The adolescence of Johnnie Walker: coming to a stage near you

Redheaded Stepchild features flamboyant and gawky hero


Nicholas’s life is about to be ruined by Facebook. It’s not like things have been easy up to this point: the outcast redhead doesn’t have many friends and spends most of his time playing with his X-Men action figures and listening to Gilbert and Sullivan CDs in his room.

But now some smart-ass has created an event on the ubiquitous social networking website to promote Kick a Ginger Day, and everyone at Nicholas’s school has signed up for the fun.

Of course, the easy solution would be simply to cop a sick day and wait for the threat to pass, but that would mean missing Nicholas’s long-awaited audition for the school production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream — not to mention the chance to impress Mr Barton, his dreamboat English teacher.

Uncertain as to what to do, and growing increasingly frantic over the next day’s trouncing, Nicholas turns to his new stepmother for advice. Unfortunately, chain-smoking ex-Jehovah’s Witness Marianne has little insight to offer, so Nicholas must rely on the wisdom of Rufus Vermillion, his flamboyant alter ego.

Playwright Johnnie Walker insists that Redheaded Stepchild isn’t strictly autobiographical, but the actor/writer’s vivid carrot top and impish humour seem to imply otherwise.

“Okay, so there’s a pretty strong resemblance to Nicholas from me at 12 years old,” Walker allows, “but the events are mostly fiction.”

Walker wrote the piece last fall during a stint at the Banff Centre for the Arts, where he studied under queer Canadian playwright extraordinaire Daniel MacIvor. Intrepid Theatre producer Janet Munsil caught the show and immediately invited Walker to bring his play to Victoria’s Uno Fest, a celebration of one-hander shows from across the country.

“That was really the start of it,” says Walker. “We did the show there in May and it was amazing. The audiences were great, and we got some really good press.”

It also helped to alleviate the pressure of premiering a brand new show in Toronto’s prestigious SummerWorks Festival.

“We were able to get some idea of what works really well and what needs to be tweaked,” Walker says.

Director Morgan Norwich has been a fan of Walker’s writing since the two met in the University of Toronto’s drama program. “I always say that I spent $24,000 on an education in order to find a best friend that I could make plays with,” laughs Norwich.

Their school year antics blossomed into an enduring theatrical partnership. The two share co-production credits in their theatre company, Nobody’s Business, and have traded acting, directing and writing duties in several productions. Walker recently directed Norwich in her Fringe show Maude-Lynne Sells Out!, while the two collaborated on the 2008 SummerWorks hit Mohammed of Yorkville.

 

“We really just crack each other up,” Norwich says. “I think we have a pretty good understanding of what we each like to see in theatre. There’s a lot of trust.”

Norwich plans to approach Redheaded Stepchild from a slightly surreal perspective that will complement the character’s rich internal world of superheroes and make-believe.

“As much as I love to wow audiences with a bit of showmanship, I think big things need to be approached in an innovative, non-naturalistic way,” she says. “Johnnie’s writing is quirky and clever and funny with a lot of heart. I want to see something magical happen.”

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Culture, Arts, Toronto

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