Category Archives: Blog

Ready, aim, fur!

Well, here we are. Dress rehearsal tonight and the firing squad — otherwise, known as an audience — tomorrow. Gulp!

Do you remember those movies, where the hero looks solemnly out into the darkness of the desert or jungle? He may be a cavalry captain in the American West or a white hunter in Africa, but his words are always something along the lines of: “It’s quiet out there. Too quiet.”

Well, that’s the way I feel today. With just one day to go before opening night, things are going uncannily well. The universe is cooperating for a change, and it makes me nervous. All the hiccoughs have been small. Take the issue of Manon Dumas’ dress.

It was recently borne upon me that Ruth Condomine (played by Manon) couldn’t wear the same dress during breakfast on one day and again in the afternoon of a completely different day. Damn! Cursing my fate, I raced out to the consignment shops, only to find them woefully depleted. Of course, they were: I had picked them over myself. In the end, however, I did find a very good dress (sezs me), but Manon almost cried when she saw it.

Now, unlike me, Manon has character. Faced with a costume she loathes, she does not throw herself on the floor, bang her heels and scream with temper. No, she takes a deep breath, looks at me piteously and says with only a slight quaver in her voice: “Oh well. It will be all right. I don’t mind.”

Now, I know how to respect courage when I see it. My early acting career was blighted, I recall, by the requirement to wear a white leotard on stage which did nothing for my plump little figure. The iron entered the soul. Perhaps as a result, I would never willingly subject an actor to trial by audience looking like a large white sausage or anything even remotely so loathsome. (Not that Manon, who has very sleek lines, could look like a sausage under any circumstances, but you get the idea.)

So away I went, with despair in my heart, to burrow again in the back of my closet, where, I feared, the vein of gold had long since been depleted. And damn me, if I didn’t stumble almost immediately on hidden treasure. You see, last year, I bought a beautiful red silk kimono for my character to wear. It was wrong for the part, but it was an object of great beauty, and I liked owning it. I put it away in the closet, therefore, intending to wear it myself, but I never did. Though I would like to be the kind of person who lounges around the house in red silk, in real life I am more drawn to red tartan flannel. And so, the kimono has lived a quiet life for the past year, forgotten by me and unbesmirched by marmalade and coffee stains. And it is perfect, absolutely perfect, for Ruth Condomine in the breakfast scene.

I would have said that that was that, except that last night, David Holton — who plays Charles Condomine with great charm and is otherwise a very nice person — broke it to me that changing from natty blazer and flannels into full dinner dress during a 60-second scene change was a BIT too exciting. I resisted the temptation to bite him, and I am off again this morning in search of a smoking jacket. (If only I were the kind of person who made lists and then referred to them, I am reflecting bitterly, these things would not happen to me.)

Laura Hall, the third member of the Condomines’ domestic circle, has been much less trouble, on the whole. Her only concern has been to ensure that her costume doesn’t fall off. (It is a little large.) Thanks be to God, we have found a simple and rather elegant solution that doesn’t involve any more life-threatening and possibly heart-breaking expeditions to the back of the closet.

Anyway, the rehearsals — and the demand for new costumes — end tonight. We are all more or less dressed. We have practised endlessly, and we are ready to take possession of the stage at last. No more bridge club rehearsals. No more long drives in the rain and fighting with alien keys. No more startled bridge-players fingering their panic alarms as they stumble into scenes of apparent domestic affray.

I am happy to report that no bridge-players were injured during the preparation of our play. Bridge-players are tough nuts to crack, in any case. They have to be, because they operate in a universe, ostensibly civilized, where the jungle lurks beneath the surface. I know, because I used to play bridge before I saw the light and retired (to universal relief). My memories are painful: the time I bid seven-no-trump on a seven-point hand springs to mind. Unfortunately, I was partnering my mother in that game. She was a doughty character, dangerous to cross. I can still see her face as I put down my hand, and she realized that children are, indeed, God’s punishment for sex. When you have seven points in your hand, mother explained to me coldly, the only decent response is silence.

Back to the theatre, where I fled after being driven out of the bridge halls of the nation. This is a very good-looking production, I think. Especially since I, as Madame Arcati, have decided to axe the red turban. What had once seemed a Good Thing developed a worrying tendency to make dogs howl. Indeed, Juno the Dog helped me to face facts. She took one look at the turban, fled into the garden, dug a big hole and tried to hide in the bottom of it.

All right, all right. The turban is gone. I still have some reservations, however, about the hat I am wearing in Act II. The stage manager, Barbara Merriam, laughed in a very odd way when she saw it swimming into sight last night. I was shaken. Having once believed the hat to be beautiful, I now realize it is funny, “in its comic implication.” Oh well, time is short, and to hell with the reviews. I have decided not to show the hat to Juno the Dog.

What do dogs know about fashion, anyway? They have it easy, don’t they? No worrying over what hat or dress to wear. Take Jake, for example. Long ago, just after the earthquake — which is how I remember the arrival of Jake the Dog in my life — I had one of those unpleasant fact-facing moments with regard to my personal appearance. I would look better, the universe informed me, if I were covered with glossy black fur and walked on four feet.

I remember the moment precisely. It was springtime on the Sparks Street Mall, and hoi polloi was creeping white-faced out of civil service burrows to sniff the air and nibble the darling buds of May. Jake and I were pacing along, more or less majestically. He had me on a short leash and was stalking in that collected way that only ballerinas and athletes share with four-footed creation. As for me, I was gamely trotting along behind on my stout little legs.

On that spring morning, my association with Jake was new, and neither of us had yet realized what an odd couple we made. We passed a young man, sitting on the edge of a planter and eating a sandwich. He paused as we passed and said warmly: “Beautiful!”

“Me?” I said hopefully. “No,” he admitted, “the dog.”

Ever since that morning, I have harboured a suspicion that the human animal would look better if evolution had not deprived us of fur. That’s what I used to think, anyway. As of this week, I’m not so sure. I went to a party last Saturday where costumes were involved. An old friend, who had spent his formative years in the Arctic, chose to appear in an ancient cariboo parka and wolfskin trousers (than which few things are more startling)! His appearance was certainly odd: he looked like a large, hairy sphere. However, it was the smell that made a real impression — a pungent perfume combining ancient dead animal with a delicate overlay of mothball.

The good news for you, dear reader — if you are planning to attend the play — is that Bill does not have a part, and most of our actors smell rather nice. They also look nice and, my God, they are talented. Feel free to book at ticket. You don’t want to miss that hat.

PERFORMANCES

October 21-23, 27-30 at 7:30 pm
Sunday, October 24 at 3 pm

Call 613-842-4913 for tickets.

Falling flat on one’s face

If there’s one thing I have learned in life, it’s how to fall flat on my face and get up again. This is an important life skill, dear reader. Read on.

It started in youth, I believe, when I took to downhill skiing. While other children were learning to steer, I was learning how to land on my head after accidentally shooting over small, snowy cliffs. The fact that I did not break my neck, not even once, astonished onlookers at the time and continues to bewilder medical science. The thing is, I bounce, and a good thing too.

I must have been about 13 when I made two discoveries. One: that I am not a natural athlete. (My mother broke it to me.) Two: that I am not particularly breakable. Those two factors have operated together over the years to provide a certain amount of excitement, at the same time delivering me relatively intact to the present advanced age.

Back to bouncing. Over the years, experience has added polish to what began as natural genius. The night I wandered into a Spanish bar in 1969 springs to mind. I was 18 at the time, and there were certain kinds of experience that had not yet come my way. I am talking about tequila. On that particular night, I ran into a crowd of Australian rowdies on their way to Morocco in an old van held together with duct tape. I met these “gentlemen” in a local watering hole on the southeast coast of Spain, where one of them — discovering that I was unacquainted with Mexican firewater — made it his mission to instruct me. “Squeeze a lime on your wrist,” he intoned gravely, suiting action to the words. “Sprinkle a little salt, and lick it off….” (I was all attention!) “And then….” He held out a large tumbler full of colourless liquid. “Bottoms up!”

It was bottoms up, all right. I followed his instructions to the letter. Honestly, some people should not be let out alone. I drank the tequila to the dregs, took a deep breath and fell off the bar stool, where until that moment I had been unwarily perched. As I plumetted downward, I heard the bar — or at least the Australian contingent within it — explode into raucous laughter.

Now, there were many lessons learned that night — not least of them being to approach young Australian men in a spirit of caution and possibly armed. However, the lesson that concerns me more as an actor is how to pitch gracefully downward and bounce up again with body and soul still more or less connected. (We need not address issues of bruised self-esteem, which is a topic in its own right when it comes to young Australian men.)

Returning to my theme, this extraordinary ability to crash with impunity saved me from ruin in Spain, and it also came in handy in Zambia, New Zealand, Peru and various other outposts of empire. I remember in particular that I astonished the natives in a small railway station in Austria where I tried unsuccessfully, on a dark and stormy day in August 1968, to jump on a moving train. I landed face down in the mud, and let me tell you: until you have been yelled at in German you do not know what yelling is. I followed most of the text because key words in English and German are the same, only more so. “Dum,” for example, appears to mean something along the lines of “cretinous idiot.”

Anyway, the art of falling flat on my face did not really mature until I returned to Ottawa and, some years later, reinvolved myself in theatre. I had the luck then to play Judith Bliss in another Noel Coward masterpiece, Hay Fever. Judith — an aging spoiled brat whom I found depressingly easy to play: why is that, I wonder uneasily? — has occasion to collapse in mid-action. The director of that play, seeing me gazing somewhat doubtfully at a very hard floor as we approached the moment of truth in rehearsal, said: “It’s easy. Don’t pitch over headlong. Just crumple in a controlled way, so that the knees hit the floor gently, and the rest of your body follows.” Oh yeah? I thought. Easy for her to say. To my astonishment, it worked. I have few athletic skills, but I like to think that I fall down flat at an Olympic level.

The thing is, Madame Arcati — the mad medium in Coward’s Blithe Spirit — goes into not one, but two, trances during the play, each time crashing splendidly on to the floor. It is so much fun!

I must hang on to that thought. Theatre is fun! The truth is, as the time between us and opening night narrows, a certain queasiness is beginning to be felt. We have been rehearsing now for three weeks and have another four to go. Things are going well. Still, we have yet to face an audience. To quote the venerable Dr Johnson, “When one is going to be hanged in the morning, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.”

These are the facts. In less than four weeks, we will be bringing our play to you, the audience. We are about to ski over another icy precipice with no sure idea about how we are going to land. It’s a little like being eight months pregnant, too late to say, “Let’s forget the whole thing!” Indeed, there is only one sure way to get out of this chasm of anxiety. And that is by delivering the baby.

And so, to that end we continue to rehearse. Let me tell you about this process, in case you’re interested. It begins with “blocking.” This is theatrical choreography, if you like, a process of fitting action to the word. During blocking, the actors, with scripts in hand, go through a given scene, with the director interrupting to say: “sit,” “stay,” “lie down,” etc. It’s a lot like dog-training really, except that the actors are not fed liver treats, and they are generally less obedient.

Blocking also helps with line learning because it supports intention. One moment, for instance, your character is sitting peacefully at the table eating cucumber sandwiches; the next, you are on your feet advancing sternly on your fellow actor, who has just said that she would like to hand you over to the police — a proposition to which you object strenuously. And so on.

Soon we will all be working completely without scripts. That is usually a terrible moment — the first time you put down your script, your life line, your security blanket. There you are on stage with everyone looking and probably thinking (you fear) something along the lines of, “My God, how did I get myself into a play with that mutt?” At such moments, what I like to think of as my mind goes blank. It always happens. Lines that were completely at my command when rehearsed at home fly out the window. Very curious, as Madame Arcati would say.

These early rehearsals are therefore punctuated with desperate cries of, “Line?” Marlene Spatuk, assistant director, presides over the book, where not only the script but also the blocking is recorded, and she prompts on request. She also rushes to the rescue when puzzled actors ask, “Aren’t I supposed to be on the other side of the room now?” Or, in my case, is it time to fall down yet?

Everything passes. The play is at last beginning to emerge from the shadows, and the current is beginning to build. I am optimistic. We are not yet solid on lines and movement, but what we hoped to achieve with this play — the good humour, the effervescently wicked delight of vintage Coward — is there in nascent form. We are so fortunate in our actors. They really “get” Coward, and it’s a good sign, I think, that we are giggling in rehearsal (at least in intervals between snarls from the director). We wanted a light touch, and it looks like we are going to get it.

We are also lucky enough to have a large room loaned to us in which to rehearse. It is a humble bridge club by day; at night it is transformed into a rehearsal hall, isolated enough so that no one will be disturbed by thespian screams and moans. So far so good. At least, none of the neighbours has called the police. Give them time.

Speaking of time, as I said, we are beginning the count-down. Four weeks to opening night. Tickets are on sale now. Go on, be a sport. Apply to Books on Beechwood or call me at 613-842-4913. The play runs for eight performances from October 21 to 30, but I especially would like you to come on the first Saturday, October 23, because on that night we will be inviting the audience to join us for a glass of wine after the performance. This is your chance to get even after this long, one-sided conversation known as “blogging.” Come say hello, and I will let you get a word in edgewise. I promise.

Meanwhile, Madame Arcati — my alter ego in Blithe Spirit — has something to say about time. “Time is the reef,” she says, “upon which all our frail mystic vessels are wrecked.”

“Phooey,” says I. Time is going to give us fluency, certainty and joy, and that’s what we are going to share with the audience in about four weeks. As for falling flat on my face, that’s no problem when you’ve spent a lifetime learning how to bounce.

“No actor is an island”

“Laugh and the world laughs with you.” That`s what my old mother used to say. Me, I’m not so sure. When the chips are down, in my experience, a merry quip inspires nothing but intense irritation in those around you. Possibly even violence.

The chips were most recently down in the past week, when some 15 people related to me by blood and law gathered on an island that was entirely too small to contain so much raw humanity: just 400 metres of rock and pine thrusting its head up from the lake, with two rustic cottages perched on top. The week of family bonding started badly.

Imagine the blogger, dear reader, perched queasily in the bow of a big tin boat on the 8 August 2010 crossing a busy channel in Big Rideau Lake. The wind is high, the rain pouring down in sheets, and I am trying to control a wiggling puppy in the middle of the boat as we slam across the frothy, storm-grey waves. I have been out in the rain before, and I own raingear. Unfortunately, at that moment, it is hanging in the closet of my little house in Ottawa. Nice and dry, unlike me and the puppy. Oh well, we must try to rejoice for the water table.

My top priority in taking a week off was to reconnect with my dispersed family. However, I was also anxious to find a place of utter tranquillity – removed from real life, as it were – to devote to learning lines for the upcoming play (in which I rejoice in the juicy role of Madame Arcati). Be warned by my fate, dear reader: if you want to escape reality, DO NOT take 15 relatives with you, especially if nearly half of them have been among us for less than five years. (Peter interrupts me here to say with some indignation that he is almost six.)

Back to my theme. Of those 15 relatives, just nine qualify as adults in any formal sense of the word. The other six are what is euphemistically described as “children.” (I can think of other descriptors, but it would annoy the mothers.) Let me continue.

Our first night on the island – after we had towelled off, changed our sodden clothes, laid claim to our various beds and spread out the damp bedding – we gathered for dinner. As the full horror of the evening unfolded – tired children, mud everywhere, food being slung instead of served, the decibel level rising towards the sound barrier – I have to confess that I gulped my dinner and ran. It wasn’t gallant, I know, or helpful. I admit it. But “she who eats and runs away,” I maintain, “lives to learn her lines in the morning.” I spent the evening cowering with an oil lamp in a dark corner with a good mystery in hand, while others less fleet of foot wrestled with the progeny.

Day dawned, and I could no longer put it off – the committing to memory of lines. Actually I could put it off. I noticed that the verandah was an inch deep in mud – a souvenir of the recent monsoon – and I decided to get a little socially progressive exercise before taking the brain out for a canter. Two hours later I was still at it, scrubbing and developing into what I can only describe – and indeed my sister Claire did describe – as a maniac. I had what they call an “idée fixe,” and I had it bad.

The problem is that life doesn’t stand still while you mop the floor, and it turned out that I was operating smack dab in the middle of a migratory route. For two hours or so, I swabbed away while life passed me by – literally. It was pitiful. Every time I made some progress and turned around, there was a new set of muddy prints behind me. It was like that fairy tale, the one where the girl has to empty the lake with a sieve. Nephew Andrew called it right. He said it was an “EIF” (an “exercise in futility”).

I didn’t give up easily. Instead of sensibly throwing in the sponge (mop), I threw myself into defending the gleaming expanses of still wet flooring. I put out a bucket of water and every time anything even remotely approaching a human being – child or adult – loomed up, I met them at the steps, brandished my mop and urged them frantically to take off their shoes, dip their feet and walk barefoot on the half-dry verandah. It wasn’t a success. The human beings were uncooperative, to say the least – unflattering comments were passed – and the dogs simply did not get the point. They saw me and my mop as some new and enchanting game that involved dancing around me in muddy circles with the head of the mop in their teeth while I screamed with escalating hysteria: “No, no! Drop it!! BAD DOG!!!”

To make a long story short – though perhaps not short enough – I retired from the ring. From Day Two onward, the verandah was on its own.

Back to the play and my proper purpose in life. Learning lines is hard mental work. Let me describe the process (assuming that you are still with me, dear reader, after that oh so dramatic tale of me and the mop). I live by objectives. When faced with a mountain and feeling faint-hearted, I first break the journey down into manageable stages. With lines to learn, for instance, I count the pages where my character is on stage – 42 this year, which incidentally is the meaning of life (see The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Then I divide by six (six days on the island) and presto: there’s the daily quota – seven pages a day, a mere bagatelle.

“You know my methods, Holmes.” Or perhaps you don’t, but I will tell you, if you haven’t already fled the jurisdiction with a loud yawn. I retire with cup of coffee to the southern point of the island on a little cliff overlooking the lake. There, reclining in my Muskoka chair at safe distance from the progeny and with a dog or two at my feet, I read the first line, put down the book and repeat the phrase aloud. Read another line, put down the book, say the two lines aloud, check the book for errors. Read the third line…. You get the idea, and yes: “tedium” is the word that springs to mind. Nevertheless, when I have committed the whole section to memory, I do feel a momentary glow. It does not last.

“No man is an island,” we are told, and no actor either. There comes a moment when every lonely line-learner begins to scan the horizon in search of rescue and human companionship. You see, until you actually hear the cues out loud and respond to them, with someone listening to correct and prompt you, you can’t be sure that the dialogue has been imprinted on the aging cerebellum. And you have to say the lines repetitively – again and again and again. Believe me, this is the kind of thing that strains even the closest and most loving of relationships. It is hurtful the way people begin to avoid you. Nevertheless, I persist. Every year, I prowl the island, book in hand, looking to entrap a friendly prompter. My prey grows wary.

I meet my niece Janibeth on the dock. Would she like to hear my lines? Absolutely, just as soon as she gets back from the mainland. Claire? Would you like to hear lines? Yes! But first she has to put the two children down for a nap. Maggie is painting with four other kidlings on the beach and, as I said, I am keeping my distance from the progeny. As for the men, I don’t bother asking. We had four engineers on the island on one particular day this year, and, whereas the children are making progress with the alphabet, I am not entirely sure about the engineers. Anyway, they have all gone fishing.

Finally, I give up – I am feeling tired and lazy anyway – and head down to the beach to see what’s happening. After sweating all morning, teeth gritted and brain aching, I find that I am revising my reservations about the under-five group. Unlike me, I observe, they are leading a life of idle pleasure with their colouring books, buckets and spades. Maybe they are on to something.

Down at the point, where the junior relatives are heavly absorbed in art, I ask to borrow a nice, greasy oil pastel and apply myself, side by side with a momentarily tame three-year-old, to my corner of the colouring book. Ephiphany! This is more like it! Not only does colouring please the senses and relieve the pressure on the little grey cells, but everyone is vocally amazed at how well I stay within the lines.

These are the lines for me, I conclude, basking in the glow of juvenile admiration. So what have I learned? That next year, Linden House should seriously consider producing mime? Or, better yet, an exhibition of colouring books. Stay tuned!

Making mayhem

Now, I am beginning — seriously beginning — to look into that question of a sheltered workshop. The time has come.

This became apparent last Sunday. The knock on the door surprised me. I had just settled down with a volunteer from my old high school to tackle a big job that had been hanging over our heads for far too long. I was looking forward to a peaceful afternoon of sharing the most boring task on God’s earth — misery loves company, and my friend Jeanette is the best of company — when I heard the ominous knock. Surprised, I went to the door and there was Janet (the Other Janet), production assistant for the Linden House Theatre Company, toting a variety of big bags.

“I tried to phone you, Janet,” she cried. “Is there a meeting today? You didn’t confirm it. You always confirm. But when I couldn’t get hold of you, I decided to come along anyway. I can go away if you like.”

“A meeting,” I said brightly. “Yes, of course. There is a meeting.” Two meetings, in fact. What you might call an embarras de richesses. What I call just plain embarrassing.

You will be surprised to learn — given that I am currently committing that most 21st-century of all acts, “blogging” — that I keep my life what I laughingly call “organized” by means of a large paper calendar that leans against the wall and sometimes slides down on to floor. That’s how it happened. I have a brand new puppy sharing my house, and as of last week she was ALMOST house trained. Apparently she didn’t think the balance of July looked all that promising because she used that page in lieu of newspaper. July went into the trash, and I achieved a new level of vagueness about my committments for the rest of the month. (Oh dear, as I write this, I hear a ripping sound at my feet, and there goes August!)

All this to show that the pressure is getting to me, not to mention that it’s hard to keep your eye on the ball when an 11-week-old puppy is puncturing your ankle with a line of needle-sharp teeth. My sister has no patience with this lament. She says it’s a sign from God that I have to start booking on my computer because, puppies or not, this is the information age.

Mind you, I have problems with my schedule even when Juno (that’s her name: “goddess of the starry constellations” because she has a big white star on her chest) has not destroyed my calendar (or my shoe or the ruffle on my nightgown or, the very final straw, the floaty hem of my favourite skirt — which is, incidentally, when she heard the words “bad dog” for the first time. You know the old cartoon, don’t you? The one with the picture of an appealing little dog with a thumping tail and a speech bubble, saying: “Hello, my name’s ‘No, no, bad dog.’ What’s yours?”).

Back to my calendar, which tends to provide a certain amount of intellectual exercise chez me. Even without Juno the Dog’s help, I often find myself wondering feverishly what such scribbled notations as “Avt ct — 8:30” mean, if anything. On these occasions, when the mind goes blank, I get dressed and wait hoping that whatever is going to happen is happening chez me and not in Halifax. When the knock on the door comes, I open it and gallantly pretend that I am not: a) confused; b) relieved; c) horrified; d) all of the above.

So it was last Sunday: the moment I saw Janet (the Other Janet), it came back to me in a flash. We had scheduled a meeting for the “set” committee to show the director, George, a maquette of the set and to discuss construction details.

I see no point in hiding my failings from the world (minor failings anyway, like forgetfulness and the odd homicidal impulse). Thus, if I ever accidentally commit murder (and I hope it isn’t Juno, because she really is sweet), I will confess instantly just to get it over with. Anyway, on Sunday, I instantly admitted my confusion to Janet and Jeanette, and Jeanette kindly allowed herself to be thrown out on her ear. She may even have been relieved.

The rest of the production team began to arrive with a really touching faith that I was expecting them: none of them have dogs, apparently, so their calendars are intact. Janet “K-M” (the initials of her surname) came back from the car with her maquette. I had tears in my eyes. We had never had a maquette before, and it was absolutely darling. You could see the little fireplace with stepped layers of simulated marble and two chevron-shaped arches and a little suspended window with real fabric curtains. It was like a perfect little doll-house. Janet had chosen to paint the walls in a deep shade of peach with pale blue pillars. There was even a tiny curtain hanging over the dear little window. And there was more! Out came a bag of white make-up sponges in different sizes, which George started to cut up and arrange as furniture on the stage.

Enough of playing with dolls. The conversation turned from delighted exclamations to more serious matters — fulcrums, flanges and outrigger feet. Tough stuff. We are discussing a table, you see, which has to wobble and bump and eventually fall over during a simulated seance, preferably without injuring any members of the audience. (You know: “No members of the audience were injured in the production of this play.”)

Well, if the gods spare us, we are going to construct a table that will stand upright, fall over gently on command and not break into a million pieces night after night. It also has to accommodate five people without taking up too much floor space or completely blocking the audience’s line of sight. It has to look vaguely art deco and, finally, it has to cost virtually nothing. I have suggested a hexagonal shape, but there is some discussion of a circle. “Janet, why did you want an hexagon?” demands Blaine accusingly.

I am immediately on the defensive. “I thought,” says I, “in my simple-minded way, that it would be easier to cut out of plywood than a circle.”

Amid discouraging cries of “No, no!” from just about everyone, Pierre holds up a magisterial hand. “Janet is right,” he says, “but in a wrong kind of way.” (I think to myself that the reviews could have been worse; they usually are.)

While we are processing the revelation of my essential rightness, Pierre continues: “We are trying to create an illusion of solidity. It would be harder with a circular table,” he pronounces. I don’t quite follow this, but I am a natural-born believer, so I let it pass.

We turn to building materials and to considering the possible weight of the table. Pierre looks grave. “There is a certain existential risk involved,” he intones. I wonder what he means for a moment and finally guess it is “risk to the existence” of actors. He continues: “But perhaps we can create a ‘controlled fall.'”

The idea of “control” is nice, and the discussion turns to the broader issue of controlled mayhem. In the final moment of play, two bad-tempered ghosts start to trash the house, and paintings tilt on their hooks, vases crash to the floor, the gramophone goes mad and cushions fly across the room. We haven’t actually figured out how to do any of this, and I am beginning to think that the easiest thing will be to murder one of the production team and have an actual ghost wreaking havoc. I am going to ask for volunteers at the next meeting.

Pierre has actually read the play — “No fair, reading the play!” someone shouts. He insists that one of our works of art should be a portrait of Elvira (our hero’s first wife: deceased). But how are we going to get a big portrait of Elvira? Could we blow up a photograph of the actor and overpaint it?

“We could, of course, use an epidiograph,” says Pierre in a considering tone.

“An epi-what?” says I.

“An overhead projector,” Blaine translates helpfully.

Somebody else, who may be guilty of substance abuse — oh, was that me? — suggests that during the finale the portrait could zoom out on wires into the audience. Audience involvement writ large! Just as things start to get silly, someone says quellingly: “Nonsense. Ruth Condomine would not have a portrait of her rival, dead or alive, on the wall of her house.”

That settles that. The discussion turns to the size of the two art deco paintings — not portraits — that will be suspended invisibly at stage right to create the illusion of a wall. Art deco posters-cum-paintings would be too small to create the effect we want. Janet K-M and Marlene agree to use some original art as inspiration for some simplified, large-scale designs. “The question is, how will they look to the audience?” asks Janet K-M. “After all,” pointing down the hall to a distant bathroom, “the audience is going to be sitting in the loo.”

Sitting in the loo!? Oh yes, I see what she means. (The audience will see the images from a distance. Get it, silly?)

By this time, a certain hysteria has infected the group. George is dancing in the middle of the living room with arms upraised, in the stance of a triumphant boxer. Apparently, he has experienced an epiphany (and no, that is not a medical event). “Wait!” he cries. “I’ve had a revelation! Janet K-M is wrong, but in a right kind of way!”

George disappears upstairs holding the mock-up of our picture frame and is gone for quite a while, while the furor continues downstairs. Just as I am about to send out a search party, he returns, bearing the frame and a wide smile. “I’ve measured the love seat,” he shouts. “It’s 48 inches — the answer to everything!” Now this reminds me forceably of A Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and, if you haven’t read that you should, because on page 97, it gives the secret to the universe. Which is actually “42,” but close enough.

Having solved the universal question, we turn to special effects. Curtains will be rigged to fall. Pictures to tilt. Vases to fly off the mantel as Elvira and Ruth indulge in a phastasmagoric temper tantrum. I am strongly in favour of fishing line strung all over the stage like a cat’s cradle, the obvious problem being that instead of trashing the set in the last act we would end up trashing the actors in the first. Janet K-M, the voice of reason, says, “Let’s just throw things from the wings.” Blaine, a man whose favourite toy in boyhood was a chemistry set that allowed him to blow up his brother, is shouting something about spring-loaded cushions. As for Marlene, she is either feverishly making notes or taking down evidence to be used against us.

“There you have it,” says George. “The end of the world. Or at least the end of the play!”

In any case, it is the end of the meeting. Creativity exhausted, they all go home, and I go upstairs for a doomed attempt to reconstruct the rest of July. Juno the Dog comes with me. The rest is silence.

Pure magic

What do set design and Black Holes have in common? Give me a measuring tape, and I’ll show you. It’s tragic. Whenever I get busy measuring a stage, it seems as though some mysterious cosmic force comes into play (either that, or my measuring tape is made of elastic). I know: I am notoriously vague about the finer points of physics. Still, I have come to believe in some yawning cosmic vortex — a Black Hole, in fact — into which every one of my measurements is sucked. I simply cannot get the same measurement twice running.

I have been brooding about these Black Holes for a long time. Indeed, I sat next to an eminent physicist at dinner once, and we chatted. When I told him that I understood that Black Holes were like cosmic drains in the universe into which all the stars would eventually be sucked, he looked surprised and took a long drink. Maybe I got it wrong?

Maybe it’s quantum physics I mean — which I understand to be a deeply weird avenue of science. I looked up “Quantum Physics for Dummies” recently, and even that I found — what’s the word? — “opaque.” Quantum physics, when offered to a modest intelligence, causes buzzing in head, sweating and mild nausea. Still, I may be on to something. I read a mystery once that used quantum physics to explain how the murderer could be in two places at once. Well, that’s just the kind of theory I need to explain the oddities of my measuring tape. I’ll get back to you later on quantum physics.

The truth is, my problems probably have nothing to do with science at all, but rather with black magic. It horrifies me when I see other people measuring. They aren’t careful. Not like me. I see them whip out the tape and eyeball it, calling out a measure quite casually and saying: “Make it an even 11.” They ignore my helpful little whimpers about straightening out the tape and asking if there isn’t another little 1/16th of an inch they’d like to record. Don’t they know about Black Holes? Apparently not, so when the “what-not” comes back and fits perfectly into the allocated space, it’s clear to me that someone has made an unholy deal with Beelzebub.

It isn’t fair. I lay out the tape carefully. I make sure there are no bends. I count every little 1/16th of an inch, and I do it two or three times just to make sure. You know the old adage: “measure twice and cut thrice.” Well, I do my best to obey that counsel. And still I live a life of disappointment. It reminds me of math homework at school or those awful science experiments. I once said, nostalgically, to an old classmate of mine: “Do you remember science class? None of my experiments ever worked.” “Yes,” she answered sadly. “You were always so confused.”

Even worse: it reminds me of whitewater canoeing when I had the very poor idea of paddling solo on the Ottawa River where souseholes are the size of a house, and you have to fill your canoe with inflated rubber tubes to maintain any sort of optimism. “Bring a couple of old hockey sticks,” said Blaine. “You can saw off a bit the width of the canoe, jam it under the gunwales and tie it in to hold the tires.”

Easy for him to say. I took my first hockey stick, laid it carefully over the canoe, made a mark, cut it briskly and confidently with my little saw and laid it back in the canoe. Impossible! It was several inches too short! I breathed deeply. Took a second stick. Measured more carefully, made a mark and then cut — very slowly. Curses! TOO SHORT! I had one hockey stick left and I don’t have to bore you with what happened. The rest of that day is kind of a blur — the way life looks when you are gazing at it through aerated water. In fact, I think I drowned and everything since has been a kind of otherworldly hallucination. That explains a good deal, come to think of it.

Eventually I gave up science and canoeing alike: in that order, beginning with science at university, where I made the ghastly error of enrolling in zoology because I like animals and ended up dissecting them. Good grief. They gave me a passing grade just to get me out of the department. Well, how would you like it if you were a teacher, to have a first-year student sobbing in the back row over her little white rat?

As for canoeing, it is still there, but I am too busy with my magic tape measure to get out much. And anyway, I am scaring myself quite adequately these days by putting on plays: just as frightening, though not on the whole as damp as canoeing. That’s how I happened, a few days ago, to find myself standing on stage, tape measure in hand and a wild look in my eye, the victim of bitter memories and extravagant hope. Indeed, very like canoeing.

Fortunately, I was not alone. And — get this — everyone else in the room came armed with his or her own tape measure! Recognizing the mark of masters, I quietly put my own tape away and retreated softly into the background in order not to disturb the vibrations. And over the next hour or so, I watched open-mouthed a July 1 firework display of sheer braininess. I felt like Bertie Wooster on first encountering Jeeves.

I don’t deny that I was looking for brains when I started making overtures to possible set-builders in my circle. I like brainy people, self-starters, people who aren’t necessarily waiting for me to have an idea before springing into action — a habit that, honestly, can involve us in a lot of long, awkward pauses. So I admit: I selected for IQ in putting the team together. And I outdid myself. I came up with people who take their time. They think laterally. They turn every problem upside down and shake it to see if it rattles. They are, frankly, intellect in action.

Not that brains are easy to live with. Do you remember Julius Caesar? “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.” Well, that just about describes my friend Blaine. The word for him is “cerebral.” He thinks things through. Of course, the other word is “testy,” but the less said of that the better.

We spent an hour or two at the theatre last week discussing the plan. The director had sketched out his requirements, and I came up with a rough concept. The director liked it and added a few little twists of his own. Now we were facing that horrible gap between — what does T.S. Eliot call it — “the impulse and the action.” In other words, I needed some rough magic, which is another word for carpentry, to turn my scribbles into a set.

Blaine and Pierre are the men for the job. I suggest a flat with braces; one of them asks why we can’t suspend a panel from the ceiling for a more elegant suggestion of a wall? When I point out that there is nothing to hang it from, they start talking about levers or fulcrums and deflected what-nots. When I mention that an actor has to open the window, they propose a weighted anchor to hold it firm. When they begin to discuss manipulating perspective. I start to hyper-ventilate.

Still, it’s nice to see these two getting on. They come from different ends of the country and from different corners of the Canadian mosaic, but they share in startling degree — in the words of Hercule Poirot — “de leetle grey cells.” They can canter around me intellectually without breaking a sweat, and it is borne upon me, when I see how attentively they are listening to each other, that there may actually be some arcane meaning in the apparently meaningless sounds they are uttering.

Meanwhile, Janet (the Other One) is working her own tape measure and making notes. Her job will be to develop a maquette of the finished plan to guide the carpenters. Then, when the framework is delivered, she and Marlene — a multi-talented woman who is involved in just about every process of this production — will do their own rough magic with styrofoam and paint to decorate the set and turn it into the illusion of a 1930s living room, complete with chevrons and sunbursts.

It’s all coming together, and it is happening well before I start to come apart. Pure magic — and certainly NOT of the black variety.

“Me, a name I call myself….”

Do you remember The Sound of Music and that pesky song, “Me, a name I call myself…”? Well, I’m a bit worried about that, to be honest.

“This blogging business,” I said anxiously to some friends. “You don’t think that it is a little too much, well…me-me-me-ME?”

“That, dear Janet, is the definition of a blog,” they said.

That’s fine for those who love me, but what about the huddled masses who would rather not. I met a friend at a party last week, and she said I was “a blogger sans peur et sans raproche.” I liked that, because frankly it’s something I don’t hear a lot. As for George Stonyk, Linden House director, he said kindly: “Janet, you are born to blog.” (So now at least I have the title of my upcoming autobiography — “Born to Blog,” by Janet Uren.)

In fact, this conversation made me remember that, though the blog may by definition be a hymn to me-me-me-ME, a play is anything but. A case in point. Imagine if you will, a middle-aged actor. Yes! It’s me-me-me-ME! I am wearing a flowered skirt and a pinkish sweater with tasteful little diamond buttons all down the front. I am clutching a big medieval sword in both hands — it really was a very strange play — and ranting away about the execution of Charles I as I back steadily into the wings. One moment, I’m there in full view, flushed with lunatic fervour. And then I’m gone, leaving George Stonyk to prance around the stage pretending he’s a drum. (If you didn’t see this production, you are probably really regretting it now!)

While Mr. Bardolph prances, Miss Doufet (me-me-me-ME) is effecting what may be the fastest costume changes in theatre history. Fast enough to make my head swim, anyhow. And believe me, this is not the kind of thing you do alone. I had about six seconds to transform myself from a dumpy little lady with big ideas (height somewhat to the south of five feet) into the sombre figure of a masked executioner (seven feet in his stocking feet). In other words: nix to the flowered skirt and diamond buttons and “Hello darkness my old friend.”

Yes, it is dark in the wings — too dark to see the three fairy godmothers, clothed in black from head to foot, who converge on me like a choreographed hurricane. My job is to stand perfectly still, hold out my arms and make no trouble. Someone (it’s Barbara Merriam, stage manager, I believe) takes the sword from my left hand. A big black cloak folds around me back to front (that’s Janet Kiff-Macaluso, assistant stage manager, who is standing behind me). I fumble to get my hands through the slits on either side of the cloak even as a beard on an elastic band slides down over my face (coming from Marlene Spatuk, assistant director, on my right). The beard — which I am now trying to spit out of my mouth — is followed by a mask. And, finally, a big hairy wig is jammed low on my forehead, completely depriving me of sight. The sword is thrust back into my left hand, and Bob’s your uncle!

Released by my keepers, I shoot like a hairy black comet back on stage. George, who is getting tired of being a drum, is glad to see me. The audience, as far as I can tell, is stunned. As for me, I am literally dressed to kill.

You see what I’m getting at? It’s not good to be alone on stage, in the wings or anywhere else. Fellowship, that’s what we need on this long and bumpy road. Merry companions with whom to share triumphs, disasters and the odd stiff drink. Someone to help when you need to spruce up your appearance and have exactly six seconds in which to do it.

I have to admit, I suffer from a little streak of independence… (Did I say “little”?!!) I live alone (although, for many years, there was the single massive exception of Jake the Dawg). I work alone (except for my clients, whose irritating little habits I am prepared to tolerate because they send me cheques from time to time). But I do NOT make theatre alone.

Actors may get a lot of attention — the me-me-me-ME syndrome — but they are only the tiny tip of the iceberg. Nobody would have the courage or indeed the ability to go on stage without the assurance, for example, that Bob McKellar is up there in the lighting booth with an expression of composed intelligence on his face as he contemplates a lighting board that you couldn’t persuade me to touch at gunpoint.

Even writing a blog is not as lonely an act as you might think. The first blog I attempted was an utter failure. I wrote three long paragraphs of unmitigated drivel before I came screeching to a discouraged halt. The problem, I realized, was that I was talking to myself instead of to your average intelligent reader. (No fun talking to yourself: that’s why I have to have a dog in my life.) I hit the delete button and tried again: but this time I imagined that I was writing to amuse my partners in crime — the Linden House gang. It worked. The result is still drivel, but drivel I am proud to share.

The point I am making, not very coherently, is that we are in this adventure together — I and a group of about ten people with similar mental health issues. Nobody makes a play on his or her own, and I don’t want to. We are a band of brothers/sisters, and if I ever give any of my sidekicks cause to leave me, the gods will surely weep for me.

They are all so outrageously competent. Not that I let it get me down, but I am not like that. Just consider last year’s programs. That was the only last-minute job I kept for myself. I had this mad idea that we would be able to recycle programs that people left after every performance on chairs or the floor, thereby saving…what? A few dollars? Anyway, I resolved to harvest the left-overs and print just a few extras every day.

As plans go, it was a non-starter. To begin with, only about three people abandoned their programs on any given night. I don’t know what the others did with theirs. Maybe they ate them during the intermission. But there I was, still stubbornly determined to print the daily quota as we went along. A simple job? I agree. So how did I manage to create a new and different program-related catastrophe on a daily basis. One night I managed to get the whole supply of programs locked away in an office at the theatre. Another day, I forgot to place the order with the printer. The next day I remembered the order but forgot to pick it up. And so it went. (I sometimes wonder if I should try for admission to a sheltered workshop?)

Anyway, I mentioned this story to the gang, by way of indirect praise in my annual closing remarks. This is when I stand on the staircase above my living room and maunder on about the show while those with any kind of instinct for self-preservation shoot off into the kitchen to get another drink, leaving me to persevere with the stragglers.

“The only thing that went wrong with the production,” I announced to said stragglers, “was the programs — coincidentally, the only job I kept in my own hot little hand.” Afterwards, Marlene came up to me with a compassionate air and said: “Janet. Next year, if you like, I’ll look after the programs.” I closed with the offer and grappled her to my soul with hoops of steel. In other words, I said “Yes, please!”

In conclusion, dear reader, if you’re planning to come to Blithe Spirit next fall — and I highly recommend it — feel free to eat your program at intermission. There will be lots more the next night. Because, you see, we are a team, and Marlene is looking after it.

As for me-me-me-ME, I’m sticking to something simple — like acting.

Set for trouble

I woke up this Saturday morning with a funny feeling of apprehension. You know that feeling. “Oh what have I done?”

Sadly, it wasn’t a misspent Friday night that was on my mind, but rather a purchase made — dead sober — at about 3 o’clock on the previous afternoon. That was the hour when I accompanied my sister to HomeSense, where they practically give away a kaleidoscopic array of funky furniture, pottery and ornaments. Something for even the most tortured imagination. I came home with a bench upholstered in pseudo-zebra and two cushions, ditto, edged with a deep border of chocolate brown feathers. You see, I have begun to turn my attention to the set for this year’s production of Blithe Spirit.

For me, the set is the single most troublesome aspect of production. Lacking talent with hammer and saw, I am uncomfortably dependent on others when it comes to construction. Oh I know, I can’t sew either, neither can I sing: but it is carpentry that causes the really spectacular trouble. The hammer gallops away with me, and the nail bends. The saw, instead of cutting a neat line through the wood, cuts a kind of spiral. How does that happen? And the paint ends up in my eyelashes, every time. I have a very discouraging record.

Indeed, the quality of my handiwork is so appalling that it amounts to a character flaw. It might even constitute a public danger. I remember a carpenter who worked for me once, a wise and gentle man from Jamaica, looking at me with great sadness, shaking his head and saying slowly: “Ahhhh, Jaaanet, you are a hasty wooman.”

I am willing to give up carpenty in favour of car-racing, if that would be a better fit, but finding an affordable handyman is not easy. As for volunteers, those with the requisite skills are a fussy bunch, not easily bent to my will. I’ve seen this sort of thing before. When I bought a rather decayed house some years ago, I realized that renovation was going to require some sacrifices on my part, and I spoke frankly to a group of unmarried male friends. (Despite all evidence to the contrary, I persist in believing that all men are born with hammer in hand and chivalry in their hearts.)

“One of you is going to have to marry me,” I said sternly. “It doesn’t matter which. That you may decide amongst yourselves.” Well, they turned me down flat, every one of them. Can you believe that? I tell you, it’s a cold world out there.

So I am forced to haunt the halls of HomeSense. Of course, it is ridiculous to buy furniture for a set, when the Ottawa Little Theatre is willing to rent it. The dean of amateur theatres in Ottawa, the OLT has been staging plays for 97 years now — and that means literally hundreds of plays over time. Their sets have included everything from medieval castles and British drawing rooms to Japanese teahouses. The flotsam and jetsam of those productions — fireplaces, old gramophones, medieval columns and even some vaguely realistic trees — are jammed into a dusty warehouse in east Ottawa. You can even find a massive gilt throne there, if you ever need one.

Linden House has leaned heavily on OLT in past years and has been lucky in its mining of that warehouse. This year, for some reason, I am restless. I blame the director. Some weeks ago, he said musingly: “I see the set as art deco.” I leapt into action like a dog when someone shouts: “Squirrel!”

First: I needed information. I got some books on art deco and thumbed through the pictures with gathering gloom. Art deco, it seems, can range from chairs apparently made out of giant origami to couches shaped like mahogany bananas, from lotus pillars reminscent of an Egyptian temple to tables of glossy, tubular steel. Swamped with choice and worried about bankruptcy, I felt a headache coming on. I fled to Wikipedia, hoping for guidance more attuned to the simple-minded. There I read:

“Art Deco was an opulent style…. Its rich, festive character fitted it for modern contexts, including the Golden Gate Bridge, interiors of cinema theaters…and ocean liners….”

Ocean liners? Oh dear. As wonderful as the Aladdin’s Cave at OLT had proven in past years, I had seen nothing there even remotely resembling an ocean liner. I read on:

“Art Deco is characterized by use of materials such as aluminum, stainless steel, lacquer and inlaid wood. Exotic materials such as sharkskin…and zebra skin were also in evidence. The bold use of stepped forms and sweeping curves…chevron patterns, and the sunburst motif are typical of Art Deco.”

Zebra skin! At last, I was on to something. Aluminum too. When my sister mentioned seeing a table at HomeSense in glossy metal and glass, I seized on the possibility as a terrier seizes a rat. We zoomed out to the shop and, sadly, found that the mirror-encrusted table would not do at all. I glanced around despondently, and then I saw it — a bench upholstered in pseudo-zebra! I looked at the legs. Could that be a “sweeping curve”?! And that dark wood, surely it was “exotic”?! Art Deco at last!

It wasn’t love at first sight. I didn’t fall easily. I hemmed and hawed. I circled warily. I looked at the price tag several times, hoping each time that it would have decreased a little. (It hadn’t.) Finally, reason triumphed over passion, and I decided to leave the bench behind and live with regret.

On our way out of the shop, we happened to pass through the cushion section, and there they were. Two zebra-striped cushions with a border of thick brown feathers at the edge, simply the silliest cushions I have ever seen. I had to have them. Probably you wouldn’t have these cushions in your house on a bet, dear reader, but that is only because you do not live in the age of art deco. But our characters do. When the first Mrs. Condomine (the ghost) refers to the execrable taste of the second, she probably had precisely these cushions in mind.

“Eureka!” I cried. “God has spoken. ‘Buy that bench,’ He says.” And so I did. Now I just need to do a bit more research on that pesky chevron and find a good place on our set for a sunburst, and there you are. Art deco (more or less). It’s going to be grand!

As for the long term, I find that I now own a zebra-striped bench, and I have mixed feelings about that. Given that I live in a tiny house already crammed with furniture — really boring furniture, I now realize — this bench will simply not feel at home. I’ve already offered it, once it retires from the stage, to various relatives, but they are strangely reluctant. So I guess it’s going to be a star attraction at the annual New Edinburgh Garage Sale next year. (Come see me. We can do a deal).

As for the zebra-striped cushions with the brown feather edges, they are going to my sister for her birthday. That will teach her to take me shopping.

The Battle of the Bolt

After four years of costume-making, they know us — my sister and me. When we march through the door of Fabricland in search of low-priced cloth for costumes, staff members take cover. The thing is, my sister and I differ in one certain, fundamental way. I am a perfectionist when it comes to costumes; my sister is a pragmatist. If I have heard it once, I have heard it a hundred times: “It’s on stage. No one will know the difference.” The phrase reduces me to frothing rage, every time.

I love costume. I love period costume in particular. Give me for preference a dress that looks like a ship under sail, like those jewelled walls of fabric worn by Queen Elizabeth I. These, in my view, are the perfect clothing for just about every occasion, except possibly tennis and white-water canoeing. Silly, isn’t it? I sometimes think that my interest in theatre is actually as shallow as a wish to play dress-up.

As for my sister, she takes the reasonable view that we should make our costumes as economically as possible. Of course, she has a point. But what can I do? I walk into Fabricland with a budget firmly in mind. And then I lose my grip. Instantly.

And so begins the annual Battle of the Bolt in full view of the astonished staff of Fabricland. Sometimes we pause for a moment in full spate, smile apologetically at the astonished woman at the cutting table, and say sweetly: “We’re sisters, you know,” as though that explained something, before resuming hostilities and our lamentable tug-of-war over the bolt at issue.

Costumes, depending on the play, can be a major production expense. Indeed, one of the factors we have to consider in choosing a play is the number of characters and costume-changes. We have been looking longingly at Pride and Prejudice, for instance, but have so far shied away from the costly line-up of Regency clothes and wigs. Oh well. One of these days.

Yet almost my favourite part of production is costume design, and that interest is mainly rooted in a love of colour — bold, solid colours that work with and against each other, sometimes with a shimmer or pattern woven into the cloth. You can almost paint a scene with costumes and, unlike your average watercolour, the painting is dynamic. It forms a new pattern on stage with every movement of the actors. I like to think that the brightness of its scenes has become one of the hallmarks of Linden House over the past three years.

I say costume “design,” but in fact the process is really closer to a treasure hunt. We go out and scavenge as much as we can for a particular period. Blithe Spirit, which we will stage in October 2010, was written in 1941, but we have chosen to situate it around 1930 instead. That was a period when the exuberance of the flapper era was beginning to yield to long, slim lines of the later decade. It was an elegant, yet playful time.

The treasure hunt for a play begins in the back of my closet, where I keep a few glorious dresses that, I must admit, my social life seldom lives up to. This year, the ghostly Elvira will float on to the stage in a filmy white dress embossed with creamy white blossoms. Thanks to the dollar store, which sells long strands of white and ivory “pearls,” we will also adorn her hair with a Cleopatra headdress à la 1920. Ahhhh!

Obviously, my closet has its limits, and the search continues online. It is amazing what — if you are recklessly willing to confide your credit card number to perfect strangers — you can acquire online. This year, I found a little straw hat from around 1930 with a big peach-coloured bow. The doctor’s wife will wear it in Act II when she calls on the Condomines.

Vintage hats are not cheap, however, so we obviously look first at Boutique Vivi (otherwise known as Value Village). It is surprising what good stuff people throw away. It is also surprising how, if you look carefully, you will find dresses very reminiscent of the 1930s, though made much later. However, it is always the colour that catches my eye first.

Speaking of colour, the fabric store is the next stop on the costume hunt and, as I always go with my sister, that is the scene of the annual Battle of the Bolt. Our long history puts me at a disadvantage right from the start. Claire met me first when I was just a week old and she was an intellectual five. I was not at my best just then, and clearly I didn’t impress her. I still don’t.

I do mean well. I start the annual sweep through the sale racks at Fabricland with a list in hand, determined to be sensible, and I am as pleased as anyone when I find a good stretch of fabric at half price. It all falls apart, however, within minutes. Let me loose in a field of fabric, and I am like a cat rolling in catnip.

On my way back from the sale table with two or three bargain bolts in my arms, I am forced to pass through a minefield of round tables piled high with cloth in every colour of the rainbow. I seize a bolt. I seize two, never looking at the price, and arrive guiltily at the cutting table, where Claire is pondering a piece of inexpensive broadcloth.

“Look at this! It’s perfect for Ruth in Act II,” I say defiantly.

“How much does it cost?” my sister asks suspiciously. She finds the price tag. “Look at this — $60 a metre! That’s ridiculous. Take it back!”

“Claire,” I say, willing to negotiate. “Look at the pattern! Look at the colour! This is just right!”

“Nonsense. No-one will see the pattern. It’s just a play.”

By this time, we are both raising our voices. I have very likely seized the bolt protectively, because she is trying to take it back to the display, and — as mentioned – the sales lady is looking alarmed, clearly wondering if she should call 911.

My sister always wins these battles. Last year, however, she made a fatal error. She successfully forced me to return a bolt of scarlet silk and to invest instead in boring broadcloth for the manufacture of a romantic nightgown. She had pointed out, accurately, that the costume was only on stage for about a minute and that the pattern called for six metres of fabric. It didn’t make sense to buy silk. I sullenly agreed and went home with the broadcloth. Then Claire left town for a month.

I called a taxi, headed right down to Fabricland and bought the silk. I do not regret it. The nightgown did its bit last year and is living happily now in the back of my closet.

“If the shoe fits….”

A few months ago, a friend dropped off at my house a collection of finely tailored men’s wear — tails, morning dress and two dinner suits, complete with ties and cumberbunds and suspenders. These glorious togs had belonged to his father and ranged historically from the wardrobe of a midshipman in the 1930s Canadian Navy to that of a senior officer in the post-war era. The clothes also ranged in size from boy to man, with the more recent wardrobe offering a generous allowance for paunch while the older items were elfin in scale.

I was the delighted recipient of what my mother would have called these “glad rags.” I love old clothes-cum-costumes, and I wanted to add some tailored treasures to my collection (highlights of which, until then, had been a fairly ratty boa of dyed chicken feathers and a somewhat experienced top hat). The fact that I live in an old house with virtually no closets didn’t daunt me at all. I remain convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that my brother-in-law — the one with the big basement — is only joking when he says, “Over my dead body…!”

There’s no denying, however, that these costumes have created another kind of problem: and that is finding the right size of actor to inhabit them. Now, not only do we have to find a play that involves formal wear — and I guess that means a steady diet of Noel Coward from now on; we also need actors who are more or less custom-made for the wardrobe. It’s either that or surgery (to actors or clothes, I don’t care which).

As if we didn’t have enough trouble already. We are a humble amateur company that doesn’t know its limits. So we are unpardonably fussy. Some of our obsessions are technical. For example, we live in Canada, where people generally fail to differentiate in speech between “d” and “t.” Thus, that memorable line in one of our plays, when the hero cried out to a bewildered audience: “What SLUD would take this body in her arms?” Good question.

We do accept the danger — in theatrical terms — of fuzzy speech. So we search for actors who can spit out the consonants, land them precisely, sock the audience in the ear and take no prisoners. We are generally less obsessed with vowels. I remember being told years ago that, while Canadians have a measley 12 vowel sounds, the British have 42: no wonder we have a national inferiority complex. Hamlet may know a hawk from a handsaw, but I once confused my British cousins with a long story about a “hawk,” which they insisted on hearing as a kind of wine (“hock”).

Never mind. We like British plays at Linden House, but when it comes to Canadian vowel sounds, we’re prepared to live and let live. Sometimes you have to work with an actor who complains, for example, about the morning “noos” — and yes: we know that Noel Coward would have said “nyoos” — or fights a “do-ell” (pistols or swords at dawn). Never mind. We have shoved linguistic purity overboard in favour of talent (authenticity and the kind of imagination that lets an actor apparently inhabit the body and voice of another human being).

People sometimes ask what it’s like being on stage and pretending to be someone else. They wonder if it feels like you have actually turned into another person. “No,” I answer. “A lot of your attention focuses on quite mechanical things — where to stand, when to move, how to orient your face to the audience, to say nothing of marshalling the next line and figuring out what to do in that thrilling moment when your mind goes blank. You don’t have the luxury, in my experience, of forgetting who you are. You are simply too busy.”

Having said that, there’s a line you cross mentally at some point during the rehearsal process. In that moment, when you have thought and wondered and speculated sufficiently about the character you are portraying, you are finally ready to imagine yourself inside the skin of another person entirely. Only then, I think, can you speak convincingly for that person. Good acting has something in common with good fiction-writing, but it isn’t a common skill. Every child knows instinctively how “to pretend,” but most adults have simply lost the knack.

It’s not so much to ask, is it? Actors who will fit themselves not only into our costumes but also into the soul of their character. Unfortunately, we have one more requirement. We also want actors who are nice people. Linden House is a friendly place. Even if you have the perfect elfin body for our set of tails, we don’t want you if you are not lovable. Ideally, we want to build a company of friends, who come back year after year and who are — and remain — a troupe, a collective. And that goes for the production team as well as the cast.

Having laid out these criteria in black and white, I am no longer surprised at how difficult it is to find a full cast of good actors every year. Indeed, I’m astonished that we manage to find any. And yet we do.

Staging Blithe Spirit — a step by step history

Dedicated to the cast and crew of Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward 
produced by the Linden House Theatre Company
Ottawa, Ontario in October 2010.
“The play’s the thing… “
It shouldn’t be this difficult. Linden House only produces one play a year. We don’t have to design a whole season, and Heaven help us if we did. As it is, the choice of play takes an inordinate amount of time and creates disproportionate amounts of stress, with the director emailing hotly: No! No! Life is too short to spend half a year on that silly play!” Or actors pleading, “Please! Please let me be Eleanor of Aquitaine. Just once.” No sooner have we struck the set from last year’s play than we are talking (shouting, pleading, whimpering) about what’s next. As the process begins in November, we have a lot of time available to debate, quarrel and second-guess ourselves.
Strangely, this is the most difficult — and perhaps the most vital — part of the whole process. You wouldn’t think so. After all, there are thousands of wonderful plays out there. What’s more, Linden House has a very clear idea of the kind of play it wants to produce. Maybe that’s the problem. We are addicted to classic, intelligent comedy. What a shame. If we wanted to make you cry, we’d have our choice of high-quality tearjerkers. Long Day’s Journey Into Night, The Glass Menagerie, The Crucible…. The list goes on and on. But no, we had to choose comedy.

We don’t want to make you cry. We want you to laugh at us and with us. We want you to leave the theatre smiling, delighted and uplifted. That means a happy ending, I’m afraid. It isn’t sophisticated, I admit, but it’s the way it is. I almost gave up theatre a few years ago when, in a single week, I saw two dreadful plays and a movie. I remember them vividly, a comedy about torture (on Tuesday), a lighter piece about incest and infanticide (Thursday) and, the pièce de resistance, a drama about genocide (Saturday). To my credit, I decided not to abandon theatre but to devote myself henceforward, body and soul, to comedy. Still, it’s depressing. After reading a hundred plays or so, I realize that I am probably the only person in the English-speakng world who likes a happy ending.
Of course, the problem is that — though addicted to happiness — we are not willing to be soppy. The happy ending cannot be sticky and sentimental. It has to have stature, dignity and grace. Sighing, we cross out a few dozen titles from the list.
And no cheap laughs please. We like laughter but not farce. Slapstick and situation comedy is not for us. Instead, we are looking for wit, for soaring language and characters that enchant (or, at least, that enchant us). Sigh. A few more plays join the stack of rejects on the floor.
Did I mention intelligence? We may be frivolous but we are not stupid. We want plays to be about something. We weren’t sure to begin with that our audiences felt the same way and so, with some hesitation, we produced Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw in 2008 (it’s about the idiocy of glorifying war). We got away with that one, but I was certain that we had overreached ourselves with Peter Shaffer’s Lettice & Lovage in 2009. In the middle of some enchantingly silly business, it offered up a long LONG lecture on modern architecture (the horrors of). I was sure the audience would leave in droves during the intermission. They didn’t. They loved it, and a new criterion was added. The Linden House play had to be intelligent. More unsuitable plays went into the box for the local garage sale.
There is another criterion and this one is a little embarrassing. There has to a good role for a middle-aged, comic actor of the female persuasion (me). I founded Linden House for a number of good reasons. You can read all about it on the website — http://www.lindenpro.ca/ — if you want the official story. But the truth is that I wanted good parts, great comic roles. And I didn’t want to subject myself to the painful humilation of auditions. If you ever feel that your ego is a little swollen — too many favourable reviews, too many bonuses at work, too many people in love with you — try an audition. That will sober you up. Anyway, I decided to found a theatre company instead. I must have been mad, you say? Yes, but it was divine madness.
Back to choosing a play. After reading some more, I began to compile a blacklist of topics — with incontinence heading the list. I do not find incontinence funny or even interesting. (See torture, incest and infanticide, above, for other topics on the list). After a while, I realized that it was a waste of time to look at any but the very best playwrights — George Bernard Shaw, Peter Shaffer, Noel Coward, Tom Stoppard….

And there it was, at last. A funny, well written, witty hoot of a play: Blithe Spirit by Noel Coward. Oh all right. It doesn’t have any earth-shaking ideas at the core, such as the meaning of war or the horror of modern architecture, but the wit and playfulness of the language and plot are as close to intelligence as I need. And it has a happy ending, unless perhaps you think that means the happy couple heading into the sunset. As for Madame Arcati, that’s the role for me — the dotty medium with a taste for martinis.  At last, we had a play. The play.

It’s been a long time coming. We first tried to get the license for this play a couple of years ago. But Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett were doing it in New York — the selfish things — and when we applied for the rights the agent said that we couldn’t have it because we would “constitute competition.” Oh, I said, deeply shocked: “We wouldn’t. We really wouldn’t.” But they were determined to protect Broadway from us. So we had to wait.

That’s the story. We all agree. We’re excited about Blithe Spirit — especially the man who has to figure out how to make vases fall without being pushed and cushions fly across the stage from ghostly hands. Next time, I’ll tell you about finding a cast.