It happened on the dance floor November 1, 1985.
“I don’t want to spoil the story of how we met,” Brooke Johnson says of her first encounter with Pierre Elliott Trudeau, “except to say that it involved a borrowed dress and borrowed shoes that were two sizes too big, French-braided hair and toilet paper.”
It was the 25th anniversary of the National Theatre School of Canada, where Johnson was a second-year acting student. She was 23. Canada’s former prime minister had just turned 66.
What ensued was a 10-year friendship that played out far from the public eye.
“I never talked about it to anybody else. It was a private thing. It was my friend. I don’t go talking about my friends to other friends, unless they’re mutual friends.”
Johnson began writing about that friendship after hearing of Trudeau’s death in 2000, but with no intention of making it public.
“I had all this private grief and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I started to write,” she says.
Sorting through boxes of letters and journal entries triggered long-forgotten memories.
“As I wrote and pieced together what those visits and chats and times were like, I guess it was kind of a mourning process for me,” the writer-performer says in an interview from her Toronto home.
“Then I found that I really enjoyed the crafting of the writing and thought, ‘Well, maybe I have something here.’ I found that I was reliving it with a very interesting perspective.”
The result was her one-woman show, Trudeau Stories, which comes to Whitehorse next week.
Before the play’s debut at Toronto’s SummerWorks festival in 2007, Johnson admits, she was “terrified” that audiences might consider it voyeuristic.
“It isn’t. And I was extremely relieved to find that people didn’t think that afterwards. It’s not in any way a tell-all. It’s about me as much as anything, and it’s about friendship that can cross boundaries,” she explains.
“It’s also a play about our place in the country, and who we think we are as Canadians and who we think we are as individuals. There are a number of themes for me in this play, and the more I do it the more I get responses from people who look at it in a completely different way.”
Audience members often bring souvenirs such as campaign posters or buttons, and linger afterward to share their own memories of Trudeau and his times.
Johnson herself remembers a man who was shy and introspective, who thought out loud and had great respect for the arts.
“He was extremely curious, courteous and gentle. And gentlemanly. And had a very dry, wry sense of humour,” she says. “He also had a great sense of fun, so if there was a patch of ice, he’d run and slide on it, that kind of thing. He was always testing himself and having fun physically that way.”
Asked about the charismatic millionaire’s reputation for being stingy, Johnson responds with a laugh.
“He always picked up the tab for me, thank God. I was a student.”
Since graduating from theatre school in 1987, Johnson has enjoyed a successful acting career, including memorable screen performances in The Sweet Hereafter and Finn’s Girl.
She is also a children’s book author and illustrator, who donates the proceeds from selling scripts of her play and her curiously-titled book, “uh poo fem bonfirtz” to cancer research.
At heart, though, she remains a “theatre creature” who wanted to make certain her memory piece about her friendship with Pierre Trudeau was good theatre.
“If it wasn’t a good piece of theatre, it wasn’t going to be done.”
After more than 135 performances, she still finds sharing memories with an audience for 70 minutes can be an emotional experience.
“The play is very funny, but it’s also poignant. I like to think it hits a whole bunch of different notes. But it’s a love letter more than it is anything else.”
Trudeau Stories plays March 16, 17, 18 and 19 at the Old Fire Hall. Curtain time is 7:30 pm.