we like, get a nice boyfriend.' But in the next act it's a year later, they've got a job and nothing's better. Their plans to move to Moscow keep getting pushed back, and that guy they've been seeing already has a crazy wife.
"It's very similar to things happening in the lives of everyone I know in their 20s. Nobody knows what the fuck they're doing."
The Other Three Sisters is a lot more complex than their previous shows. It's got three acts, four characters and multiple costume changes. That's ambitious for a 60-minute time slot.
"Doing the show in a Fringe context is a wonderful exercise," says Walker. "You have to ask yourself if you can you tell the story in this amount of time. And you usually can."
Norwich smiles, takes out an invisible pair of scissors and pretends to snip, suggesting all the changes that have been made to whip it into shape.
"She gets really excited about cuts," says Walker, rolling his eyes. "It's a little sad."
The previous night, the pair made some major trims, after which Walker emailed Norwich saying the play had now become a "lean, sinewy cyclist ready to compete in the Tour de France."
He laughs and continues the metaphor.
"Previously, the script had been wearing this bulky parka and several scarves, but now I've stripped him of that and he's in this skin-tight Lycra body stocking. The wind resistance has been greatly improved."
The key to successful collaboration, the pair says, is trust and honesty.
"Get someone to direct your show who you just love and know will support you," says Walker. "Even if it's someone who's never done theatre. Don't think about whether they have a name or credentials. Find someone you can trust, and you'll work the rest out later."
After their Fringe run of Sisters, they're taking Redheaded Stepchild - about a ginger-haired preteen who's dealing with bullying, a new mother and an upcoming performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream - on the Canadian Fringe circuit. They're also considering taking it to schools and the Solo theatre festival in New York City.
"It's a super-accessible show that really touches your feelings," says Norwich. "I think it could be a staple for us."
They're both fans of classic solo shows like Kristen Thomson's I, Claudia, Karen Hines's Pochsy plays and works by Daniel MacIvor, and have obviously studied how more seasoned artists juggle commercial success and theatrical innovation.
"Redheaded Stepchild could provide a foundation financially for us to keep experimenting and creating our own stuff," says Norwich, biting into a nacho. "The rest of the stuff we do is a little more out there. But we need to experiment."