“Your acting was terrible in that workshop thing.”
The director stares at me from a small corner of Chaz’s kitchen. It’s 3 a.m. Actors, writers, and the like drink and talk noisily around us. The kitchen is packed, the party still in full swing. Older actors with serious cred lurk in corners with young actresses hanging onto them. Multiple bottles of wine and Medeira crowd the kitchen table (since when is everyone drinking Medeira?), spilling into the cheese and trifle: boozy, sugared, and cigarette-smoked, very reminiscent of days gone by.
I came across the word while researching names for my new small-town shadow-play company. A recent venture with two other “wives of the theatre town” where I have chosen to live and raise the Guppins.
Precinema: Before the invention of the lens. The time of magic lanterns, smoke and shadows, and simpler deceptions.
I no longer live in the city. I’ve taken a job as a house manager for a big theatre in a small town, which distinguishes me as either the bravest or the stupidest Canadian actor on the planet. Actors don’t like to see other actors “shit where they work.” Isn’t that a pleasant expression? Ever notice how your toddler never poops at daycare?
I tell myself I am an example to other actresses who can no longer act for whatever reason. Including the raising of a small child. Theatre eats up your time. It’s a six-day-a-week night job and the pay is crap. There are no benefits, no EI, and the average salary in Canada is somewhere between 7 and 11 grand per year. It is for people in their twenties who haven’t had time to get too far into debt yet. Who don’t yet have back issues and can work nights and hold up a tray of drinks. I am proving that you can be middle-aged, still work in the theatre — maybe not as an actor, as a creator necessarily — but it’s a world you can decipher. That it’s okay to work the admin side, the front-of-house side — which is what I've been doing, and it’s been a struggle for me every single day of the two seasons I’ve been doing it. Peers come to my office to see if I can get their in-laws or girlfriends in for free. It takes some a minute; some never cotton on at all.
“Hey — aren’t you…?”
“I had a kid,” is my response. But even to my ears it falls flat as an excuse. Other actresses have children and act. Although not many who are more or less on their own with their kid. That might be true.
But still, you know the voice, right? The one that says, “That’s only an excuse and you know it. You are lazy, a waste of talent. Every day that goes by is a day when you could be doing something creative and important. You need to try harder!”
A few months back I acted in a workshop production of a new play. I thought it was great. The play had pig puppets and was based on a Canadian novel from the 70s. I thought I was channelling some great character energy. I felt like I was getting my sea legs again. I was so HAPPY.
“What a WASTE.”
The director who speaks this I consider to be my mentor. We created several projects together “Precinema.” He looks into the cloudy crystal ball that hangs between us in this big-city arty kitchen party. It’s one night away from my life in the small town, to celebrate Chaz’s girlfriend buying in to the apartment building we co-own, in the process getting me (almost) out of debt — the debt that has steamrolled since becoming a mother. And I get eviscerated by someone who matters.
From his wine-encrusted lips, my mentor determines:
“I see nothing but murk. Cloudy. You’re stuck in it. Such potential. Quelle dommage.”
He turns to the rest of the room, his arms spinning.
“This was GREEK,” he says, referring to me. “For THIS you must write the shadows. Write her a part! Write her a part — force her into the places she doesn’t want to go and you’ll get strange of the highest order. But now — a Waste of Talent. Quelle dommage! Nothing truly creative ever came out of ———.”
Hit spits out the name of the town where I live with so much venom.
My heart races. I am experiencing a bad shock. My ears start to ring; he quickly moves on to assail some other individual with his insight, and I exit out the fire escape. Chaz follows me. He makes excuses for the director. He explains he is exceptionally happy being surrounded by young actors and it turns him into a shit disturber. I feel Chaz’s compassion but I disappear down to my apartment, which my sublettor has gifted me for the night. I crawl into a bed I used to know and pull up the covers. Shortly thereafter I hear someone tumble down the stairs of the apartment building, and Chaz ‘s voice: “Woah woah now, you all right?” I know just which drunken shit disturber it is. I close my eyes. It’s 4 a.m. But I can’t sleep.
The next day, we gather and deconstuct the party over coffee and corn chips and leftover guacamole. My dearest friends are around me. It is a rare moment. I see them so seldom now.
Nicky says to me, in her great wisdom, “It’s very difficult for people like him to see people like you get off the crazy carousel.”
And I know she’s right. But it hurts so much because the mentor is right. I am wasting my talent. I am doing nothing. He invested in me. And what do I do? Have a kid, move to a small town, and do occasional readings of feel-good Canadian novel adaptations. And some hokey shadow plays for kids on ghost tours.
Chaz is creating a one-man Glenn Gould show from the piano. Nicky is doing her masters in theatre direction. Chaz’s partner is a doctor who is becoming a phenomenal painter. What am I? Who am I now? I just signed up as a temp for manufacturing work. I’ve just been asked to do shift work at a battered women’s shelter. I’ve apparently disappeared into a hopeless murk. The Great Canadian Disappointment.
I drive back to Smalltown. It’s Eldora’s 50th wedding anniversary. The Guppins is being looked after by a friend; they are already at the party. I arrive after a depressing trip down the 401. I walk into the Masonic Hall. Many people. Eldora and her man are all dressed up, the lights are low, and a seven-piece band is playing country rock at top volume. I see my friend, who points towards the dance floor.
My girl. The Guppins. It’s like she’s got a fricking halo around her or something. She’s dancing. Not just kid dancing, but gracious arm twirling, hip grinding, interpretive Isadora Duncan dancing. She is the most magical thing I could ever imagine. Every person in the room is watching her over brimming glasses of beer, grinning, commenting, winking at me. I see her. I see her and I forget all about Precinema. I forget all about the crazy carousel. This is what I’ve been doing, stuffing love into this creature, dancing every day, and now, at three and a half, it shows.
It’s the Long Game, ladies.
Hang in there.