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Music Playwright Michael Healey on the one thing he won’t change in 1979: Joe Clark’s iconic corduroy suit

In Between the Acts, The Globe and Mail takes a look at how artists manage their time before and after a creative endeavour.

Any chances of Joe Clark being the best prime minister Canada never had were unfortunately ruined when he was elected to the position at the end of the seventies. His short, unsuccessful reign as PM is the subject of 1979, a comedy from playwright Michael Healey, whose previous work includes the beloved, award-winning play The Drawer Boy and Proud, another comedy about a Tory leader, Stephen Harper. In advance of the Toronto premiere of 1979 at Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre (featuring the original cast from a production last year in Calgary, directed by Miles Potter, Jan. 9 to 27), Healey spoke to The Globe and Mail about script-tweaking, iconic corduroy fashions and producing one play while working on two others.

Michael Healey's play, 1979, opens in Toronto in January.

Galit Rodan

I’m producing an upcoming production of my play 1979 in Toronto. Not since the Fringe Festival in the 1990s have I self-produced something, except for my Stephen Harper play called Proud in 2012 at the Berkeley Street Theatre. After Tarragon Theatre passed on producing Proud, we got some money together and produced a stripped down version of it. It went well. I didn’t lose my shirt. Emboldened by that, I am now foolishly going back into it with 1979.

I’m enjoying it. I’m working with Marcie Januska, who is Daniel MacIvor’s producer. She also worked with Rebecca Northan on Blind Date. She knows what she’s doing. I’m watching her and figuring out how to build a small team on a tight budget, from design to production to finding dressers and assistant stage managers, to make this thing happen.

There’s an enormous amount of control you have in this circumstance. And I’m comfortable with the financial risk. We have some money from the Canada Council and the Toronto Arts Council.

I love what I’m learning. Often when it’s a second production of a play that’s already been created, the playwright becomes kind of superfluous. So, all I’ve done here is figure out how to hang around, really.

Just recently, in preparing the script to send out to the actors and stage management, I’ve made some minor changes from last year’s productions in Ottawa, at Shaw and in Calgary. I feel like I can lean on my metaphors a little more heavily. I’m always worried about spelling things out and leaving the audience with nothing to do but to sit back and collect information. But this time, I want to spell out and buff up some images a little more thoroughly, and just kind of sit in them.

One thing we won’t change is Joe Clark’s brown corduroy suit. It’s iconic. You could no more get rid of it than you could get rid of Joe Clark himself. And actor Philip Riccio makes the suit look good.

As far as other projects, I’m 17 pages into a play about Sir John A. Macdonald. But I’ve been on page 17 for about a year and half now. I’m not entirely sure I’m ever going to break free to page 18.

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I’m also working on an adaptation of The Front Page for Stratford Festival next season. I’m working away on building that with director Graham Abbey. That show makes journalists just look terrible, but at the same time they’re the last bastion of truth-telling in a society where politics has soured things. So, it couldn’t be more timely and useful, and we’re having an awful lot of fun.

Michael Healey’s 1979 runs Jan. 9 to 27 at Berkeley Street Downstairs Theatre in Toronto.

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