Interview with Jordan Lehto

picture of jordan lehtoJordan Lehto is a playwright with Thunder Bay’s 10×10 Showcase.  He has had five plays produced in the showcase: Just Go With It (2014), People Like You (2015), Noise (2016), Little Endings (2017), and Women’s Work (2018).

Shauna Kosoris: You’ve had five plays produced in the 10×10 showcase between 2014 and 2018.  What made you first write a play for the showcase?

Jordan Lehto: The first time I submitted to 10×10 it was kind of on a whim. I had never written a play before, and I hadn’t submitted any kind of writing to anyone. But a friend pointed it out as something that I might be interested in, knowing that I do some creative writing as a hobby, and so I gave it a shot. I was thrilled to be accepted, especially because I had had no expectations whatsoever. It was such a great opportunity to feel like a part of Thunder Bay’s creative community.

What do you find are the most challenging and rewarding parts of working within the 10×10 structure?

Writing a ten minute play definitely comes with its challenges. The biggest one is probably just coming up with a story that you can tell effectively from beginning to end in such a short period of time. Sometimes the ideas that I come up with will feel too big for the format, and other times they might be more concise, but lack depth. It’s tricky finding that balance, but it’s a fun challenge, and one that really forces you to be efficient in your storytelling, which I think is always a good thing. There is also so much about 10×10 that’s rewarding. Cathi Winslow and the team who run the showcase do such a fantastic job of making all participants – writers, directors, performers – feel valued, which I appreciate. And they offer many opportunities for playwrights to further develop and improve their work once it’s been accepted (and even before it’s submitted), all the while respecting the vision of each individual playwright. The process really becomes more and more communal as it goes, which I really enjoy, as it’s great to connect with people of all different experience levels and skill sets who are all coming together with the same goal – to produce an exciting evening of local theatre.

Thinking about that process, what’s it like to see your plays produced?

It’s always exciting to see my words come to life on stage. I have been very fortunate to work with five talented directors who have all been super welcoming, and have invited me into the production process. I always get so much out of that, because not only is it a great way to connect with other members of our creative community, but I find that seeing a play make the step-by-step transition from script to stage helps me to better understand how to write for the stage. Almost always, the directors and cast members will have far more experience in the theatre than I do, so it’s a fantastic learning opportunity for me. Everyone brings something interesting and unique to the process, and it’s cool to see how it all comes together.

So what inspired your newest play, Women’s Work?

When I’ve written for 10×10 in previous years, I will usually start with an idea for a story and the play will naturally extend from that, but Women’s Work was a little different. Instead of a story idea, I started with a feeling that I wanted to convey, and sort of worked backwards, developing a story around that. There are probably different ways to interpret it, as there are with any piece of writing, but my goal was to touch on some themes of social justice and gender roles.

Have you ever written plays for anything other than 10×10?

So far, I have only written plays for 10×10. However, the play that I submitted and was produced in 2015, People Like You, will be performed at the Confederation College Performing Arts Club’s Evening of One Act Plays on April 6th. I am so grateful to 10×10 for recognizing my work, because it has led to other opportunities, like this one. It’s an honour to have had my pieces selected five years in a row, and when I look back to that first year, I can see how much I have gained from the whole experience. 10×10 has given me the confidence and the validation to take my writing more seriously, which I have started making an effort to do.

And I know you’re branching out from playwriting as well – you’ve taken several novel writing courses from UBC. What was the most interesting thing you’ve learned from UBC?

They offer three courses on novel writing through an online program called edX, and so far I’ve taken the first two, which focus on creating a novel outline, and writing a first draft. I plan to take the third one, which is on rewriting and revisions, once I have my first draft completed. The most significant thing that I’ve taken away from those courses is probably the importance of structure, which is something that I struggled with previously. They go fairly in depth in looking at what structural elements are necessary in a novel, regardless of what it’s about or the way in which you’re telling it, and that has been very useful for me. It has helped me not only with writing my story, but with understanding my story more clearly on a fundamental level.

Do you find their class structure helpful for writing a novel?  

Since the courses were online, it was all very independent, though there were opportunities to connect with other students, and also to ask personalized questions to the professors, which was a nice balance. The courses lasted six weeks each, and deadlines were fairly flexible within that time, although it was encouraged that you keep up with it on a weekly basis in order to get the most out of it. I am someone who struggles with procrastination big time, and so having clear deadlines for completing the lessons was absolutely necessary for me. One thing I know I have to work on is figuring out how to best set those kinds of deadlines for myself!

I’m sure that’s something that many creative people struggle with!  Have you taken novel writing classes from anywhere else?

I have never taken any writing courses other than the ones through UBC, though I did a ton of academic writing while I was getting my HBA and later MA in History at Lakehead University. It’s definitely a different kind of writing, but it gave me lots of experience in how to gauge my writing to work within a certain structure, and of course in working with words. I am a big fan of the UBC courses, and highly recommend them, because they answer all the questions that I would imagine any novice writer like myself would have. They cover all of the basics, and are really supportive and encouraging. I completed the courses feeling really confident and motivated to write, which is a great feeling.

Definitely! So what are you working on now?

Right now, I am using the outline that I developed as a part of one of the writing courses to draft a novel. The plot plays out as something of an homage to the Beach Party movies of the early 1960s, but on a deeper level, it takes a look at the experiences of youth (particularly queer youth) in the mid-twentieth century, with all of the cultural shifts that were happening at that time. This draws from some of my own personal experience as a queer male, as well as the research that I did for my Master’s degree, which was focused on the experiences of queer young men between 1945 and 1965. My goal is to write something that I would have connected to as a queer teen, and that addresses some big issues, but in a way that is on the lighter side, and has a hopeful perspective. I think it’s really important when looking at history to recognize that the past has never been as straight as it often seems to have been.

Good luck – I hope to read it one day! I’ve got just a few more questions to finish up with. What book or author inspired you to write?

When I was in my late teens I discovered The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, and it had a huge impact on me in a number of ways. It was the first book I read that treated the idea of being gay with a sort of nonchalance which really surprised me at the time, as most of the queer characters I had encountered before that were often defined by their sexuality. It was really empowering for me to read about a gay character that was definitely actively gay, but was so much more than that, and who defied categorization. That book also inspired me to write, because it was the first book I had read that was not really plot driven and was more of a character study written from the first-person perspective in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way. I was like “wait, you can do this? You can write a whole book like this?” I had wanted to write before, but after reading The Rules of Attraction, I realized that I didn’t necessarily need a plot in the way that I thought I did, and it wasn’t mandatory to write from the traditional third-person perspective. Writing in the way that Ellis did felt so natural for me, and still does. Reading his work for the first time felt like someone had given me permission to be myself, and to write from a uniquely honest place.

That’s so empowering; I’m glad Ellis’ writing was able to speak to you as it did.  Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

It’s probably such a cliché to say To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’m going to say To Kill a Mockingbird. Like many people, I was assigned to read it in high school (although I didn’t), but I revisited it a couple of years ago and I’m so glad I did. I don’t think it would be possible for any writer to capture the essence of childhood better than Harper Lee did in that book, and the themes of social justice are beautifully understated while still being powerful. It’s a pretty short, accessible read with universal themes, so when I think about a story that I would recommend to anyone, it’s definitely that one. However, some of my other favourite novels include The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and an odd little book that’s long since out of print (but that can be found used online) called Last Summer by Evan Hunter.

And what are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading Call Me By Your Name by André Aciman, and really enjoying it. I’m looking forward to watching the movie when I’m finished.

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