Brooke Johnson’s first meeting with Pierre Elliot Trudeau involved a borrowed gown, borrowed shoes – two sizes too big – and toilet paper.
The Toronto-based actress refused to elaborate.
It’s part of her one-woman show, Trudeau Stories coming to Whitehorse next week, and Johnson didn’t want to let the cat out of the bag.
Trudeau “must have thought my temperament was alright,” she said, because not long after that first chance encounter, the pair found themselves in “a pickup bar” in old Montreal talking nonstop.
“Actually it was me that was doing all the talking, about art, literature, architecture, so many topics,” she said.
“He kept asking me questions.”
Johnson was 23 that year – Trudeau was 66.
“It was an unusual friendship,” she said.
On another outing, the pair walked up the mountain in the middle of Montreal.
The stairs down were icy and Trudeau – who loved to run and slide – gripped the banister and slid all the way to the bottom.
“He was fearless,” said Johnson.
“I was a bit more cautious.”
After theatre school, pursuing her career, Johnson lost touch with her unusual friend.
Then he died of prostate cancer.
Trying to come to grips with her grieving, Johnson wrote Trudeau Stories.
“I was reliving our friendship – trying to come to grips with it and understand it,” she said.
In some ways, Trudeau Stories “feels like a fairy tale,” said Johnson.
“But it’s all true.
“And it’s funny.”
The play was not written to be political.
But Johnson hopes it gets people “off their bums and inspires them to start asking questions.”
Our current leaders say, “Let us run the country – don’t worry about it,” she said.
But this is a democracy.
“We run the country.”
And Trudeau understood that, she said.
“He was always interested in what we had to say – he ran a participatory democracy.”
Johnson finds these days resonate with her older audience members.
During Trudeau’s time, “there was a great respect for Canada, and our foreign policy, around the world,” she said.
“It’s different now.”
Trudeau Stories reminds people of what Canada could be, she said.
“I’d like people to remember that.”
Back in grade school, Johnson never considered acting.
Her aptitude tests pointed her toward a job as a phys-ed teacher or a florist, “because I like the outdoors and people,” she said.
Then, in Grade 7 a friend literally shoved her through a door to audition for the school play.
It was a comedy about seniors.
A week later, Johnson’s name was called over the PA – she’d gotten the part of Grandma Ed.
“It was ridiculous, all these 11- and 12-year-olds playing these 80-year-olds,” she said.
But onstage, when parents and classmates clapped and laughed, Johnson “got bit.”
She started reading scripts and by the time she was 17 she’d hopped public transit an hour into Toronto so many times she’d managed to see more than 180 plays.
But she refused to get back onstage herself.
“I was too nervous, and every time I was supposed to go on, I got terribly sick,” she said.
During high school, she volunteered at the Shaw Festival, sneaking in to see productions whenever she could.
Then, after a year at a hoity-toity acting school in New York, which she hated, Johnson ended up working in Ireland, before joining a circus in Italy.
By the time she was 22, she was back in Toronto working at a law office.
“That’s when I finally felt stable enough to audition for the National Theatre School,” she said.
Johnson got in.
The next year, as a student rep at the school’s 25th anniversary awards gala, she ended up dancing with the man who changed her life.
Trudeau Stories is not about his life, “it’s about mine,” said Johnson.
“And it’s certainly not a tell-all,” she added.
It’s also not your average one-woman show.
Directed by a dancer, the play is full of movement and music.
“It’s also constant storytelling,” she said.
“It’s a great journey into youth.”
And it reminds the audience of when they found a mentor or connected with someone, she said.
“It makes you realize what a profound effect they had on your whole life.”
Trudeau Stories is at the Old Fire Hall in Whitehorse from Wednesday to Saturday, March 16 through 19.
The show runs a little over an hour and starts at 7:30 p.m.
Johnson’s also selling her script to raise money for cancer – the disease that took Trudeau’s life.
The money goes to Road Hockey to Conquer Cancer, an unusual fundraising event for cancer research that involves a dawn-to-dusk road hockey marathon.
For more information visit: http://www.teamuptoconquercancer.ca.
Contact Genesee Keevil at