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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.

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Aqui, hogar, and other simple palabras

As soon as my feet hit the ground in Mexico, I have a panic attack. Curled up on top of my suitcase in the bathroom of the baggage claim, gasping for air, it takes me a long time to realize the urgent female voices I hear are talking to me.

“Estas bien? Estas bien?”

**

When I was 12, my friend went to England. I have wanted to go to London terribly, my whole life. The day she traveled, I stayed up until 3AM so she could call me from Heathrow just so I could hear the air over there. She held up the phone for me so I could hear the sounds of the airport. I was too excited to go back to sleep after.

I still haven’t gone to London.

**

I’ve google searched my way to a beautiful restaurant in downtown Calgary. I am by myself. They sit me at the bar, between two couples that have their backs turned to me and keep elbowing me unknowingly. I am served the best pasta I’ve ever had. I tell the bartender who is serving me that it’s fantastic. He can’t hear me over the sound of the martini shaker, and I’m too shy to repeat myself. I think about taking a picture of my plate, but it’s too dark and it doesn’t look like much of anything anyway.

**

I’m sitting alone, drinking a glass of white wine at an airport bar, conveniently located immediately facing the gate of my delayed flight. I have my sunglasses, wallet and passport on the table in front of me. The television is broadcasting updates on the Nigerian school girls, abducted from their towns. I put my passport into my jacket pocket and zip it closed.

**

As she leans over the kitchen counter at her home in East Van, my mom tells me that my abuelo used to drive every day from their home in El Paso to go work in Juarez, just on the other side of the US/Mexico border. Two days later, I board a flight, YVR to LAX that my dad must have done hundreds of times. Work, home. Trabajo, hogar.

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On our day off, we drive to the East LA apartment building where I grew up. I haven’t been here since I was 4 years old. Tentatively, we walk through the apartment compound and find the one that was ours – I don’t want to intrude on the current tenant’s privacy, so I take a picture of the outside of the building and we head out. Through a fence, I see a pool and memory shocks me like jumping into cool water. I only ever had one fuzzy memory of LA, and I’m suddenly looking right at it.

**

In LA I see fellow Chicanos evaluate me, choosing English over Spanish so I understand. Fair enough. I try not to take it personally.

**

On the first day of the festival, the facilitator asks us to imagine the stage as a map of the world, placing LA, Central America, Australia, China for reference. “Go to the place you call home,” she says. Hundreds of us go down to the stage, and it’s so densely packed that it’s impossible to tell where I’m standing.

**

After almost two years of frequent visiting, I finally have a dream about Toronto. I’m headed west along King Street, waiting to get off at Spadina so I can take the streetcar up towards Bloor. The dream is accurate and unremarkable.

**

Sometimes I can have a conversation in Spanish and it’s no problem. Sometimes, the words tangle up in my mouth and shame locks up every syllable. Often the person I’m trying to greet will switch languages. If they can’t, I apologize in any language I can muster, smile, and leave as quickly as I can. And sometimes with a good new friend the conversation flows freely, dancing easily back and forth across the invisible fronteras of language, meeting one another where we can make ourselves understood.

**

Whenever I arrive somewhere new, I have a routine. I open the window, if I can. Put lavender oil on the bedspread. Turn on the lamps and turn off the overhead lighting. Open my phone and start my white noise app. I will try to text someone at home, but the time zones almost never work out.

**

We’re in Puerto Morelos, a small beach town hidden between two major tourist centres on the Yucutan Peninsula. We’re sitting at a plastic picnic table outside and I’m chatting with the restaurant’s server and chef en Español, while my boyfriend holds my hand and looks over my shoulder at the stray dogs playing on the sidewalk. For the first time in months, I can breathe. My heart feels like a raincloud, heavy and full.

**

I text my friend.

Me, 8:56 PM: I’m really, really ready to come home.

Her, 8:58 PM: Where?

**

The last day before leaving is always strange. Permeated with an urgent finality, the place appears to me vivid, iconic, crystalizing into instant memory. The past leaps up to meet my foot with every step, bending time zones and timelines to create a dizzying déjà vu of alternate lives. “You were always here,” some part of me says. “Where do think you’re going now?” I look at my watch, check in for my flight exactly 24 hours before. Get on my hands and knees and feel under the hotel bed to make sure nothing is left behind. On his million trips there and back, my dad would often bring me a present. I try not to accumulate too much stuff, though. I have to carry my home with me.

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