Meet Sandi Johnson: ‘People Like Us’ playwright

Sandi Johnson credit Peter Southam/Diana Hayes
Sandi Johnson credit Diana Hayes

As Remembrance Day approaches, the Firehall that brings to light the hidden impact of war on returning veterans and their families with the moving and poetic new play People Like Us. We’re very proud to be premiering this important new Canadian play about a Gulf War veteran and his fiercely courageous wife, and would like to introduce you to the woman behind it –  talented Salt Spring writer Sandi Johnson. Sandi is interested in imaginary work that is socially relevant. She has written two books – ‘The Comfort of Angels’ a fictional work based on her experience of working with Ojibwa Indians in northwestern Ontario and a poetry and line drawing volume ‘The Wonderful Naked Man’, both published by Beach Holme. Nicola Cavendish read People Like Us and was so taken with Sandi’s beautifully poetic writing that she recommended Donna Spencer, the Firehall’s Artistic Producer take a look at the play.

We took a moment in between rehearsals to chat with Sandi about the inspiration for writing People Like Us.

Where did you get the idea or inspiration to write People Like Us?

‘People Like Us’ was commissioned by Maggie Schubart  when she  was in her nineties.  She had a wish list and on that list was a play that would help the cause of peace.  Maggie was a social activist who came to Salt Spring with her family during the Vietnam War. She believed that change often happened through arts and culture. The story idea came from Jan Slakov, a friend of  Maggie’s who knew a Canadian military policeman and his wife in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.


What was it about this particular story that captivated you?

Jan Slakov and Sandi Johnson at the Firehall.
Jan Slakov and Sandi Johnson at the Firehall.

I didn’t meet this couple and the Kate Rourke character is my creation. However, I  knew from Jan Slakov that this couple had stayed together after he came home sick from the Gulf.  I knew that she’d cared for him and had also advocated for veterans.  They  suffered loss of health, intimacy, financial security, and especially loss of faith in the military. I was interested in the human qualities that kept them together.


In your research into the Gulf War and Canada’s involvement in it, what did you discover that astonished or shocked you?

There was plenty of material that disturbed me.  It was an Arab conflict over oil and it could have remained an Arab conflict.  I was disturbed by the flagrant destruction of Iraq, the use of depleted uranium,  and especially by the murder of surrendering Iraqis and hundreds of innocent civilians on Road to Basra, also known as The Highway of Death.


Why did decide to tell the story from Gerry’s wife’s perspective?

Gerry’s health was in a downward spiral and his would have been an interior perspective. There was much more opportunity for action in telling it from Kate’s story.  She stayed in the time as it was running out, attempting  to keep the family together. She rebelled against the poverty and the rules. She tried to save her sensual grace through belly dance.

People_Like_Us_Sarah Louise Turner credit Emily Cooper
Sarah Louise Turner as Kate Rourke in People Like Us


Did you talk to many veterans while researching the piece? Are there any particular stories that stand out?

I didn’t talk to many veterans, but I found in Hansard veterans’ submissions to Veterans Affairs Committees.  Many times, I read  the story of sick veterans asking for help. I found letters, for example to Canadian Blood Services where veterans express concern regarding depleted uranium toxicity.

I heard from a Gulf War Vet by email one day  because he’d read online that I’d done a script based on the 1991 Gulf War. I suggested we meet for coffee, and then he told me he was writing from Montreal.  I said that Montreal was a long way to go for coffee. I’ve been in touch with another vet who’s very ill. She’s so grateful that someone’s told their story. The Gulf War vets have felt forgotten.


What message would you like audiences to take away from the show?

I’d like them to walk out of the theatre with a very brave Kate Rourke right beside them.


People Like Us previews this Saturday Nov 2, 8pm; Sunday Nov 3, 2pm; Tuesday Nov 5, 8pm; Wednesday Nov 6, 1pm (PWYC) and runs til Nov 16. Previews are all half price ($15). Click here or call 604-689-0926 to buy tickets. There will be a special panel discussion looking at the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on Nov 10 following the 2pm matinee.


Chelsea Hotel goes on tour

Rachel Aberle, Steve Charles, Benjamin Elliott, Marlene Ginader, and Lauren Bowler. Photo by David Cooper.
Rachel Aberle, Steve Charles, Benjamin Elliott, Marlene Ginader, and Lauren Bowler. Photo by David Cooper.

It’s written on the walls of this hotel, you go to heaven, once you’ve been to hell
—Leonard Cohen

The Chelsea Hotel cast are checking out of Vancouver and heading off on a Western Canadian adventure that will see them perform this smash hit show in Saskatoon, Winnipeg and the Lower Mainland. We are excited to be taking this Jessie-nominated show on the road and bringing it back to Vancouver in March next year for an encore run at the Firehall.

Right now the six multi-talented cast members are tuning up their seventeen instruments, warming up their vocal chords and filling the theatre with the sounds of Leonard Cohen’s iconic music as they rehearse for the tour. It’s great to have them back!

If you have friends in any of the below cities, be sure to let them know this eclectic cabaret of loves won and lost is headed their way.

Read more about Chelsea Hotel.


Persephone Theatre, Saskatoon: October 30 – November 17, 2013

Prairie Theatre Exchange, Winnipeg: January 23, 2014 – February 09, 2014

Lower Mainland Tour presented by the Arts Club Theatre Company

Kay Meek Centre, West Vancouver: February 18&19, 2014

Surrey Arts Centre, Surrey: February 20 – March 1, 2014

BlueShore Financial Centre for the Performing Arts, North Vancouver: March 3, 2014

Evergreen Cultural Centre, Coquitlam: March 4-8, 2014

Shadbolt Centre for the Arts: March 12 & 13, 2014

Clarke Theatre, Mission: March 14, 2014

The ACT Arts Centre & Theatre, Maple Ridge: March 15, 2014

Firehall Arts Centre, Vancouver: March 18 – 29, 2014

Chasing Tom Thomson’s ghost

 An interview with Bruce Horak

Some of you may recall Bruce Horak from his brilliantly comic show This is CANCER!

This multi-talented visual and performance artist opens his new show Assassinating Thomson, on Wednesday October 9 at the Firehall. Bruce is legally blind (a childhood illness left him with 9% of his vision) and Assassinating Thomson interweaves his story with the controversial tale of famous Canadian painter Tom Thomson’s unsolved murder. We chatted to Bruce Horak about what inspired his latest show, chasing the ghost of Tom Thomson and meeting the man himself.


What first attracted you to the idea of doing a show about Tom Thomson?

I was commissioned several years ago to write a “complete history of Canadian art” and learned the story of Tom Thomson.  I was intrigued by the mystery surrounding his death and felt that it would make a great show.  The various theories about who may or may not have done the deed are fantastic.

What is your favourite Thomson painting?

My favourite Thomson painting is called Northern River.  I love the colour and the feeling he captures.

This show is well traveled, where else have you toured it?

The show began rehearsing here in Vancouver and then previewed in Calgary in June.

The summer tour began in Ottawa (where it won Outstanding Concept) and then went to Toronto, (Outstanding Performance, Production, and Direction) Winnipeg (Audience Favourite) Edmonton and Victoria (Best new play).

What kind of reactions have you had from audiences to the show?

I have had more than a few audience members who are so fascinated by the story that they rush out to buy books about Thomson, his work, his life, and his death.  That’s the biggest compliment I could get. That, and they buy my paintings after the show (which is a big bonus as an artist).

I hear Mr. Thomson himself attended your show. Is that true?!

There is a gentlemen who Blogs as Thomson.  He came to my opening show in Ottawa, introduced himself as Tom Thomson and refused to tell me his real name.  It was quite an honour to meet him:  he told me that I got the story exactly right!Bruce Horak's The Way I See It Exhibition in Kelowna

How long have you been painting for? What inspired you to take it up?

I began painting seriously a few years ago.  As a Visually impaired person, many of my friends have asked me how I see… Painting is an attempt to share my vision and capture the way I see.

Can you tell me a little about the portraits that will be on display in the Firehall lobby gallery during your show?

The portraits in the lobby are all a part of my ongoing series: The Way I See It. Each one begins with a base tone, which is influenced by the auras I see.  The distortions in them are a result of the floaters that I have proliferating my visual field.

Each one is meant to be viewed through my glasses at close range in order to replicate my severe tunnel-vision.  It’s quite a challenge to capture how I see, and I’m enjoying the attempt!

 Assassinating Thomson is produced by Monster Theatre and runs October 8-19 at the Firehall Arts Centre. Tickets are available online here or by calling 604-689-0926. You can read more about Bruce here.Bruce Horak_Assassinating Thomson 7