eighteen. post-natal audition

Act One

– Congratulations!
– Thanks, Christopher.
– What a performance!
– …just a lovely audience…
– You’re a marvellous Helena, darling.
– Thanks Christopher. Thanks for the gig.
– Of course! You’re part of the family!

– Speaking of families…funny you should say that…
– You’re not…oh darling…is that why you’re drinking —
– Soda? Yes. We wanted to wait twelve weeks till we…
– Yes, yes I understand. Well. Isn’t this exciting news.

– I don’t think the costumes will need altering…
– This will change your life you know.
(Laughing) Yes, all the fathers are warning…
– This will ruin your career.

– What did you say?
– Acting and motherhood — It won’t work.

Act Two

– Hi my name’s Tiffany, I’m represented by LLA, and these are my profiles.

She turns to her right. Turns to her left. Back to camera.

– Thanks darling, and can you just drop the robe now please?

She hesitates for a millisecond, then lets her bathrobe fall. Underneath she is wearing a one-piece bathing suit.

– Okay, so you’re in the back yard and your gorgeous children are playing with your gorgeous husband in the pool, and you’re smiling at them and feeling like everything’s right in the world. That’s it. Happier. A little happier please. Super. And now you notice to camera right – no, camera right – that a jaguar has wandered into the backyard. No no, you’re not scared, you’re just a little perplexed. That’s right. It’s a beautiful creature. Look at its lithe body. Look at those spots as it stalks through your backyard, past your children, past your husband, past the drinks table, past the barbecue. And it’s gone off camera left. You think about it for a second. That’s right. And then you say….

– Honey, I think we should buy that Jag!

– Cut. Great. Thank you.

She gathers her robe up and presses it to her chest, hard. Exits to the foyer. She weaves through the other women standing around in bathrobes waiting for their auditions. Grabs her bag from under the seats, apologising to another actor who has taken her empty spot.

– Excuse me could I just grab my…
– Oh! Sorry about that. How was he?
– Fine, fine. Easy. In and out.
– God why’s it taking so long then? I have another audition across town at three..
– Dunno. Sorry, I’ve got to dash. Good luck with it.

She slides on her thongs, motors to the bathroom as fast as she can without running. Locks herself into a stall and perches on the toilet. When she drops her robe, it is evident that her breasts have been leaking milk. She pulls out and awkwardly assembles a portable breast pump. Pulls the strap of her bathing suit down from her right shoulder. The milk squirts and foams into the container. She sighs with relief.

Act Three

– HI I’M HOME! How is he?
– He’s fine.

She snatches a six week old baby from her husband, nestling him again her body. Her shoulders drop. Her breath settles.

– Hey buddy. How you doing? Did you have a good time with your dad?
– How was the audition?
– The usual. Running late. One take. I nearly sprayed all over the camera, though. That was a new experience. How’s everything here?
– Fine.
– Did he take the bottle?
– You bet. He’s a champ. Aren’t you, buddy?
– How many diapers?
– Didn’t count. You weren’t away that long.
– Really? It felt like forever. I was mentally prepared to be away till two thirty. The minute the clock ticked over I was jonesing for him.
– We were fine.
– I know you were. It’s just. It’s kind of like having one of your internal organs floating around in the world in the care of a stranger.
– I’m not a stranger.
– I know you’re not. That’s not what I mean.
– I know. I have to split.
– Really?
– If I’m going to catch the bus…
– Oh just take the car.
– No you’re right. The parking’s killing us.
– But it takes so much longer. And you’re tired. Aren’t you.
– I’ll be fine. See you little buddy.
– I miss you.
– I miss you too. Take it easy. I’ll see you tonight.

He is gone. She looks at her baby.

-Hello stranger.

seventeen. boy crazy

Can’t settle. Prowling.
Hunting for a way in.
Like trying to find an Advil gel cap dropped on the kitchen floor in the middle of the night.
Did that last night.
Didn’t want to turn on the light because it would be a confession
You’re not sleeping
Refusing to look at the clock
Refusing to put on the specs that will tempt you to look at the red digital light on the microwave that will tell you
You should be asleep now.
On hands and knees, palm floating above the kitchen floor, hovering over the mental image of the Advil gel cap that fell from its plastic and foil nest onto the vast linoleum expanse.
Contact
It rolls
Somewhere
Use the force, Luke
If anyone saw you now they would laugh
Stark naked hair askew on hands and knees in the dead of night
Cow position on the kitchen floor
Using The Force to find a pill that
Dances across the linoleum away from your weathered hand.
But no one’s looking.
No one’s looked for a while now.
And certainly not in the dead of night
In the semi-rural neighbourhood you call home.
If you can find it, night-blind,
Maybe that will be an omen
A sign
A promise
That you will also find a way to write this thing you need to say
But don’t want to confess.

***

So here’s the thing. I keep trying to tell the story of being an actor, but it seems that all my memories are about relationships.

Sigh.

So let’s get on with it. Spit it out. Let’s move on.

Shakespeare, season one. The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing. Much ado about nothing indeed. I flirt with Claudio. I flirt with Lorenzo. A married man takes advantage of my vanity and ignorance. I sing and party and skinny dip in the moonlight. The season ends. I am unemployed with no prospects. I get depressed. I see a drop-in counsellor on Robson Street. You’re not depressed, you’re unemployed. Get a job. I get a job. Retail, extra staff at the Body Shop hired for the Christmas rush. Giving back massages to business men queued up to buy stocking-stuffers for their wives. No really, I don’t work on commission. My assistant manager makes me do this because she’s crazy. I quit on Christmas Eve before they have a chance to sack me. The manager asks me to reconsider. When we said we had to get rid of extra staff we didn’t mean you. Not if it means working with Crazy anymore. I go back to Australia. I get a faxed an offer from the Shakespeare festival offering me a second season. I tell them I’ll come back if they buy the credits that will make me a union member. It’s a struggle but they eventually agree.

Shakespeare, season two. Love’s Labours Lost and The Winter’s Tale. The Princess of France and Perdita. I crash at the new boyfriend’s sister’s place in New West while I hunt for a place of my own. I find a room in a flea-infested boarding house in Kitsilano. I leave my electric blue trench coat, the best second-hand score I ever made, at the boyfriend’s sister’s place. The boyfriend goes on tour and has a fling with his stage manager. The end. I’m more sad about the coat.

I see a play on Granville Island. One of the actors looks like Yul Brynner. Smoky eyed and dangerous. My new friend, the assistant stage manager at the Shakespeare Festival, knows him. She lets slip that he’s been asking about me. He saw me playing the Princess of France. She organizes a girls’ night out. He comes along to play the role of surrogate boyfriend in case of emergency. It’s all a ruse. An excuse for us to meet. A chumper approaches our table and shows an interest in me. I take Yul Brynner’s hand. It fits perfectly. That was eighteen years ago. We don’t hold hands as often as we did then, but when we do his hand still fits. Perfectly.

There. That wasn’t so hard, was it? What’s the big confession? You were boy crazy. Big deal. You don’t have to hate men to be a feminist.

Do you?

sixteen. riding the wave

A scene.

A mother (3), and her mother (2). 2 is having chemo treatment. 3 is keeping her company. Both flip through back issues of women’s magazines. Damia, a nurse wearing a hijab, checks on 2 periodically.

Silence.

3 – I’ve been thinking a lot about feminism.

2 – Oh yeah?

3 – One of my supervisors suggested that I haven’t quite reconciled my position on it.

2 – On what?

3 – Feminism.

2 – Oh yeah?

3 – Yeah.

Beat

2 – Why would she say that?

3 – From the stuff I’ve been writing about work and motherhood and stuff.

2 – Oh.

3 – The other one gave me a book to read about post-feminism. I wonder if they’re trying to tell me something.

2 – Post-feminism? Never heard of it.

3 – It’s about how young women today hate feminism.

2 – They do?

3 – Yeah. A lot of them do. Didn’t you know that?

2 – No. Why would they hate feminists?

3 – The whole man-hating, bra-burning thing. That you can’t stay home and be a mum.

2 – Oh. Well I never burnt my bra, but I’ll tell you what, if I could have stayed home more with you kids I bloody well would have.

3 – You would?

2 – Oh yeah.

3 – But…I thought you were a feminist.

2 – I never really thought about it.

3 – But what about telling me off for saying sweeping is women’s work?

2 – When did I say that?

3 – When I was six. Jason was mucking around with the broom and I wanted to be a witch, so I took it off him and said that sweeping was women’s work and you heard me say it and you tore a strip off me.

2 – Did I? (Laughs delightedly)

3 – What about the fact that you wouldn’t let me have long hair?

2 – I never stopped you from having long hair –

3 – Yes you did! You never let me have long hair.

2 – Well with those thick glasses of yours, it would have hid your face –

3 – AND you made me wear pants on school photo day —

2 – Probably just forgot it was photo day –

3 – AND kids used to ask me if I was a boy or a girl.

2 – They did?

3 – Yeah they did.

2 – Oh.

3 – I got hassled all the time for it.

2 – Really?

3 – Yeah. A boy pushed me down on the ice rink cuz I was wearing white skates. (Shouts) Those are GIRL’S SKATES!

2 – (Laughs fondly again)

3 – It wasn’t funny, Mum!

2 – Sorry darl.

3 – So…wasn’t it because you were a feminist?

2 – I don’t know darl. I don’t remember.

NURSE enters, checks on 2’s chemo needle.

N – How are you feeling, Mrs K?

2 – Just fine darling, thank you. This is my daughter – you haven’t met her before have you?

3 – Hello.

N – Nice to meet you. Your mother is doing very well.

3 – Fantastic.

N – She is a very brave woman.

2 – Oh stop…

N – No it is true. She is very brave. And strong.

2 – Thank you Damia.

N – (To 3) Why have we not seen you here before?

3 – Oh, I…

2 – She’s very busy. Two kids – my grandchildren –

N – Yes! Katy, and…Elliot! Very beautiful children.

2 – (To 3) I showed her their pictures…

3 – Thanks.

2 – AND she’s working. AND she’s doing a PhD!

N – My goodness! You are very–

3 – Busy

2– Very busy.

N – Yes, I see.

Beat.

N – Well. Just relax now. I’ll be back to check on you again soon.

2 – Thank you lovey.

Damia exits

2 – She is so lovely.

3 – Yeah, she seems really nice.

2 – She takes such good care of me.

3 – Yeah, you’re really lucky.

They return to their magazines.

Long silence.

3 – I just watched this video on YouTube called “The F-Word”.

2 – Sounds racy.

3 – It deals with feminism from a young woman’s perspective.

2 – Mm.

3 – It was an interview thing. They were all really young. The host had make-up packed on, and I thought “some feminist you are”. But then they talked about what feminism means to their generation and why they consider themselves feminists. One of them talked about how feminism defends the rights of all – as opposed to both – genders.

2 – But…

3 – What? Do you have a problem with transsexuals?

2 – Now don’t jump down my throat. Of course I don’t. I saw Priscilla three times. I just don’t understand how feminism defends the rights of all genders, when it’s called FEMinism. Don’t you need a different ism for that?

3- Fair enough.

2 – Everyone-ism.

Beat

3 – They were only in their early twenties, but they were all so bright and confident. They called themselves third wave feminists.

2 – Third wave? Is that like new wave?

3 – No mum. You were a second wave feminist.

2 – Was I?

3 – Well I thought you were. The first wave was the suffragettes, who fought for the vote.

2 – (Fondly) Like Miles Franklin.

3 – The second wave fought for equal work and equal pay.

2 – (Proudly) Like Germaine Greer.

3 – Right. Although she’s given up on feminism too.

2 – She has?

3 – That’s what this book I was reading said.

2 – Oh. (beat) I think I might try this recipe.

They go back to reading their magazines.

3 – I don’t know if I’m a third wave or a second wave.

2 – I wonder what tamari is?

3 – I mean I call myself ‘ms’ and I didn’t change my name when I got married –

2 – Is it like soy sauce?

3 – But I never really thought about sisterhood or solidarity.

2 – Maybe I could just use teriyaki. Look it up for me would you?

3 – Sorry?

2 – Look it up. On your iPhone.

3 – I don’t think you’re allowed to use phones in here.

2 – Of course you are.

3 – Doesn’t it interfere with the machines?

2 – Don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine.

****

fifteen. vangroovy

Toronto in April is grey, cold, flat and hard.  Vancouver in April is green, blue, pink and delicious. You’re going to love Vancouver, one of my classmates promises.   It’s so you.

It’s opening night of The Matchmaker. We’re in the dressing room getting ready when I ask the Mistress of Speech and Dialects if I may borrow her John Barton videos for the week. I want to brush up on my Shakespeare before heading to Vancouver. She coolly refuses me.  Wow, she really doesn’t like you, says the actor playing Dolly, eyes wide.

It’s closing night. Our last performance as student actors. As we take our final bow I notice a tear sail from my eye, catching the light as it arcs into the audience.  It’s relief, not sentiment.  Get stuffed.  I made it through.

At the after-party, the Poet asks if he can write once I get settled.  He says he is going to miss me. He tells me there is a lot he needs to say.

Four days after finishing theatre school I pack my life into a duffle bag. What’s left fits into a few boxes that will squat indefinitely in my dad’s storage locker.  I decide to leave all my music behind. An experiment: new life, new tunes.  But I pack ten postcards that connect me to the past. I’ve been collecting them since high school, favourite paintings from the NSW Art Gallery.  Sydney Long’s Pan, a few from the Heidelberg School, a Brett Whiteley landscape of Sydney Harbour.  They can decorate wherever I end up living.  It’s still up for grabs.  The Grandfather has wangled me a one-way ticket to Vancouver as part of my contract, but accommodation is my responsibility.

I am picked up at the airport by the sister of a friend of my dad.  Her daughter has just bought a new condo in Surrey, and needs a roommate. My eyes pop as we drive from the airport past lush pine trees and rolling green meadows. This is Vancouver, my dad’s friend’s sister says smugly. We try to keep it a secret.  The air is sweet and warm.  I can feel my sap running.  Springtime comes to Vancouver weeks earlier than it does to Toronto. It hasn’t been blanketed in slush and frozen, dirty snow for months – a lumbering cold carrying depression on its back.  Vancouver has slept in damp, chilly darkness, but always holds the promise of green.  March tulips nudging the moist earth are the first hint of spring in Vancouver.  Thawing dog turds are its herald in Toronto.

I stick my postcards up in my empty bedroom, careful not to mar the fresh paint. It’s my first experience of condo living. The whole building smells like new carpet and silicone sealant.  I attempt a trial run of getting into to town for work. A forty minute walk to the Skytrain station, and another forty five minutes into Vancouver.  I can shave fifteen minutes off the walk if I cut through a large, wooded plot of undeveloped land.  I only have to do it once to realise that Surrey is a tough town. Going off the beaten track might not be a good idea.  I’ll be rehearsing six days a week and then performing till eleven at night.  I need to find a place to live in the city, fast.

One of my classmates from theatre school has moved to Vancouver as well.  She doesn’t have a gig, but the weed in Lotusland is cheap and plentiful. My postcards come down and I decamp to her couch in Kitsilano. After my first day of rehearsal, I walk across the Burrard Street Bridge and marvel at my good fortune.  It’s a miniature version of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  I claim it as my own. Cyclists whizz past me through the warm sweet night.  Sail boats babble softly in their sleep.  Oil tankers glitter on the horizon under the diamonds sparks of North Van.  My own mini harbour bridge.  This city is all mine.  I have no relatives, no friends, no knowledge of this place.  But I have a job acting Shakespeare for the next five months.

I find a basement apartment just north of Broadway.  The young couple who own the house have converted the basement into an illegal flat to help cover their mortgage.  I’m on a non-Equity contract and extremely conscious of the fact that I’m on my own. There isn’t anyone here to bail me out.  The flat is the cheapest place I can find.  They seem like a nice couple – very eager to have me live beneath them.  It’s not until I move in that I realise that the kitchen they have constructed lacks a sink.  I have to do all my washing in the laundry basin tucked behind the monstrous furnace.  Instead of an oven, there’s a hotplate. The second-hand fridge leaks coolant, contaminating my first load of groceries.   My landlady is rake thin.  She’s just given birth to their first baby.  She is a long-distance runner, but she ignored her doctor’s advice to stop training in the last stage of her pregnancy.  While going for a jog in her thirty-sixth week, the baby’s skull cracked her pelvis. She has to use a rolling office chair to move around the house while her bones knit together again.  I lie on my air mattress listening to her roll back and forth above me on my days off.  They have a huge German Shepherd that likes to paw the basement door open and crouch in the doorway, watching me silently with huge, glittering eyes.  I break the lease after three weeks and demand they return my bond, threatening to report them for operating an illegal suite.  I have discovered self-righteousness.  They give me my money back, shame-faced and abashed.

My postcards come down again. I find another apartment in the back of a huge old boarding house off Denman Street.  All my worldly goods fit into the boot of a taxi-cab.  The driver arrives at my new home, but won’t let me have my belongings.  He wants to take photos of me first.  He pulls out a camera with a telephoto lens and demands that I pose for him in front of his cab.  I refuse.  He has all my stuff.  I don’t know what to do.  A man in his early thirties with a goatee and bright blue eyes approaches. Is there a problem here?  Yeah, this asshole won’t give me my stuff.  His blue eyes go very hard as he stares at the driver. A twinkle of crazy behind them.  Give the lady her stuff, pal.  I’ve been rescued.  The man helps me carry my bags to the tiny furnished apartment at the back of the building.  He’s an actor who lives in the garret of the same boarding house. An American who has moved to Vancouver because the film industry is booming.  Big fish in a friendly Canadian pond.  He’s writing a screenplay and shlocking another film he has already written, produced and starred in.  Rescued by an actor who makes a living playing crazy bad guys. Welcome to Vancouver.

My apartment is so small that I can carry my telephone on its extension cord from the bedroom, through the kitchen and into my bathroom.  I could talk in the bath tub, if I had anyone to call.  I paint one wall salmon pink because the apartment is mine, all mine, and way out my budget but I love it.  I become friends with a squirrel who leaves nuts for me on the windowsill.   I feel like Cinderella until he starts wandering into the kitchen when I leave my door open.  He’s cute when he’s outside, but indoors, he starts to look like a really big rat.  My postcards are up, and I even have a little TV that came with the furnished apartment, but I realise that leaving my music behind was a big mistake.  I have never thought of myself as a muso, but suddenly realise that familiar tunes can make anywhere feel a little more like home.  I am lonely.  I have never lived on my own before.  I didn’t know there were so many hours of silence available to a person.  I buy a cheap guitar and that helps.  I write my first song.

Ode to Joni Mitchell

I’m not a writer,

But I wish I were.

To be quite honest,

I’m more of an editor.

I could tell you I’m a painter,

But I’m afraid you’d scoff.

I can do a nice liking

But it won’t be to your liking, cuz

I’m no Van Gogh.

Do you think you could love me?

There’s not much to see.

I try to be so enigmatic and pretend that I’m an addict, but,

It’s just not me.

 

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had my share of troubles too.

But they’re not anything that could make a record like ‘Blue’.

I’ve never given up a baby

I’ve never even had one

But you know when you’re sensible and sexually responsible,

It’s just not done.

 

I’m a product of the 90’s

I’m really so PC

The only thing left to fight for

Is saving the CBC

 

Do you think you could love me?

There’s not much to see

I try to be so enigmatic and pretend that I’m an addict but

It’s just not me.

fourteen. another character sketch, and a tale

The Mistress of Speech and Dialects resembles Jackie Kennedy. Immaculate, Chanel-style tweed suits, the occasional black turtleneck and plaid woollen pedal-pushers.  Black ballet flats. The Mistress is ageless to my twenty-year old, worshipful gaze, but thinking back she was probably in her late thirties.  Petite and incredibly elegant. Her sense of humour is best described as arch. The Mistress is originally from the prairies – we know that because she comes down extra-hard on anyone with an Albertan twang.  She studied under the illustrious Tim Monich and can switch dialects without missing a beat.  It’s like a magic trick.  She’s chic even when she’s sticking her tongue out and trying to touch her ear with its tip.  She has the lads in a state of semi-arousal whenever she demonstrates how to trace the outline of one’s lips with the tip of one’s tongue.  The Mistress is my idol.  She seems to like me at first, but something becomes dislodged in second year. She asks students to occasionally house-sit for her, but never me.  She cultivates a coterie of young women who gather in her office for cups of tea. I am not invited.  The Mistress has her favourites, and inexplicably, I am not one of them. The harder I try to win her affections, the more I fail.  My phonetic transcriptions are almost faultless; my ear for dialects is sound, but I am never selected to care for her cat.  For the first time in my life, I am not the teacher’s pet.

In second year I tap on her office door, timidly requesting an audience.  I am heart-broken.  The romance that drove a wedge between the furniture salesman and myself has shrivelled on the vine.  Over the course of first year I scared the poet away with my clinginess, insecurity and needs.  I suspect that I have become the class laughingstock. He is now smitten with another girl in our year.  She is adorable, incredibly witty, and not remotely interested in him.  I don’t even have the satisfaction of hating her because I like her so much.

I bring my broken heart to The Mistress and lay it at her feet.  Offer it up as a way to earn her compassion, or at the very least, her pity.  She regards me with cool disdain. Politely perplexed by my presence.  Tea is not offered.  Advice is not given.  I leave her office more ashamed and embarrassed than when I entered.

******

“Why do you want to become actors?”

It’s our third and final year.  We’re in rehearsals for The Matchmaker and I’m playing Mrs Molloy.  It’s my largest role in our season of showcase productions.  A nice supporting character, but I’ve never carried a show.  At my final assessment I summon the courage to ask why I wasn’t cast in a lead.  “We know you’re up for it, darling, and if we had a done a Shakespeare it would have been yours, but the cards just didn’t fall that way”.  Still, Mrs Molloy is…sweet.  She’s not Dolly, but even I know that I’m not right for Dolly.

Our guest director is known around the traps as the Grandfather of Canadian Theatre.  He’s in his late sixties and is a giant of a man – in girth, personality and reputation.  He is rumoured to have been married to one of the doyennes of British theatre, whom he dumped for his current wife. They have three brilliant children, all in the theatre, who grew up in rehearsal studios and green rooms. He’s an avowed Shavian: meat has never passed his nor his offspring’s lips.  He trained at the Old Vic when it could have been called new, and was a member of Canada’s first touring Shakespeare company.  He was friends with fellow ex-pat, Tyrone Guthrie, who founded the wildly successful Stratford Shakespeare Festival. To rookie actors across Canada, Stratford is the pinnacle of success.

We are all mildly terrified at the thought of being directed by this legend of Canadian theatre.  He is infamous for falling asleep in rehearsal if the actors on stage bore him.  It is later discovered that decades of excessive drinking at backstage bars has left him with undiagnosed diabetes.  The tendency to lapse into sleep is—not necessarily—a product of banal performances, but the onset of a mild diabetic coma. The last time he played Lear at Stratford, he is reputed to have forgotten his lines but managed to improvise, in blank verse, until he found his way back to the text.

One Friday afternoon he calls rehearsal to a halt two hours ahead of schedule.  “That’s fine,” he booms in his plummy, cavernous voice.  “You know what you’re doing.  We don’t need to overwork it.  Let’s go to the bar.” These post-rehearsal drinking sessions become our true education in Canadian theatre history.  It becomes apparent that he either witnessed, or was part of, all of it.  The names we have heard bandied about over the last three years of training are either his closest friends or dismissed with a wave of a huge, liver-spotted fist. We listen spellbound, collectively playing Hal to his Falstaff, as he regales us with apocryphal stories from the earliest days.  “There was a company that toured the icy wastes of Northern Canada, bringing Shakespeare to the fur traders and gold miners,” he says.  “They did Othello in the mining camps, the Scottish Play in tin sheds, the Merchant of Venice in knocked-together huts in the dead of winter.  In one town, at the end of Hamlet the men were so enthralled that they leapt to their feet, applauding and crying Author! Author! at the tops of their lungs, so desperate were they to thank the writer for taking them away from their miserable, frozen existence for a few hours.  After the final curtain the actor-manager playing Hamlet removed his wig and delicately explained to throng that the author had died some three hundred years earlier.  They were so enraged by the news that the bastards killed him!”  He dissolves into phlegmy laughter at his own tale.

We are in the rehearsal room, not the bar, when he asks us why we have chosen to become actors.  It is the first time we have been invited to express our thoughts.  I quietly panic as the conversation moves around the circle.  It’s a common sensation.  I am not one of the bright lights in this group.  I don’t often speak up anymore. I have come to the realisation that I am not the most talented person in this class. Others have already been offered contracts and agents, the whispers of stellar careers to come. Two are going to Stratford.  One is going to the Shaw Festival.    My dreams of theatre school – a place where I fit in, a place that makes up for the years of being a misfit, an outsider, a nigel-no-mates, a loser, have not come to pass.  Once again, I don’t belong.  I don’t know the Canadian bands, I don’t follow a hockey team, and I can’t do a good impression of Jean Chrétien.  My best results have been in Costume and Theatre History, much-maligned classes that require book-smarts. Comments from most of my teachers are variations on a theme: You try too hard.  You’re too busy being a good student to let the great actor come out.  The harder I try, the worse I get.  Not just as an actor, but also in simply trying to connect with my classmates. They are Canadian. They look good in flannel.  They genuinely like Kraft dinner.  They loved summer camp as kids. I am from…away.

How do I tell the Grandfather of Canadian Theatre that all I ever wanted was go to theatre school?  To be a professional actor – to get paid to act – seemed impossibly remote. Getting into theatre school was dream enough. But, worse, how do I confess that it’s all turned to dust?  That I’ve wasted three years of training, agonising about the poet who wants me and rejects me over and over again.  Every time I fuck around to get him out of my heart, he wants me back.  And every time I think we’ve made a fresh start, he pulls away.   Three years of emotional masochism, exacerbated by the fact that directors relentlessly cast us in vicious, sexually-charged scenes.  Judith Thompson’s dysfunctional lovers who end in bloodshed. Richard wooing Anne over her husband’s coffin. It’s become a class joke. And yet, I still can’t bring myself to throw away the poems he wrote to me in his beautiful, cramped handwriting.

It’s my turn to speak. My classmates wait. One picks at a fingernail, already bored.  “I wanted to become an actor because I couldn’t decide on just one job.  There is so much in life to experience.  How are you supposed to choose?  If I’m an actor I can research and imagine myself into all the lives I’ll never get the chance to live.”

Silence.  Thanks to script analysis, I now know this is called a beat.

“I’ve never heard anyone say that,” he tells me.

The person to my left begins to speak when I jump in. “But I don’t think I’m going to go through with it.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I think I’m going to chuck it in.”

“And why is that?”

“Because it makes me crazy.  I’ve been…a little crazy here.  I haven’t been happy.  I love acting so much, but if the business is going to make me feel the way I’ve felt for the last three years…I don’t think it’s worth it.”

The beat turns into a prolonged pause as the Grandfather studies me. Then he slowly directs his gaze around the circle.

“Listen very closely to what she has just said, my dears.  This business is not for everyone.  My daughter is a brilliant actor.  However unlike her brother, who is also quite good, she knows that the stage can never completely satisfy her.  She is still in the theatre, mind you, but she is a stage manager.  And she’s fucking brilliant at it.  This business can chew you up and spit you out.  You can love it, and want it desperately, but it can play with your heart.  Remember to protect your heart.”

We are in tech a week later, when the Grandfather quietly calls me to his side.  He offers me a job, a summer understudying Portia and Beatrice at a Shakespeare festival in Vancouver.  “We’ll find you a part too, darling.  Something small, but fun. Let’s see…would you rather play Jessica, or Hero?” I stumble over my words, not quite sure if I’m awake. “Um. Hero. I think.” He pats my hand. “Good choice.”

thirteen. but whatever happened to mr furniture?

Grey Wolf is my dad’s best friend.  She’s the sister he never had.  He met Grey Wolf through her ex-husband, Big Daddy.  There’s a picture of Big Daddy holding me when I was a newborn.  I’m almost invisible, wrapped in his meaty forearms.  His legs are splayed to make room for his beer belly, and he has a double chin because he is smiling down at me. He is pretending to nurse me from a bottle of gin.  Big Daddy is an engineer. Sometimes, we visit Big Daddy and Grey Wolf on our Dad-weekends.  They have a flea market, and I always get a little toy when we visit. One time I get red, knee-high plastic boots for my Wonder Woman Barbie.  Big Daddy and Grey Wolf have a dog named Mukluk.  Mukluk is more wolf than dog. He is so big that when he stalks by me he accidentally knocks me over with his thick woolly tail. He doesn’t even know that I’m there.  He is very big, but I am also very small.  My favourite thing at Big Daddy’s house isn’t the flea market.  It isn’t Grey Wolf’s ancient babushka dolls that she lets me play with as long as I’m very careful not to lose the baby one. It isn’t even the tractors that we get to ride, perched on Big Daddy’s lap.  My favourite thing is the bubble baths.  Grey Wolf always lets me have a bubble bath in her big pink tub. It’s Our Thing. And even though she always makes the water a bit too cool, and the water so shallow that it hardly reaches my belly button, bubble baths are my favourite thing because of the way she sells it.  “Dahhling,” she asks in her husky, posh, cigarette-soaked British accent.  “How would you like a bubble baaaath?” The way the words pour out of her mouth and her eyes twinkle into mine make a bubble bath sound like the most exotic adventure possible.

Grey Wolf had another name when she was married to Big Daddy, but then she left him and moved to a tiny island in Georgian Bay.  She moved there with one of the labourers who worked at the flea market.  They lived in a yellow school bus they had towed onto the island while they rebuilt an abandoned cabin.  It was their island.  No else could go on it without their permission, and in the winter, they had to cross country ski to the mainland for supplies. Once a bear tried to rip down their door to steal their food.  Sometimes they would have to eat beaver to make it through the winter.  My dad hated the new guy.  Once when we visited them the grownups got very, very drunk and my dad threw a chair and chased him out into a blizzard.  My brother and I were frightened that my dad would go to jail if he killed the new guy but Grey Wolf promised us it would all work out in the end.  She was right.  The new guy went away one summer and never came back.  But we did. The yellow school bus slowly disappeared into the bush while the cabin came to life. It got electricity, and running water, and the walls became lined with books.  Grey Wolf taught at the Indian school across the channel.  She was so loved by the community that she was given her new name.  She talked to God quite a lot, especially when she was drunk.  As I got older, we would stay up late and she would smoke cigarettes and we would talk about my hopes and dreams for the future. Every once in a while she would stop me mid-sentence because God was interrupting and she needed to have a brief discussion with him on a particular point.  Grey Wolf called me Black Wolf.  It was Our Thing.  In the summer, when school was out, she ran a marina from her island.  She would stand on her jetty in a leopard-skin bikini, a gin and tonic in one hand and a smoke in the other, and wave prospective yachts down.

One summer the furniture salesman came with us to visit Grey Wolf on her island.

Black Wolf.

– Yes, Grey Wolf?

– I think you should know.

– Know what?

– I had a chat with your fellow.

– You did?

– I did.

– Okay…

– I told him – I want you to know this darling – I told him that. If he ever hurts you. I will hunt him down. And I will kill him.

– Oh. Okay.

– I don’t need to leave the island to do it.

– I know you don’t.

– But I will do it. 

– Okay. Thanks. I think.

I found one of my journals from that summer.  There was an entry I had written about going to see his therapist with him. His dad was paying for the sessions.  He was having difficulty dealing with his mother’s death.  He told me that his therapist thought it would be a good idea for me to start attending the sessions too. I wrote that I was afraid to be alone with him afterwards.  That I was frightened of him, of how much he was drinking, how big he was. The things he expected of me.

I don’t remember writing any of that.

It’s autumn now.  Night-time in Toronto and I’m alone. The phone rings.

Hello?

– Hey baby. How’s it going? 

– Oh, fine. Still working on this costume history stuff.  How’s the convention?

– Lots of orders. Dad’s really pleased with all the leads I’ve brought in.

– That’s great.

– I sure miss you.

– Mm hm.

– Ten days is a long time to be apart.

– Sure is.

– So, what did you do today?

– Well…I went for a drive in the country.

– Who with?

– That guy from school.

– Which one?

– You know, the one who gave me the tape.

– Why?

-Because he wanted to show me the changing colours. The leaves, they’re are all changing colours. It’s beautiful up there. We should go when you get back.

– Are you attracted to him?

– I think so. Maybe. But nothing happened. Nothing’s going to happen. I’ve made a promise and I’m going to keep it.

The phone clicks off.

Three hours pass. It rings again.

 Hello?

– I’ve just talked to my therapist.

– It’s eleven o’clock at night. You called her at home?

– She says that we can stay together as long as you never see him again.

– But…he’s in my class.  What are you saying?

– That’s the deal.  You have to never see him again.  That’s the only way we can move on.

– But nothing happened.  I told you.  We need to figure this out – 

– THAT’S WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO! DO YOU HEAR ME? THAT’S WHAT YOU HAVE TO DO.

Eleven thirty. Another call.

Hello?

– Hi Dad.

– What’s the matter peanut?

– I’m…I don’t know what to do. I’ve screwed everything up.

– What’s happened.

– He’s so angry and I don’t know how to fix it.

– Get in a cab.

Four words that change everything.

I’m sleeping in the spare room again, just like the old days when Canada was a break from real life, not life itself.  Sleeping deeply for the first time in weeks. When I wake up, I wonder where I will sleep next.  Dad and I take a load of empty boxes to the loft so I can get my stuff before he gets back.  Fax paper pours from the machine into a puddle on the floor. He’s sorry.  He wants to work it out. He wants me to call. I realise what I must have put my mother through when I faxed her my big news a few months earlier.

I leave the ring on the counter. Try to buff the scratch off its surface one more time.  Slide the key under the front door.

twelve. failed actor

(Listen to the small dark voice that speaks in the wee hours of the night…)

I believe I am trivial.

That my work is trivial. That acting is trivial, and research about actors is therefore also trivial.
I believe that actors aren’t as important as the other artists who make theatre.
I believe that the makers are more important than the interpreters.

If I believe that I am trivial, how can I believe in my work?

I believe that certain types of actors are more important than other actors. Stage actors are more important than film actors. Famous actors are less trivial than not-famous actors. Working actors are less trivial than unemployed actors.
Failed actors are the most trivial of all.

Correction: I am the most trivial of all.

What if that is not true? What if that is just internalised codswollop? What if acting is as important as any other job in the theatre? As any other job in the world? It’s one of the oldest jobs, in many ways. The storyteller, the bard…(The whore, whispers the little dark voice).

What if you are doing research about actors to illuminate the importance of that job? The real importance: not how much money you can make, or acclaim you can garner, or jobs you can list on IMDB. What if you are exploring the importance of the skills that make acting valuable to society? The ability to tell a story. The ability to connect with others using your voice, your eyes and your presence. The ability to be honest and vulnerable. The ability to really be present with others. The ability to be spontaneous and take risks. The ability to express emotion. The ability to be playful. The ability to say yes, let’s! The ability to empathise. The ability to reflect. The ability to imagine. The ability to walk in another person’s shoes.

These are not trivial things. These are things that are worth taking off the stage and carrying into other domains. It is not a failure to take these qualities off the stage and into other fields.

Where did this mingy little voice come from? Why do I believe I am trivial? Class, race, gender. Those crop up a lot. Middle-class white girl. Yep. What the hell do you have to complain about? No one told me I was trivial, no one in my family or my school. They told me I could be a doctor. They told me I could be a lawyer. They told me I could be the prime minister of Australia. To choose to be an actor instead…well, that is trivial. Unless it’s Shakespeare. Or it pays a lot. Otherwise, it’s trivial. Yes, I did hear that. Or at least inferred it by the way they didn’t listen. Didn’t get it. Didn’t come, or didn’t care.

They don’t understand what I do, and they don’t care.

But I don’t understand what they do, and I don’t particularly care about their work either.

And yet I love them dearly.

And a lot of the acting stuff is trivial. That’s what never really fit. The film stuff, the commercials, the need to look a certain way…it’s true, that agent was right: I never really did get it. It didn’t fit me. I kept peering through the cracks.

But I love the process, unpacking it with students. Finding a way in with them, constructing the world. I don’t want to be a film maker. I just love discovering how to bring a character, a story, to life on film. How to move that technique from the stage to the screen.
Is that important? I think so. I think it is important to introduce young actors to the industry with integrity, honesty and kindness. I think it is important for them to know that their skills are valuable, no matter what they end up doing with them. Actors are important. There is no theatre, no film, without them. But moreover, their ability to connect, to be vulnerable and brave, honest and empathetic, to be human, can be the foundation for the individual biographies they eventually forge.

eleven. character sketch

The theatre school’s Head of Acting. Reincarnation of Oscar Wilde. I’ll call him Sir. A mane of steel grey hair, leather waistcoat and Egyptian ankh hanging about his neck. A small pouch perpetually suspended from his belt. Utterly terrifying and infinitely knowledgeable about theatre history. His tiny office is at the back of the school. At your annual Christmas interview you perch on a small, velvet footstool and Sir peers at you over his half-glasses, resting in his ornate throne. Columns of books loom down at you, the hapless acting student. Sir gives everyone a D as a matter of principle; that principle being it is both unethical and impossible to grade Art. (His objection to  academic bureaucracy duly noted, none of us ever earn a GPA to high enough to qualify for a scholarship.) It is rumoured that if pressed, Sir will occasionally bestow D+ on an individual who demonstrates really exceptional talent – or at least exceptional aptitude for his class. We speculate through first year about who might earn it. It’s obvious to me: the one who has since turned out to indeed be a star of the Canadian stage. At my second year Christmas interview (dubious Christmas gift, being told what Sir actually thinks of you) he frowns into his ledger. “I gave you a D last year?” He sniffs. “Should have been a D+”. 

In second year we undertake Period Study under Sir’s tutelage: a term-long investigation into a given era of theatre history. All our classes contribute to the research, culminating in a showcase of scenes and songs. I have no recollection whatsoever of the period we investigated. All I remember is learning a Somerset dialect and playing country floozy. During our first read-through, Sir solemnly removes the pouch from his belt and loosens the knot. In it, we discover, is snuff. He passes it around the table and invites us all to “take a pinch”. I know that it is a teaching opportunity, referencing something mentioned in the script. But the ritual of passing around the pouch, which you discover is made of soft, fragrant leather, inhaling the snuff to the watchful eyes of the group, laughing together at the inevitably ridiculous reaction, is the stuff of Mysteries. You are actors now. You have earned The Snuff. Welcome to the club.

ten. letter to an old friend

I miss you. I miss our worlds intersecting. I miss the Venn diagram of laughter that we make. I miss seeing your children grow up. I miss my children being part of your life, Knowing the smell of your house as well as the smell of their own.   I miss being able to pick up the phone and check in. Not counting hours forward and back again It’s their yesterday, in the morning, but what about daylight savings? Maybe those days are gone. Maybe no one picks up the phone to chat anymore Even if they live in the same city The same time zone Maybe even if I was there, We would still just text Infrequently And that would be okay Maybe it wouldn’t be all that different from how it is right now Busy. Happy, but busy. I wonder if the gap is worse on my end, because I’m the one who left. I wonder if the space we left behind has just Healed over. Or maybe it’s only that I’ve crossed into new terrain Ever a few steps ahead And the landscape of nappies and breast pumps and sleepless nights has grown small on my horizon. I hope that’s it. I hope that’s all it is. Maybe I’ve become profligate with time; time enough to think ‘I really must call’ Instead of just hanging on for dear life. Reckless, indulgent with time, now that I can sleep. Now that they can tie their own shoelaces, make their own lunches, brush their own teeth, read their own stories, cross the street, ride the bus, make Kraft Dinner, understand sarcasm, be wise to double entendres even if they aren’t exactly sure what they mean. Maybe I’ve just got time to worry about friends who don’t return texts because I have time to obsess that they don’t have because they are still back there in the land of solicitousness. Baby land. Toddler land. Infant land. I hope that’s it. I hope that’s all it is. I hope we meet again on the other side.

nine. an interlude

Lucy is my daughter. Tonight she was dressed as a punk rocker. Apparently she was surrounded by nine year old boys when she got to the birthday party. The parents of a child I have never met threw a disco for their daughter’s ninth birthday, complete with renting the local hall and hiring a DJ. The kids were meant to come as their favourite pop stars. The mum of Lucy’s best mate and I decided they should be punks because I had a leftover can of red hair spray and she had some cheap gel. When John got home, he advised that toothpaste is the secret to a really good mohawk. He drew a pretty good Dead Kennedys tattoo on her arm too. He was more punk than I realised. Apparently, my daughter was the only girl not dressed up like Elsa in Frozen. The only girl not in a dress with a pretty hair-do. She had black lipstick, black eyeliner, winkle pickers, a smiley face t-shirt, and a huge safety pin stuck through her mohawk.

My daughter is cooler than I have ever been. She can’t help but groove when good music comes on. She’s got the moves already. Actually, she’s had the moves since she was about five. My daughter is awesome. Even if she is already sassing me, sitting on the kitchen counter sucking a lollipop when I’ve asked her to clean up the fallen feijoas in the backyard. She tells me that when I’m in pain it’s just my imagination, and I should sing about pink fuzzy unicorns dancing on rainbows whenever I feel like complaining about my sore back. She hasn’t felt real pain yet. I wish that she would never have to. I know that’s not the way life works. Nonetheless, I feel – solid – in the knowledge that I have seen her this happy, this sassy, this independent and generous and joyful and quirky for the first nine years. And something in my gut tells me that she’s gonna be fine.