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Theatre & Performance Between the Acts: Playwright, screenwriter Jason Sherman on returning to the Tarragon

After being away from the theatre while working in television, playwright and screenwriter Jason Sherman is back as the Bill Glassco Playwright-in-Residence at the Tarragon Theatre. Sherman is photographed at the Tarragon, on March 27, 2018.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

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

The new playwright-in-residence at Tarragon is the old playwright-in-residence at Tarragon. He’s Jason Sherman, whose residency from 1992 to 1999 at the Toronto contemporary theatre produced plays that included Three in the Back, Two in the Head, which received the Governor-General’s Award for Drama.

More recently, Sherman has been writing for television and radio. But now his long-shelved drama about theorist Marshall McLuhan, The Message, will be part of Tarragon’s 2018-19 season. And, as the resident playwright, he’s got two new works in development. He spoke to The Globe and Mail about his Tarragon homecoming and writing plays again after a lengthy absence.

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The residency here came along at the right time. I was thinking of getting back to writing plays, and then my agent sent me a notice that Tarragon was looking for a playwright-in-residency. I thought about it, put in my application, and here we are.

Since starting in June of last year, I’ve already given [artistic director Richard Rose] two drafts of one play, and I’m about to give him the first draft of another. Without this residency, I probably wouldn’t have written them. Now I have the time and a place to go ever day.

The money’s great. It ain’t TV money, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.

I set myself a task of writing a certain number of pages every day, because there are so many plays I have in my head that have been kicking around all these years. I want to make sure I get them out. Hopefully, by the end of his two-year period I’ve given Richard four or five plays. Obviously, he won’t produce them all, but they will be there, for the choosing.

TV writing and play writing are so different. You’re using different muscles in your head. I have to get back to using those muscles again, for writing for the theatre.

TV writing, by virtue of the process, is very rigorous in terms of the steps you go through before you get to the final draft. You start with story pitch, and if it’s approved you do the beats. That leads to an outline, then a revised outline, then a revised, revised outline. You’re going through approvals every step of the way.

Before, when I wrote plays, I was never much of an outline writer. But it’s a way to effectively get your story down, before you start writing it. The trick is not to let it box you in.

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So, it’s interesting that when I came back to theatre and started writing the first play I gave to Richard, his first reaction was, ‘Wow, that’s pretty tight.’

I had spent a couple of weeks just working on the outline. I really think that made a huge difference. It’s not to say I’m going to do it every time. Sometimes you do want to feel your way through something.

The other difference is that when I stopped writing plays all those years ago, I was just out of juice. I was out of ideas for plays. Now I’ve got 15 years of life experience to put into these ideas I have for plays. A head full of ideas that are driving me insane, as Rabbi Zimmerman of Minnesota once put it.

Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One examines a future where virtual reality is daily life. Reuters
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