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In The Old Globe's ‘Life After,' Playwright Tells Imaginative Tale of Grief and Loss

Playwright Britta Johnson has been working on "Life After" for nearly ten years, telling a story shaped by her own experiences from a young age.

Canadian Playwright Britta Johnson began writing the first songs from "Life After" when she was 18 years old. 

The now-new musical started as just a few songs set at a funeral, sung by a teenager. 

"I wanted to look at that experience," Johnson explained in an interview with NBC 7 San Diego. "The first time something is taken from you before you're ready." 

The young playwright put the songs on the shelf for a few years until the Toronto Fringe Festival rolled around. Johnson built the songs into a full musical. She wrote the music, lyrics and book herself, a task normally split up among at least two people. 

The musical tells the story of 16-year-old Alice, who is grieving the loss of her father. At the same time, Alice begins to questions the events surrounding her father's death and sets out to learn what really happened that night. 

Though the new musical is not autobiographical, Johnson said she pulls from her own experiences. 

When Johnson was 13 years old, she lost her father. 

"At least the seed of it, it being a coming of age story through the experience of grief, grieving for the first time - I felt ready to explore and it was something I could pull from my own experience to create the world of it and the texture and experience of it while it being someone else's story," Johnson said.

Above all, Johnson said, she wanted to create an honest portrayal of an experience of grief. Music has always felt like the most appropriate way to carry the complex array of emotions involving grief. 

"I think that when you're grieving, it's this very specific state of being where the past and present and speculative future all kind of exist at once where things, as devastating as they are, are sometimes deeply funny," Johnson said. "It's a very strange way of being."

Johnson didn't have any expectations when she first sat down to write those first few songs. Over the past nine years, the musical has grown up with her, she said. 

"It kind of just continued to be a part of my life," Johnson said. "It keeps re-emerging and calling to me to figure out what it's trying to do and take other stabs at it."

This production at The Old Globe, which runs from March 22 to April 28, is the largest scale production of the musical yet, Johnson said. 

And it's also a little serendipitous that the musical ended up here. 

Johnson's father was a musician and every summer, her mom and dad would play in the pit at the local theater festival in Stratford. 

The summer after Johnson's father passed away, the festival put on "Into the Woods," a musical that originated at The Old Globe. 

At the time, Johnson said, she wasn't into musical theater. 

But she saw the show over a dozen times anyway. 

"There was something about the way it talked about grief, and community, and loss, that really rang true to me and helped me to feel less alone in a very lonely time," Johnson recalled.

Loss is universal, and loss is lonely, Johnson said. The experience cracks your world open in a very specific way. 

Johnson hopes her musical gives people that same comfort and understanding she got when she went to see "Into the Woods" so many times that one summer. 

"If we can at all say anything truthful about that very specific, peculiar lonely time in life and provide that for anyone in the audience, then I think we've done our job right," Johnson said.

"Life After" runs at The Old Globe from March 22 to April 28 at the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage. Barry Edelstein directs; choreography by Ann Yee and music supervision, arrangements and orchestrations by Lynne Shankel. To buy tickets, click here. 

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