Tonight is the opening night of the Max’s Cabaret production of The Threepenny Opera, and I’m on tenterhooks – I’m playing Mrs. Peachum, and I’mÂ simultaneously excited and nervous. Â Max’s Cabaret always takes me outside of my comfort zone, and this one is no exception – playing a mother, singing a soprano part, in a comedic role. Â Add to that the whirlwind of any MC show, the unconventional setting (Kubo Lounge), high heels and stockings and last-minute changes, and you’d think it would be a recipe for disaster. Â But Max’s shows always pull together, and create a evening of theatre and music unlike any you’re going to see with any other company.
I’ve been anÂ actor pretty much my whole life; The first audition that I recall was when I was 11 or 12, for the Peterborough Theatre Guild‘s Production of The Miracle Worker. Â I have one vivid memory of being on stage with a bunch of other kids, trying to act like I couldn’t see and accidentally making eye contact with the woman playing Helen Keller (who also wasn’t doing a very good job of pretending to be blind). Â I didn’t get the part, though my Mom took me to see the play, and it made a huge impression on me. Â We had always been a theatre-going family, and were lucky enough when I was young to have two strong theatre companies in our area and a lot of other theatre besides. Â There was a lot of inspiration around.
That first audition didn’t put me off; I liked the bright lights, and the teamwork, and the challenge, and I was an observant kid. Â I got better at auditioning, and every role was an opportunity to become a better actor. Â Throughout high school I was in play after play – Miranda in The Tempest, Rosalind in As You Like It, Sandy in The Crackwalker. Â I spent a blissful Â Summer at the 4th Line Theatre playing Kathleen Collins in The Cavan Blazers, my first paid role at 16, riding my motorcycle to work through the Millbrook hills. Â It’s easy to gloss those memories and just focus on the successes, but the truth is that I was super-invested, and for every good role I got I’d spend hours viciously dissecting my performance, re-living mistakes in rehearsals, and critiquing what I was doing in the harshest terms. Â If I didn’t get a role, or got one that wasn’t great, I’d be depressed for days, sometimes weeks. Â I mean, it was high school, and I was a standard-issueÂ melodramaticÂ teenager (in a high school arts program, no less), so those highs and lows wereÂ exaggerated. Â But everything else was secondary to theatre, and I was driven to be better.
When I got into college for theatre, I was pretty excited; the idea of learning from professionals, of working with people who were as committed and driven as I was, wasÂ irresistible. Â Coming from a high school jam-packed with artists who were smart, talented, and committed, I expected the same thing would be true of college. Â But I was wrong. Â The teaching staff were mostly (with some notable exceptions) embittered, nasty, and overbearing. Â They seemed convinced that the only work we could hope to get was in tv commercials, and focused more on our Canadian dialects than on theatre skills. Â Some of the other students were great, and very smart and talented, but they were in the minority. Â All of my tremendous energy and passion ran me head first into a brick wall. Â By Christmas I knew I wanted to leave, but I toughed out the second semester in misery and was booted out after first year.
When I came back home, I felt like I had been kicked out of theatre, permanently. Â The whole experience was so awful, andÂ havingÂ never considered a future outside theatre, I was completely lost. Â I didn’t audition for anything; I went to university and got an English degree, which I enjoyed, but it was a pale sort-of enjoyment in comparison to the thrill of theatre.
I recently read Russell Brand’s My Booky-Wook; heÂ was also kicked out the theatre school (though for wildly different reasons), and he says that Â “all the best people get thrown out of art or drama school.Â They should go ‘Right, now youâ€™re expelled.Â Now get out and stay outâ€¦ Pssst.Â Not really, come round the back, this is theÂ real school for the creative people who canâ€™t be conditioned.'” Â I’m not sure that I believe that all the absolute best people are the ones who get kicked out; I know a few great actors who actually graduated from theatre school. Â But I wish someone had told me, at 20, that it made no difference. Â And that my experience at theatre school was not reflective of the world of professional theatre as a whole.
It’s taken me years – more than a decade – to really come back ’round to theatre again. Â Of course, I did do some theatre during that time, but I’m not very proud of much of that work – too convinced that I wasn’t qualified to give a good performance, my acting lacked the skill, timing, and expressiveness that I had built so painstakingly in high school. Â Like most arts, theatre is a muscular skill, and when you stop practising you lose it.
Recently I realized that the only thing stopping me from doing theatre was my certainty that I’d been kicked out of all theatre for all time. Â This week, with the thrill and terror of an opening night looming over me, I’ve felt like my veins were full of champagne. Â TheÂ camaraderieÂ of the cast, the unpredictable beauty of Weil’s music, and the stunning headpieces by costume designer Mel McCall are all a tremendous joy. Â That, and the risk – I could fall flat (literally, since I haven’t tried to sing soprano since high school), I could fall over, I could forget everything in the rush of adrenaline – is filling me with the kind of anticipation I never feel anywhere else.
I wish I could give seminars to people who’ve been recently booted out of art school – or out of anything that was a part of their mental path on the road to their goals. Â I want to reach out and tell people “Fuck it – Find a way!” Would I have realized my goals if I hadn’t let that setback affect me so hugely? Â If I had dived right back in and dedicated myself to theatre completely? Who knows. Â I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and that wasn’t the worst of them. Â And since I can’t go back and shake the 20-year-old I was and tell her to defy the people who’d rejected her, I move forward. Â I was a better actor at 20, but I have more experience now, and therefor more potential as an actor. Â All I have to do is work, and dream, and get through this beautiful, terrifying opening night tonight.
What: The Threepenny Opera presented by Max’s Cabaret
When: Thursday April 15 (9pm), Friday April 16 (9pm), Sunday April 18 (8pm), 2010
Where: Kubo Lounge, 413 George Street North, Peterborough ON
How Much: $15