seven. sound the alarm

I wake to the sound of his father crying out for us. His mother has passed in the night. She went while we were asleep.

We stand around their bed in our pyjamas. The air is fuggish with the warm smell of tousled linen and crushed pillows. I hover on the edge of their grief. Although I knew she was desperately ill, her death has come as a complete surprise to me. It is my first time. I have always imagined it coming in a hospital bed. The day before, she had taken my hand and asked me to take care of her son. It suddenly occurs to me that I have made a promise to a woman on her deathbed.

As the sun rises, plans are put into action. Mundane events of coordination and bureaucracy that had never occurred to me before. The undertakers navigating doorways and polished floors with their collapsible stretcher bed. The phone calls to family and friends. The detritus of palliative care that most profoundly marks her absence. A half-empty glass of water. An open jar of lip salve. There is a hushed, frantic discussion taking place in the ensuite. His sister wants to hide the remaining morphine before the authorities come to clear it all away. He agrees. Where should we hide it? Both eager to try it out. I am thunderstruck. I know he is a pot head. I’ve become attuned to the scrape of his pen-knife cleaning out the bowl of his pipe. The sound of the plate holding his paraphernalia sliding out from under the bed will trigger Pavlovian shivers of dread in the months to come. Is it in this moment that I realise it’s more than just a predilection? Having the wherewithal to steal their mother’s drugs before her body is removed?

At the funeral, his sister insists that I sit beside her in the front pew. You’re part of the family now.

When we get back to Canada I throw myself into the process of applying to theatre schools. Whereas NIDA seemed like the only option in Sydney, there are four reputable schools to choose from in Toronto: two college programs, and two university degrees. I am offered direct entry into the second year performance major at York University. I am also offered a place at George Brown College, a three year conservatory program modelled on the principles of the National Theatre School in Montreal. Six days a week, twelve hours a day. No breaks except for two weeks at Christmas and the summer hiatus. The school operates under the umbrella of a technical college, but has its own black box theatre, workshop and costume store. It smells like TSP, which is only a ten minute walk away – black paint, coffee and dust. I cancel my auditions at options three and four. I know where I’m meant to be.

six. we’re going on a bear hunt

Less than a day after arriving in Canada we cross the US border and drive through the night to reach Charlotte. The furniture salesman’s mother is dying. We pass into the northern part of the southern states, an entirely new world to me. My companion pounds giant bottles of Mountain Dew to push through his grief and exhaustion. As we head further south, the caffeine-rich soft drink starts to be advertised as ‘soda’ and is casually displayed on gas station shelves next to whisky and beer. We wind through the black forests of Virginia in the pre-dawn light. The next time we stop I hear a truck driver joking with an attendant, and the twang in his voice suddenly transports me to Australia. Then my brain makes a shift and I recognise the drawl as ‘Southern’. Toto, we’re not in Oz anymore.

After a ten hour drive that should have taken twelve we arrive in Charlotte. It’s the first time I’ve met his family. His parents live in a sprawling, comfortable home inside a forest. It’s exactly how I imagine a successful American family in the furniture-making business would live. A huge family portrait over a massive stone fireplace. Oversized furniture. Overstuffed pantry. In my jet-lagged, exiled state it feels like I’ve drifted into a Disney movie of the week.

They are all so happy to meet me. His mother’s hands and smile are soft. Her voice is gentle, and fuzzy with morphine. His father is gracious and welcoming even through his grief. Prayers pepper the daily conversation. His sister is fiercely protective of her little brother. I feel her sizing me up with sharp, evaluative glances. His brother is a survivalist. He has wire-rimmed Lenin-glasses and a ginger beard that reaches the middle of his chest. On our second day we visit his home. He invites me into his basement and proudly shows me his cache of food and weapons. I hear the piping voice of his tow-headed daughter float above us in the backyard. That afternoon the brothers take me hunting on the family compound. They only manage to bring down a squirrel. They skin and barbecue it, a modest contribution to the evening’s family feast. I force myself to watch the entire process of skinning, cleaning and preparing the tiny body. It’s the first kill I’ve seen.

His mother has risen from her sickbed for the occasion. There is a mountain of soft white dinner rolls, a huge jug of red Kool Aid, a pyramid of corn on the cob doused with margarine. The survivalist has confided to me that he is convinced the food dye and margarine are what gave his mother cancer. He flinches when they are placed on the table.

The squirrel takes pride of place. Its tiny, naked limbs seem even smaller, severed and presented on an oversized white platter. The meat is easier to swallow when I tell myself it tastes like lamb. Sister shrieks “Give her the best bit! Give her the best bit!” They chuckle with shared anticipation. My long-haired companion offers me a plate. On it is a single Salada cracker. On the cracker is the squirrel’s brain. The smiles on their faces all match. His mother has forgotten her pain. His sister’s eyes glitter. I know this is a test. I lift the cracker, open my mouth, put it on my tongue, close my lips. Make my jaw go up and down. Feel saliva come to my aid. Chew and swallow. Exhale. Lift the corners of my mouth in a smile. They erupt in laughter and applause.

I’m in.

five. teeth, or the removal of wisdom(s)

This is the story of how determined I was to go to theatre school.

The six months are up. It’s time to head back to my real life in Australia. Back to a uni course I hate, and a second stab at NIDA I guess, but my heart’s just not in it. I’ve had a glorious summer in Toronto. Making theatre. Learning to like coffee. Falling in, out and back into what seems like love. I’ve met a long-haired Southern Baptist who wants to be an actor but makes a living as a furniture salesman for his family firm back in Charlotte, North Carolina.  I direct him in a play at TSP.  He’s a gentle bear of a man who introduces me to home-grown vegetables, smudging ceremonies and the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.

I think want to stay in Canada.

I discuss the matter with a loon floating on Little Clam Lake.  It’s an Indian summer, and my folks have taken me to their annual cottage getaway in the Muskokas. I spend hours propelling myself about the lake in a tiny borrowed rowboat.  Drinking in the stillness of the glassy, sweet water.  So different from the churning salt-foam of Sydney’s beaches.  I explore Little Clam’s coves, watch the clouds and pine trees mirror themselves in the lake’s surface, press my nose to the sun-baked canvas of the lifejackets, a smell that reminds me of a childhood memory so old that both my parents are in it.  Sticky pine needles and faded orange canvas. The puk-puk sound of lake waves kissing the edge of the boat. This is a part of me, this place.  This is a landscape I forgot I knew.  Flashes of memory, or images from baby pictures from when I was the only child, which means they must have still been married.  Maybe still happy, though I don’t remember anything other than the smell of hot pine needles and life jackets. Oh my god, this is my home too. This was my home, first.

Jesus. This was meant to be a funny story.  A description, triggering a memory, triggering an epiphany:  I didn’t want to stay because I wanted to be an actor. I wanted stay because Canada was home.

So I talk to the loon about it as I float in the middle of Little Clam Lake.  What to do, what to do?  How do I tell my mother that I want to make a life 13, 000 miles away?  She’s going to freak. Think of the positives. Imagine how excited Dad will be.  The daughter he has missed for so long – seen for a grand total of 27 weeks over the last nine years – wants to stay!  Wants to move in with him and his wife! Only – now this is awkward. This is delicate, how I approach this memory and not hurt anyone.  Because I really don’t want to hurt anyone. But it’s part of the story and I have to at least acknowledge what happened, because it triggered stuff that won’t make sense otherwise.  Bonehead decisions that I made.  Serious ramifications barely dodged.  Stuff that shaped the ensuing years.  The deal was six months – I would stay with them for six months.  It never crossed my mind that it would be a problem if I wanted to extend the invitation.  Of course now, older, my toes curl in embarrassment at the arrogance of that assumption.  It was my stepmother’s apartment.  Dad had moved in with her when they got married, but it had been her space for years already.  To have a nineteen year old girl suddenly take up residence in the second bedroom, eating their food, living her life, often getting home in the wee hours of the morning, occasionally not getting home at all…I get it now.  That wasn’t part of the deal.  But at the time, it was completely unexpected that I wouldn’t be wanted.

I have to be delicate here because the last thing I want to do is hurt anyone’s feelings. I am infinitely grateful to my stepmother for marrying my dad.  She’s the best thing that ever happened to him.  My nightmares about him trapped in his bachelor apartment during a blizzard went away when they got married.  And I wasn’t angry when he told me the news.  Definitely surprised. Hurt, I guess – but hurt mainly at how torn he was.  Divided loyalties.  Awkward.  I don’t want to be the cause of this. I go back to Australia, but I’m already hatching Plan B.

The long-haired furniture salesman.  I’ll stay with him, just till I get on my feet.  Find a job, get a place, apply for theatre schools.  He’s more than happy to let me crash at his pad.  I’m in Australia for six weeks, on the dole, packing up my life and avoiding my mother’s tearful gaze when my long-haired lover calls long-distance.  Hysterical over the phone.  His mother has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. My jaw aches.  My gums are flaring.  I’ve been gargling with hydrogen peroxide for weeks to stave off infection in my impacted molars.  They have to come out.  My mother and stepfather are sympathetic, but I’m nineteen now and no longer under their health-care package. If I want to have my teeth removed I’ll just have to spend my airline ticket money.  Canada isn’t going anywhere – maybe after you finish your degree you can think about going back.  Forget it. If you won’t support me I’ll figure it out on my own.  Getting used to that now.

The School of Dentistry in Haymarket offers free services if you’re prepared to be a guinea pig for the students.  I wait for hours in the dusty corridors.  They’ve been offering “modern and efficient treatment for the impoverished” since 1940. I don’t think much has changed. Migrants and irritable mothers with packs of runny-nosed children are my companions. When I am finally ushered into the theatre I smile brightly at half a dozen wide-eyed students, all about my age.  “You lot look even more scared than I me!” I joke, attempting to break the ice.  When no-one cracks a smile I know I’m fucked.

All I remember is the lecturing dentist’s voice bellowing over the buzz of the saw as it carves into my jaw:  “GO DEEPER!  GO DEEPER!”

My step-father picks me up afterwards, smiling sympathetically.  I can’t move my mouth to respond.

Two weeks later, although the pain has largely receded I still can’t completely open my mouth.  I wedge a mag-light between my teeth and peer into the bathroom mirror.  Mystery solved.  One of the students has accidentally sewn the inside of my mouth to my gum. I sterilize the manicure scissors over a Bic lighter and manage to cut the stiches free.  It’s lovely to be able to yawn again.

I make a compilation tape of the classical music I’ve grown up listening to, and play it for my mother the night before I leave.  We sob in each other’s arms to Dvorak’s New World Symphony.

My plane is stuck on the tarmac at Kingsford Smith for five hours.  My family are long-gone, back to their regular lives. I clutch a going-away present from my larrikin uncle, a wooden box with strict instructions emblazoned on its lid: do not open until in flight.  The minutes ooze. It feels like Australia is playing one last trick on me.  We’re not letting you go that easily, love.  We’re finally ordered off the plane so they can make unspecified repairs, and squat in a corridor for a spell.  One lad cracks open his duty-free grog and we tuck in.  A supercilious attendant warns us that if we keep it up we might not be let back on the plane.  When we finally take off I’m buzzed with Jack Daniels and tears. My seat companions are desperate to know what’s in the box.  I pry it open and find three baby crocodiles nestled in a bed of straw, grinning toothily at me.

When I arrive in Toronto thirty hours later I’m met by the long-haired furniture salesman. I don’t recognize him at first. His face is pasty. His hair is lank.  A spasm jolts through me: this is a huge mistake.

four. invisibility

Thinking, as I wander through the happy, buzzing city of Adelaide in my 42 year-old body, about invisibility and anonymity. The complaint expressed by so many women once they reach ‘a certain age’ that they become invisible. I’ve noticed it myself since…when? Since becoming a mother? Is it since I got older, or became a teacher? Or to be more precise, when I let go of being an actor? My fingers itch to shave all my hair off, to let it grow back its natural colour. To see what salt and pepper would look like. To commemorate the transition from actor to PhD candidate. To say get stuffed to society’s insistence that youth is beauty. Bald is in. People would probably assume I’m doing chemo. I could raise money for charity: they have head-shaving fundraisers these days. But I can’t quite bring myself to pull the clippers out from under the sink. I tell myself I it’s because I won’t get work in the odd commercial I seem to book every ten months or so, which, while they don’t remotely satisfy as an artist, sure help pay the bills. I don’t do it because my nine year old daughter’s eyes fill with tears every time I threaten it. I remember that childhood fear so well. A parent who changes is no longer immortal. I give myself these excuses, but really, is it just because I’m too vain? I’d do it for a show…give me the chance to play Queen Elizabeth or a cancer patient and I’d be all over it. But simply to overcome some personal vanity…I’m just not brave enough.
Self-worth is enmeshed with visibility for vast swathes of our lives. And yet there is such freedom in not being noticed. The little girl I watched while the kids were at their swimming lesson: she was about nine, and danced with complete abandon to the pop music pumping through the PA system. Effortlessly graceful, moving just for the pleasure of discovering what her birdlike little body could do. Children assume their invisibility. It’s only when we begin to equate value with being seen that beauty starts to matter.

a scene.
phone rings
– Hello?
– How does it feel to be the most beautiful woman on the Canadian stage?
– Why thank you, sir. You’re pretty gorgeous yourself…
– No, no – that’s what it says in the paper this morning. Haven’t you seen it?
– Sorry?
– Honey pass me the paper… here it is. “Newcomer Tiffany Knight, one of the most beautiful women on the Canadian stage–”

– Your wife’s there?
– Why wouldn’t she be? Hey li’l buddy, get off the table. Eat your banana…

– I have to go.
– Aren’t you excited? You’re the most beautiful –
– Sure thing. I’ll see you later.

A few weeks ago I was noticed, after a show I’d seen at the Bakehouse. I was walking back to my car down a quiet road off Hutt Street. A knot of drunken men emerged out of the parklands and began weaving towards me. You know that feeling of foreboding when you suddenly go on high alert? The feeling of your guts suddenly going very cold?
I can tell I’m going to have to pass them to get to my car. I haven’t felt this kind of dread for a long time. These days I’m not often alone in the city after dark. I can tell when they spot me. Their drunken veering takes on purpose: a school of fish thinking as a single organism. One starts howling “Lady in Red” at the top of his lungs. I casually readjust my keys inside the pocket of my red trench coat. My arm stays relaxed, but at its end is now a spiked fist; the only piece of self-defence I’ve picked up. That, and making myself invisible, an old trick I developed walking home from theatre school in Toronto past the drunks on Queen St East. A technique refined after rehearsals at the Firehall, walking to the bus stop past the junkies and panhandlers on Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Fix your gaze into the middle distance. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t flinch, even when someone lurches across your path. Don’t respond to catcalls or requests for spare change. Make yourself look busy, alert – on a mission – but never run. Never show fear.
As I get to my car the one of the drunks lunges at me. “Lady in reeeed…..daaancing with me….cheek to cheek…” A girl on a bicycle glides past. She stops. “Are you alright?” Bless her. Solidarity with a twenty-something. A girl on a street bike, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, coming to my defence. One guy detaches himself from the clutch and pulls his mate back. “Sorry love…he’s really drunk…c’mon mate…” I push the button on my keychain that unlocks the car. The hazard lights wink cheerily. “I’m fine. Thanks”. The girl cycles into the night. I sit in my car and shake. Furious with them. Furious that my favourite red coat just turned me into a target. Furious with myself because I used to feel that kind of fear more often – but as a younger woman, would have simply accepted it. All those moments of bittersweet nostalgia, of feeling invisible to men because I’m older, a mother, not-an-actor; and suddenly I crave invisibility again.

three. an adventure, and an interruption

This is the story of how I got into theatre school.

My plane descended into Toronto on April 1st, 1992.  April Fool’s Day.  If Sydney on take-off was a Jackson Pollack painting – an exuberant spray of terracotta roofs, green football ovals and turquoise swimming pools—Toronto was a tired Mondrian. A study in greys and browns, dissected into orderly right angles by highways, roads and residential blocks. Good grief, what have I done? I had invited myself to spend six months living with my father and his new wife in their compact, two-bedroom apartment.  I didn’t know what I would do in Toronto, but I hoped a gap year would give me an opportunity to gain ‘life experience’, that elusive requirement for acceptance into NIDA, and spend some longed-for time with my father.

The day after I arrived, I sat in their tiny kitchen and leafed through the Yellow Pages looking for acting schools.

Ring. Ring. Ring.

Sound of phone being picked up and a person drawing back on a cigarette.

Male voice: Toronto Studio Players.

Me: Um. Hello. Yes. My name is Tiffany Knight and I’m interested in doing some acting classes.

Pause.

Male voice: Tiffany Knight.  Now that is a name I could put on a marquis.

Hook, line and sinker.

I caught a two buses and a subway to Pape Station. The funky east side of the inner city. Toronto Studio Players was a tiny black box theatre-cum-acting school converted out of a meatpacking warehouse. The stage, wings, bleachers and booth had been constructed from materials ‘acquired’ from the discarded set of The Fly, a 1980s horror movie starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis. The film tells the story of a rogue geneticist whose experiments in teleportation go horribly wrong. I saw it in a Honolulu hotel room when I was twelve, at the end of my annual visit with my dad. It was the first time my brother and I had returned to Canada for Christmas. Normally my father would spend three weeks with us in Australia, but celebrating Christmas with my mother and stepfather must have been wearing a little thin. He had travelled as far as Hawaii to make sure we made the transfer between flights safely.  It was meant to be a great adventure, but Hawaii was a sickly-sweet nightmare,  a delaying tactic to avoid the farewell we all knew would be agonizing. Watching The Fly on our last night together should have been a treat, proof that I was a big girl now.  But the sight of Jeff Goldblum’s fingernails sloughing off and his teeth dropping out as he descended into madness still gives me an involuntary shiver. I remember how, his transformation into a fly complete, he silently landed behind a huge translucent window. Suddenly it shattered and he stole away Geena’s sleeping form. I spent a vigilant night staring at the glowing hotel window as the air conditioner hissed.

The day I arrived at TSP its founder, Hersh Jacob, was sitting in a darkened office, his overgrown beard and greying ponytail illuminated by the light of a single, crane-necked lamp. He was wreathed in a cloud of marijuana smoke.  Hersh was a visual artist, the creator of whimsical, surreal cartoons that filled the walls of the theatre.  He was the artistic director, sole acting teacher and visionary behind a company that had started through the goodwill of government grants and continued to function on the occasional student’s fees, Hersh’s charm, and the smell of an oily rag. By the end of our meeting I had been recruited to design and run lights for the weekly Friday night cabaret, and was prepped to apply for a provincial grant that would pay me $350 a fortnight to work for the company. And work I did.  I bought a C-wrench and learned how to design a lighting plot from a book on theatre production I found in a second-hand bookstore on Queen Street. I learned how to hang and focus lamps from the resident lighting designer, Dwayne.  Dwayne was a twenty-something guy with albinism, which meant he was legally blind—somehow the contradictions inherent in a blind lighting designer just seemed to work at TSP—and by Friday night I was in the booth ready to tech my first show.  Nobody turned up. True to Hersh’s principles, we hung the Sold Out sign on the door and did the show anyway.

During the six months I worked at TSP I performed, taught acting classes, directed a Harold Pinter play, stage managed a tour and produced a summer festival. I also helped to keep the photocopier in the office, participating in an ingenious scheme Hersh had developed.  It worked like this: you contact a large photocopier company and express an interest in buying a machine.  Explaining that this is a big investment for a small, not-for-profit organization, the company is persuaded to lend you a demonstration model to see if it will suit your needs. You take advantage of the fact that your unmemorable little theatre company can easily slip through the bureaucratic cracks of the multinational organization, and have free use of the photocopier for several months. When they eventually get in touch to see if you like the machine – and if not can we please have it back – you assume the identity of a hapless administrative dogsbody who doesn’t know anything about the arrangement, and promise to investigate the situation immediately. For the ensuing several weeks, each time you answer the phone you do so as a different character who again pleads ignorance and promises to look into the matter. Apart from being a thrilling exercise in character study (I know for a fact that at least one nom de plume endures as a result of this scheme), TSP had excellent printed resources for years, and as far as I know only abandoned the project when the photocopier eventually broke down.

Hersh Jacob was a scoundrel and a pot-head.  He was also a master of charm and an inspiration.  He gave me my first piece of acting advice, which I still—

The screen door slams. I’m jolted out of my reveries about the bohemian world of Toronto theatre and back onto the front porch. “There you are Mum!” chimes Oscar, the dog cradled in his arms. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere!” He snuggles into my lap, my almost eleven year old boy. I have to fold all his limbs in to make him fit. It’s a student-free day, which once again I’ve forgotten about.

He’s standing beside me right now. Hovering politely, waiting for me to engage. “If I’m not there, how do I know that Tokyo really exists?” Silence. I write. He’s just put a live caterpillar, rescued from a spider’s web, on the blank page next to where I’m writing. Delicately lifts the blank page so the grub will roll toward my hand. “Do grasshoppers have eyes?” Sweetly oblivious to the fact that I’m TRYING TO WRITE. “I wonder what kind of bug he’s a larva for?” Deliberating as to whether he should put the rescued caterpillar in the potted geranium he’s been tending so diligently since I showed him how to grow it from a cutting. The previous interruption – the one I tried to write about when he interrupted me this second time – turned into an episode of quiet, heartfelt sobbing in my lap, because I suggested he play with his bow and arrow. He hasn’t touched them since Christmas, when he broke the rules and let a friend shoot without parental supervision.  A hole through the shed wall, which so easily could have been a hole through a ten year old skull.  Evidently the heat of my wrath has ruined the entire experience of archery. Cheer up buddy, it’s my fault – I should have known you and your friends aren’t ready for that kind of freedom yet. I’m not used to having a big boy, you know. I’m figuring these things out too. Come on lovey, give me a smile.  Will you teach me how to shoot today?  He refuses to be coaxed into happiness.  Go inside to make him French toast, trying earn his smile back – bad mother, damaging mother, irresponsible mother – but there’s no maple syrup. “Don’t worry Mum I’ll just have plain toast.” My wee martyr. Lucy is watching ‘Annie’ for the seventh time. Lucy, turn it down. LUCY TURN IT DOWN! “What are we going to do today?” she moans into the blissful silence. What am I, the tour guide? Figure something out. Boredom is the…struggling to create a metaphor involving dirt and flowers as I make toast. “Boredom is the garden in which creativity blooms.”  She stares at me, deadpan and suddenly sixteen in her 8 year old body.  “What are you talking about?” Go outside and play.  

Mum must engage. Mum must entertain. Why don’t they hover around their dad, waiting for him to “do something” with them? Is it because I almost always drop everything to play, to feed, to cuddle, to boss? Because, as our lives get busier and they get more independent, it seems that is how more and more of our time together is spent. Bring the bins in. Get the eggs. Clean your room. And they do.  They are lovely, helpful little people. But the playing together has been increasingly replaced by working together, and if they play while I work, I feel guilty.  If I’m writing, I feel their sweet, discreet presences waiting for Mum to see them, admire them, and a voice inside me whispers, “They won’t want you to play with them for much longer now.  You will be replaced by lovers and friends and careers before you know it. Grab it while you can.”  But when I put the pen down, or the book down, or the dishcloth down to just be with them, the other voices whimper “Feed me! Feed me!”

two. desperate measures

This is the story of what made me decide to become an actor.

I dropped out of university at the end of first year.  I was doing Communications at the University of Technology, Sydney.  I only did it because I didn’t get into NIDA, and I had to do something.  NIDA had seemed like a foregone conclusion.  I had won the Australian division of Sam Wanamaker’s inaugural Globe Shakespeare Theatre Competition in my final year of school. The great Australian Shakespearean actor, John Bell, and premier casting director, Liz Mullinar, adjudicated the competition.  I won a trip to London to participate in a workshop with Mark Rylance on the foundations of the yet-to-be-reconstructed Globe Theatre.  I had vowed to whatever God I could conceive of that if I won the competition, I would conclusively know I was good enough to be an actor, and leave it at that: no more pursuing the career that my parents advised would be lovely, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to have a degree in my back pocket just to be on the safe side?  I suppose a promise to a deity I wasn’t completely sure existed is a promise that can safely be broken. I promptly found myself filling out an application to audition for NIDA.  

NIDA was the be-all and end-all in theatre training as far as I was concerned.  Judy Davis had studied there, playing Juliet to Mel Gibson’s Romeo in her final year. Judy Davis’s performance as Sybylla Melville in My Brilliant Career had become my private touchstone. The film, directed by Jane Campion, was my education in the fact that Australia has a strong feminist history, and that an ugly duckling could transform into a beautiful, talented and independent swan.  It was through My Brilliant Career that I first felt a connection to the Australian landscape, and finally began to identify with Australia as home.   

But I didn’t get into NIDA.  Someone pulled me aside after the second round and advised me to ‘get some life experience’ before auditioning again. How odd it is to be the person who gives this same advice to eighteen year olds all these years later.  I wish there was some way I could express to them how well I understand that feeling of utter desolation. 

Communications at UTS was a prestige course: very popular, which had driven the entrance marks sky-high. Without a serious plan B, and not wanting to squander the perfect tertiary entrance rank I had earned, I decided to give it a whirl. If I couldn’t be an actor I could always be a journalist, which was the only way I could think of being able to earn a living through writing. (Always with the money, Tiffany!) It was immediately apparent to me that I was in the wrong program.  I found myself at an institution where my beloved Shakespeare had been chucked on the dust heap of Dead White Males, and deconstructionism held sway.  I learned two things that year: how to roll a joint, and that I was never going to be a journalist.

One afternoon I skived off classes and found myself at matinee screening of Henry and June, a film based on the diaries of erotica writer, Anaïs Nin. The world of 1930s bohemian France, filled with sexual experimentation, intellectual debate and modernist art, set my suburban existence in stark relief. I left the cinema inflamed (on multiples levels) and utterly determined to take charge of my own fate. A fate that bloody well better have some good sex in it. 

one. in which the narrator introduces herself

Dear Lucy.  Dear Holly.  Dear Ashton.  Dear all the young women who are in the process of becoming actors.

This is to those of you who dream of being famous; or like me, simply long to be a part of the theatre. The ones who also think they might one day want to have a family. This is my story.  I tell it to you because when I trained to become an actor, none of my female teachers were parents.  When I entered the theatre professionally, there were only one or two women whom I admired as successes who also had children.  And it was complicated for them.

I was born in the early seventies.  My mother was a feminist.  I know this because she told me off when I was six years old for saying that sweeping was women’s work.  I also know it because she told me I could be anything I wanted­―provided that wasn’t a nurse or a teacher. I didn’t realise then how new feminism was.  My mother was a trailblazer in her own modest way. Women had only started fighting for equal rights in the workforce a decade or so before I was born.  We don’t have a sense of the past as children.  We assume that the way life is for us is the way it has always been.  I assumed, because my mother worked and told me that I could be anything, do anything, that women had successfully been doing that for generations.

How do you define success—as an actor, as a woman?  I wanted to become an actor because I wanted to be a part of a community that accepted me.  Because I saw Star Wars when I was five years old, and wanted to dissolve into the theme music I could hear swelling up through the floor boards of my bedroom from the stereo in the living room downstairs.  I wanted to be an actor because it was something more than stifling suburbia; more than terrifying Australian sports culture and tedious, bourgeois, good-girl-private-school studiousness.  Because Shakespeare was able to articulate all the huge emotions I was experiencing, and gave me the words to express them.  Because I was good at it. Because people praised me for it.  Because it was the first place, after being unwillingly transplanted from my home in Canada to a foreign land, where I felt I belonged.

I was born in Toronto to an Australian mother and Canadian father.  My mother had travelled to Canada after training as a nurse in Sydney. She married my father in 1970. They had two children, me and my younger brother, before divorcing seven years later.   I remember how my mother’s Australian accent set her apart from the Canadian mums; in comparison, her voice was beautiful, lilting, exotic.  When she spoke, I wasn’t a dual citizen, but a “jewel citizen”; something to be infinitely proud of.  She gave me a pair of duty-free pearl earrings when we moved to Australia in 1982.  My new step-father had successfully pursued work in Sydney because she longed to return home. Even at the age of nine the pearls felt like a bribe; compensation for being taken away from Canada and my real dad.  I thought duty-free was ‘Judy free’ because of her Australian accent. I didn’t know who Judy was, or why her pearls were free, but they were far too big for my little, perpetually-infected ear lobes.  My memory of leaving Canada is standing in the airport bathroom with tears streaming down my face as she forced the posts through my pus-encrusted lobes, promising me, “They’re Judy Free!  They’re cultured pearls!”  They eventually ended up in her jewellery box.

Australia wasn’t a happy place for a long, long time.  I didn’t fit.  The crows sounded like strangled babies. The hot dogs had red, leathery skins that squeaked between my teeth.  The ketchup was sauce. The children called me Yank.  My year five teacher would send me to the corner shop at lunch to buy his smokes, which he taught me to hide under my jumper on the journey back.  There were school uniforms, class captains, sports captains, assembling on the hot bitumen playground at ‘attention’ and ‘at ease’.   The sap from the gumtrees formed hard, sticky balls that would hurt when a boy threw at you. The spiders could kill you. People burned their garbage and the melting plastic smelled like vomit.  If you didn’t play cricket, footie or netball, you didn’t exist. Christmas was in the summer and the only way to have a real tree was to wire three scrawny saplings together.

But my class did a play in year six and I made people laugh. I felt like they saw past my crooked teeth, thick glasses and funny accent, my preposterous height and clumsiness.  By seeing me as someone else, for the first time they saw me.