Storytelling school

Playwright Jason Sherman explores the limits of modern storytelling in Touchstone Theater’s Ominous Sounds

For Governor General’s Award-winning playwright Jason Sherman, telling a good story is imperative. That’s because back in the days when cave dwellers sat around a campfire, he says, whoever had the best tale caught everyone else’s attention.

It’s a similar situation in modern theater – except nowadays the audience is taken on a ride for 90 minutes or two hours.

“My instinctual interest is in big stories and then putting characters in high-stakes situations and seeing how they react,” Sherman told the Law by phone from Toronto.

He is drawn to archetypal characters and archetypal stories that have been told through the ages.

“What’s today’s version?” he asks. “And so I try to see stuff on a grand scale.”

It was displayed in his 1998 piece Patiencewhich recast the story of Job in modern times through a yuppie character named Reuben Field who loses everything in 24 hours. Read Hebron, produced in 1996, focuses on a Jewish character from Toronto who reflects on his role in the oppression of Palestinians. One of his most recent pieces, Well receivedexplores systemic racism in entertainment through a group of TV crime writers.

His new play, which the Touchstone Theater is presenting as its world premiere, is also aiming high. Disturbing noises as the river passes; or, another fucking dinner game revolves around six actors who come to terms with appropriation and authentic storytelling.

Sherman says one of the actors suddenly goes out of character and states that she is no longer interested in doing stereotypical plays. Instead, she wants to star in productions that deal with major issues facing the world.

“There’s a discussion, a conversation, and kind of a tug of war ensues over what kind of stories they should tell,” Sherman reveals. “He’s the youngest cast member who keeps interrupting as he tries to tell…the kind of epic drama stories the other character wants to tell.”

Directed by Roy Surette, disturbing sounds features Kerry Sandomirsky, Monice Peter, Alex Poch-Goldin, Allan Morgan, Nicola Lipman and Angela Chu as cast members. In the script, their characters don’t have names – they’re just numbered – but Sherman says they have names when they’re playing their roles in a play.

In Ominous Sounds at the River Crossing; or, another fucking dinner gameKerry Sandomirsky plays a character in a play who wants to be in more meaningful productions.
David Cooper

According to Sherman, disturbing sounds investigates the self-imposed limits of storytelling through 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 loved drama when a teacher asked him to write a script for a school production at an Ontario theater festival. This earned him the first of many awards he received over the years. This led him to study drama at York University.

Sherman is not the kind of playwright who sends his script to the director and then checks it. Rather, he prefers to “use the great brains and talent you’ve gathered around you to enhance the story you’re trying to tell.”

“I will write until the cows come home and I will continue to rewrite when they are home,” Sherman says. “I’m not asking them to write the play. I just ask them to help me improve it.

“Roy is good at it,” he adds. “His casting is excellent for that.”

Additionally, Sherman describes Surette as a “wonderful collaborator”. He has a gentle manner, Sherman says, while always knowing where he wants to go with a show. And sometimes he achieves this by employing the “Socratic method” to get the best out of the people around him.

“He’s not one of those chair-throwing directors,” jokes Sherman.

Disturbing noises as the river passes; or, another fucking dinner game was written before the police killing of George Floyd and the COVID-19 pandemic. Sherman reveals that it has since been updated with a few more drafts based on workshops with the cast and discussions with Surette. And there may even be more revisions after Sherman watches live previews and sees how his lines land.

“I’m always amazed at how much a play can change in three days once it’s in front of an audience,” Sherman says. “You can make changes to make a world of difference.”

In 2000, Surette made Sherman’s Patience at the Belfry Theater in Victoria. The playwright is delighted that they have reunited.

“The production blew my mind,” Sherman says. “I came to see it and it was so sensitive to materials, so smart, so engaging and beautifully crafted.”

Patience under Surette also had a consistency that Sherman calls “incredible.”

“So I said to him after that, ‘I want to work with you again,'” Sherman recalled. “It took 20 years, but we are there.”