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Posted July 7, 2021

The Interview – Julia Lederer

Julia Lederer

Julia Lederer is a writer from Toronto. Her plays have been produced in Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, Alaska, New York, Paris, and more, and her films have been screened at major festivals all over the world including the Toronto International Film Festival. With Love and a Major Organ premiered at the 2012 Toronto Fringe Festival where it was “Patron’s Pick”, “Best of Fringe”, and named “Outstanding New Play” by NOW Magazine. In 2015, it had its US premiere as part of Strawdog Theatre’s 28th Season in Chicago, and since then has had several productions internationally and received many accolades– including a Los Angeles Drama Critic’s Circle nomination for “Best Production” in LA in 2017. Julia’s other plays include U-R-U (inspired by Capek’s R.U.R.), Reality Theatre, Boxed InThe Best Plan for Living Happily, SmallBots, and others  

What do you like most about being a playwright?

I love being surprised by what someone else brings to something I’ve written, whether as an artist or audience member. I love to build things: stories, characters, worlds — and with theatre, they can grow in so many different directions, far beyond my own skill set and brain and experience. There is something so magical about that.  

What’s the best piece of playwriting advice that you’ve ever received?

To admire and learn from other writers’ work, but don’t try and do what they’re doing. Do what you do. Write like you. Have the courage and gall to write with your own voice no matter what is being produced in any moment. 

Who or what do you count among your inspirations and influences?

Sarah Ruhl is a big one for me. I was first writing With Love and a Major Organ when I read Melancholy Play and it opened everything up. It showed me that with craft and honest emotion, you can do anything in a theatre. Her use of language is so uniquely beautiful and specific and her imagination boundless. 

I’m inspired by Czech playwrights like Karel Čapek and Václav Havel, and the way they combine the political with the absurd and dissect serious topics without sacrificing being entertaining and playful. 

Meghan Swaby and Erin Shields both write with such power. So many writers inspire me in different mediums: Ocean Vuong, Jen Silverman, Lisa Codrington, Mary Oliver, Suzan-Lori Parks, Elizabeth Smart (the poet and novelist), Miranda July. I’m reading a book by Patricia Lockwood right now and am finding myself underlining sentences on every other page. She has a way of using words that makes me want to open up her brain and take a peek inside it. Underlining will have to do. 

Do you have a favourite memory in the theatre you could share either at one of your own plays or someone else’s?

With any production I have favourite memories, whether I’ve been there for the rehearsal process or just on the day, or even just watching on a computer. More recently and specifically, R.H. Thomson was in a staged reading of my play, U-R-U. He found a discarded construction helmet backstage and told Heather [Marie Annis, who directed] and me that his entire character was in that helmet. Could he wear it? It seems all three of us have a shared love of props. (YES. He wore it). 

What has your experience been adapting With Love and a Major Organ into a feature film?

There has been a huge learning curve. It is the first feature for the director (Kim Albright), the producer (Madeleine Davis), and for me.

It’s been exciting to get to expand the world of each character so much (we can see them at work, at home, with friends, how they order coffee) and to think as specifically and visually as possible. In the film the reason Anabel takes her heart out is different than the play; it feels more like a film inspired by the play, which is interesting for me — I’m not just revisiting the same material, but taking it beyond what it is onstage, somewhere new. It’s changed a lot and grown to reflect the current world and my current brain. I’ve also written and made work for the screen between when we started on the feature and now, so what I’ve learned from other projects has been put to good use during the extended development process.

It’s also been challenging. What can be done effectively with a single pole on a stage requires an entire (very expensive) subway set in a film. A film script is treated as a blueprint, so scenes will be rearranged and edited despite all the hours I’ve spent obsessing. This is terrifying from a control perspective and exciting from a collaborative one — so much of it will be a surprise to me. It’s an exercise in letting a story that feels so close to me go, and seeing what it becomes, which will be something that reflects and speaks with many more voices than just my own. It’s something I’ve found really cool to see with short films I’ve written. Being a playwright can be lonely. A film belongs to so many people for its entire existence. 

Can you tell us about some of the work you have done during the pandemic?

At the beginning of the pandemic, I received one of Convergence Theatre’s COVID Commissions. I wrote Small Adjustments (for Smaller Spaces), and asked my friends Michela Cannon (actor) and Evan Desjardins (sound recordist and editor) for help with it. It felt incredibly satisfying to be able to make something and share it. 

My work/voice lends itself well to audio as it leans heavily on both language and imagination. I’ve created audio pieces for the Toronto Fringe’s Community Booster including I’ve Been Thinking About Vanishing; and internationally for podcasts including A Moment of Your Time “Balancing Acts” and The Hidden Station “Cool Ghost: Please Haunt Me.” I adapted and co-produced an audio drama version of With Love and a Major Organ, starring Michela Cannon, Kaleb Alexander, Jennifer Villaverde, and Fiona Reid, which has yet to be released. It’s the version that’s professionally produced now but has never been produced in Canada, so I’m excited to share it. 

I wrote a commercial spot for BetterHelp, directed by Rebecca Applebaum. We’ve worked together many times before and she had the idea and asked me to write it. We were able to shoot it outside — it was really meant as something for her reel. Then she connected with BetterHelp and they wanted it. It has over 10 million views on YouTube alone. It’s neat to see how we’ve been able to connect with people all over the world, even just in a 60-second spot. It was a lot of fun.

Otherwise, I’ve been working on a TV project with a UK company and taken some classes in different forms of writing. I wrote a play for teenagers and young adults to perform over Zoom — every scene takes place in Zoom events and Zoom high school. It’s called SmallBots, and has been done in a few schools. I wanted to give young actors something that was already written for Zoom, not something that had to be reworked to fit there. I’m not sure if it will continue to be produced after COVID regulations lift, but there are some good monologues for young adults, so maybe it will live on that way. Who knows. 

What are you working on now?

Being a decent human adult is a big one. I also would like my dog to sit one day, so I’m working on that. 

I miss theatre. I have a new play I am working out in my brain and in bits on my computer. I’m also working on a TV pilot. I am exploring writing prose too. 

I’m working on a beta-version of an online ‘archive of joy’-type project with Jenna Harris and a few other artists — what people can make amazes me. 

Oh, and I’m working on finishing Witch School for Adults (not Harry Potter-related — it’s the real deal and I am SO behind). 

Books by Julia Lederer