Anika Johnson is a talented, award-winning writer and performer in her own right, carrying a resume that includes international dancer, feature-film writer, playwright, pianist, musical theatre composer and dramaturg.
And yet, she looks up to her little sister, Britta Johnson. Then again, it’s hard not to, when the Toronto Star—one of Canada’s largest papers—calls your little sister “Canadian musical theatre’s next great hope.”
“It’s funny. I came into this work because I was following (a little sister). I don’t know what it’s like to be a little sister, but I feel like a little sister as a writer because I followed my little sister into this world and she was my inspiration that led me to become a writer in the first place,” Anika said. “It is interesting as we write together because whenever you’re collaborating, you have to always be aware of all the dynamics in the room that might affect somebody’s impulse or a response to an impulse.
“We have to be so cognizant of our sister dynamic when we’re fighting out an idea or figuring out how to advance an idea. Sometimes, all of a sudden, it feels like we’re 10 and 6 again, arguing over who gets the front seat. Our radar when that’s happening is very finely tuned at this point, so we can stay with the work, stay with each other and fall into that dynamic only as far as it can serve the work.”
The work they—along with writer Nick Green—serve is Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life.
The musical theatre is part of SCR’s new Samples from The Lab, a special event at the Pacific Playwrights Festival (Apr. 8-10) that offers audiences an exclusive sneak peek of a new musical in development.
“We are so thrilled to have Anika, Britta and Nick join us as part of The [email protected] and PPF’s new initiative, Samples from The Lab,” SCR Artistic Director David Ivers said. “Their new musical, Dr. Silver, is so of-the-moment and promising! We are eager to share a sample from it and hear feedback from Festival participants. This should be an adventurous format as they begin the next development phase of their work at South Coast Repertory.”
Anika Johnson and Britta Johnson composed the music and the lyrics for Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life off of Green’s book. The musical tells the story of a fictional cult and explores the impact of absolute belief. It takes you to the funeral of the cult leader, with the Johnsons’ music creating “a joyous, site-specific, immersive piece of theatre,” as Britta described it.
“One thing we were talking about a lot is how we can meet the very specific moment we’re living in with this play and the possibilities of that,” Britta said. “It is a play about absolute belief and the division that happens when people believe absolutely without any room for questioning, nuance or the intricacies of real human relationships. I think societally, we’re seeing this obviously in how we’re so divided. And that’s absolutely true.
“But the way that’s enacted within families is a painful thing to explore, but we hope to explore it with the show and it feels like an important thing to explore in a very, very moment-to-moment world we’re living in right now.”
The Johnsons collaborated with Green—himself an award-winning playwright for his work Body Politic—to seek an exploration in an interactive way that brings audiences along for the ride.
“One of our big goals for this show is to present a scenario in which the audience can see themselves being indoctrinated into the cult,” Green said. “The religion feels out there and wild, but we want to present a story to see how very smart people, very intelligent people might find themselves going into an area where they can be pulled into a sense of community.”
Speaking of community, that word describes how the Johnsons became two of Canada’s most up-and-coming musical theatre composers. They grew up in Stratford, Ontario, where their parents were musicians in the Stratford Festival orchestra. Britta started writing musicals in high school and her first full-length musical: Big Box Story—about a Walmart coming to town—gained such buzz that the Avon Theatre did a one-off performance in 2009.
She was 16.
Ten years later, Britta’s Life After opened at Toronto’s Canadian Stage in a co-production with Musical Stage Company. Musical Stage Company Artistic and Managing Director Mitchell Marcus called Johnson’s talent “profound” in a Toronto Star piece anointing her “Canadian Musical Theatre’s next great hope.” He would later tell the Toronto Star that Johnson’s talent is so rare that he kept telling Robert McQueen, the director of the 2017 production, “This is what it would have felt like to be in the room with Stephen Sondheim in 1968, just before he broke through.”
After garnering numerous awards, Life After enjoyed its U.S. premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre in 2019. Chicago’s Goodman Theatre will produce a five-week run later this summer.
Anika served as dramaturg for the Old Globe production and was in the cast. This sister act travels well beyond who gets the front seat in the car or at the piano.
“The fact we’re sisters means we’re really good about disagreeing with one another, which is really good for the collaboration,” Anika said. “We know how to fight. We’ve seen ourselves through a lot of fights in our lifetime. That’s a big part of why the collaboration is successful, especially in a lot of those early stages. We can really get into it.”
Learn more about the Pacific Playwrights Festival and buy tickets.