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.
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!”