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.

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.