Attention, Chris Hadfield: Johnson and Johnston’s ‘One Small Step’ is ready for lift-off at the Fringe

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Barbara Johnston and Anika Johnson

There is a new honour circling Commander Chris Hadfield’s orbit.

Ask current high-school students to name a Canadian of note, and chances are, they’ll land on Hadfield at first blurt. After all, he is our rock star of outer space . . . literally. So who could possibly be a more suitable and authentic subject for the Canadian musical-within-the-musical in One Small Step, by award-winning actor-composers Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston, which is playing at this year’s Toronto Fringe Festival (aka The Fringe)?

One Small Step centres on the triumphs and travails of a group of high-school students mounting a school musical titled “The Hadfield Follies: An Out of This World Musical Journey into the Life and Times of Astronaut Chris Hadfield”. The premise conjures nostalgia, whimsy . . . plus a combination of a-ha’s and giggles – particularly since the show’s creators have proven time and again their knack for capturing the young Canadian’s experience through inventive musical works. “We wanted to lovingly send up the tropes of working in Canadian theatre, both with professionals and students,” they explain of One Small Step’s origin. “So, among other things, it seemed clear that the ‘show-within-a-show’ should have a Can-Con connection. Chris Hadfield immediately came to mind.” The result is a love letter to high school musicals, and to musicals in general: “half of it is good-on-purpose, and half of it is bad-on-purpose, and all of it is filled with sincere love for the form we are sending up.”

Both Johnson and Johnston have spent a significant portion of their careers mounting musicals with teenagers, including a regular stint with the “incredible students” at Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts. It was there that they developed Summerland, a musical performed at the 2015 Fringe.  Annually since then, they have written an original musical for the Pre-College Program students at the Randolph Academy. Needless to say, this “insider info” on high-school drama proved  to be fertile ground, which they tilled for their Randolph Pre-College commission in 2017: a show for teenagers about teenagers putting on a show . . . which grew into One Small Step. “Our students that year were an amazing cast of oddballs and comedians, so their personalities inspired our characters. Both of us are HUGE fans of the backstage comedy in Waiting for Guffman, and that served as a great source of structural inspiration for One Small Step.”

The musical’s plot centres on the fallout when a high-school extra-curricular drama club is cancelled.  Jill and her fellow Jackson Players refuse to accept that the lack of a stage means no annual musical, so they set out to put on a show of their own. The catch? In order to secure funding, their show must focus on something Canadian. As it happens, the mayor’s quirky son Zacharia Van Ottocraught has written a Can-con musical entitled “The Hadfield Follies: An Out of this World Journey through the Life and Times of Astronaut Chris Hadfield”. So long as Jill directs Zacharia’s musical, the mayor agrees to let Jill use the city-hall auditorium. Now can Jill prepare her unruly cast in time for opening night . . .?

As a backstage musical, One Small Step is rooted in the process and problems of putting on this show. Given the creators’ considerable history working with youth in exactly this context, the show springs from reality: “Honestly, almost every line in the show contains an almost verbatim reference to our own experiences as theatre students, creators, actors, and educators,” they admit. “As anyone who’s worked in theatre (both amateur and professional) can attest, you don’t have to exaggerate to make these characters funny.”  During their creation of One Small Step, these arts educators and artists also thought a lot about what “makes arts education so important. The point of high school drama is not necessarily to create performers who will go into the industry, but to build confidence, trust, camaraderie, teamwork and a love for something bigger than oneself.” As such, One Small Step is “hugely inspired” by the duo’s “amazing teenage students,” and is filled with truthful characters and situations drawn from their years working with youth in the arts.  

And is there specific or special inspiration for Jill, the troupe’s erstwhile leader? The duo nod vigorously in the affirmative: Jill is certainly a hybrid of both of us, and a lot of her frustrations, heartache and self-doubt are drawn from our lives. We both grew up in theatre families, trained as actors in university, and consequently expected a specific career path would follow. When neither Stratford [Festival] nor Murdoch Mysteries immediately came a-calling, we had to find our own way.” So the throughline for One Small Step’s backstage and onstage comedy is a young woman learning how to become a leader before she even knows what that means: “how lonely it is to be in charge, but at the once, how necessary it is for the underrepresented to find a way to create their own art. There are so many people in the arts that may never get any conventional personal recognition, but who nonetheless dedicate their lives to creating opportunities for others to perform and create simply because it’s the thing they love the most.”

When they wrote and presented the first draft at Randolph, the creators recall being genuinely surprised at how much they liked the show – and even more surprised at how personal it became. Edge of the Sky artistic director Ann Merriam saw it and immediately wanted to get involved with the project. They agreed to collaborate with her and the Edge of the Sky team to bring a more fully realized production to the Fringe, which has been so essential in the development of their previous work, and that of close collaborators Suzy Wilde and Anika Johnson’s sister Britta Johnson (whose Life After played at the 2016 Fringe and just earned her a Dora Award for Outstanding New Musical/Opera.) “We would love for this to be a show that has a life beyond the Fringe, especially in (but not limited to) other student productions,” they enthuse. “Regardless of its future, One Small Step is a celebration of the same courage and independent spirit that make the Fringe Festival possible, and we’re just really excited to share it with our community.”

And circling back to our opening, what makes Chris Hadfield so irresistibly suitable as the subject of a mock Can-con musical production?  The creators want to make absolutely clear that the show-within-the-show is not intended to mock the real Chris Hadfield in any way. Rather, their intention is to “depict a (delightfully) terrible piece of theatre made with the best intentions. In fact, the indisputable impressiveness of Chris Hadfield is what makes him the perfect Canadian persona to send up. The more we have researched him and his career, the more we realize that both are beyond reproach.”  Bringing everything full circle, “Chris’ commitment to arts education and music education is also part of why we wanted to honour him, albeit in a zany way.”

And as it happened, Edge of Sky already had a relationship with Hadfield. The team worked with Chris Hadfield in 2013 to record the song and video for ‘Is Someone Singing’ (co-written by Hadfield and Barenaked Ladies) while he was stationed in space as the first Canadian commander of the International Space Station. Hadfield personally called Ann Merriam from the space station to discuss the song. He then recorded it with the Wexford Gleeks in a combined Earth-space recording session conducted by Barbara Johnston . . . who is today directing One Small Step.  As they developed and researched One Small Step, Johnson and Johnston became incredibly inspired by Hadfield and other astronauts, and found unexpected parallels between the space program and high school drama: “Both require huge commitment and risk, without advance knowledge of the outcome; both depend on a huge sense of team; both ask you to trust the universe and explore the unknown; both (funnily enough) are constantly under threat of funding cuts.”

And despite the high school setting, they are quick to point out that One Small Step’s appeal is not exclusive to teens and kids: “If you are in the theatre in any capacity, at any age, or have ever been involved in theatre, this show is for you. Maybe you’ve taken one drama class; maybe you were a high school theatre dork; maybe you have a life in the theatre – regardless, this show will speak to you.” In fact, it is for everyone, and a great choice for multi-generations to experience together.

Of course, it would be pretty cool if Hadfield showed up, too. Just in case, the duo promise that “if you are an astronaut, you can . . . have a good laugh, too!” When they initially wrote the show at Randolph, they connected with Hadfield’s son Evan, who sent back a supportive tweet and email. His dad maintains a busy schedule of appearances even in retirement, and unfortunately isn’t available to attend the show. That said, Johnston and Johnson are holding out hope: “we will certainly be inviting Commander Hadfield to the Fringe, and if he’s available, we would love nothing more than to have him there!”

In the meantime, July promises to bring One Small Step for the Fringe . . . and one giant leap for astronaut-centric, Canadian content-rich musical comedy with a heart!

Poster by Eric Andrews

News You Can Use

What: One Small Step Book, Music & Lyrics by Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston; Directed and Choreographed by Barbara Johnston; Produced by Ann Merriam, Edge of the Sky; Musical Direction by Suzy Wilde; Musical Tracks by James Ervin; Stage Management by Charlie Agathacleous

Who: Audiences of all ages

When: July 4 – 15, 2018; run time: 75 mins

Where: Randolph Theatre, 736 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON 

Info and Tickets: FringeToronto.com

© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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