For Governor General’s Award–winning playwright Jason Sherman, it’s imperative to tell a good story. That’s because as far back as when cave dwellers were sitting around a campfire, he says, the one with the best tale captured everyone else’s attention.
It’s a similar situation in modern theatre—only nowadays, audiences are taken on a ride for 90 minutes or two hours.
“My instinctual interest is in big stories—and then to put characters into high-stakes situations and see how they respond,” Sherman tells the Straight by phone from Toronto.
He’s drawn to archetypal characters and archetypal stories that have been told through the ages.
“What’s today’s version of that?” he asks. “And so I do try to see kind of big-pattern stuff.”
This was on display in his 1998 play Patience, which recast the story of Job in modern times through a Yuppie character named Reuben Field who loses everything over the course of 24 hours. Reading Hebron, produced in 1996, focuses on a Jewish character from Toronto pondering his role in the oppression of Palestinians. One of his more recent plays, Copy That, explores systemic racism in entertainment through a group of TV cop-show writers.
His newest play, which Touchstone Theatre is presenting as a world premiere, also aims high. Ominous Sounds at the River Crossing; or, Another Fucking Dinner Party Play revolves around six actors coming to terms with appropriation and authentic storytelling.
Sherman says that one of the actors suddenly breaks out of her character and declares that she is no longer interested in doing formulaic plays anymore. Instead, she wants to perform in productions that address major issues facing the world.
“There’s a discussion, a conversation, and a kind of a tug of war ensues over what kind of stories should they tell,” Sherman reveals. “It’s the younger cast member who keeps interrupting as they try to tell…the epic-theatre type of stories that the other character wants to tell.”
Directed by Roy Surette, Ominous Sounds features Kerry Sandomirsky, Monice Peter, Alex Poch-Goldin, Allan Morgan, Nicola Lipman and Angela Chu as the actors. In the script, their characters don’t have names—they’re simply numbered—but Sherman says that they do have names when they’re playing their roles in a play within the play.
According to Sherman, Ominous Sounds inquires into self-imposed limits of storytelling through the dialogue.
“The actions of the play are very much based on the outcome of those discussions,” he adds.
As a teenager, Sherman discovered how much he enjoyed playwrighting when a teacher asked him to write a script for a school production in an Ontario drama festival. It earned him the first of many awards that he’s received over the years. That led him to study playwrighting at York University.
Sherman is not the type of playwright who sends his script to the director and then checks out. Rather, he prefers to “use the great brains and talent that you have assembled around you to improve the story you’re trying to tell”.
“I’ll be writing until the cows come home and I’ll keep rewriting when they’re home,” Sherman says. “I don’t ask them to write the play. I just ask them to help me make it better.
“Roy is good at that,” he adds. “His cast is great at that.”
Moreover, Sherman describes Surette as a “wonderful collaborator”. He has a gentle manner, Sherman says, while still knowing where he wants to go with a show. And sometimes he gets there by employing the “Socratic method” to get the most out of the people around him.
“He’s not one of these chair-throwing directors,” Sherman quips.
Ominous Sounds at the River Crossing; or, Another Fucking Dinner Party Play was written prior to both the police murder of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic. Sherman discloses that it’s since been updated with a couple more drafts based on workshops with the cast and discussions with Surette. And there may even be more revisions after Sherman watches the previews live and sees how his lines land.
“I’m always amazed how much a play can change over the course of three days once it’s before an audience,” Sherman says. “You can make changes to make a world of difference.”
In 2000, Surette directed Sherman’s Patience at Victoria’s Belfry Theatre. The playwright is thrilled that they’ve reunited.
“The production blew me away,” Sherman says. “I came out to see it and it was so sensitive to the materials, so smart, so involving, and beautifully designed.”
Patience under Surette’s direction also had a coherence that Sherman describes as “incredible”.
“So I said to him after that, ‘I want to work with you again,’ ” Sherman recalls. “It took 20 years, but here we are.”