Katherine Cullen & Britta Johnson in Stupidhead!—photo by Michael Cooper
Better late than never to the party, as I finally got out to see Katherine Cullen and Britta Johnson’s SummerWorks hit Stupidhead! A Musical Comedy, directed by Aaron Willis—now in its final week in the Theatre Passe Muraille (TPM) Mainspace.
Written and performed by Cullen and Johnson, who also collaborated on the lyrics, with music by Johnson, Stupidhead! is a part musical, part stand-up, part personal storytelling journey of Cullen’s experience living with dyslexia.
Stupidhead! is Cullen’s childhood dream of being in a musical come true. And, despite her lack of training, experience and self-reported ability, she was determined to make it happen; and recruited her good friend Johnson to help her write the music. Johnson joins her onstage, accompanying her on piano and back-up vocals—reacting to Cullen’s performance throughout, sometimes cracking up along with the audience.
Pointing out that dyslexia affects people differently, Cullen has no trouble with reading and writing—and as a child enjoyed escaping into writing poetry, and stories about the adventures of a silly koala and rabbit. Diagnosed at a young age, Cullen relates her struggles with math, organizational skills and directions, finding herself mentally lost at school and physically lost in her own neighbourhood—and, above all, labelled. And that label put her in the position of having to deal with ignorance and lack of compassion from others, making her sense of otherness feel even more isolating and humiliating, and becoming a part of her identity.
Her anecdotes about trying to fit in are both hilarious and moving—from her grade three poetry contest nemesis (now a CFL football player), to being lost on her own street, to two weeks in a puppet camp in Vermont as a young adult and her love of Jesus Christ Superstar—all delivered with genuine feeling and gusto. While it’s a show about the “glamour of failure,” it’s also a show about throwing off the chains of shame and isolation. In the end, Cullen avoids tying it up neatly, but emerges from the darker moments of her experience into a place of hope and determination.
Cullen shines onstage. An engaging, genuine and charming performer, she’s gutsy and kick-ass, but also vulnerable and fragile. As she schools us on dyslexia, she gives us the straight goods about what it’s like to live inside her head. And she gives ‘er with the music, putting her all into performing the songs, from belted out numbers to gentle, heartfelt ballads. She and Johnson make a terrific duo. Johnson is pretty damn funny herself; and there’s a lovely tender moment of compassion and understanding between them that rings with friendship and love. And their anthem of “don’t give up!” brought tears to my eyes.
With big shouts to set designer Anahita Dehbonehie and lighting designer Jennifer Lennon for the cool and beautiful neurosciencey environment.
You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll sing along in your heart with the brilliant, hilarious and deeply poignant Stupidhead!
Stupidhead! continues in the TPM Mainspace, closing on Apr 2; book in advance online or call 416-504-7529. Check out Hallie Seline’s interview with Cullen and Johnson for In the Greenroom.
And here’s the trailer: