Up-and-coming Windsor-born playwright Jonathan Tessier joined Michael K. Potter to discuss the circumstances and inspirations that fueled him to create Stuck - one of two winning scripts in the 2021 Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest.
Watch the interview and read the transcript below!
POTTER: Hi everyone. I'm Michael K. Potter from Post Productions and I'm speaking today with Jonathan Tessier, who's script Stuck was one of the winners of the 2022 (sic) Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest. Jonathan's play will be produced starting September 30th, 2022, for a three-week run -- eight performances.
Hi, John, how are you today?
TESSIER: I’m good. How are you?
POTTER: Alright. Alright.
So, Stuck. We read a couple of versions of this play and it just got better and better over time. Let's start by helping people understand what it's about. How would you describe Stuck in, I don’t know. . . 300 words or so?
TESSIER: So I guess it's about four friends who -- they're not really friends -- they've been friends for a long time and things have started to get, I don't know. . . weary between them and they don't like each other as much as they once did. And one of them stumbles upon a briefcase full of cocaine. And they all have to decide what they want to do with it, and what's gonna happen after that. I guess that would be the short summary of it.
POTTER: Yeah, that's fair. That's fair.
You mentioned that they are friends who -- or they used to be friends, or their friendship is waning right now. One of the things that I found really interesting in Stuck is the view of friendship that it puts forth. Because you have these people who some like each other more than others, but none seem terribly fond of each other. And at times seem even antagonistic. And there's even a discussion at one point about how it's very difficult to break up with your friends. You're sort of stuck with them. And, in a way, these people are friends now because they've been friends since they were kids.
Can you tell us about that -- about this version of friendship that you’ve put forward? Because I think that's something that everyone's experienced, maybe not to quite the degree that these four people in the play do.
TESSIER: Well, I guess because I've always been a big fan of the sitcom Friends, and they've always said the whole point of that show is that it's like a time in your life where you're closer with your friends than you are with your family. And just in my personal experience that's just not how it's been. I've always been a little closer with my family than I have my friends. I guess I always find if you're friends with someone for five or six years or something like that, you start -- the relationship -- you start to hate them for the little things that you didn't really care about in the beginning. It's the same thing as a relationship, right? You'll be in a relationship with someone and at first it's really great, and you're in that really awesome part, and then as time goes on they start to get on your nerves about certain things. I guess that's kind of just been my experience with a lot of friendships and that's kind of why I put that into the play.
POTTER: Yeah, I think it is. And I'm finding with myself -- and I don't know if this is your experience as well -- that it is. . . that it does happen, but also that -- does it happen more frequently or is it just more obvious to me now in the age where we don't spend a lot of face-to-face time with our friends doing things out in the world? A lot of it is through online contact and so forth, and in that way it seems like the friendship stays at a more superficial level and it fades faster. Have you found that?
TESSIER: Yeah. Yeah, totally. I think that's totally been part of it. We're not making the same connections that we used to.
POTTER: In the case of the characters in this play too -- I'm gonna name them. They are Joey, Zack, Kaitlyn and Selena. In the case of these characters -- they're in their 20’s. I’d say early-to-mid 20’s or so. And they've been friends since they were in second grade or something like that. And in that period you go through a lot of changes too. So the person you were friends with in Grade 2 is not the person you're friends with when you're 25. And the same with high school. You go through all of these changes. So what may have initiated as a friendship over a shared love of My Little Pony, by the time you're 25, okay, you could still be into My Little Pony, but other things are going on in your life and that bond alone isn't enough to drive a friendship.
TESSIER: Right. Yeah, I completely agree with that.
POTTER: I don't wanna put down anyone who's into My Little Pony as an adult. That's fine. I know several. There are people. Anyway, I haven't seen the new My Little Pony. I hear it's good. People tell me it's good, but I've got only so much time.
Now I want to talk about, before we get into some more stuff about the play itself, your own development as a writer. You're in radio now --
TESSIER: I --
POTTER: but how long have you been – sorry?
TESSIER: I used to be when radio. I actually -- I got laid off back in November. So now I'm back in school for digital advertising.
POTTER: Digital advertising. Okay, yeah. So you're one of the many COVID casualties; your job?
TESSIER: Yeah, basically. Yeah.
POTTER: Yeah. So, digital advertising, that will involve some writing I'm sure as well, won't it?
TESSIER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Things like copywriting, that's a part of that. And there’s social media kind of stuff that's mixed into that. So, yeah.
POTTER: When it comes to plays and stories, things like that, when did you start writing and what would you say were your big influences on your development as a writer?
TESSIER: I started writing back when I was actually like 12 years old. I would write little scripts, and keep them to myself. I wouldn't show them to anyone. Just, you know, write little scripts. I like to make characters.
The main reason I actually started writing in my 20’s and getting serious about it was I watched the anime One Piece and that was very influential to me. The world-building of that, and the characters, and their goals, and everything was huge and I kind of wanted to start writing my own anime. But then as time went on I started realizing that's not really -- I don't really know anything about animation. And I knew a lot about theater because I used to do a lot of theater.
And so I started watching the show Better Call Saul as well, and that got me into writing characters. And then when you guys had the contest -- the playwriting contest -- I was like, this is the perfect opportunity for me to start writing, because I've always wanted to do that. So, yeah, that's kind of how it all started.
POTTER: You know, I can kind of see a Better Call Saul influence, and sort of a Breaking Bad influence, in the way that Vince Gilligan writes stories where everything that happens is a consequence. And so the story as it unfolds over the course of five seasons, or whatever it might be, is a chain of consequences and at some point those consequences start limiting your options and forcing you down certain paths. I can see that influence there.
TESSIER: Yeah. Yeah, that's always been the thing that's drawn me to that show is how well the consequences of even the early seasons, they come all the way back to -- in Better Call Saul they introduced the Sandpiper storyline in season one and all the way into season six it follows. That's what I really like about that storytelling.
POTTER: Yeah. Yeah, I agree.
Do you ever go back to the scripts you wrote when you were 12 or 13 out of curiosity, or are you afraid to look at them?
TESSIER: I actually don't have them available. They're all on my old family computers that are gone somewhere now. I don't have any access to them.
I do remember as parts of them. And it's funny, I don't know, they're bad, but there's parts of them that are good, you know?
POTTER: Well, I mean, when you're starting out it of course they're gonna be bad, especially when you're very very young. When I started writing it was basically fan fiction and it was awful. It was awful stuff. Embarrassing. But you learn from it, so there's part of your development that's there too.
TESSIER: Yeah, absolutely.
POTTER: I wrote a lot of Mario fan fiction.
TESSIER: Oh, really?
POTTER: Yeah. That's bizarre. I don't know how many different adventures Mario can go on, but apparently I thought some. I just remember writing them, I don't remember what they were about.
So you have this influence from very consequence driven dramas like Breaking Bad and so forth, but also this anime influence. Was that the first time that you really became aware of the writing behind a show?
TESSIER: Yeah. I would say so, yeah. That was the first time I thought it was like, wow, I could maybe do this. I guess I've always been aware of the writing in stuff I've done, but it was the first time I thought, like, oh this is something I could do -- I could have a lot of fun with. And yeah, that was the first thing, yeah.
POTTER: I remember when Stuck won the contest last year you also mentioned that you were influenced by the writing of stories in video games too. Can you tell us about that?
TESSIER: Yeah, so I've always been a big Nintendo fan myself. And, yeah, I've always thought video games they have a certain way of storytelling that you can't really get in any other form of media. Like, I just played this game called Detroit: Become Human and it's an interactive story where you get to choose the choices of each character. Like, there's not a lot of gameplay, but you choose the dialogue options and that changes how the story unfolds. I really don't think there's any way to get that in a movie or a play or a book, where you get to choose the story and you get to make it how you want. And that's really what influences me about storytelling in video games.
POTTER: Yeah, that is a really interesting aspect of storytelling in video games. You're right it's difficult, if not impossible, to get anywhere else that choose-your-own-adventure kind of thing.
When I was a kid they used to have choose-your-own-adventure books, but -- and it was fun, you could alter the story by choosing. You'd skip ahead, right? If I choose that, what happens? Nah, I'm gonna make this other choice. You can't really do that so much in video games. But even then, the stories were much simpler and less involved than what you get in modern video games when it comes to that kind of interactive storytelling.
POTTER: The closest we've ever come on stage at the Shadowbox, I think, was this past spring we did a show called Squirrel Party, written by Edele Winnie. And at the end of it the audience chooses which character they want to die, and that affects the ending of the play.
TESSIER: OK, very interesting.
POTTER: Yeah, they vote. So that was the closest we've ever come. But that's bare bones, right?
TESSIER: Yeah, totally.
POTTER: Have you thought about trying to write something that could be done live in a choose-your-own-adventure kind of way? Where the actors would have to memorize multiple stories, or multiple scenes, and they would have to put them together live as they go through based on the audience votes or something?
TESSIER: I've thought about maybe something like that, but not specifically, but it would be a cool idea no doubt.
POTTER: It would be a challenge, that's for sure.
TESSIER: Yeah, for sure.
POTTER: Challenge for the writer and for the actors, my goodness.
In Stuck one of the things that also strikes me is I think it's very of the moment. To me the play feels like it is definitely a play for this time and this place. And what I mean by that is, something that bothers me actually about what the present generation of people in their 20s faces, is they face a future that is far more uncertain and far gloomier than what I faced when I was in my 20s. And they're in a market -- or they're a job market where we're getting closer and closer to almost a pure gig economy. Where you get contract jobs. They last a little while then you're out of a job, you look for something else. And then while this is happening they're facing rising inflation and rents going through the roof. And it seems almost impossible for people in their 20s now to get traction and to really think long term and plan for something because, A) they don't know if there's anything to plan for, and B) how could they, given that they're being squeezed out of every dollar?
Is that something you had in mind when you were writing?
TESSIER: Yeah. Absolutely, yeah.
I was writing this during COVID, and there was a time where I was only getting about 75% of my pay just because stupid COVID regulations or whatever. And I was struggling. And I was really thinking to myself, I was like, man, if I found a suitcase full of money, would I take it? You know what I mean? I've always felt like a suitcase full of money -- that's sketchy. You take that, someone's gonna come try to find you and kill you. But I was kind of desperate for money at that time and I was like, I would just take it. There's no way I wouldn't. And that kind of influenced me like, oh, that would be really interesting to see on the stage, that kind of “what would you do in that situation?”.
POTTER: Yeah, and you raised a good point, too, in that things like poverty, or hopelessness, or desperation, they make people more vulnerable, right? We always wrestle with our conscience in different situations and so forth, but in a situation like you're describing, if you're feeling poor and feeling as though you're working for nothing, you can't save any money, that's gonna be a much larger temptation for you than it would be at a different time of your life, or for somebody who wasn't that situation, right?
TESSIER: Yeah, absolutely.
POTTER: And the characters – well, some of the characters -- in the play talk about that. That vulnerability, or that precarious state that they're in. I mean, Joey, he has a – sounds to me like it's a part-time job, maybe it's a full-time job, fixing cell phones. But it's sort of a go-nowhere thing, and he's good at it, but he doesn't like it, but it's what he can do. And Kaitlyn just got fired from her job at a pizza place. There are two people with stable jobs in it. Selena has the store that she owns, but she blackmailed her way into owning that. So she's got a stable job, but she got there through nefarious means. And then Zack, who works at his dad's garage. His dad’s garage is struggling, but at least he has a steady job at that garage, and he has since high school.
So you've got four characters in different economic realities at the same time. And it's believable that they could all come up the same way, being friends along the years that led to this point.
At one point is brought up during an argument that Zack doesn't understand the position that the others are in because he's privileged because his dad owns that garage. I'm sure you inserted a character who had that kind of privilege very deliberately. What were you thinking -- what was the reason for having at least one character who was more privileged than the others?
TESSIER: Well, I just think it gives that certain dynamic, right? He’s not in that desperate situation the way they are and he's judging them saying, “Oh, you guys, you should be working for your money. You should be doing this!” But he's never struggled the way that they have and he's never really been in that position, so he doesn't understand it. I think it was important to have that part because there's people like that in real life, who are “you just need to work harder -- you just need to do better!” But they've never been in that position where the world keeps screwing them over and they can't catch a break, and maybe nefarious activity would be better. I just think people are so judgmental about that stuff sometimes, and it was good to have that kind of force in between the three of them who don't see that rationalization, I guess.
POTTER: Well, and the revelation that he has with this privilege comes at a really interesting point in the play because up to that point Zack has been the person of conscience. He's the person who is, from the beginning, against keeping the cocaine -- against selling the cocaine to get money. And you think, okay, this is a person -- he's a little self-righteous, okay, but he's principled. There's a conscience there. And then you find out, well, he's got this privilege. So the conscience seems less impressive because he doesn't have to face the same gravity of choice that the other three have to.
TESSIER: Exactly, yeah.
POTTER: You mentioned in something that you wrote the other day that you want to explore different approaches to morality in the play. Zack, we just mentioned, is one of those approaches. What can you tell us about the other three and what kinds of perspectives you wanted to take through those characters on the morality of the situation they're facing?
TESSIER: I always pictured it as Zack is on one side of the fence and then Joey is on the other side of the fence, where he's like, “No, I don't care. It's all about me. I want the money”. And Zack is all like, “No, that's wrong. You should not steal money” or whatever. And then I always wanted Kaitlyn to be a little bit on Zack’s side, because she's kind of like, “Oh, I don't know, you shouldn't steal, that's a wrong thing to do” but she's a little bit on Joey’s side as well. Same with Selena -- she's a little more on Joey’s side but she realizes that she's being really selfish in what she's doing, but she has a justification for her selfishness.
So yeah, I always just wanted that tug of war balance where sometimes Zack is pulling towards and he gets Selena and Kaitlyn a little more on his side, but then Joey pulls back and he gets them more on his side, I guess.
POTTER: Yeah, yeah, the two extremes. And Joey almost represents pure self-interest, right? Basically that's all he thinks about, but also in a way that is not very strategic. It's sort of – he lives in the present tense almost without much thought for the future or the past. Whereas Selena, who is closer to Joey, as you mentioned, in her point of view – she's far more strategic, isn't she? She's a planner. She's somebody who is, yeah, a little sketchy – she's done some sketchy things. She reminded me of the Henry Kissinger style realpolitik, where it's this idea that you do what is the most pragmatic thing for you at the moment. That's kind of what she seems like to me.
Whereas Kaitlyn, to me, is almost like how I think most people would be in that situation. Where they're kind of tempted by both options and they're wrestling with it, but they didn't come into this with a strong position so they're more vulnerable to being persuaded by whoever's talking to them at the moment.
TESSIER: Exactly, yeah.
POTTER: And she's also the most vulnerable because she just lost her job.
TESSIER: Yeah, totally. Yeah.
POTTER: Then we have the character of Markus, who is the guy who owns the cocaine. And I’m not gonna give anything away. I'm trying to avoid, basically, talking about Act 2.
TESSIER: Right, yeah, fair enough.
POTTER: But at some point, as you mentioned earlier, somebody's gonna come looking for that. And Joey, not being very bright about how he handles things, basically lead Markus right to them.
Why is it important for you to have that character in there, rather than to just have the play be about the struggle between these four friends and what they should do with the cocaine?
TESSIER: Well, I guess the character of Markus kind of grew from the origin of the story. When I originally was writing this play, I had watched the movie Pineapple Express. And I really – I loved it. And I was thinking, oh, wouldn't that be cool to make a theatrical version of Pineapple Express? But I was like, yeah, but they go so many different places in that movie you could never keep it on stage. And I was thinking, well, maybe you could have a theatrical version where they stay in the apartment and the drug dealers are trying to get into the apartment and kill them. And then I was like, well, why don't I just make my own script about this? That's basically how it all came down.
So ever since the beginning I've always wanted the character of Markus in there as the antagonist trying to get into the apartment to kill them. That's always been kind of the point of the story.
POTTER: It's like Night of the Living Dead in that way, right? Where mostly happens in the basement.
POTTER: That's great. I can't remember who it was, I think it was Hemingway, maybe – I'm gonna get this wrong – who said, “When I want to read a good book, I write one.” I think some people are like that. With plays and movies I think some people are like that too.
The story that you had in your head was inspired by what you saw in Pineapple Express but it's very different and its own way better because it's your creation, right?
TESSIER: Yeah. Totally.
POTTER: What do you have on deck next in terms of writing and so forth?
TESSIER: Well, so I've been writing the this play, Shooter, that you guys have been reading for a long time, and that's something I've always been interested in writing. It's about a school shooter who, after the school shooting is done, he's getting interrogated by the police. And that's always been something I've been – that’s the first thing I ever wrote really seriously. That's something I've always wanted to write, so that's something I'm definitely going to be working on. And there's a couple other things.
I always find, if there's any play contests around, or any writing opportunities, I like to just dip my hand into it and see what I can do, you know? So whatever comes up, I guess.
POTTER: You know you've submitted to the playwriting contest every year since it was founded in 2018. I think Shooter was the first script you submitted, wasn't it?
TESSIER: Yeah, absolutely.
POTTER: Yeah, and we liked it, and we were really happy that you're still working on it because we think that has a lot of potential. But I have to tell you, we're actually always looking forward to your entries when the playwriting contest deadline comes around. And there was one year, I think it was maybe 2020, where you forgot the deadline, or you thought you'd sent it or something like that – we didn't receive it and we actually contacted you because we were worried. We hadn't received anything from you and we thought we better check it out because we were looking forward to it.
TESSIER: Yeah, yeah, I was glad I was able to still get in there.
POTTER: Well, Jonathan, there anything else that you would like people to know about the play before we sign off today?
TESSIER: I guess I just want people to know that there's a lot of different feelings you're gonna feel when you watch this play. You're gonna feel scared, you're gonna feel angry, you're gonna hate some of the characters, you're gonna probably love some of the characters, you're gonna laugh. So there's a lot to be had here. I think there's a little something for everyone, actually.
POTTER: I agree. I feel like it's primarily a thriller, but there are also dramatic elements, and there are parts of it that are really funny, I think, too.
TESSIER: Yeah, for sure.
POTTER: Alright, well, I can't wait for you to see it and I can't wait for the rest of the public to see it as well. Thank you so much for talking with us, Jonathan.
TESSIER: Absolutely have a good one.
POTTER: You too.
JONATHAN TESSIER has been involved in the Windsor Art Community since age 12. On stage, you might have seen him in productions such as: Lost in Yonkers, The Lion in Winter, Titus Andronicus and A Clockwork Orange. For the past six years he has been working in Radio, but is now studying Digital Advertising at Durham College. He hopes to continue playwriting in the future.
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