Okay, so we all know by now that Woody Harrelson’s in town. But the actual reason why he’s here has been somewhat drowned out by the buzz over the film Go Further, his project with local doc director Ron Mann-he’s taking his own turn in the director’s chair, but it’s not for a movie: he’s directing the Canadian debut of the popular play This Is Our Youth, by acclaimed playwright Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York, You Can Count on Me). The hot production opened last week at the Berkeley Street Theatre to strong reviews, which came as no surprise to actor/producer Marcello Cabezas, who hand-picked Harrelson to direct the story about three teens on the brink of adulthood in ’80s-era New York.

“I first read this script while at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theatre in New York City,” Cabezas says. “It was a cool 48-hour snapshot of these characters’ lives, offering a glimpse of 20-something relationships. “I was drawn to the character of Warren, as he’s the underdog.”

Tired of waiting around for roles to come to him, Cabezas, who runs his own production company, macIDeas, snapped up the Canadian rights to the play, brought a team of like-minded young producers (many of whom are under 30) on board, and set out to find a high-profile director to helm the project. He met with Harrelson in California to pitch his idea.

“I approached him on an artist-to-artist level,” Cabezas explains. “The script appealed to his artistic sensibility, and this was an opportunity for Woody to push the boundaries of theatre.”

Most people know This Is Our Youth as the play that’s had a hugely successful run in London’s West End, with A-list casting that has included Kieran Culkin, Freddie Prinze Jr., Chris Klein and Alison Lohman. As a tale of young people in New York, it makes for an attractive vehicle for young actors. The Toronto cast is no exception, with Fabrizio Filippo and Marya Delver (co-stars in the Canadian indie fave waydowntown) appearing alongside Cabezas in the three-hander. The producers are hoping that the play, with its bankable young stars and fast-paced script, will “draw young people to the theatre, thus developing the credibility of theatre in Toronto,” says Cabezas.

Filippo, who’s better known for his TV and film roles (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Queer As Folk), but got his start in local theatre as a teen, shrugs off the notion that young people aren’t drawn to the theatre: “Theatre is an alternative art form, and that’s okay,” he says. “It isn’t MTV, or Nintendo, or whatever. You actually have to open yourself up to it and be engaged. If audiences are willing to do that, then great, but I don’t think you can force it.”

Filippo, 29, plays Dennis, the drug-snorting, high-octane foil to Cabezas’ slacker dude Warren. All three roles in the play are tough, meaty parts, and Filippo has been relishing his return to the local stage for the first time in eight years despite having to perform on a recently broken foot.

“I haven’t done theatre in years, so I’m only remembering now that it’s a lot of work. It’s incredibly taxing on the bodyÑI’ve had to quit smoking every two days,” Filippo quips. “With this particular role, it was very interesting because we sat down at the table read, and he came out immediately. It was amazing. And that’s one of the reasons I wanted to do it, because I’ve rarely had that experience, where I just knew almost right away what to do. And with a play like this, it’s so great because the dialogue is so incredible that it will literally carry you. That’s what they say about Shakespeare, and all good writing is like that you just stick to the words.”

Filippo should knowÑhe happens to also be a Chalmers Award-nominated playwright. So he appreciates Longeran’s wordy dialogue (his character Dennis gets several explosive monologues) from the perspective of both an actor and a writer.

“I love writing, and it’s enriched my acting incredibly,” offers Filippo. “It’s a whole different zoneÑI love the plotting and the planning. Not that as an actor you don’t use your brain, but it’s not in the same wayÑyou don’t construct something in the same way that you do as a writer. I love to do it, too, because you get into a zone, and you realize that four hours have passed as you’ve been writing, and it’s awesome.

“And any of this stuff, the beauty of it is that ultimately, when it’s great, you lose yourself. And that’s the whole point. When I’m having a great performance on stage, I don’t remember any of it. There’s no job like that. Or maybe there isÑin acting, they always say, ‘Okay, now forget everything you’ve learned, and go out there!’ and I laugh, because you don’t want to be saying that to a brain surgeon! But at the same time, I’m sure even a brain surgeon that loves what they do will lose themselves in it.”

Filippo, who continues to split his time between TV and film and the theatre, lauds his friend Cabezas for going out on a limb and taking the initiative to mount a splashy Canadian production of This Is Our Youth (he brought the script to Filippo and Delver early on in the process, hoping that they’d be as enthused as he was and join in).

For his part, Cabezas acknowledges the production is an opportunity to do things a bit differently and embrace an egalitarian artistic philosophy: “This is a great example of Canadians celebrating our city. We’re hoping to set a precedence here-art being a borderless society. At times Canadians have problems celebrating their own, but this (self-producing) is something I would like to encourage.”

Stay up to date. Sign up for our weekly newsletter, sent straight to your inbox:

* indicates required