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.

eight. theatre school

It wasn’t until I moved in with the furniture salesman that I appreciated a fundamental truth: a cup doesn’t have legs. A dirty plate lacks the instinct to migrate back to the kitchen.  A used pair of underpants will stay on the floor beside the bed, sprouting a delicate coat of dust, unless a human being picks them up and carries them to the laundry basket.  If there is a laundry basket.  While I had certainly participated in housework, until then it had always been at the behest of parents.  My worldly experience up to that point had demonstrated that, if you wait long enough, a cup abandoned on the coffee table will eventually find its way home.  I had never fully appreciated the miraculous nature of this event.  Living with the furniture salesman was something of an epiphany.  A cup will not teleport from the living room to the sink.  A person has to carry it there.  Apparently that person had been my mother. Although there had been frequent grumblings and exhortations for assistance, surfaces had revealed themselves, laundry had been washed and the pantry had been restocked, all below the level of my conscious awareness.

Apparently the furniture salesman was under the same misconception. A dirty cup would squat on his coffee table, stubbornly refusing to put itself away. Considering that he had been living on his own for several years, it was perplexing that he had not realised crockery’s lack of magical properties.  His apparent ignorance became increasingly disturbing when I realised that dirty cups hadn’t sprouted like mushrooms when we were dating.  Now that we were living together – now that we were engaged – my mother’s magical, unseen ability to clean up had apparently been bestowed upon me as well.

It was during this process of cleaning up one afternoon that I heard a voice speak quite clearly to me:  “Well, you can always get divorced”.

I was engaged because the furniture salesman wasn’t keen on me starting theatre school.  He was worried that I would be lured away from him.  Six days a week, twelve hours a day was a long time to be apart.  We had moved into the city so I could be closer to school.  My bohemian fantasy was taking shape: a funky loft apartment above an architect’s studio. A futon, purple walls and an oversized poster of us, locked in a passionate kiss, which took pride of place above the sofa.  We cleaned up dozens of used condoms in the tiny backyard, souvenirs of hookers who parked there with their johns until I begged the landlord to install security lighting. We spent the summer before I started school travelling around rural Ontario and upstate New York, distributing catalogues and taking orders with furniture stores in his district.  We would stay in cheap motels where the towels were almost translucent and the carpets were ominously sticky. When we came home from a sales trip, he would pay me to process the purchase orders.  I would lie on the floor in my underwear, bathed in a pool of late summer sun, doing paperwork while reruns of The Simpsons kept me company and he got high.

He was worried I would leave him when I started school.  He was worried that I would meet someone else.  I thought that by wearing his ring on my finger I could make him feel safe.

Make sure you take care of my boy.

I faxed the news to Mum. It was before the age of emails. I faxed her at work, where I knew she would have to control herself.  Later, much later, she revealed she was so upset that they sent her home early.

The ring was an amethyst.  Not expensive, but nice.  Oblong shaped.  On my second day of acting school, lying on the floor in voice class, I rolled over, opened my eyes and saw a big scratch across its glossy purple face.

The memories are pictures now – flashes, like coloured glass beads that are startling in their vividness, but disconnected.

Walking to school on the first day, red and gold leaves falling through God’s fingers.  Look what I’ve done. Look what I’m doing!

Sitting in the green room with all the other newbies, sizing each other up.  Realising that the girl on the couch is going to drive me crazy for the next three years.

“Look to your right, look to your left.  Of the three of you, only one will still be in the business five years after you graduate.  If you graduate”.  The thought, almost audible, running through everyone’s heads: It’s going to be me.  I’ll be the one who makes it.

The first baptism of fire: day one, first years perform one of their audition monologues for the entire school.  Whole body trembling as I get ready to do Miss Julie. Discovering that you will never, ever, ever have a more enthusiastic or responsive audience than a group of acting students.

The red headed poet.  He plays the guitar.  His beard is gold like the leaves outside. He tells me later that it was in our first theatre history class, when I was able to define Rococo, that he was hooked.

He gives me a mix tape of Canadian bands I should know.  I’m playing it while I do my homework, not listening to the lyrics.  The furniture salesman is suddenly raging, throwing things, storming.  Are you listening?  Did you hear what he said? Bewildered, I rewind the tape and listen with attention. Grab the cassette case to find the name of the song written in his tiny, elegant hand.  The Skydiggers. Slow Burning Fire. 

Oh.

Oh god.