21st Century Reefer Madness

A preview by Craig Cormack

The original 1936 film “Reefer Madness” was an anti-marijuana propaganda film that portrayed the use of canabis as a flirtation with disaster, a virtual devil’s dance into chaos. The show is Produced by Ally Brumer and directed and choreographed by Deborah Friedman. Montreal’s Contact Theatre is staging their own humorous take of the work exploring the political, societal and moral standpoints from the 1930’s to the present day.

Generally, attitudes have shifted about marijuana usage since the 30’s, however many old ideas die a slow death. I had a chance to explore all of this with Brumer and Friedman and this is what they had to say.

CC Are you riffing from the original movie which was an anti-marijuana propaganda film produced in 1936?

A.B. We are actually getting closer to the musical which was created in the late 90’s which is a much more modern take on the original film. The stage musical was made into a movie musical. We are following in the footsteps of that.

CC So what you are doing is a tongue-in-cheek version of the original?

A.B. It takes a look at what they were trying to do and leans in on the ridiculousness of what they were trying to portray. Very, very tongue-in-cheek and fun.

So now that marijuana has been legalized in Canada how do you think your production will be received by the audience?

A.B. Even though it has been legalized, there is still a lot of stigmatizations of marijuana as having potential harm on society. And these ideas are still quite prevalent in Canadian society. Our sponsors have been talking about the difficulties that come with legalization. And there are still a lot of marijuana activists working very hard to help those who have been imprisoned on charges of using it. They are working to change the idea that marijuana is this violent drug, and this has been proven historically inaccurate. I think many of these attitudes are still present in society. And I think we are poking fun at the social constructs that lie around the usage of marijuana. 

CC That is interesting because it shows that as far as we think we have come, we haven’t really come all that far, have we?

A.B. Yes, and in talking with a lot of our partners it seems that legalization brought about other problems because the government placed a blanket of regulations similar to alcohol and cigarettes without really discussing anything with stakeholders of the legalization movement. One of the side effects of this has been that we have had a really hard time marketing the show. 

CC Does the production reference the usage of marijuana for people who have depression or for people who are using it for medical purposes?

A.B. Our show is very much a spoof. It is poking fun at the social stigmas that surround marijuana. It is educating the public in a different way. It is a show about why all the policies around marijuana are rooted in racism and xenophobia. It shows how overdone the propaganda against it was. 

CC Is the show set in modern times?

A.B. The setting is the 30’s. But the music is more contemporary. But we are inspired by the Reagan era in the 80’s so it is a bit of a mixed bag. There are FDR references, the depression is mentioned. We are poking fun at the 30’s ideology rather than trying to be historically accurate.

CC The production is really a comedy?

A.B. So different from the musical, the way that the stage version differs is that it is a show within a show. We are exacerbating the weirdness of the show for the audience. 

CC So are you giving out munchies before the show?

A. B. We have got you covered with brownies and cookies (laughing). So, it was difficult in a way to stage because we are not allowed to depict smoking on stage. We are not allowed to have lighters on stage. So, we decided to lean into the comedy, like we were wondering what we if we had a 5-foot-long joint on stage, we were thinking about how to use props to have fun with this, because the stigma still exists, and this is reflected through the regulations we have to adhere to.

CC How long have you been working on this production for?

A. B. We got started last summer around July. We assembled our production team, creative team and started figuring out what the production would look like, sound like. We cast the show in November. We have a cast of 13 and a production team of 15.

CC Is it going to be like your last production (Next to Normal) where you have a live band?

A.B. All our musicians are returning for this show, along with two actors.

CC What is the music like?

A.B. The music is more contemporary, it is quite eclectic. There are elements of rock, jazz and other styles that really work well all together. There is swing dance and some religious music there too.

CC Is it a simple or very complex production to stage?

D. F. This is my first time working on something that is so outrageously a comedy. We are really leaning into a show within a show element. So that has been difficult to do but at the same time very rewarding. We are pretending to be a small-town community theatre staging Reefer Madness in the 80’s within the context of our own theatre company. The comedy and the gags have been a lot of fun with slapstick over the top humour. It takes a great deal of work to comedy to work, the timing, the rhythm has been a challenge. Also, with the actors themselves and building characters we had to think about who the actors were from the small community theatre company and how to depict them. We had to consider the small-town community actor and think about how he or she would approach playing the character. For example, the small-town lead actor keeps flubbing his cues. 

People believe comedy is easy–when in fact–it is quite challenging. This was a labor of love which we all enjoyed. Everyone has been really invested in the idea of making this work, nevertheless it has been a lot of work.

CC Where are you staging this production?

D.F. We are at The Mainline Theatre for this one. We felt like it would really work well in this space. It is in the heart of the plateau.

CC Would you say the production is a multigenerational look at the drug?

A.B. Yes, and we even had some in the production who were nervous about inviting family members because of the structures that are critiqued in it, abuse of power from government, from religion, from what you are told you are supposed to fear to control you. 

C.C. Do you believe that this has the same ability to open up a discussion as in Next to Normal?

A.B. That’s what we hope happens whether it be a discussion about mental health or how government power works or the use of marijuana. Are you going to be at a summer barbecue with your parents drinking a beer or smoking a joint?  Some would rather not even touch alcohol but smoke a joint. These are all conversations that could take place. Now we are seeing this huge generational divide between gen z, millennials and boomers about how we view power. 

A.B. The reason marijuana has been targeted as dangerous in my opinion is not because it is but rather where it comes from and who it is associated with. In the 1930’s the first activists were black musicians for the most part most of the marijuana in those days was brought in from Mexico. The anti-marijuana stigma continues to permeate to this day and is seen to be much more dangerous than white collar drugs such as cocaine. So, the structures against it remain very strong.

CC How are the rehearsals going?

D.F. They are going great. It is probably one of the best rooms I have been in. It has been a great process. We did our first run today and it went well. We have the next few weeks to tighten it up for audiences. I am proud that we can bring something forward that is impactful and fun at the same time. 

Contact Theatre is staging a multilayered, multigenerational look at an old work injected with many new ideas. They are reflecting society’s difficulty in coming to grips with new ideas and old taboos.

Show times are April 20,21,22,27,28 and 29 @7:30 pm and April 23 @ 4:30 pm. 

The venue is Mainline Theatre 3997 rue St. Laurent in Montreal. Tickets available through the box office at contacttheatre.ca.