" I think you become great when you trust that the stories you have inside of you, the truths you feel and the world you see has value and can resonate with others if you tell them honestly, clearly and with great craft."
About Shauna Johannesen
Shauna Johannesen is a writer and actor originally from Edmonton, Alberta. She holds a BA from Calvin College in Michigan, and an MA from the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. With a background in improv comedy and theatre, Shauna also serves as the Playwrights Guild Representative for BC Mainland.
Shauna’s first short film “Bedbugs: A Musical Love Story” premiered at the Vancouver International Film Festival and has gone on to multiple festivals winning “Best Short Film” (EIFF, RXSM) and “Best Actress” (VSFF).
Shauna’s plays have been produced in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, and her new family drama “Common Grace” will premiere next season at Pacific Theatre. As an actor Shauna has recently appeared on TV programs like Motive, Cult, The Honor Student, and Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever.
What is the force that drives you forward? What fuels your ambition?
Hmmm. That’s a good question. I’d like to say that I’m fuelled by love – by the love of story, the love of connection with other people through story, the love of making people laugh or feel or think. I’d like to say that I’m driven purely by the love of the craft. And all of those are true, in part.
But I would say I’m equally fuelled by fear. Fear that I’m wasting my life. My gifts. My time. Fear that if I don’t make something, or do something valuable that I’m a failure.
Or fear that maybe everything is meaningless, and that creating things and making things that are yours is the only way to stave off the void. And I tend to reflect that in my work – I like comedy and deep connection in the face of possible meaninglessness. So maybe I’m fuelled by love and deep metaphysical angst.
Can you talk about your greatest “failure”? (something that led to your most significant shift in consciousness, and made you who you are today).
I think in some ways the failure that led to my most significant shift in consciousness wasn’t a failure to me but to other people. I wrote a play that I thought was funny and meaningful but also had a lot of bad language and was downright crude in a few places. So when friends and family came to see it, some were deeply offended – they took my play personally, and were personally hurt and ashamed of me because I wrote these offensive things. And on the one hand I was really hurt because I care what people think, and I have no desire to hurt the people I love. But it was also the beginning of a new kind of freedom for me, because I had been so afraid of that before – of disappointing people.
And once you do it, you realize “OK, I can disappoint other people and survive. I can do the thing I was so afraid of and be Ok.”
And for me it was a kind of great relief to know that I didn’t need anyone else’s permission – that I can tell the stories I want to tell and people can like it or not and that’s not the defining factor in how I feel about myself or my work. I think I’m still learning that, but this was a big shift for me.
Are you happy? What does happiness mean to you?
I don’t know what happiness is totally. I’m happy sometimes and other times I’m deeply sad or annoyed or indifferent. I think happiness is a feeling, so it changes – and it should change if you’re really being present to your experiences and what’s going on in the world and in your life.
I’m not sure we’re meant to be happy all the time, or that that would be good for us. Being human is about so much more than being happy all the time. As an artist I’m interested in what makes people – what makes me – really angry and really heartbroken and really excited. These are the colours of life. And I also think part of what drives me personally is a kind of anxiety – the metaphysical angst I mentioned earlier – so no, I don’t think I’m happy all the time. But am I generally content with my life? Yes. Even if I have to remind myself of that.
I would love to be working more, getting paid more often, having more external markers of success maybe. But I am doing things I love. I have an amazing partner and wonderful family and friends. I live in a beautiful city and I’m healthy. My life is full.
What do you think is your greatest strength? On the reverse, can you identify a personal challenge (something you currently struggle with)?
A therapist once told me that I was a person with really big feelings. And that had never occurred to me before. It had never crossed my mind that I might have bigger or smaller feelings than anyone else or that other people might not feel things the same way I did – even if they behaved differently. And it seemed true to me.
I think it’s probably something a lot of artists have – or actors anyway – a propensity towards feeling things deeply or intensely.I think I’m able to be empathetic – not just to my own situation or feelings, but to other people’s and I know that helps me both as an actor and a writer.
When I’m preparing to play a role, or when I sit down to write different characters I have to put myself in someone else’s shoes, and be able to feel with someone else – to identify with someone else’s journey, experience, voice. Whether that person is a misogynistic lonely game designer, or a heartbroken, angry widow, or a singing lover of bedbugs, finding a way to connect with a character’s humanity in a deeply personal way is crucial to bringing a them to life. And I think that’s a great gift – in art and in life. It also means that sometimes I’m connecting to darker uncomfortable parts of myself or that I’m weeping at my computer while I write, but like I said, being human isn’t only about being happy.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be an artist? Can you talk about that moment or time in your life?
I moved to Vancouver with the plan to pursue writing and acting professionally.
It felt like a guilty pleasure. Like probably I should be doing something more tangibly good – like teaching or nursing.
Pursuing the arts felt kind of selfish because it was something I would enjoy so much. But as I took those steps I realized too that being an artist is a tangible good – that it’s socially important and something our world needs.
But more than that I think I realized that being an artist is also something you are, it’s a way of being in the world. You don’t necessary choose to be an artist. It’s a vocation whether you do it for a living or not. Even if I hadn’t chosen to do this professionally – even if I had become a teacher or a nurse or a politician (and maybe I will do something else someday) – a part of me would and will always be an artist and bring those qualities to another job.
Habits, routine, morning rituals — What are the positive things you do daily that have had the most significant impact on your life and work?
This is where I struggle the most. I need structure and routine very badly and I resist it like the plague.
So if you have something that works, send it to me and I’ll promptly avoid it.
I make schedules, lists, plans, vision boards and then I lose them or ignore them. So…I think they’re really important and I suck a little bit at carrying them through to their end goals.
How do you deal with doubt? Where do you go for support?
I doubt a lot. I doubt everything.
But that can be a really useful too if it’s applied generously. I doubt that I’m a good writer, that I’m a good actor, that I could be great if I really tried. And that can be paralysing.
But I’m as motivated by bad work as I am by good work. I watch lots of mediocre TV shows or good actors doing mediocre work or downright terrible films and plays and I think… “Well, I could do better than that.” Or at the very least no worse. And it’s hard. Being good is very hard. Being willing to be bad or to fail is extremely hard – and necessary to being great. But when you look around at a lot of mediocre work, a lot of terrible work, and then some very fine work, doubt can also prompt you to go “Why not me? Why shouldn’t I throw my hat in the ring?”
For support I have a really amazing partner who is also an artist. And that’s huge. You do need people around you who tell you that what you’re doing is valuable, and you’re good at it, and you’re right to pursue it. Sometimes you have to be that person for yourself, but if you can find a writer’s group or a mentor, or if you’re lucky enough to be married to that person it helps a lot.
What, in your opinion, are the qualities of someone who is a “great” artist (in whatever discipline)?
I think people who are great artists did things even though they were afraid.
Or maybe they weren’t afraid, but I doubt it.
I also think great artists tell their own stories – their personal, wholly unique, inimitable truths. Even if they’re actors playing a role, they’re not afraid to be truly uniquely themselves, to show us something specifically, individually theirs.
I don’t think you become great by trying to reach for some crazy idea of the Great Modern Play, or the next Academy Award Winning Feature or by playing some idea of a person you think the casting director is looking for. I think you become great when you trust that the stories you have inside of you, the truths you feel and the world you see has value and can resonate with others if you tell them honestly, clearly and with great craft.
Any advice for artists on a similar path? (Perhaps advice you wish you’d been given when you were first starting out).
I think the biggest thing I had to learn and still have to learn is that no one is going to do it for you. If you wait around for other people to cast you, or applaud your, or notice what a great writer you are, you will be waiting forever.
No one is waiting for you. They’re probably not even looking for you.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t have something amazing to offer. So do it. And then do it again. And again. And again. Get good. Get great. Take classes, make your own projects, find ways to do the thing itself. By the time people notice, maybe you’ll realize that you don’t need their approval or accolades anyway (even though that’s nice).
Ever experience flow/being in the zone? What does it feel like for you, and can you tell us about a time when you experienced it?
Yes. Sometimes when I’m writing or acting you’re so present that the world disappears a little. Or time does. But that can happen while I’m cooking too. Or playing sports. I really think it’s about being present – trying not to worry about what just happened or what will happen but just being in the moment. It’s not complicated. It’s simple really, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
What are your favourite books? It could be about your craft, or maybe just an excellent story.
This is one of the few books I’ve read twice and it’s always stayed with me. It’s a story about a flawed, loving family. It’s so funny and so sad and so human that I laughed out loud and I cried so hard I was afraid of the sadness. Duncan mixes hilarious, intelligent humour and deep metaphysical longing at the same time. So, of course, I love it.
This is a great book on writing. Anne Lamott makes you feel like you can be writer because she has all the neuroses, and secret fears and procrastination techniques you do (maybe more) – and she’s a successful, published author. It’s funny and completely useful, which is a great thing for a writing book to be.
Shauna is currently developing a couple new film and TV projects with her husband and co-creator James Danderfer. Bedbugs: A Musical Love Story is still touring the festival circuit, and her newest play “Common Grace” will premiere at Pacific Theatre in January of 2016.
for more interviews and stories:
Latest posts by Creative Life Interview (see all)
- “It’s a pins and needles feeling… only it’s my heart” — a conversation with Diana Carson-Walker - January 21, 2016
- “It will get better in time. Don’t give up on your dreams, because you’ll go far if you believe in yourself” – a conversation with Jenny Story - November 10, 2015
- “There’s this connection that happens when you write something you want down, and make it tangible in the world” – a conversation with Daniel Scherl - November 3, 2015