Cast of The Unseen Hand.
Last year Alex Johnson cultivated the works of Tennessee Williams in various Toronto neighbourhoods. Twelve months later, she's doing the same with short plays by Sam Shepard.
Johnson, project director of what began as The Tennessee Project and has now become The Playwright Project, sees the mini-festival of plays as a way of encouraging the arts throughout the city.
In each instance, she and her team have collaborated with seven young indie companies to stage as many different one-act productions, presenting them in a rotating cycle which has each show staged in a different venue each night between May 1 (Wednesday) and May 7.
"What I learned last year with The Tennessee Project was that people, both artists and audiences, are willing to say ‘yes' to new, energizing things. I was constantly overwhelmed by the people who gave their heart and energy to this crazy new thing we were doing.
"I discovered how open and dynamic the Toronto theatre community is, that it's not a cliquey group of people, and that viewers would be drawn to all sorts of work. The companies went into neighbourhoods not known as centres of theatre, while the people living there - for instance, along the Danforth or in Leslieville - came out to see shows."
This year's focus on Shepard coincidentally continues a mini-trend of reviving his early works; Soulpepper's True West runs through Saturday (May 4) and Heart in Hand Productions staged Cowboy Mouth last January.
Why make Shepard the focus of The Playwright Project?
"I feel he's in the zeitgeist," admits Johnson, an artist as well as an administrator. "His early, experimental plays nicely fit the bill for our artists: the scripts plays are restless, spunky, down and dirty and often urban, while the companies staging them are scrappy indie theatre makers who want to try new things."
Two of the companies return from last year. Theatre Brouhaha presents The Unseen Hand, which draws on sci-fi and western elements to look at an alien and three Wild West heroes fighting the title force. Red One Theatre Collective's offering is Geography Of A Horse Dreamer, in which a cowboy whose dreams predict horserace winners is held captive by two thugs.
The others are newcomers to the project, though some are known for other productions, such as surface/underground, which is staging When The World Was Green: A Chef's Fable, in which a journalist interviews an elderly prisoner on death row who killed the wrong man; the script is a collaboration between Shepard and American theatre icon Joseph Chaikin.
Pomme Grenade, which made a splash at The Next Stage with The Peace Maker, tackles Cowboy Mouth, an autobiographical piece by Shepard and Patti Smith, dealing with both their art and their relationship; the production includes music by Gentleman Reg.
Angel City, presented by Circlesnake Productions , focuses on art and the film industry; in it, a dying man devoted to Tinseltown asks a reclusive artist to create the world's most shocking disaster movie. Heart in Hand offers Fool For Love, a reunion between two antagonistic former lovers.
One of the most fascinating pieces is Saving Fats, adapted from a Shepard short story by director Alex McCooeye, in which a reporter looking for a story in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina finds a man who claims to have saved Fats Domino. Look for music as well as theatre in this show.
In fact, music is an important part of The Playwright Project, both within the plays and as a component of the festival.
"Shepard's early writing has a great live music element that's fun to play with, everything from New Orleans jazz to folksy, bluesy acoustic numbers," says Johnson. "Sometimes he gives you the lyrics and allows you to create tunes in any style you want. I'm looking forward to what the companies come up with."
In addition, the Cameron House and Gaby Grice, The Playwright Project's director of music, have co-curated a nightly line-up of music in the Shepard vein. Among the performers are Darren Eedens, Taylor Knox, Kayla Howran and Chris Weatherstone.
The theatre performances move nightly to different venues around town. You can see shows at The Curzon in Leslieville, The Magic Oven on the Danforth, Lazy Daisy's Café in the Beach, The May Café in Little Portugal, Annette Studios in the Junction, The StoreFront Theatre in Bloorcourt Village and The Cameron House on Queen West.
It's your choice to travel around town or stay in one venue and check out various shows. (See the schedule here.)
That cross-pollination of productions in different areas of town works, notes Johnson.
"Since last year's festival, I've noticed more movement of theatre artists from one area of Toronto to another, creating work on their own terms in self-made venues like the StoreFront Theatre and Videofag. I think audiences are asking for more of that, which is what we're hoping to bring them, both this year and in festivals to come."