“An emotionally powerful and intimate musical about two New Yorkers in their twenties who fall in and out of love over the course of five years” This is what I knew about the play before my interview with Paul Barson. Together with his wife, Jen Barson, and partners Trevor Smith Diggins and Tim Clarke as the The Downtown Theatre Project [DTP], these four actors, directors, and producers are bringing their intimate style of edgy theatre back to Guelph. As soon as we met, I asked Paul Barson about The Downtown Theatre Project and how they have found success producing theatre in the Downtown core. He talked passionately about The Making Box, where they staged their first eight shows in three years, and highlighted the incredible experience it had been, “especially around what we can do in a small space” he stated, “sometimes just with a tiny audience of forty”. This prepared them to introduce Guelph to “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown , their first musical written for just two actors and a small band.
Zandra Juarez: When one learns about “The Last Five Years” by Jason Robert Brown an obvious question comes up: Is this a love story or a break-up story?
Paul Barson: Yes! (we both laughed, of course)
If you are familiar with the story, it’s always interesting talking to people about shows like this and ask yourself: ‘how much do I reveal?’ ‘How much do they already know?’ You don’t want to ruin the twist in the story, which ultimately is how the story is told; especially when most descriptions online about the show tend to be quite similar. A lot of people come to the show just to see the style of story-telling.
I personally think that it is a break-up story. The love story is kind of revealed early, as is the break-up; but it is hard to ignore the break-up while you are watching the story, so it’s always there in your mind. It’s never just a love story, and it is always a break-up story. It’s such a heavy part of it, right off the bat, that the whole show is seen through the lens of the break-up… and I find that beautiful, because this is not an hour and a half of watching people breaking-up, since it is so beautifully crafted in terms of story-telling… so much so that I feel like the break-up is the beauty of it.
ZJ: In this occasion apropos of a long awaited return to live theatre, why has The Downtown Theatre Project chosen to come back with this specific show?
PB: To be practical about it, it was the show that we were set up to do when the pandemic hit. It was already rehearsed and we had the rights to present it. Because of the pandemic, unfortunately, many places and venues couldn’t continue and for us it also became a matter of having to look for a different location. So we reached out to the owners of The Red Brick Café and they were very interested in having us and our show. So, coming back with something that is bigger, inspiring, with two incredible performers, who are great actors-singers, leading the show; a live band, etc… I think it’s a grand production, at least for us, and it’s a great way to get back into it; instead of more of our traditional theatrical pieces. I think it is a good way to get back into the scene.
ZJ: What is the social value of theatre after the last two years?
PB: I am a storyteller, so what really has impacted me, within my immediate social and cultural group, is still tied to the way stories are told; storytelling carries so much weight. Theatre has this amazing ability to create immediacy to the storytelling and most stories require that, which you don’t get sometimes when you are reading a book, or when you are watching TV. So, being right there with the characters in person, singing and performing and telling these stories in real time for you, there is just a level of tension that is created from that, and a level of importance that you can’t get from most other sources of storytelling.In the last two years, our storytelling has been in snippets, in social media and news, because ultimately, this story (COVID-19) was so big and so global, that in the end it just became a long list of statistics. It was hard to find the humanity in it.
I’m excited to see all the stories that are going to come out of the experiences of the last two years. I think there will be stories that we never told and that these last two years represent just something that no one has ever experienced before in their lives. So, I think that the only way you can do that is through storytelling, and my favourite style of storytelling is through theatre and through musicals. I don’t think that anything compares to the immediacy of it and the presence of the story happening feet away from you.
ZJ: What are you looking forward to the most about this play?
PB: Hearing the voices with the band. Hearing it in the space, with an audience there, and hearing the applause after, when the audience recognizes the joy that they are getting from it, that is always the greatest thing. Hanging out after the show and having people talk about how the show affected them is always the greatest experience in theatre, as a producer.
ZJ: Is this a story that could have been told without the songs, without being a musical?
PB: I think that music has the ability to raise the stakes. It’s kind of like how I can just talk to you about something, but if I wrote a poem about that same thing, it would have a little bit more power to it; it would be a little more focused. Now, if you take that to the next level and add music to it, then it jacks it up another level, and then, when you take that and you add dance to it, then it is yet another level.
And he quotes: “When the feeling is too much, you have to start singing, and when the feeling is even greater than that, you have to start dancing.”
A well-crafted dramatic scene with no singing and dancing can still be extraordinarily powerful: it will connect with different people in different ways. But for some of us (and I don’t know how you get to this place), once you add music and you add movement, it is elevated. It elevates the tension, it elevates the emotion from the performers, I believe any story could be told as a traditional theatrical piece, but I think the simplicity of this story is better served by creating this musical background to the whole thing. I think it is better served. It’s a great question…like I would love to see a theatrical Phantom of the Opera -without music-. What would that be like…?
ZJ: Have you collaborated or worked with (director) Alison Jutzi and (musical director) Ben Wallace before?
PB: Yes, Alison’s husband and I worked together in a show at the Guelph Little Theatre, and we had a cast member drop out, and it was for the title role of The Drowsy Chaperone. So, we knew that she had done some professional musical theatre in Toronto, so we just kept bugging Phil (her husband), saying “Hey! Can Alison come and fill out the spot?” And she did. And she was a show stopper, she was phenomenal. And so, since then, we have done a number of shows. She was in a Downtown Theatre Project show called “God of Carnage”, among others, and she is just an incredible talent. She did “The Last Five Years”, professionally, in Toronto. She did it for a long run, so she knows it quite well. Thus, to have her now directing it, with the insights that she has as an ex-performer of it, is something that we couldn’t miss. And Ben, he is a wunderkind. He’s quite young and he already musically directed “Thirteen, the musical” at Guelph Little Theatre. He was extraordinary. He works with artists so well, he’s so great at encouraging them, and getting the best out of them.
I just have to say that hearing Paul Barson talking about Alison and Ben made me think that he was talking about family. Before we say goodbye, he speaks warmly about Trevor, Tim, and other collaborators with the same passion and enthusiasm that he speaks about theatre, musicals, rehearsals in his living room, family, and his innermost theatre circle.
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