Touchdown Brisbane

January 28, 2019.

I’m sitting on my balcony, in my serviced apartment next door to Queensland Theatre.  I start rehearsals for Hydra tomorrow morning.

Now I’m sitting indoors because it’s too damn hot outside.  I’m freshly bathed after plunging in the pool on Level One. Little pool, little gym.  Not even a gym – cheeky to call a treadmill, a stationary bike and a bouncy ball a gym.  But then, I’ve been spoiled by the ultimate shed-gym in our backyard, thanks to darling John. It only takes me six strokes to get from one end of the pool to the other, but I watched Venus emerge in the postcard piece of sky cut out of blank concrete walls and balconies. The voices of dazed travellers and overtired children floated above me. The water glowed cobalt around me. It tasted of salt and buoyed me as I cut through the cool wet.

I floated and thought of other pools. The various hotel pools of 19 weeks, one after another claimed as my own. Swimming with the kids at night in Lavender Bay, where Sydney Harbour spilled into the pool and the pool splashed into Sydney Harbour as we, deliriously happy, jumped and dove and squealed. I thought of Charmian Clift, tracing phosphorescent arcs in the waters off Hydra, and idly wished that I could write as well as her about the pleasure of moving through water in the night.

The descent into Brisbane felt perilous. I’ve been looking forward to this adventure for so long, wouldn’t it just be Murphy’s law if we crashed in a ball of flames the day before rehearsals started. The engines wailed as the plane bucked and rolled. Smoke from a bushfire plumed on my right,  while through the windows to my left the city rose and dipped as if tossed on invisible waves.  The burly New Zealand truck driver beside me, who’d told me his life story and had Marlon Brando’s nose, commented in a tight voice that the pilot was handling the plane like a trainee. But Brisbane greeted me with a damp kiss. The frangipani is pink, and the skyscrapers are climbing.  I am an unabashed tourist, making small-talk with taxi drivers and bestowing smiles on weary cashiers. I love the first walk in a new city.  Everything is unfamiliar and exceptional, yet I carry the knowledge that within a few days these streets will become my surrogate hood.

The jazz on my phone is tinny. The air is moist.  My wine and milk sweated on the walk home from the grocery store. So did I. I am a blank page, open to new stories, new streets, new experiences. The novelty of being alone, setting up my little flat just the way I want it, has yet to wear off. The emptiness of solitude is not yet unwelcome.  I bumped into Anna, who will be playing Charmian, as we were checking in.  She is here with her husband and one-year old daughter.  It’s her first gig after a year of maternity leave. She was buzzing with excitement to be working again, and astonished that Nathan and I (the Adelaide acting contingent) only had one suitcase each.  I am the older woman now, with teenagers who will start school tomorrow, setting off together and locking the door, putting the dog out and catching the bus on time. I found a note tucked into my suitcase, written by my darling boy, promising that they will miss me and take care of everything.  I used tweezers to retrieve one of the tiny messages placed in a glass bottle by my sweet girl. It told me that she thinks I’m fab.

Tonight, all is well.


When I was young

The march and tick and bureaucratic thump

of to-do held no sway

behind my closed door.


Hours would disappear

Summoning a future in oil pastels and wishes.

Interpellating dreams with music and tears.


My room. The hand-made desk and shelf

with peeling and blistered paint

The pillow ancient and compressed

by sweating dreams and practiced kisses

The sketches on the ceiling

Clumsy art

about clumsy hopes

The dusty dollies watching

with impassive glass eyes


The boom-box, powder-blue

The stretched cassettes

The hand-held phone with sticking

latch and wax-encrusted listening holes

that patiently transmitted

hours and hours of adolescent longing and

speculation and

hormone-soaked analysis


The rows of journals

The dainty wallpaper, patterned roses

and ornamental lilies, stared at so often

that a crone, a savage Rochester-profile

revealed themselves in the pattern.


My room. Incubator of dreams

Spasms of desire

radiating longing for the future self.


My own children are on the verge of that age


As I perch my glasses another few

millimetres towards the tip of

my nose to write

As I contemplate the forced foreclosure of

my womb

As I find myself in my bedroom again

with nothing to do but to think

He sleeps beside me.

And they in their rooms.


I bite my tongue to resist the urge to call them out

The urge to have them close

To have them younger


They are old enough that I

remember that age now

Of longing and vibration

Of possibility and despair

Of everything so emergent and bright

But still safe in your room

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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.


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!”

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.