grief

spring forward, fall back

When my father died, I was in the middle of a punishing Toronto winter. Salt caked the bottoms of my shoes, my knuckles split from the dry air. It was my first one away from the West Coast, and I was unprepared both practically and emotionally (for the winter, that is – but I suppose also for death). The next morning I was on a flight home to Vancouver. As the plane took off, the man next to me immediately tried to pick me up. I told him my dad had just died. He persisted. When we landed for the layover he asked me if I wanted to go to the bar with him. A flight attendant found me hunched under a chair at the gate and asked me what was wrong. She booked me into a new seat for the next flight, sitting in a row by myself. As soon as the plane took off, a man moved into the aisle seat, spreading his legs so that his knee touched mine. I took off my parka and stuffed it into the seat between us.

It was spring in Vancouver. My friends were already waiting at my apartment when I arrived, ready with snacks and magazines and distraction. My eyes kept drifting to the open window, and so we went for a walk in our t-shirts and jean jackets. The cherry blossoms on Victoria Drive were raining sweet-smelling petals on the sidewalk. Cliché would have me had me believe in that moment that it was all a cruel irony, something along the lines of how-can-things-be-so-beautiful-when-life-is-so-unkind or perhaps if-only-he-were-here-to-see-this. But branches snapped, synapses misfire, somehow all I could quite get out is ‘look at that. Look at that.’

I was 28, half my father’s age, when he died. The symmetry of this young death set in motion this thought, this undercurrent, slow like sap – what if I were already halfway done? I was always an empath, but this part of me has been set on fire. I am constantly in a state of this relentless feeling of being alive, and if sometimes too numb to feel alive, at least consistently not dead. I am overwhelmed now by the colour green. Green like my eyes, which every person at the funeral took care to tell me are just like his. (For the record, my mother’s eyes are also green – but fathers’ contributions tend to eclipse mothers when they are sparse enough to be named). Green was in short supply when I returned to Toronto the next day.

And now, two years gone, the smell of spring is now tied to the bright horror of that day. So much of the memory is redacted that the final cut makes little sense – the boozy breath of the man on the plane; cherry blossoms falling on my friend’s upturned face; standing outside the bar crying with only a sweater on. I look for myself in the frame, but it feels like a soap opera where they replace an actor mid-season and hope no one will notice.

For every part of me that didn’t make it through that winter, something new has grown in its place. Something that is too new to fruit or flower, but is growing nonetheless. The dead parts I’ve shed are like things that grow and see their season pass before their utility is known – like chestnuts, like dandelion puffs, like fallen leaves. I itch and ache from these new appendages that have not yet shown me what they do. I feel it most in the spring.

It’s the harsh glory of the sun on subterranean winter eyes, it’s the splitting husks of bulbs making way for a mighty green shoot. It’s cherry blossoms crushed underfoot on pavement.

It hurts.

But look at that. Look at that.

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the wicked stage

 

This time last year, before a matinee of a holiday show, I could not stop crying. I had circled the block for half an hour, my precious pre-show time ticking away. I got close to the stage door and then had to crouch behind an electrical box, sobbing, while audience members already started to arrive at the theatre’s doors. When I finally made it in, I still couldn’t stop, wiping off tears to apply makeup, drying my eyelashes enough to glue big fake ones on top. At warm-up, a fellow actor asked if they could try something, and I said sure. They placed a hand on my back and closed their eyes. I imagined them pulling whatever it was that wouldn’t let me go out of my body and into theirs, and then casting it down into the stage, down into the earth. They shook it off. I stopped crying.

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In the last 12 months I had the privilege of spending over half of my year in rehearsal or performance, more than I’ve ever had before and more than I ever expect to have again. It had been two years since I’d been on stage. This was the life that I’d dreamed about as a kid, the immersive devotion to a life on stage. It’s harder in reality. The work of an actor is both romanticised and denigrated to the degree that it can become indecipherable when you go to talk about it. Stay grateful, but don’t be precious. Work your guts out but remember that it’s just a job.

Okay, sure.

To me, the work of an actor hinges on the vulnerability of shared imagination, building worlds, investing in them, believing in them and making them manifest. Working in a way that is at once intensely personal and relentlessly public, we try to craft something that is both delicate and durable, repeatable and spontaneous, generous and restrained. It’s impossible. If you don’t love failure, it will eat you alive. If complacency comes easy to you, you’ve doomed yourself to a Sisyphean nightmare of pointless repetition. Sometimes the delicate web of emotional investment and psychological believability is the essential ingredient in a show. Sometimes you just have to be loud enough and let your costume do the rest. The recipe is different every time.

And then there’s the reality of presence. Relentless physical and emotional presence with one another while tired, while sick, while hungry, while grumpy, while excited, while preoccupied, while stressed, while hyper, while sleeping, while sneezing, while coughing, while barfing, while menstruating, while pregnant, while grieving, while shaking, while sweating – it’s intimate, embarrassing, comforting and unavoidable. As I grow to know myself better, I realize that this is both what attracted me to this life, and the hardest part. Some are great at keeping their space. I’m not. Non-stop exposure to the lives and feelings of others leaves me feeling like a blown-out speaker sometimes. I’m still working on figuring out how to keep the volume low.

You have your tool kit – your body and mind – and fight off the lack of sleep, the proximity to communal bacteria and viruses, the struggle for healthy eating, the temptation of ‘decompressing’ late nights out, the repetitive physical activities, the exhaustion of community politics, the contagion of complaining, the fear of punishment, the anxiety of imperfection, and at some point you get yourself through the stage door in whatever state you’re in, and set down to work. This to me, is where thinking of the work of an actor as some mystical incantation to creativity is absolutely useless. This is where it feels like a trade: practical, skilled, pragmatic. Prepare the workspace and the tools, and get down to it. Because it’s not magic every day. Sometimes it’s humiliating, or boring, or annoying. Sometimes it’s like drawing blood from a proverbial stone (or making an audience believe you’re doing so, as a prop falls apart in your hands and someone’s cell phone goes off, twice). Sometimes it’s transcendent, miraculous, transporting. It’s often not. You will never know what it will be and why. You must love the mystery.

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It’s the end of the year now. It’s quiet. I’m off contract and ready for some alone time. I have this particular feeling I get sometimes – like my skin is hot, like every set of eyes that looked at me this year as I sang or danced or cried or did whatever is still on me, every touch from quick changes and rehearsal hugs and onstage love is still pressed onto the surface of my skin. I’m so glad not to be acting for the next month. I can’t wait to get back to it.

Like all great loves, this one shifts with age, reveals new facets, asks to be proved worth it or not, renews itself over and over again. I have a photo of me at the stage door of the Vancouver Playhouse at 11 years old, shaking with nerves and excitement, waiting for the actors to come out. Dying to know what was on the other side of that door.

The mystery still lives.

 

 

 

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Siminovitch Protégé Prize Acceptance Speech

 

I’d like to begin with some thank yous –

First off, to my family and in particular my mom, who has made this life possible for me.  To Jiv, the best person I’ve ever met at a theatre conference.

To my theatre family – my dear friends and collaborators – The Delinquents, the Matriarchy, and the incredible community in Vancouver who fuel me with their generosity and inspiration.

To Shawn MacDonald, who first named me as a playwright; Craig Holzchuh, who as Artistic Director of Theatre la Seizieme gave me my first commission as a playwright and opened many doors for me; Jessie van Rijn, whose relentless support has sparked many adventures. And, of course, Marcus Youssef, who I will speak about shortly.

I grew up on unceded Coast Salish territory, specifically the area that many call Vancouver.  As I travel more of this complicated country, I start to understand more and more how much the mountains and sea and sky have given to me.  From my heart, I thank the keepers of that land, the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh nations and the many nations of the Pacific Northwest for their long-time stewardship.  I am grateful.

This honour comes to me at a moment of precipice.

In the last few months, I’ve been haunted by one question every time I’ve sat down to write.

What could possibly be important enough?

Sometimes I feel overwhelmed.  I feel like a radio receiver that’s too sensitive to hear just one thing.  And these are noisy times.  Every time I sit down to write, I hear amongst the radio static, a million SOS calls.  The sounds of justice denied.  Of plastic in oceans.  Of gunshots and lies.

And although I feel like my work is my life, it also sometimes feels impossibly small.  My mind, my heart, feel impossibly tiny.  These days, it seems like nothing between the pads of my fingertips and a keyboard could create something louder than a whisper.

And then I come back to this word, that I heard Marcus say once about theatre.

Communion.

Let’s be clear for a second – I’m a millennial and cynicism is basically a bodily function for us.  So the first time I heard Marcus say that word, I kind of gave a teen girl cringe because it was ohmygodsooooo hyperbolic and like so earnest, jeeeez.

Earnest. I’ve been described as earnest – mostly in a pejorative sense – for my entire life.  People seem to love to tell me that I’ll change, that I’ll give up, that I’ll start to see things the way they really are.  And so, much of my early writing had a protective layer of bleakness and cynicism.

Because to understand theatre – what we do – as an act of communion; an act that can restore and transform, and connect – is almost too beautiful to bear.

Working alongside Marcus – in addition to fueling neverending and (at least I think) hilarious millennial vs. Gen Xer jokes – has asked me to rise to a challenge.

To create the work like he has – his funny, surprising, poignant, messy, revelatory work – asks a lot of an artist.  To approach this work with an open, heavy, naked heart.  To see not simply the best or the worst of the world, but the complicated whole.

To believe that we can transform and restore ourselves through acts of communion requires more courage than cynicism.  It takes courage to believe that what is happening, right here, together, is important enough.

I feel now, growing in me, a sort of radical earnestness – I’m working on a manifesto but I’m too shy to share it.  So, I guess I’m not that radical yet.  But here’s what I know so far.

Earnestness is not naivety.

Earnestness can be hard won, and hard to protect.

Could I be so earnest to believe that we can write into existence worlds that are populated by all the kinds of people we know and love in our communities; that we can subvert power systems that silence and oppress; that we can listen through the radio static for sounds of humanity and hope?

Ohmigod, that’s like, almost enough to make me cringe.

Almost.

Thank you, Marcus.  Thank you to the Siminovitch family, for reminding me how important this work can be.

Thank you all.