I have absolutely no idea why I auditioned for the play. It was grade ten, and disregarding a few shows in elementary, I had never been involved in theatre. No greeting guests at the door as front of house, no sewing for the costume department, no labouring for the set dec crew. I was an academic, a proud nerd, obsessively focused on my school grades, working toward my future in palaeontology. A scientist in mind, action and personal philosophy, I never doubted my future plans and the school-first attitude they required.
Yet it’s not entirely true to say theatre hadn’t touched my life. I attended a fine arts program at Nootka Elementary until grade seven. I’d seen and loved three of my school's plays, which together showed me theatre might be more than the fun but meaningless distraction I’d thought of it as. My friends Jake, Natasha and Jasmine were already involved, and seemed to enjoy themselves.
Still, there was something else that pushed me to join. Maybe it was an unconscious desire for some meaning or purpose that my bookish, academic life couldn’t provide. Maybe it was jealousy at the pleasure my friends took in it. Maybe I just wanted to fill my time with something free of the guilt and fear I felt whenever I was less than perfect in school. Whatever the reason, I never anticipated how intensely it would change, shape and eventually define the person I’ve become.
The play was Dido: Queen of Carthage, by Christopher Marlowe, a Shakespeare contemporary. It was entirely in verse, filled with bizarre, antiquated words and probably four hours long if performed in its entirety. I played the lead male role, Aeneas, a Trojan general. Our cast was eight actors and two stage managers ranging in age from grades eight to ten, none of whom had ever acted on stage. We had two months to craft something our director wanted to be “professional level.” Our stage was the school film studio, with no theatrical lights and the barest semblance of a set.
I still don’t understand how in hell we did it.
Our success was almost entirely due to our director, the fabulous Kevin. Flamboyant, quick-tempered and cheeky, Kevin was and is an absolute fool. I respect him more than almost anyone else I have ever met. His passion, commitment and drive continue to inspire me. Throughout our rehearsals he continually pushed us beyond what we thought possible, never settling for anything less than our best efforts. Many times he asked for more than those. He taught us life lessons and made us laugh, while always striving to create the best play possible.
The show itself only ran for three nights. It was good, though looking back not much of a step above most high-school productions. The fear before each show, the awkwardness of having to kiss my co-star playing Queen Dido, and the seriousness I undertook each performance with all seem laughable now. Yet despite its theatrical shortcomings, it taught me there was more to life than endlessly grinding away at homework in search of perfect marks. It hadn’t reshaped my view of myself and the world – that was still to come – but it created the conditions for this to happen. I hadn’t grown as a person all that much, but my mind was opened to new ideas and philosophies I’d never even bothered to consider. I was not yet changed, but newly able to.
My time with theatre was interrupted when, about a month after finishing Dido, my family and I left to spend six months in Australia and South-East Asia. By the time I returned, I’d experienced some of the growth theatre had catalyzed. I abandoned my paleontological plans after discovering they didn’t match with the person I’d become. I saw the perks of studying beyond science and math. I realized life contained much more than school. That October, I strode into auditions, confident and excited to learn.
The next show was Bassett, a modern play about a group of high-school students locked in a classroom together. It had themes of politics, military intervention, racism and bullying. Once again, Kevin directed. Hoping to repeat the success of the first play, I looked forward to the role of a hero. Instead, I was given a complete asshole named Russell.
I consider myself a good person. Playing someone who bullied, punched and insulted his way through life was immediately challenging. Russell forced me to re-examine myself, to question if, since I could empathize with, understand and justify the actions of a person I would otherwise hate, I was really the good person I thought of myself as. I questioned what it meant to be good, and where the divide between Russell and Hamish lay. To truly play a character requires becoming them in part, and I swore I sometimes caught myself taking Russell’s actions outside of the show. Besides, there was something so freeing about giving in to my rage and irritation at life through the character in a way that wouldn’t hurt others.
Now it seems ludicrous that I would have thought any of this. I was never in any danger of somehow becoming my character, and at no point did I ‘lose control’ in any way. However, it taught me how artificial the differences between people are. How, if just a few key moments of my life were changed, I might have become an entirely different person. For instance, the decision to attend my current school, instead of Van Tech where my elementary school friends went. The decision to audition for Dido. The decision to focus on theatre instead of Triathlon Club, guitar or Tae Kwon Do. It’s amazing how different all our lives might have been, how strange and unknowable the people we might have become, had we simply changed a few brief moments.
Bassett ran for two weeks, a stress-filled run in which I consumed more coffee than ever before, yelled at a teacher and accidentally smashed a school window with my bare hands, something I didn’t know was physically possible. Theatre, while already one of the largest sources of passion and joy in my life, had begun to exact its price, so I was thankful for the Christmas break that followed. This much-needed rest achieved, I jumped back into the mess, auditioning for the year’s second play in my first week back. This project, a creation piece built from the ground up by the cast, stage management team and director, would become You Are Here, introducing me to the strange possibilities of experimental theatre and, more importantly, to director Mike Stack.
Mike was and is an enigma. He is a Russian nesting doll, its layers simultaneously contradicting and heightening one another’s art. From afar he seemed terrifying, powerful and unknown, a gray-bearded face whose next move was always uncertain. Before my audition I’d never even spoken to him, and questioned everyone I knew who’d worked with him in previous shows to discover how best to ensure he’d cast me. During my audition, he told me to back up until I reached the opposite wall. Figuring this was a test of some sort, I performed my entire monologue there. Then his face split into a wide grin, and I realized I’d unwittingly taken his joke completely seriously. By the end of my ten minutes, I had a different picture of this odd man: as a fellow actor put it, he was a “giant child,” constantly distracting himself and us by telling stories with little relevance to whatever we were doing, cracking too many fart jokes and generally making a fool of himself. This second layer was preposterous, absurd and wonderfully human, a far cry from the awesome, terror-inspiring first.
Yet the third layer of the Stack is the most intriguing of all. Beneath his absurd veneer lies a dedicated work ethic stronger than any other I’ve encountered. This is a man who will fight unendingly for what and particularly who he believes in. A man surprisingly humble, often unwilling to face a crowd cheering his name. A man who never lets his ego get the better of him, always putting those he serves first. Above all, Mike Stack is wise, empathetic and constantly, consistently, unshakeably kind.
You Are Here itself was a bizarre process, unlike anything I’d done before. A collection of scenes without an overall narrative, built around the theme of disconnection, it seemed an illusive dream for most of the three months we rehearsed. Even two weeks from opening we barely had the skeleton of a show, little more than a jumbled mess of rough-draft scenes and half-formed thoughts. The spectre of the previous year’s creation piece, so disorganized it lacked even a dress rehearsal, hung over us. The intense, constant demand of homework hung over me, and the possibility of my first theatrical failure terrified me.
It was these final weeks leading up to the show that showed me how powerful a group of dedicated, creative, intelligent people can be under pressure. Instead of cracking under the strain, our cast forged a show not only humorous and brilliant but even beautiful. The final five of our eight performances received standing ovations, and there were even a few calls to tour the play. It was exhausting, it was exhilarating, and it was magical. I loved every minute. The fear and nervousness of my early acting days were still there, but a sense of joy had joined them, along with passion and most of all love, carrying me flying down the halls to the rehearsal studio and onto the stage every night. You Are Here was a soaring dream, and I don’t regret a second of it.
The auditions for my final show, The Domino Effect, came at the end of October, 2016. Mike Stack, again our director, cast me as one of the six narrators, personally given around a quarter of the text in the entire play. It was the biggest speaking role I’d ever had. I’d worked with all but four members of the cast before. The script was strange, mostly narration and filled with a revolving door of characters, even a creature made entirely of sand. We had less time than the previous show to rehearse and create the piece, and a two week break for Christmas a month before opening. Rehearsal after rehearsal flew by at an alarming rate, until once again we found ourselves a week from opening with little more than a skeleton and a pile of organs we had no idea how to attach to it. Throughout the rehearsal I went through the usual ups and downs of life, amplified by my busy schedule juggling the presidency of mini council, an editing role on the school magazine, homework and the ever-present joy and stress of theatre, as well as watching the USA proceed towards chaos and destruction, obviously a fun time. Yet throughout all this, theatre was always my rock, the place I could come to get away from the stress and deadlines of life. When the constant, unanswerable questions about what I would do in a future I had long since lost a clear view of were too much, there was always the rehearsal hall, full of loyal friends and guided by the wisest fool of all. In the chaos of high-school life, it was the place where I felt the most loved and therefore loved to be the most.
Opening night arrived all too soon, hanging over it the pale spectre of the end of my time in theatre. The show was beautiful to perform. Gone were the fearful nerves of my early acting days, replaced by a palpable hunger for the glory, joy and exhilarating rush that accompanied a great night’s show. Most of all, I was filled with a love of everything I was doing.
It was also tinged with sadness. I had no idea what I would do with myself once it all ended. The academic-driven scientist-to-be was long gone, a figment of a future that lost its truth years before I finally stopped fighting for it. The place I loved, my great happiness, was drawing to a close.
As always, it was theatre, and in particular Mike Stack’s attitude to life, that revealed the answer. Life, I’ve learned, is absurd. It is illogical and endlessly incomprehensible, random and chaotic. It lacks inherent meaning, and in the grand scheme of things, an individual life is meaningless. Yet this doesn’t mean that life need be without meaning or purpose. It contains whatever meaning you or I give it. In acting, as in life, belief creates truth, and any good actor is nothing more than a maker of belief. Embrace the absurdity. Believe with every fibre of your being it is worth it, and in the words of the play, it shall be so.
We closed with a standing ovation for perhaps one of the most beautiful, absurd, brilliant shows I’ve had the pleasure to perform. My time in theatre is over as of two days ago. The sadness is there, just as I expected. It’s tinged with joy too; as I write this and look back at all the fantastic madness theatre has given me, I smile. The fifteen-year-old scientist is gone, replaced by somebody who looks not for a future he’s been told to believe in but simply for truth, moment by moment. I’m certainly not wise, but I’ve learnt to recognize just how much of a fool I am, and in that there is wisdom.
In the words of The Domino Effect, pray, hope, love, and it shall be so.