Sisters playwright believes audiences will see connection to Richmond

Simon Johnston is the playwright behind ‘Sisters,’ a new play making its premiere at Gateway Theatre tonight. - David Cooper photo
Simon Johnston is the playwright behind ‘Sisters,’ a new play making its premiere at Gateway Theatre tonight.
— image credit: David Cooper photo

The new play Sisters opens Friday at Gateway Theatre, and for Simon Johnston the experience is like having a baby.

Johnston is the playwright behind the new drama, which is making its world premiere on the Richmond stage. Johnston, Gateway’s retired artistic director, set the story in 1936 China. Sisters Irena and Masha live in a once grand house and struggle to maintain the image of their former wealth and privilege.

Local audiences last saw his work on stage at Gateway in 2006 with Rice Rockets & Yacht People. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Johnston emigrated in 1968 and graduated from McMaster University before heading to New York to study theatre. A 25-year career in Canadian theatre came next, including 12 years at the helm of Gateway Theatre. The Richmond resident, has authored 12 plays, and watching each being produced offers a new experience. This week The Richmond Review asked the playwright about the story, his inspiration and that opening night feeling.

Besides Chekhov’s inspiration, what prompted you to write Sisters?

“I wanted to find a way to describe our local community. Richmond has experienced massive change in the last 20 years from being predominantly Caucasian to having a majority of Asian-Canadian residents. In my play we see a white household comprising two sisters and their housekeeper. Natasha, their Chinese sister-in-law, takes over control of the house one room at a time. I have tried not to judge the characters’ motivations but simply present them to start a conversation about cultural change.”

This is the world premiere. What journey did the script take to get to this point?

“I completed the first draft in 2008. Since then it has been workshopped at the Stratford Festival and also at the Factory Theatre in Toronto and recently at Gateway’s Scene First play development program. Even after all that, we’re still making changes this week!”

What might particularly resonate with Richmond audiences?

“Although it is set in China 1936, I think our audiences will see a connection to present day Richmond where a major cultural shift has occurred. In my play one set of personal cultural values replaces another. The play asks is this a good thing? Is this what we want? Why not?”

Describe the experience of opening night. Has that feeling changed since your first play?

“It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve done this the feelings are always the same. It’s like having a new baby. I’m excited, wondering what kind of future it will have, wanting to be protective yet knowing I have to let it stand on its own. But most of all I’m proud that Gateway and so many others are ready to embrace its existence.”

What can audiences expect next from you?

“I’ve written a novel that I expect will be published this year.”

Sisters by Simon Johnston

•On until Feb. 16 at Gateway Theatre MainStage

•Sarah Rodgers directs; Luisa Jojic, Sarah Louise Turner, Josette Jorge and John Ng star

•Tickets, $30 to $48, at gatewaytheatre.com or 604-270-1812

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