John Mather and Saskia Crescentia

John and Saskia working on the music for The Three Penny Opera

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’m simultaneously excited and nervous.  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.  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.  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 an 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.  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).  I didn’t get the part, though my Mom took me to see the play, and it made a huge impression on me.  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.  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.  I got better at auditioning, and every role was an opportunity to become a better actor.  Throughout high school I was in play after play – Miranda in The Tempest, Rosalind in As You Like It, Sandy in The Crackwalker.  I spent a blissful  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.   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.  If I didn’t get a role, or got one that wasn’t great, I’d be depressed for days, sometimes weeks.  I mean, it was high school, and I was a standard-issue melodramatic teenager (in a high school arts program, no less), so those highs and lows were exaggerated.  But everything else was secondary to theatre, and I was driven to be better.

Kait Dueck

Kait Dueck in rehearsal as Jenny

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, was irresistible.  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.  But I was wrong.  The teaching staff were mostly (with some notable exceptions) embittered, nasty, and overbearing.  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.  Some of the other students were great, and very smart and talented, but they were in the minority.  All of my tremendous energy and passion ran me head first into a brick wall.  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.  The whole experience was so awful, and having never considered a future outside theatre, I was completely lost.  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; he was also kicked out the theatre school (though for wildly different reasons), and he says that  “all the best people get thrown out of art or drama school.  They should go ‘Right, now you’re expelled.  Now get out and stay out… Pssst.  Not really, come round the back, this is the real school for the creative people who can’t be conditioned.'”  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.  But I wish someone had told me, at 20, that it made no difference.  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.  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.  Like most arts, theatre is a muscular skill, and when you stop practising you lose it.

Candace Shaw

That's me, performing in the Max's Cabaret 10th Anniversary - photo by Matt O'Sullivan

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.  This week, with the thrill and terror of an opening night looming over me, I’ve felt like my veins were full of champagne.  The camaraderie of the cast, the unpredictable beauty of Weil’s music, and the stunning headpieces by costume designer Mel McCall are all a tremendous joy.  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.  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?  If I had dived right back in and dedicated myself to theatre completely? Who knows.  I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and that wasn’t the worst of them.  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.  I was a better actor at 20, but I have more experience now, and therefor more potential as an actor.  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

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One Response to My life in theatre

  1. Let’s do at least one together…’Fuck it – Find a Way!’ (Seminar that is ;-)

    Oooo, and I used an emoticon out of punctuation. I’m my own pet peeve, faux pas. Yours too. I’d bet. Ah, well. Undeniably inappropriate usage here. I’m also willing to bet…a month-ish later, that your opening night was a resounding success, both in and out. More than three cheers for you.

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