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.