When you grow up like the Only Child Collective’s Jessie Johnston, plays aren’t just plays—they’re the extended families you never had.
“My mother’s a director, so I grew up with certain plays like Three Sisters, King Lear and…” Johnston turns to her mother, Jane Heyman, who sits next to her during a rehearsal break on a Saturday afternoon, tucked into the old kitchen of the former restaurant adjacent to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
“Angels in America,” Heyman says with a smile.
“Thank you!” Johnston responds. “They’re not plays, they’re my family. And some of them I haven’t seen in decades.”
Well, this marks one heck of a reunion. Despite the fact that Johnston was brought up immersed in theatre, this is the Only Child Collective’s debut and her first time producing a play. (“My first and last time,” Johnston predicts with a laugh).
She is diving into the deep end: Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters. With opening night approaching, the sprawling cast, which includes Bob Frazer and Emma Slipp, has only rehearsed in full once or twice, since everybody is juggling other jobs (though they did run one of the most successful IndieGoGo fundraising campaigns in theatre history, bringing in more than $10,000). And her director? Her mom, Heyman, a retired Studio 58 instructor, who also happens to be an esteemed member of the city’s theatre community.
“The great pleasure has been to work with my daughter who knows me so well, because children always know their parents better than the parents know the children,” Heyman says, gazing fondly at her daughter and nodding, hot-pink glasses nested in her tangle of dirty-blond curls. “There’s no ego between us anymore. We can disagree and have flare-ups, but there’s so much love and respect.”
“We don’t have to be precious,” Johnston agrees.
To outsiders cowed by tackling a Russian classic, the mother-daughter team stacked the deck against themselves from the outset. There’s a reason that Vancouver hasn’t seen a professional production of Three Sisters in 30 years, right? The cast is huge and unwieldy, the story arc subtle. It’s not sexy or action-packed but rather focused mostly on character development and nuance.
But after Johnston talked her mom into taking the plunge, Heyman couldn’t help but be swept up in remembering why she fell for Three Sisters in the first place, which has as much to do with who she is and how she raised her daughter as it does with Chekhov’s power as a playwright.
“There’s something ineffable about this play—that’s why it’s lasted so long,” Heyman says. “There’s a sense of longing, of loneliness, hope, a great sense of humour in the midst of contemplating things that are really depressing. And I don’t think we get the opportunity to see those kinds of details on-stage very often. That texture that happens between people and that love—it sounds so cheesy to say it, but working on a play by Chekhov demands that we love the fullness of each of the characters.”
He was also, arguably, a man a century ahead of his time. Three Sisters is one of the few plays of its era with four strong female parts at its core.
“I’ve been a feminist for a long time,” Heyman says. “We started the Women in View festival.”
“Well, I was only eight,” Johnston says, laughing.
“Yes, but you were there!” Heyman says. “I think we have to keep telling stories of women. We’re doing this story in period.…There’s a value to me in doing plays that are over 100 years old and reminding us they’re over 100 years old, and the audience saying, ‘Things haven’t changed that much. Why not?’…I hope that what happens is people will leave and have really good arguments on what it’s about.”
Perhaps it will even spark a rousing debate around the family dinner table to truly keep with the spirit of Three Sisters and Heyman and Johnston’s labour of love.