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.”