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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.

Beginnings, grief

The Losing and Lost

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I walk swiftly out of a room and pause.

My finger tips twitch – like the tail of a cat, like typing on a phantom keyboard, like…

I walk back into the room and sit.

I

I

 

I was raised by my parents to question authority and institutions. Or rather – they modelled it, punk rock kids turned into uncomfortable adults, while as parents they encouraged me to play nicely in the world.  It’s taken me a few years into my own adult life to identify that sudden electric pulse of resistance that lights up my electrons every time I come across a rule, a form, a chain of command. I resist as a reflex.

You cannot argue with grief.  No matter how intrinsically counter-culture, no matter how self-designed a whimsical rogue you may be.  Cliches come, unbidden.  Everyone’s loss is unique, a matrix of circumstances between two people that create a singular chasm of said and unsaid, of regrets and triumphs, of questions unasked.  But grief visits in ways that are humbling in their universality.

It’s not necessarily what it looks like from the outside, per se, but the impulse.

Did you know there’s a ‘club’?  There’s a club.  They found me before I could recall whose battered membership card I have held for them on rough nights or intimate coffee dates.  Like battle-worn nurses in a triage ward, they stepped forward, hands on open wound, applying steady pressure and checking vitals.  I send texts.  “What’s happening to me?”  Mere minutes later they respond, always ready for the call: “You’ll see.”

I caught myself reading Hamlet on the beach.  Shakespeare, a true and steadfast friend.  Prose so visceral I had to put the book down and look at the thoughtless hot bodies parading on the beach, the exhausted, shrieking children wrestled by haggard parents, the fat seagulls feasting on abandoned fries. How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable seem to me all the uses of this world.  But I’m not one for melancholy.  I rolled my eyes at the contrivance of turning to a famous dead father narrative for guidance.  I texted a member of the club, looking for a better role model.

I can’t decide if I look older or younger.

I make lists.  Is it a Virgo thing? I don’t know.  I’m an atheist and a brutal pragmatist, but these days I look up, out, anywhere but inside for some lists and some answers.  I buy plants and tend to their mysterious needs, watch their leaves reach for the sun, grow and fade.  I download an app that shows me the stars and crouch at my window looking for planets.  While trapped at work and spinning out, I make a list of things that I think I would like to do.

  • paint toenails
  • yoga video
  • read for 30 minutes

When I get home, I have forgotten making the list.  I lie on my carpeted floor and flip through Hamlet.

It keeps happening.  I find myself moving, full force, having just summoned the strength to stand and walk, with no idea where I’m going.  A perfect blankness of the mind as the body, a husk ruled by synapses, continues on its path.

Did I mention there are metaphors?  There are metaphors.

  • Plants: Helping living things to grow
  • Cleaning out belongings: letting go of the past
  • Astrology: finding a larger order to seemingly random events

There are more but they’re not coming to me right now.  Also, some of those are not metaphors.

For someone who makes a living from the things they say (either scripted and memorized, or painstakingly crafted) I’ve been wildly entertained by not being entirely sure what will come out of my mouth at any given moment.

I have a friend who I worked with years ago who would make jokes constantly about their late parent.  I found them funny and yet also inherently unnerving.  Never sure if they were an attempt at levity, a cry for acknowledgement, or a signal flare for help, I just made sure they knew I was listening, and laughed if I could.  Now in their shoes, I realize it’s a tough crowd out there. I am the orchestrator of the suspended drum fill, a creaky silence as my gallows humour swings confusingly in the social atmosphere.  A tip for future members of the club – making a dark joke and then yelling “but I’m fine!” is the worst possible way to end your set.

I was barely learning how to be, and now I have to do it all over again.  I don’t know anything anymore.  I don’t know how to write, how to make food, how to talk to people. Who to forgive, what to forget.  The script is blank.  The stage directions are crossed out.  I’m going from memory now.

I clutch old t-shirts.  I turn pictures face down.  I light candles.  I spend sleepless nights.  I cry to my counsellor.  I stay home.  I make lists.  Cliches follow me like the frame of a Hallmark movie, but I am one parent down and no longer afraid of being just like everyone else.

We know what we are, but know not what we may be.

I walk swiftly out of a room and pause.

I

I

I take a deep breath, and wait.