In Two

The day I broke my hand was really just like any other day.  A situation with certain variables, and a resulting outcome.  I needed to get to work.  The skytrain was down.  The busses were full.  I rode my bicycle, a car wanted to pass me, and I crashed trying to get out of its way.  In the first moments, I was most concerned about my head – I had hit it pretty hard, and I was worried about a concussion.  I noticed blood on my hands, but couldn’t feel anything.  I blacked out while waiting for the ambulance.  It wasn’t until the second hour of waiting in the emergency room that I realized my rapidly swelling hand had taken the worst of it all.  Two hours after that realization I was back at home in my PJs, dazedly trying to make a cup of tea with a cast on my left hand.

I learned a lot of things from my month in a cast.  I am a hand talker.  I am someone who often touches other people on the arm or hand when I’m making a point.  I like to make notes.  I like to do many things at once.  I was unable to do any of those things with my dominant hand folded up in plaster and tensor bandages.  Instead, I had to do lots of things I don’t like, such as ask for help, do one thing at a time, and just ‘relax’.  I found acceptance of only being able to hold a coffee or an iPhone at once (oh how I loathe my own dependence on technology).  I met many kind and considerate strangers out in public who were intuitive in sensing the need for help (anything from tying shoelaces to picking up dropped items), and I heard lots of stories of other broken bones.  I was stunned by the compassion from people with permanent injuries to their hands and feet who would talk to me out of the blue to ask how I was holding up.

In the four weeks I was unable to use both hands, I had more writing deadlines than I’d had in the last year.   I tried dictating to patient Arlen as he typed, but I have enough trouble getting words past my own editing faculty to put them on paper, let alone passing them through someone else’s ears first.  Unable to handwrite (my right-handed cursive proving hilarious but illegible), the only option I had was typing with one hand.  The rush of words and ideas came too fast and my one hand, spidering across the keyboard was too slow.  I had to write.  I had workshops and meetings days away and a backlog of inspiration but when I sat in front of my computer all I got was a big, chest-pain inducing, NO NO NO feeling.  And it was terrifying.

I survived, as we always do with these big things.  I got my cast off three weeks ago now and bit by bit my hand is healing, though weaker than before.  I picked up a pen right away and my WPM is back as it was before.  I am more grateful than ever that words can go from heart to page as smoothly as can be again.  I guess if you had asked me 2 months ago before the day the skytrain broke down if I feared something happening to me that would change my relationship with my art, that I would have understood the premise intellectually.  But there’s no way of knowing what it feels like until you just can’t, until you get that NO NO NO feeling.  All the while I knew I had the luxury of a date on my calendar when the cast would come off and things would be ‘back to normal’ again.  I can’t even concieve of the strength of people for whom that day likely won’t come.

Since then, I’ve been watching people’s hands.  My mother is a clothing designer, and I don’t think I ever fully realized the amazing alchemy that happens in her studio.  I bring her bolts of fabric and she stitches and pins and paints and turns out beautiful garments, one of a kind creations.  I think about her hands, strong and skilled with years of expertise and artistry running from fingertip to seams.  I can only imagine how many things have been made with those two hands, making something out of nothing.   To help myself build back my strength, I am teaching myself to play the ukulele.  I’ve never played an instrument before and so the feeling of strings under my newly callused fingertips is thrilling.  I feel the years ahead of making music and taking photos and word words words I have are a gift.  Just like my mom and the meters of fabric that are her medium, I know there is much to come from a pen and paper and these two hands.  And pretty soon, one of these days I’ll get back on my bicycle.

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Writing for the Blank Generation

When I was 17 and in my final year of high school, I saw something written on the wall of the bathroom that stayed with me.  “I belong to the blank generation”.  A quick google search revealed it was a snippet of lyrics from a Richard Hell song, which begins “I was sayin’ let me out of here before I was even born”.  Though the “blank generation” referred to a specific breed of angry punk-rockers, at the time I felt it had an awful lot of resonance with my own.  At the time I was bussing across town from East Van to a West Side public high school, and as we approached graduation the message was clear: You’d better go to school, and you’d better start planning your career.  And if you don’t know what to do, you’d better figure it out soon if you don’t want to end up flipping burgers.

5 years later, my “blank generation” is flipping burgers with one hand and finishing degrees with the other.  And it’s not looking like it’s going to get better any time soon.  For them, that “blank” spot might be in their savings account, their employment prospects or their property ownership.  Young adults are leaving their twenties still crippled by student loan debt and paralysed by a job market left scarce by the recession, and the dream of owning a home is more of a punchline then a plan.  Something went wrong.  Post-Secondary Education had been touted as the only way to make a career worth having – except that in reality, a bachelor’s degree can’t get you a job that can help you pay for it.  I’ve been talking to friends, co-workers, reading messages from twitter and Facebook, comments on articles and I’m hearing the message loud and clear.  Things aren’t looking good.

Right now I’m writing a show called STATIONARY: a recession-era musical.  I didn’t set out to write a political show.  But in writing a story about people my own age, I didn’t see any other way to do it.  I don’t know what other story to tell than someone battling against huge obstacles in pursuit of the life they dream of (and I don’t think any other writer ever did).  Those obstacles have looked different in generations, in centuries gone by, but at this moments, they look a lot like the battle between following “the plan” and paying the bills.  The “Plan” would be checking off those boxes that have been laid out as the “5 Milestones of Adulthood”: Completing Education, Leaving the Family Home, Becoming Financially Independent, Marriage, and Parenthood.  According to an article in Salon.com, in 1960 “77 percent of women and 65 percent of men had passed all five milestones by the age of 30. By 2000, fewer than 50 percent of the women and 33 percent of the men had done so”.  Does this sound like anyone you know?

In trying to put the plight of my peers on stage I’m constantly catching myself listening the comments section in my brain (never a good idea).  To look at it one way, we are a generation whose elders failed to protect us from skyrocketing tuition rates and have consistently taken political action that ensures a living wage is far out of reach.  On the other, we’re labeled as entitled whiners who supposedly expect success without having to work for it.  I can see both sides in a theoretical sense, but here’s the thing – I know lots of young people, non-artists included who work hard and have almost nothing to show for it.  To succeed in today’s job market, candidates are supposed to be highly experienced, have tons of extra skills acquired outside of school, be bright, energetic, charismatic, persistent – so what about those who lack any one of these qualities?  Too bad for them?  Then what?  I don’t have the answer to that.

Life happens.  We get caught along the way by our family situations, our environments, or ourselves.  So I’m writing a story about 6 young people that one way or another have found themselves stuck.  Stationary, if you will (if you didn’t get the pun before, now I’ve laid it right out for you, just in case I’m not as witty as I’d hoped).  Aren’t we all deserving of happiness?  I sure think so.  And I hope these folks make it there, even with the considerable odds stacked against them.  It’s been a struggle to process what I want to say and bring it to life in story form, and I would love to hear your comments about what you think those struggles are.  And you can judge for yourself if I am successful in doing just that when STATIONARY: a recession-era musical goes up at the Cultch with the Neanderthal Festival in July.  For now, some reading material:

Two Articles by Rob Carrick from the Globe and Mail:

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-investor/personal-finance/rob-carrick/boomers-have-a-stake-in-gen-ys-success/article2435015/comments/

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-investor/personal-finance/2012-vs-1984-young-adults-really-do-have-it-harder-today/article2425558/

“What Is It About Twenty-Somethings?”  From the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22Adulthood-t.html?pagewanted=all

What I’ve Learned – The First 9 Months

So, I’ve been bad with this  blog.

Like, really bad.  Like not updating since August bad.  But as it turns out, I’ve had a lot of very fun things to do since August, and I’m finally ready to process it all and get back on the blog-wagon.  In a tribute to Stephen Heatley’s famous ‘samplers’ (UBC kids will know what I mean here), here are a few of the valuable lessons I’ve learned in my first 9 months out of theatre school.

GOOD ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH – Vancouver Fringe Festival

I spent a lot of time running around the campus of the Vancouver International Fringe Festival this year, seeing as many shows as possible and flyering my tired butt off for Oh My God with Delinquent Theatre.  I had the pleasure of meeting a lot of artists, both local and visiting, national and international.  I saw a lot of amazing theatre, and a few disappointments.  The common thread between the best shows?  Attention to detail.  Without fail, the shows I enjoyed the most were created by artists who integrated storytelling, design, and atmosphere without sacrificing any quality due to lack of resources, or simply letting something be “good enough”.  From the international Fringe vets to the first-timers and wild Onsite shows, my favorite theatrical creations showed evidence of great care and vigilant creative standards in every aspect of the show. It reminded me to always look at my own work and think – could it be better?  What can I do to keep moving forward?

A CAREER IN THE THEATRE IS NOT LINEAR – Making a Scene Conference

In November I attended the Making A Scene Conference, presented by the GVPTA.  If you have never attended the conference before, I strongly, strongly recommend you do.  The short form explanation of MAS is a gathering of the best minds in the BC theatre scene gathered in a room to discuss, debate, and dissect the state of affairs in our local theatre scene, and what we can do to serve it better.  Check out the 2011 MAS report for some highlights – I left leaving, well… engaged and empowered, which was the title of the event.  One of the many things that have stayed with me was the remark made that “a career in theatre is not linear”.  This struck a chord with me and continues to do so.  Looking back on my time out of school so far, I can clearly see that every dream gig I didn’t land ended up freeing me to do something else different and exciting.  There’s no such thing as ‘lost time’, unless you make it so.  In this career, there’s no standard path to follow – it’s all up to you.  After 3 years of regimented theatre school where your time is not your own, it’s thrilling and terrifying to know you’re now holding the reins.  Talking with more established theatre artists helped me understand there’s no right or wrong path – just the one you choose for yourself.

THEATRE IS SUPPOSED TO BE FUN – Wizard of Oz at Carousel Theatre

It’s a simple lesson, but perhaps the easiest to forget.  After months of auditions, callbacks, anxiety and planning, I finally got to settle in and do my first post-school Equity contract.  And what a dream – The Wizard of Oz with Carole Higgins and Carousel Theatre!  With multiple character tracks, 10 costume changes, and wonderful choreography, Oz was one of the most personally challenging shows I’ve done to date, and I wouldn’t have survived it if it weren’t for the warm, fun and funny group at Carousel.  Whether it was through inventive and inspired choices on stage or MadLibs and fart machines backstage, they always kept me laughing and reminded me that – oh yeah, this is supposed to be fun. There is plenty to be anxious about in this career path, but it won’t be worth it if you can’t relax and enjoy the moment, and I am grateful to the wonderful folks I worked with on Oz who reminded me of that.

IT’S NEVER THE RIGHT TIME/IT’S ALWAYS THE RIGHT TIME – Delinquent Theatre

On January 9th, 2012, my friend and theatre partner Laura McLean and I got the news that our fledgling company Delinquent Theatre was officially incorporated as a non-profit society.  This brings us into a new and complicated era of AGMs, boards, grants, licenses and more.  It’s a little overwhelming, but it’s so very worth it.  We’re mounting 2 original musicals within the first 6 months of our incorporation, and doing everything on our own.  We’ve got ambitious plans for the next year and a bit for Delinquent Theatre, and you know what?  We’re ready for it.  There will never be a ‘right time’ to take a leap of faith – you can keep waiting for the time when you have a little more money, a little more time, and a little more experience – or you can jump in with both feet, open eyes, and an open heart and see what you learn.  We’ve opted for the latter, and I look forward to all the lessons I haven’t yet learned, but am about to.  Bring it on.

You Are Enough

In the first term of our first year of the BFA Acting Program at UBC, our teacher Stephen Heatley made us do an exercise. We sat along the wall of the studio, and one by one we were to walk in the door, stop in the middle of the room, spread our arms out, say our name with confidence and clarity, and walk out. Easy, right? Not exactly. We were at the beginning of our training, many of my classmates had just moved to Vancouver or moved out for the first time, and we were scared. Really scared. As we went up one by one, our movements told the story of our defence mechanisms. Some people used comedy, taking up a funny walk, a smirk to cover up the nervousness. Some people seemed aggressive, daring you to question them. Some people shook, looking at the floor, mumbling their name. Me? I ended up in hysterics (first laughing, then crying) and Stephen had to literally hold my hand to get me in the door and across the room. How is it that people who want to make a living performing in front of hundreds of people couldn’t simply introduce themselves in front of a dozen of their peers?

The lesson for the day was “You Are Enough” – one of Stephen’s famous ‘samplers’ for the first year BFA Actors.  The idea behind the exercise was to trust ourselves to be enough – no need for showboating, for nerves, or for an attack – just to walk in, breathe, say your name and leave and trust that simply being everything you are, just as you are, is enough.  That day revealed to everyone their ways of protecting themselves from revealing that truth, and started us on the road to uncovering the root of that deep-seated feeling we all have – that we are somehow inadequate.  In our chosen profession, we are forced to confront these feelings virtually on a daily basis, and finding security in oneself is vital to producing vulnerable, truthful work.  In the three years since we did that exercise all of us, as actors and just as twenty-somethings, have come a long way to sorting out that puzzle, to saying our names with confidence and bringing that sense of self to our work.  “You Are Enough” has become a favorite phrase in our group – sometimes as a punchline when someone does something dumb (“Aww, don’t worry, you are enough”) or as a frantic mantra when facing a stressful situation.   That nerve-wracking day in the studio feels far, far away now, and the lesson just a memory.

But now, facing the ‘real world’, I am suddenly keenly aware of its value.  I’ve been looking at the amazing season announcements and seeing the parts I dream of playing, and thinking “why would they ever choose me?”  It’s a terrifying prospect, knowing you are a little, nervous fish in a big pond now.  It’s time to start pursuing those dream gigs, and I just spent a few hours preparing my submissions, packing glossy photos of me looking oh-so-happy and chipper into envelopes, imagining them lost in a stack of hundreds of photos of happy-looking people all hoping for the same thing as me.  The only thing I can do is hang on to that lesson from first year – I am enough.  There are many talented actors out there, but I remind myself that I am unique in my experiences, my point of view, my humor and my life.  And that’s just the thing – whether you have more experience or less, look the part or not, none of us have an equal in our ability to tell a story.  Whether you’re up against stiff competition, whether you get the part or not, whether the doors open up for you or slam in your face, you must know deep down that you are enough.  Somehow, as an artist, you must believe that your voice is worth hearing.  As my class prepares to join the ‘real world’, I feel like we’re all back to being those shaky kids in the studio again.  I’m grateful though, to have a mantra to keep in my heart as we walk out and introduce ourselves.  Thank you, Stephen.

Goodnight, Freddy

A view from the wings during Wild Honey

Tonight is the closing night of Wild Honey, and for the final years in the cast, it’s our last performance as part of the UBC Theatre season.  That’s it – next season has been announced, but we will be there only as loving audience members.  This is our last time to be on stage together as classmates.  I’m not going to pretend I’m not emotional – I was welling up last night at curtain call thinking about tonight’s final performance.  Wild Honey has been a truly wonderful time – we’ve had warm, receptive houses and a great time on and off stage as a company.  We have a fantastic cast and a truly kickass crew, led by Brian Cochrane and stage manager Emily Griffiths who have kept things lighthearted and efficient.  It’s a wonderful show to end our time at UBC with, and it’s with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to the sexy, wistful Wild Honey.

The Frederic Wood was the site of our callbacks for our admission into the acting program, our first studio show (The Dining Room), our first mainstage show, directed by Nicola Cavendish (The Laramie Project) and now our last mainstage performance.  This venue holds a lot of memories for us, and for the decades of students who came before us, too. There’s a white wall on the stage left side that every graduate signs – it’s an amazing thing to see.  Among the hundreds of signatures I recognize dozens of names, many of whom have gone on to be artists of national significance, and certainly names of people who have inspired me personally.  Every night as I stand backstage awaiting my entrance, I take a look at that wall knowing I’ll be signing it in just two weeks.  Tonight marks the end of our time on the Frederic Wood Stage, but with any luck, it’s only the beginning for us.

The Kids Are Alright

Anyone who’s been to theatre school knows what a unique bond you forge with your classmates. Over these three years we’ve seen each other at our best and our absolute worst, spent 12 hour days together, laughed, cried and partied together. It’s so personal to watch someone work in class, and I feel so lucky to have seen my 14 incredible classmates grow as artists and as people through our time together. I have never been part of a group as amazing as this. 14 people from all different backgrounds and diverse personalities have become some of the best friends I’ve ever had. We have so much fun together whether we’re slaving over bookwork or celebrating an opening night, and I know that these guys will be my lifelong friends.

Our class photo from last year - we're obviously a very mature group.

 

As the Theatre at UBC season starts to come to an end, one by one my classmates are taking their final bows on the UBC stage. It’s an emotional thing, to say goodbye to the stages and the company that we’ve grown with through our time at UBC. It’s emotional too to sit in the audience and watch my dear friends on stage and see the beautiful artists they’ve become, and imagine what the future holds for them.

Sarah Goodwill, Andy Cohen, Claire Hesselgrave, Joanna Williams, and David Kaye in Dead Man's Cellphone

On Thursday I went to the opening night of Dead Man’s Cellphone, Sarah Ruhls bizzare and lovely play about a woman who answers a strangers cell phone and enters a twisted and poignant family drama. This is the first show this season that I haven’t been in, and so I was super nervous to see my classmates at work – you know that feeling? All of a sudden I understand what it must have been like for my parents all these years, sitting in the audience feeling nervous for this person you love, excited to see them shine and hoping they have a fantastic show. Of course, they were wonderful! The show is funny and dark, and totally quirky. I was just so damn proud of my friends, and it was a great show to boot! I was kind of verklempt watching them take their bows knowing how far they’ve come and what wonderful things await them. I hope you’ll go see Dead Man’s Cellphone and see for yourself!

The Loneliest Number

Even though I’ve known about this assignment since before I started the BFA Acting program, I’m still losing sleep over it; Like as in many conservatory-style acting programs, UBC’s final year class is instructed to create and perform a solo show to be presented in the final term. Normally they are presented in April – this year we’ll be performing them in mid-February. No pressure.

I’ve seen so many solo shows over the years and have fallen in and out of love with the form over and over. I remember being absolutely floored by Caroline Cave in The Syringa Tree at the Playhouse. After a few Fringe seasons I swore up and down this year that I would avoid solo shows at all costs, then had my mind absolutely changed by Jeff McMahan of Asylum Theatre in The Boy Who Had a Mother and Chris Craddock in Moving Along. I’ve had the chance to perform in one (Spunk’d by Ella Simon in the Walking Fish Festival) and write one (Our Time at the Ignite Youth Week Festival) but I’ve never done both at once. Scary stuff.

In trying to write my own solo show I am haunted by two beautiful performances that have stayed with me long after I left the theatre. I had the pleasure of seeing Daniel MacIvor perform Cul-de-Sac at the Vancouver East Cultural Center. It was such a tour-de-force performance with rapid-fire conversations between characters, gorgeous synthesis of design and delivery and a compelling story. The audience brought him out for two encores at curtain call and remained in their seats afterwards, totally floored. Years later back at the Cultch I was lucky enough to catch Joey Tremblay’s Elephant Wake. I’ve never been to a show like that before, one that made me laugh out loud as if I were in the company of a good friend and sob like a child in the space of an evening. Tender, funny and extraordinarily beautiful, I left wondering if I’d ever see a show that moving again.

So with these experiences behind me and a 15 minute long self-penned solo show in front of me, I’m wondering what elements of those memorable shows I can find in my own work. Ultimately all the performer has is the audience, and all they have is the performer – there’s no room for indulgence on the part of the performer or lack of clarity in the storytelling. The most successful solo shows I’ve seen had a generous, charismatic performer (like Cave, MacIvor, and Tremblay) reaching out to the audience to share a story worth telling. Which is, ultimately, the name of the game if you’ve got a cast of 100 or just 1. The 15 of us have the task of taking our own story and heading out there alone to tell it (and fill the rather formidable Telus Studio Theatre while we do so).

So I’d like to know: what elements do you think are key to a great solo show? Have you seen a show that made the most of the form and if so, what made it great?