fourteen. another character sketch, and a tale

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.”

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.

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.

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.