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Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ford's Focus: "Jesus Jello's" Joanne Sarazen

(Editor's Note: In this new weekly column Barbara Ford will be providing us with profiles of some of Montreal English-language theatre's most interesting people)

by Barbara Ford

Beauty, brains and talent: killer combo.  Joanne Sarazen has been blessed with all three and she’s a sweetheart to boot!  But before we get into the success of her very first play, JESUS JELLO: The Miraculous Confection, which has its last showing Dec. 18th at MainLine Theatre, let’s delve into her deep, dark past. 

Just like the two kids in her play, the Ottawa native was home schooled and raised in a religious Catholic family.  She attended church with her mother every Sunday where she first felt the sting of dogmatic judgement as the only child of a single parent family in a congregation of mostly farmers, who lived and worked in the outlying areas and could boast double digit family members … the way God intended.

An incident in her early teens both planted the seeds of a creative idea and influenced her view of the church.  A girlfriend claimed to have seen Jesus and whether it was for attention, (which she very likely lacked in a family of 13 kids), to make herself feel better about her cloistered lifestyle, or perhaps even true, Sarazen was shocked that the pious community did not rally round in support or to help this young girl but instead ostracized her.  As a result, Joanne turned away from organized religion.

Rejecting the isolationist home-schooling, Sarazen attended public high school where she had her first fling with theatre, writing and presenting a 45-minute play for her creative writing class.  However it wasn’t until she came to Concordia University to study Theatre Performance, with a minor in English Literature, that her writing talents began to blossom under Harry Standjofski, one of her two fave profs; Joel Miller is the other.

Before graduating in 2008, Joanne became soul-sisters with fellow Concordia students Lindsay Wilson and Alexandra West and the Sheep in Fog team was born.  Their first creation about small town girls trying get a life by hooking up with up-and-coming hockey stars was Lindsay’s Puck Bunny, an off-venue site specific (public washrooms) 2009 Fringe Festival creation that created a buzz in both the Toronto and Montreal fests, with Joanne in the solo role and Alexandra directing. 

JESUS JELLO: The Miraculous Confection, a play about a boy who sees Jesus in his Jell-O after he faints during a midnight Christmas Mass, was sparked by an outrageous news item Sarazen read about a woman selling a 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich, sporting a vision of the Virgin Mary, to the Golden Palace online casino for $28,000.   The not-forgotten incident of her friend’s vision coupled with the personal experience of growing up in a highly religious community provided rich fodder for Sarazen.  

She began with a girl as the central character, mirroring her teen-hood friend, but switched to a young boy to explore the mother/son dynamic in addition to the themes of poverty and isolation and their contribution to familial and community dysfunction.   Heavy and depressing?  Not one bit.  Despite the subject matter, the play is funny and uplifting as well as provocative.   “I do tend to the dark side,” Sarazen chuckles, “but the best comedy comes out of tragedy and darkness.  It’s a great way to get people to think.”

Sarazen had readings of her play at the Freestanding Space to get actor feedback and sound it out, so to speak and Greg MacArthur was a rich resource during this part of the play’s development.  Most of actors present at the readings were well-suited to their roles so casting them for the Fringe performances made sense except for that of an older woman, loosely based on Sarazen’s own mother. Johanna Nutter had been reading the part to help out it but she was clearly too young for the role. 

Enter good old fashioned chutzpah with a pinch of synchronicity and problem solved.  Sarazen had been subsidizing her education by working as a barmaid at Maz, the infamous NDG watering hole that is an education in itself.  “I love barstool prophets” and Maz, a dream setting for the budding writer, was rife with them.  Coincidentally, actor Joanne Noyes would drop by from time to time and, sharing a love of theatre, she and Sarazen became fast friends.  Casting caution to the wind, Sarazen seized on the opportunity to ask Noyes if she would read JESUS to give her some feedback on the older female character, secretly hoping that Noyes would want to play the part.  Noyes loved it and agreed to play.   “Joanna makes me cry,” confesses Sarazen over the phone.  “It’s so incredible when actors make your words more fascinating than you imagined.”

Sarazen had worked with Catherine (Cat) Lemieux and Patrick Charon in the George Walker series, Suburban Motel, produced by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre the previous year at Mainline and called on them to play Mom and Pop Wilson, the parents of the delusional boy.  “I’m not a visual person, I have more of an oral perception and George (Bekiaris, another Suburban Motel comrade) and I have similar speech patterns.  His character’s ideas in the play most reflect my own so I thought he would be good for Judah along with fellow student, and my roommate at the time, Joesph Bembridge as Justin, Judah’s polar opposite.  Tristan D. Lalla has such a commanding stage presence- I knew he would be perfect as God.” Thomas Preece and Emilie Quaile rounded out the cast as the Wilson son (Jell-O gazer) and black-sheep-of-the-family daughter.

The production toured Toronto and Montreal for the 2010 Fringe Festivals, again off-venue, this time at the Freestanding Space in Montreal.  “We wanted a church basement but we had a hard time finding one; I can’t imagine why,” says Sarazen sarcastically.  JESUS JELLO won a Frankie Award: MainLine’s Next Stage prize, giving it a second go-around at MainLine Theatre and dramaturgical access to Artistic Director, Jeremy Hechtman. 
“Jeremy is great.  Not only as a dramaturg, but one day the carpenter couldn’t come in.  I was totally prepared to make this the day I learned how to use a power saw but Jeremy stepped in, saying he didn’t want to see me loose a hand.  Other days he would help out with the painting … he’s just there for you in every way.” 
To turn the lip-smackin’ Fringe snack into a full-course theatre banquet, Sarazen beefed up the one-act play with an extra scene between the gay couple, defining their relationship more fully and completely restructuring the ending.

Since the Fringe some of the actors had to be replaced as well. Thomas Preece, who played the Wilson boy, was currently studying in New York so he was replaced by Scott Humphrey.  Antoine Yared, who provided the oversized Bible set for the Fringe production, played the lightening-tongued Justin, since Joseph Bembridge was out west.  Tristan D. Lalla was scooped up to do A Raisin in the Sun at Centaur, so Lucinda Davis took over the role of God giving it a whole new twist.

As with many indie theatre companies, funding for the production was all of out of pocket for Wilson and Sarazen, who shared the director’s chair for JESUS, but with two touring shows, a remount and an award to their credit, Sarazen feels they’re ready to start applying for grants.  Their mandate is to produce original work, their own and other Canadian artists.  In addition to the contacts they’ve made through their studies, theatre gigs and Fringe fests, with their partner Alex West situated in Toronto, ex-roommate Bembridge out west and Wilson and Sarazen based in Montreal, they feel they’ve got their collective finger on the pulse of new Canadian work. 
Their next project, Birth of Weza or Go Fuck Your Mother, is a home-grown piece that Sarazen started for Crystle Reid’s Arthotel this past summer and will tour the 2011 Montreal and Toronto Fringe Festivals, adding Ottawa to the mix this year.  It juxtaposes couples who are dying to have kids against those who wouldn’t have kids if they were the last male and female on the planet.  “People seem to be really black and white when it comes to having kids,” says Sarazen “and I wanted to explore that.”  Sarazen touched on this a bit with JESUS JELLO, how inadequate the mother feels because she only has two kids when all her neighbours are popping them out like Pez dispensers, feeling more worthy in the eyes of God as they upped their chances at achieving immortality through their children’s accomplishments. 

In Birth of Weza, one of the four characters in the ensemble work is a janitor, one of those barroom prophets Sarazen is so fond of, who works in a chemical engineering plant and is obsessed with the fact that some printing inks cause impotence.  He’s intent on having kids before his swimmers run out of gas.  “I also wanted to look at what would happen if you actually met a beloved literary character in real life; would you like them as much?”  The play throws the two unrelated concepts together and once again comedy is Sarazen’s preferred delivery system.  Birth of Weza will feature Sheep in Fog co-founder Lindsay Wilson, Catherine Lemieux, George Bekiaris (whose chemical engineering degree came in handy) and Tableau D’Hôte Theatre’s Artistic Director, Mike Payette. 

When asked if she saw her career moving more towards writing and directing than performing, Sarazen replied, “I don’t see myself in just one area of theatre.  Boredom is death.  I want to stay engaged in my craft, keep it fresh, keep learning so I’ll write, direct and act whenever I can.  I want to do it all!”  This triply blessed, triple threat is off to a great start.  


  1. Hey -I love this. Just what we need in town. I look forward to following this column weekly. All the best with the new blog.

  2. Interesting debut, Barb. I saw Jesus Jello and enjoyed hearing about the process. Keep em coming!


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