Playwright Jason Sherman reads in the bp nichol Series at Glendon

York alumnus Jason Sherman (BA ’85), one of the most prolific and recognized Canadian playwrights of his generation, appeared at Glendon Nov. 28 as the second guest in this fall’s bp nichol Series.

Jason ShermanSherman (left), who writes for the stage, radio, television, film and print, and has worked in large and small venues, was introduced by Glendon English professor Cynthia Zimmerman,(a specialist in writing for theatre), as a playwright “known for the political and comic daring of his works [and for] his complicated characters [who] are always on a collision course. His plays are fast, funny and very smart.” Urjo Kareda, the late artistic director of the Tarragon Theatre and noted theatre critic, once said that “Sherman writes big ideas.” Added Zimmerman, “Jason Sherman knows an enormous amount about what it takes to do theatre in this country.” 

Sherman read from three of his works: The Retreat (1996) and Patience (1998), both of which had their first staging at the Tarragon Theatre; and After the Orchard, which premiered this September in Ottawa’s National Arts Centre to great acclaim. Sherman is a master of irony and sarcasm; his characters are three-dimensional and face real problems, the ones that often have no solutions. Commissioned by the National Arts Centre English Theatre, After the Orchard was inspired by and is a tribute to Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard. Set in contemporary Ontario’s cottage country, the play centres on a Jewish family’s dilemma of whether or not to sell their property. It is a touching and humorous look at families and, tellingly, the characters face some of the same issues as the members of the Ranevsky family in The Cherry Orchard.

When questioned by the audience about his approach to writing, Sherman explained that his characters emerge in the process of writing, rather than planning them out in advance. He added that he is a relentless re-writer and keeps polishing and changing, sometimes even while the play is in rehearsal. On one notable occasion, he made major changes to some of the lines during the previews of the play – luckily with the full cooperation of the actors involved.

Sherman commented that the Jewish content present in all his plays occasionally gets in the way of having them produced,  in unexpected ways. Jewish audiences sometimes object to his critical eye on Jewish characters and political issues. “But my goal is to be critical, unsettling and to make the audience think,” said Sherman. When asked how new writers could improve their writing skills, Sherman’s response was direct: “You have to keep on writing, because you learn from your mistakes and your successes. You must stay away from developing a ‘bag of tricks’ that you continue to pull out. Keep asking yourself, ‘how can I do this better; how can I do this differently’. Always try to be fresh.”

Sherman described the late 1960s as a time of great innovation and creativity on the Canadian theatre scene, with both an audience and money for new plays – a time when Canadians wanted to see their own stories, rather than British and American plays. “Today, it is very different”, said Sherman, “it’s a harsh environment and a very conservative mind set, among both critics and the audience.” When plays must be a commercial success and a single failure is enough to send the writer to oblivion, experimentation is paralyzed. “Theatre is still a fringe activity in this country,” added Sherman, “which makes the prospect of earning a living as a playwright almost impossible.” He has been able to continue his focus on his profession by working in a wide range of media: radio, television, film, and as a journalist and broadcaster.

During the 15 years he has been writing for the stage, Sherman has received more awards than any other Canadian playwright of his generation. He has won a Governor General’s Award (1996) for Three in the Back, Two in the Head (published in 1994), a Chalmers Award (1993) for The League of Nathans (1992), as well as the 1998 Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best Play, for Patience (1998). His other plays include The Retreat (1996), None is Too Many (1996) – based on York historian Irving Abella’s book of the same title – Reading Hebron (1996), It’s All True (2000) and An Acre of Time (2001). This past summer Sherman had adapted Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov for the Stratford Festival Theatre, which received rave reviews.

The next reading in the Glendon bp nichol Series will be by playwright and director Judith Thompson on Jan. 26, 2006 from 12:30 to 3pm. Everyone is welcome.

This article was submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.