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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ford's Focus: Johanna Nutter

Dreams Do Come True for Johanna Nutter
by Barbara Ford

A couple of days after our interview, I got an e-mail from Montreal actor/playwright, Johanna Nutter, sharing an obscure fact that the word career has the same root as the word careen. Our meeting at a local café-Laundromat in her beloved Plateau had been lengthy, winding our way through one of the most singular childhoods I’ve heard of to her present day coup: My Pregnant Brother on stage in French at Montreal’s La Licorne. How could she have known, lying there on her kitchen floor one fateful night a few short years ago, that a life which had careened and bumped its way to that dark moment would eventually deliver her to such a miraculous destination?

“My father was a beatnik and my mum was a hippie.  I came along ‘unexpectedly’ before most of their friends started having kids so I grew up surrounded by adults, who thought the best way to raise children was to treat them as equals.”  There were obvious pros and cons to the approach: she felt valued as a person with equal rights but had to parent herself much of the time. It did, however, breed strong survival skills at an early age which have come in handy as you shall see.
Chris Nutter (r)) in The Devil's Disciple at TMR High

Mother and Johanna in screen cap from Loose Associations
“They both [parents] worked for the National Film Board which, at the time, had been given the mandate to experiment so all kinds of things were happening there.  I remember the inside joke was that if you couldn’t get a job across the street at Guaranteed Milk, you could apply at the NFB!” Nutter actually had her first on-screen appearance at the age of two in her father’s film, Loose Associations. Recently, Nutter found out that she came by her acting chops honestly as her father had played a leading role in a TMR High School production of Shaw’s The Devil’s Advocate, earning notices that singled out his gifts. He went on to become a musician (he plays oboe) lending those talents to the film industry.  

Chris Nutter in a screen cap from Loose associations
Nutter’s parents split up when she was three years old. She remained with her mother who started an alternative daycare in a loft over what is now Champs across from MainLine Theatre, sharing the premises with a small herd of cockroaches.  Nutter shudders as she recalls, “turning on the bathroom light from outside to give them time to scatter before I went in.” Aside from various Montreal, mostly Plateau locations, in the course of her childhood Nutter lived in a chicken coop behind Mort Ransen’s (of Margaret’s Museum fame) farmhouse in Hemmingford, Quebec, on a Sufi Commune called The Abode of the Message in Albany, New York, Boston (where she attended a school called The Hollow Reed where boys were taught to sew and girls to box) and a converted ice cream truck. “I remember driving in the truck at night. I would read in spurts by the lights of the highway.” 

Grandmother Anne
Anne, her grandmother on her father’s side played an inspirational role by supplying Nutter with a collection of books: Bronté, Austen, and Steinbeck became Nutter’s steady diet. Her mother also supplied her with Aesop’s Fables, Oscar Wilde’s fairytales and Rudyard Kipling’s series of short stories, Just So. Nutter wrote from an early age on her own typewriter and was inspired by these stories to start writing her own, including one Just So story about how the giraffe got his long neck.

Johanna chalk drawing on Coloniale St.
To entertain herself and the younger kids around her, Nutter made puppets and put on shows, wrote and told stories and staged circus acts for one and all, talents she called upon later as a teacher. With no one her own age to play with, books were a source of entertainment that not only cultivated a vivid imagination but provided her self-education. Moving frequently, living from hand to mouth, her bionic imagination could turn the humblest of surroundings into lavish palaces. “My heroes and heroines seemed to be either writers (like Jo in Little Women) or strangers arriving in small, close-knit communities … a pretty common situation for me.”  

In chalk drawings in My Pregnant Brother
(Photo: Jonathan Wenk)
When they were living in the States, the local authorities found out Nutter wasn’t in school and forced her to go. “The teacher was trying to gently ease me into the class without too much fuss. She knew I hadn’t been to school before and figured I had poor, if any, reading skills.  The different levels of readers were advertised by the colour of the books. She handed me the most remedial book and asked me to read a portion but I refused.  Assuming I was ashamed and putting on a brave front to save face, she reassured me that no one would judge me here; I was in a safe place but I refused.  Finally, exasperated, she tossed a teaching manual at me, saying, “okay then, read this!” which I did and was promptly kicked out for being disruptive.

Nutter attended Devonshire and Saint Enfant Jésus schools in Mile End, and Saint Léon School in Westmount for a few weeks each but was never in any one school for very long until they moved to Maricourt in the Eastern Townships. By now, she was at that impressionable age coming into her teens when peer pressure is the single most influential and driving force. The once prosperous little town had dwindled down to nothing, using an abandoned schoolhouse as an alternative school. She was too old to fit in there so she went to the nearby Catholic school in Valcourt.  It was the first time she had attended one school for any appreciable length of time and fitting in was paramount.  Everyone was French so she picked up the language as quickly as she could to be one of the crowd.  

Her sojourn in Maricourt not only marked a time when the family was more settled than usual but it also introduced another curious facet of Nutter’s development: spirituality. The desire to fit in with her new community was certainly a contributing factor in her decision to become Catholic.  She worked hard at it even though her life presented opposing influences.  At the time she was a mother’s helper for a Jewish family where it was not uncommon for her to take part in the weekly shabbos ritual. When that was over she would go home and sing Sufi songs with her own family. Despite living polar opposites, she remained ‘devout’ in her religious studies and achieved her confirmation with her newfound schoolmates proudly looking on. Nutter says that “having so many different faiths in my life has kept me open-minded.”

At the Hemmingford Fair
Also while in her teens, Nutter started taking acting classes. She made and sold apple pies in exchange for rides into Montreal to attend the Powerhouse Theatre School, but her newly found anchor wasn’t to last.  Her mother decided to move across the country to Victoria, British Columbia, uprooting Nutter and her sister once again. The move did, however, plant Nutter at the Oak Bay High School, where she finished her high school diploma and continued her acting both as part of the Drama program and in the school’s extracurricular theatre activities.  She made strong connections with a group of friends that she has stayed in touch with since then.  

As secure and ‘normal’ as all this was, as Nutter drew close to finishing high school, the rug was snatched from under her when her mother felt she was old enough to look after herself and cut her loose. Nutter worked as a bartender and a horse-drawn carriage driver to pay the bills until she graduated but once out of school, not knowing what to do or where to go, she came back to the only city she had felt at home in: Montreal. 

She got a job at Johnny Brown’s theatre supply store to start with and then worked at the Rialto Theatre where she met Donovan Reiter and Daniel Brochu. Along with Terry Allard, the three were putting on a production of Leonard Melfi’s Bird Bath at the very first Montreal Fringe Festival in 1991. They asked her to be in it, and she loved every minute of it despite the venue having no air conditioning during an unusually hot June and the incessant piano-playing during performances from the piano bar at the front of the space.  

“I’ve probably worked in every bar on the Main and even a few on Crescent Street.”

Nutter decided to go back to school to get a Bachelor of Arts Degree with a specialty in Childhood Education at Concordia University.  She paid her tuition and living expenses from bartending admitting that over the years, “I’ve probably worked in every bar on the Main and even a few on Crescent Street.”

With BA in hand, she started to work teaching Grade One students at Westmount Park Elementary school. Her early days as an entertainer for the kids on the commune came in handy as she created puppets to tell her class stories. Her favourites were Robert Munsch’s Paper Bag Princess about a princess, garbed in nothing but a paper bag, who rescues her prince from the nasty dragon, and her own story called The Monk and His Dog. The Paper Bag Princess was so popular she toured it to other schools as well.  

Crankytown - Nutter as Blue Hair Puppet
After a year of teaching, Nutter decided to go back to school and get her Masters Degree in Child Studies. By now she was married to a photographer and living in her dream home – a farm in the Eastern Townships.  She cried when she had first seen it, making her way slowly up the tree-lined drive seeing an almost perfect replica of her childhood daydreams. She and her husband had ‘real jobs’ and money and she used it to get all the things she had never had, like real furniture instead of milk cartons and salvaged goods. She finally had the security she had been lacking growing up. 

She was working at the renowned artist hangout Else’s, driving into the city every day either for school or work. She was close to completing her degree when a school colleague studying film asked her to act in his final school project. The bug finally got its hooks into her. She thought long and hard about it and eventually went and bought cards for all of her profs, letting them know how much she enjoyed studying with them but that she had to leave school and follow her passion.

“I felt a sense of freedom.  I really didn’t need all that ‘stuff’.  You just end up belonging to it.”

Two mermaids: Nutter and her niece
Nutter was cleaning house: she started with her studies and career and it bled into her personal life. She admitted that she was not in a happy marriage and had to let that go as well, which meant having to leave her home and the security she had finally found. A friend helped her collect her belongings and as they drove away Nutter was surprised at her own reaction. “I felt a sense of freedom.  I really didn’t need all that ‘stuff’.  You just end up belonging to it.”

She was at the threshold of a new career and wanted to be strategic about the steps she took. “I grew up with artists on Welfare and knew firsthand how stressed out they were about money most of the time so I made the very conscious decision that if I was going to become an actor I was going to be a ‘successful working’ actor. It was all about the pay check.” She focussed her efforts on film and television, which at the time, were booming in Montreal. She got herself an agent but kept bartending to ensure a steady cash flow between gigs. 

As Debbie in More Tales of The City
Unbeknownst to her, Else’s, would become as essential to her career as earning a PhD in theatre arts. Through the actors who frequented the bar, she discovered the renowned acting coach, Warren Robertson, and promptly signed up for his monthly workshops which she attended for the next ten years. She also studied scene work with Jock MacDonald of Carter Thor Studios East. (She has also studied voice with Francine Christie and mask work with Brian Dooley.)

Her first foray into professional acting was in the TV series More Tales of the City, also a result of her station behind the bar. Director Pierre Gang was a regular Else’s customer and he told Nutter to call casting agent, Andrea Kenyon, to tell her that he wanted Nutter to read for the part of a prostitute.  Nutter followed his lead though it took some time to convince Kenyon that she wasn’t some hack trying to weasel her way into an audition. Eventually Kenyon acquiesced and sent Nutter her sides, an expression she wasn’t familiar with. “I was so naïve … I didn’t know anything, what the proper channels were … it was like I was operating in a vacuum.  I didn’t know what I could or couldn’t do so I just charged ahead.”   

Nutter's wedding reception at Else's
“I remember getting ready to go to the audition, reciting my lines in an apartment with no furniture, trying to put together an outfit that was appropriate for the part. I decided to walk from the Plateau to the Old Montreal address through the red light district to help get me into character. Walking along in my platforms and tight little skirt worked. One kid called out to me as I passed by and without thinking, totally in character, I shouted back, ‘Save your lunch money, kid!’ The best part about that job was getting to work with idol Jackie Burroughs, who played the Madam to her prostitute in the episode. a person who has rendered himself useless through excessive masturbation, or to be more precise, a wanker.

Life is full of surprises (thank God) and no matter how beautifully designed our plans may be, at any moment the unexpected butterfly effect can flutter its way into our lives and take us to places we never expected.  Enter the Malaka League Soft Ball Club.

Malaka, according to Andreas Apergis, one of the league’s founding members is a Greek word to describe a person who has rendered himself useless through excessive masturbation, or to be more precise, a wanker. “I’ve been in the league for about 10 years now and I’m still not very good but I think it’s healthy for me to do something I’m not good at- keeps me grounded.” It’s a similar reason that keeps Nutter enrolled in acting workshops. “I need a place, somewhere that’s not tied to a project with box office sales and a pay check, where I feel safe to take risks, to fail.
As Shirley Valentine
(Photo: Sally Cole of
Charlottetown Guardian)
The League was instrumental in helping Nutter navigate her way back to theatre, as it introduced her to Emily Smith.  Smith is originally from PEI and word got out that she was going home for a visit. Nutter needed a vacation and offered to share the driving with her to Victoria-by-the-Sea, PEI. Coincidentally, Emily’s father, Erskine Smith, was the Artistic Director of the Victoria Playhouse. Over the course of her vacation, Nutter had several conversations with Smith about all manner of things including acting and theatre. She returned home with lovely memories and thought nothing more of it. 

About a year later, she auditioned for Gordon McCall at the Centaur for the lead in Joanne McClelland-Glass’ Trying.  She felt this character was written for her and was truly stunned when she didn’t get the part. However, Nutter has an uncanny ability to manifest her dreams, doubtless due to that well-developed imagination of hers. A week later, after receiving the disappointing news from Centaur, she got a call from Erskine Smith who said he wanted to produce Trying and wanted her as the female lead.  He knew she was perfect for the role- no need to audition- and she may as well stay for the season and act in the other productions as well. A dream come true but quite decidedly, the universe decides the how and when, not us. 

Needless to say, it was an amazing summer for her. “It was great working in the Maritimes. There is a strong tradition of storytelling there. The Victoria community relied on the theatre for its livelihood and I was a part of that.” Nutter discovered that she was able to satisfy her need to belong to a community, not through acquiring property and belongings but through her talents as an actor.

She decided to toss all her eggs into the acting basket and let go of the bartending entirely. The uncertainty of it was not a little worrisome. After a few months without an acting gig, Nutter attended a dinner party where the host was bemoaning the difficulties she was having finding someone bilingual, who understands pedagogy, has creative writing skills, is good with young children and understands the technical aspects of production, especially radio (Nutter had her own morning show through UVIC radio in BC) and voice work. Nutter was mentally ticking off each attribute; she realised that she had everything this person was seeking and said so. This woman, Suzanne Simard, was the director of a program for an organization called EDC a huge international NGO with a mandate to increase teachers’ skills in developing countries. 

Working with school kids in Africa
The program that Nutter signed up for that year (2008) was in Haiti, at the height of all the kidnappings. It was Nutter’s job to initiate and develop IRI: Interactive Radio Instruction.  Working with the country’s Ministry of Education and its set curriculum, usually antiquated and uninteresting to children, she creates stories that instructors can use to more fully engage students in the material to be learned. She taught the writers how to develop characters and plotlines, the technicians how to work with actors and sound effect, producing a final product that could be used year after year and a creative team that, with their newly-found skills, could develop the program on their own.

Nutter enjoyed the work and the kids and signed on the following year for a similar stint in Southern Sudan (during the referendum to separate from Northern Sudan so the office was actually in nearby Nairobi). This was followed by the creation of a teacher training program in Zanzibar and another IRI program in the Congo two years running (2010 and 2011).  Disaster was never far away on these assignments (the 2011 Congo trip was particularly harrowing) but those survival skills she cultivated in her early years paired with a certain danger-seeking proclivity fashioned a challenging job. “I guess I thrive on danger so if it’s scary … yeah, I’ll do it!” When I asked her where she was off to this year, she admitted that she didn’t think she’d go back again … at least not for the time being. “Right now I want to concentrate on writing and acting and learning how to tour better.”

My Pregnant Brother
(photo: Jonathan Wenk)
Nutter is always refining her craft with regular acting workshops. She was studying with Jock MacDonald (of Carter Thor Studios East), where she was responsible for the registrations, collecting the fees as well as finding and negotiating a rental space for the classes. She performed these duties in kind to cover her own fees. The group was about to lose their workspace, which meant Nutter had to cast about for a new one. “A lot of artists don’t have heads for business or they’re forced to spend so much time on the business, there is no time or energy left for creativity. John Cassavetes is a hero of mine and I remember reading that when he first started to make films, he financed them by starting an acting school. The money that came in from the student tuitions paid for the films and he had a roster of ready and willing artists to work with. Why give the money to a landlord when you could make it work for you instead?”

Using the Cassavetes model, expanding on it with a secondary model borrowed from her weekly poker group, Nutter came up with the idea of founding an actors’ co-op. A space where a set number of artists contribute monthly to the overhead, giving them a guaranteed number of hours for rehearsing and performing, and which also provides the community with a new small and intimate space at a reasonable rate. “If you wanted out of the co-op, you needed to replace yourself, just like the weekly poker game. That way, the financial responsibility was always the same for everyone in the group. (Of course, now we have a waiting list, which takes care of that issue.)

My Pregnant Brother
(photo: Jonathan Wenk)
Now on the lookout, Nutter asked herself what she was looking for in the perfect space. “The former Playwrights’ Workshop was exactly what I had in mind. I checked the Craigslist rental page. Imagine my surprise to find a picture of that very space! I couldn’t believe it.  I raced over to see it but quickly realized it was too big and too expensive. I asked the owner if he would be willing to put up a wall to cut the area in half … how much would that cost? The price was right and I took it.” 

She started calling everyone she knew. Craig Thomas was the first call she made and the first to get on board. They started a phone campaign. MacDonald didn’t think they would be able to find fifteen people willing to commit in such a short time, but to his delight, this business-savvy artist had not only found a workshop space he would never again have to worry about losing, but she had created a new affordable place for local artists to experiment. 

With Paula Costain in Duplicity Girls
(photo: Jonathan Wenk)
“It’s a small space, it’s on the third floor of a building with no elevator, there are no wings or real dressing rooms and seats a very limited audience but I think there is a beauty to working with restraints like that … they breed creativity.” The Freestanding Room had a very quick and relatively smooth birth and has since developed into a popular space year-round with four people administering it. 

Nutter has performed in the space herself, first in the inaugural production of John Patrick Shanley’s Women of Manhattan, directed by MacDonald and Isabel Farias, co-starring Craig Thomas, Carlo Mestroni, Miranda Handford and Nicole Braver, in May 2009.  In November 2009, she and Paula Costain starred in Duplicity Girls, a two-hander written by Ned Cox expressly for them. They toured the show to London England and revived their sister act for the 2011 Wildside Festival. More recently, she appeared with Costain again in Cox’s Book Club, directed by Ellen David which also featured Paula Jean Hixson and Alexandria Haber. 

“I hope I am the kind of actor that if I’m visited by some creative inspiration on stage, I will let it happen. I love working with Paula for that reason because [in Duplicity Girls] we gave each other permission to do that. I like working with people who surprise me on stage. They say good acting is about reacting, which is so much easier if you don’t always know what’s coming.” The rollercoaster ride known as her childhood has clearly endowed Nutter with a set of razor sharp acting instincts.

Between the duplicitous sisters and the gossipy book clubbers at Freestanding, Nutter played in Risk Everything, one of the six plays in George F. Walker’s darkly riotous series, Suburban Motel, presented by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre at MainLine Theatre.

"It was a linoleum floor but to me it was the proverbial rock bottom."

As significant as these career events were, Christmas 2006 was the mother of all landmarks in Nutter’s life. She was in a state of complete and utter shock, lying on her kitchen floor, convinced she would never get up- that she would die there- after getting off the phone with her brother. Nutter asked me not to reveal what her brother said on the phone that reduced her to that state, it being a pivotal plot point in her play. She certainly wouldn’t want to spoil that moment for any readers who are planning to see it.

Her Playwright’s Notes in the press kit for My Pregnant Brother say, “It was a linoleum floor but to me it was the proverbial rock bottom.  Try as I might I was unable to get up.  At one point, I had this thought: if I ever do manage to stand up again, I’ll have to write a play about this. I had always been fascinated by that point we sometimes reach- Joseph Campbell calls it ‘entering the darkest cave’- that is as close to nothing as we can get, and even in my emptiness, I was curious.  I wondered what sort of story I would come up with to explain myself, now that I had been reduced to a blank page.”

Get up she eventually did, after 26 hours, and started to write. For two years she struggled with the story, writing bits and pieces.  Each winter she entered the Fringe lottery, knowing that if she got a spot in the line-up, that would propel her to write it once and for all.  For two years running she wasn’t chosen, but the third year Jeremy Hechtman’s voce di basso announced, “Third time’s the charm, Nutter.”  


She barely had time to think before she boarded a plane to Nairobi.  Through her classes with MacDonald, she had befriended Christine Armstrong who introduced Nutter to Jeremy Taylor, at the time still in his last year in the playwrighting program at NTS. Though she didn’t know him very well at all, she had seen two of his plays and felt she and Taylor were on the same page theatrically, and asked him if he would direct her play. He said to send him everything she had so far.  Crisis!  She had bits and pieces that she had been flirting with over the years and shoved into the one and only suitcase that went wherever she did, but had nothing remotely resembling a script.  She hauled out the suitcase, ransacking it for appropriate bits and pieces that she retyped into a slapdash string of scenes and dialogue that she e-mailed to him before she left. 

The educational work in Nairobi was all consuming, completely shutting out any time to think about the play until she was safely home. The night she arrived back in Montreal, her boyfriend ended their relationship. She was alone, homeless and the dried up cherry pit on top of the sundae was that she still had no script and only three months before the Fringe.

Wracked with trepidation and doubt, Nutter was thankful for the generous support of the people around her. Friend and actor Talya Rubin (The Girl With No Hands) was living in Australia and had a spare room in her Montreal apartment vacant for Johanna to sublet.  Not only had Talya come through with a place to live but she was a mentor for Nutter, encouraging her to soldier on with her solo piece. “One of the most important questions Talya ever asked me was why I wanted this story to be a play, as opposed to a book or a film.”

NTS contributed one of the more unique devices in the show.

“The first day of rehearsal, Jeremy asked me to do something I wasn’t used to doing. For a moment I felt the urge to question his choice, but then I decided why not just do it? If it doesn’t work, we’ll both see it. I knew I was already so wracked with self-doubt that the only way this was going to work was if I handed him the reins. His lack of ego, his openness inspired trust. He was also a great dramaturg: helping me get my story across clearly and simply, without ever taking it away from me.”

It had always been a dream of Nutter’s to go to the National Theatre School, so when she and Taylor ended up doing a lot of the writing and rehearsing on the NTS premises, yet another dream of hers had come to fruition. NTS contributed one of the more unique devices in the show. The opening has Nutter recreating a map of her Plateau neighbourhood. “I wanted a giant Google map on the floor, like a big twister game … until I found out how much that would cost. We were in one of the NTS classrooms, trying to come up with an alternative.  Jeremy was leaning against a blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk to play with as he thought and then suddenly looked at it and said, ‘how about this?’ As soon as I saw it, I was excited by all the possibilities it opened up.” Et voila- a cheap and innovative opening.

"I knew I wanted to remove the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, telling my story as simply and directly as possible."

It was a struggle to write such a personal story and see it from more than her own perspective while also safeguarding it against sounding like a therapy session. “I knew I wanted to remove the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience, telling my story as simply and directly as possible. I wanted it to have that special magic of a small group telling stories around a campfire.  I wanted that intimacy with the audience, that very special kind of listening.” 

Often, she and Jeremy didn’t even attempt to write more of the script or work on scenes.  Instead they would play to get inside the characters that were so close to Nutter’s heart. One day, Taylor had her put on a mask as her mother and he interviewed her in character. It was a revelation. “Growing up with her, I had been a confidant, her best friend, and a lot of the time, I had been the parent but I realized she had treated me as an individual, an equal … a person.”

In the end, a week before the Fringe, they had “pretty much” a finished and set script. 

Nutter has an aversion to the expression, ‘nailing it down’. One of her favourite comedians is Louis C. K. because of his improvisational delivery, but after watching some of his work online, she realized that even he  ‘nailed down’ his lines, though he had perfected the skill of making them sound fresh and off-the-cuff. “The original idea was not to have a set text and we laboured under the misconception that it would be a different show every night.” In the end, a week before the Fringe, they had “pretty much” a finished and set script. 

In Tadoussac
The Geordie Space was Nutter’s 2009 Fringe Fest venue. The day of the opening, Nutter and Taylor went to see a show and then ended up at the beer tent, killing time. Nutter was feeling restless, tense and scared. She told Taylor that she would meet him at the theatre and she decided to go for a walk. She went to visit all her childhood haunts: the lion statues on Mt-Royal, the swings in the park and ended up visiting all the places in her play. Her memories came to life and by the time she arrived at Geordie, she was completely immersed in that world, eager to tell her tale.

Greeting the audience as they came through the door meant that Nutter could see exactly who was there, a little unnerving on an opening night when you’re all alone on stage. Centaur’s Artistic Director Roy Surette was in attendance as well as most of the Fringe judges and when the show ended, for a moment there was complete silence. “It seemed to last forever. I thought the audience was thinking I was a freak, that my story was stupid … too weird.  That they were thinking ‘who does she think she is?’ But then they started to applaud and it was like a huge wave of acceptance.” 

The one-woman show was an immediate hit. Helen Pergantis of the Montreal Gazette wrote, “Johanna Nutter is a gem! I consider myself very fortunate to have been in the audience today. This is a wonderful play that will touch your heart.” The Rover’s Anna Fuerstenberg said it was “ … a beautiful story related with magic nuances and brilliant simplicity. It is theatre at its most elemental.” Hour magazine’s MJ Stone wrote that Nutter’s story was “as compelling as it is intelligent and as witty as it is dramatic.” Janis Kirshner, also writing for the Gazette, summed up with, “ …  a story about family bonds, growth, acceptance and all the things that make life hard but so worth living.”

"Others were befriending me on Facebook months later to tell me about specific memories they were still revisiting after seeing my show."

Nutter was astonished that her strange story seemed to strike a chord with such a wide audience. On her own web site she writes, “Strangers were coming up to me after the show, with tears in their eyes, thanking me for shedding light on their own family situations.  Others were befriending me on Facebook months later to tell me about specific memories they were still revisiting after seeing my show.” That year (2009-10), My Pregnant Brother tied for the Best New Text MECCA (Montreal English Critics Circle Award).

My Pregnant Brother was voted the best play of the Fringe that summer, garnering a spot in the line-up of Centaur’s 2010 Wildside Festival where it was met with equal zeal. The Gazette’s Pat Donnelly wrote that is was, “Even better the second time around … this show deserves to be seen across the country—and the continent.” Donnelly was right on the mark.  The simple production, with two lighting cues and a piece of chalk and a rocking chair for a set, ‘had legs’ and tour it did, to the Victoria Playhouse in Prince Edward Island (summer 2010) and to GCTC’s inaugural undercurrents festival (January 2011). 

Tadoussac, translation with the Gaboriau gang (Gaboriau front centre)

“I get the feeling that generally Quebec doesn’t really look outside the province at theatre in Canada, and vice versa. The rest of Canada seems to be having a conversation about theatre, but Quebec is out of the loop. Don’t get me wrong. We are such a close-knit community in this province. It’s beautiful- and we get a lot of satisfaction from what’s going on- but it’s not really viable in terms of sustaining itself.”

“I was curious about taking such a geographically localized show on the road; how did it translate to audiences who know nothing of Montreal? “Sometimes I re-write the beginning so that a different city really gets the Plateau. In New Mexico this past summer, they had a tile floor so I couldn’t use the chalk at all to create a picture of my city; it had to be done in words.”

BC was the moment of truth for Nutter: her mother and brother, who figure prominently in the show, would be seeing it for the first time.

This past summer, Nutter continued touring My Pregnant Brother, taking it to British Columbia, where it was part of the Neanderthal Festival in Vancouver, presenting a one-off at Pender Island, BC and venturing across the border to give a private performance in New Mexico. Nutter blogged her entire 2011 summer tour for the Charlebois Post: read it here.

BC was the moment of truth for Nutter: her mother and brother, who figure prominently in the show, would be seeing it for the first time. When Nutter first performed the show in Montreal, she told her mother that she had left a photo of her with the box office staff instructing them not, under any circumstances, to allow this woman admittance. She knew that she would not be able to get through it with her mother in attendance. But now, everyone in her story would be there; it was an entirely new strain of stage fright. And there they were, her mother and brother in the audience on Opening Night in Vancouver. 

"I had to be truthful but I needed to deliver my truth with love and compassion."

Nutter made an important discovery that evening. “They [the audience] came to see my play expecting to get something out of it for themselves. It wasn’t about me working out my family shit on stage; they deserved more. I had to be aware that there were going to be difficult things for my family to hear, things I couldn’t skirt around just because they were present. The audience deserved to get the show they came to see. I had to address strangers and family all in the same room. I had to be truthful but I needed to deliver my truth with love and compassion. It gave the piece a whole other dimension I hadn’t had before and I learned something really valuable about my craft that day.” Taylor said he’d never seen her perform it better and for every show since then, Nutter imagines her family in the audience.

"Arthur Holden told M. Bernard that I had a show in the Wildside Festival that he would like and suggested he come."

Now, here we are, surrounded by the vibrant colours of a fall in Montreal, where Nutter’s play makes history as the first play to be performed in English at La Licorne this November, though the English performances are only on Fridays while the rest of the week is in French. “I was seeing penumbra at the 2010 Wildside with Arthur Holden when he spotted Denis Bernard, (Artistic Director of La Licorne), in the lobby. Arthur nudged me to go over to invite him to my play but I was too shy so Arthur dragged me over. He told M. Bernard that I had a show in the Wildside Festival that he would like and suggested he come. He did and afterwards he asked me if I had thought of having it translated into French. I liked the idea but I said that I wanted to do the translation myself so it would truly reflect how I would tell my story in that language. To my surprise, Denis liked the idea.”

Nutter went up to the Glassco retreat in Tadoussac for a group workshop in theatre translation with the renowned dramaturg and literary translator, Linda Gaboriau. “I was really looking forward to telling my story in French because the Francophone sensibility is a large part of me. My mum says I’m a different person in French and I was curious to see if the characters would be different too.” 

“La Licorne is an intimate space, about 100 seats. They do things a little differently there- I love it.” There will be French ‘spectacles’ Mondays through Thursdays at 7pm, not the usual eight o’clock curtain, but the Friday night English presentations will be at 8pm.  And miracle of miracles, she gets her weekends off!

There is no telling how far My Pregnant Brother will take Nutter, but she’s already working on her next writing project, a play about her juggling different faiths while trying to establish a relationship with her father. Nutter’s father, who attended every single showing of My Pregnant Brother here in Montreal, joked that it had been a smart move on Johanna’s part not to include him in the play so that he could keep coming back. “Don’t worry, you’re next” was her quick, not to mention unnerving, response. 

Nutter is also putting her theatrical sensibility to work this fall. “I’m really honoured to be co-curating Centaur’s Wildside Festival with Roy Surette. I was very flattered when he asked me to help him and it’s been a lot of fun deciding what is ‘wild-worthy’: it’s a fantastic line-up.”

What your teachers or parents told you was a lie: never let it be said that daydreaming is a waste of time. A master of manifesting dreams into reality, there is no telling where Nutter’s imagination will take her next. “I’ve had a lot of practice: I spend a lot of time looking out windows dreaming up how I want my life to be.” 

We can all take a lesson in the value of taking time to dream from Ms. Nutter however don’t get lost in the clouds and miss the French run of My Pregnant Brother at La Petite Licorne from November 7 to 25, 2011. You can purchase tickets through La Licorne’s box office at 514 523-2246.
Nutter urged me to remind CharPo readers that those wishing to see one of the three English presentations should book tickets ASAP as the venue is small and available seats are disappearing fast.

For those interested in developing their own solo work, Nutter will be giving a workshop on solo show creation through the Quebec Drama Federation in January.

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