While shivering in my shoes

My niece, Maggie – the only wise woman in the family – says that every day we should do something that scares us, the theory being that what doesn’t kill us makes us strong. Well, I think that is a bit excessive, actually, but then, my idea of “scary” may be a bit over the top. Not every day, therefore, but two or three times a year, I am willing and even eager to shiver in my shoes. A case in point – the play that I am currently rehearsing in, called The Communication Cord, which opens at The Gladstone in late March.

I think I used to have a higher tolerance for fear. In my extreme youth, I hitchhiked, heading for India with a university friend. It was a kind of spontaneous decision, and I sent my parents a postcard from Istanbul urging them not to worry about their 17-year-old daughter. Yeah, right. It was the most fantastic adventure, but I do remember in the middle of one night on a bus somewhere in the heart of Turkey, feeling far from home and thinking scared thoughts as we trundled through the darkness.

I survived that adventure and came home with some new and interesting information on how the world works (including why it is unwise to hitchhike in a mini-skirt). I finished school, settled down to work and found that editing copy did not provide an adequate amount of terror – irate authors notwithstanding – so I took up whitewater canoeing as a hobby. Now there’s a sport that regularly has you questioning your sanity. I ask you to believe me when I say that, from the first year I canoed, I do not retain a single memory from “inside” a rapid. I was so terrified that I simply blanked out. (Actually, that’s not true: I do remember hearing one of my partners screaming out from the stern: “Oh fuck!” Please excuse the language, but I am reporting history here.) As you can imagine, there was a line-up of people just begging to partner with me.

Anyway, things got better. The second year, I distinctly remember waking up in the middle of a rapid and actually having a thought. Who cares if it was only something along the lines of “Oh my God!”? (Which you may be interested to know, is an “involuntary response cry” – I’ll explain later). The point is, I was conscious, and that was an improvement.

I blame my mother. Every time I went out the door to go canoeing, laden with pack and paddle and looking tough, she would say anxiously. “Be careful now, dear. You know you’re not a natural athlete.” Jeez, mother! You’re supposed to be building up my confidence! Oh well, that was not her style.

I remember canoeing with Blaine once. (Now why, when I think of the most intense moments of fear in my life do I just naturally think of Blaine?) He always had a canoe full of floatation because he liked to canoe just under the surface of the boiling water. Personally, I prefer to be on top with my nose in the air, but that’s just me. I like oxygen. Anyway, I made the mistake of getting in the bow of Blaine’s canoe for a run down Rollway on the Petawawa. We were going strong when we got to the big ledge at the bottom, where my instinct was to eddy out and think things over. Blaine is cut from different cloth. He steered right for a steep chute and down we went. The bow of the canoe, containing a horrified me, plunged straight towards the bottom of the river. All I saw for a moment after that was bubbles and foam. Very interesting.

This is where the floatation comes in handy. The canoe plunged downward, and after moment resurfaced like a breaching whale, still containing me, I am pleased to report, though somewhat wetter than I had been. I believe I was still wearing long braids in those days, and I have an impression that the water was streaming off them as I emerged from the foam in my yellow raingear with my paddle frozen horizontally into what I very much hope was a brace.

Anyway, Blaine allowed as how we might stop shortly after that. We eddied out, and Judy came down to help me out of the canoe. I needed help because my knees were literally – no word of a lie – knocking together. When I looked down I could see my legs vibrating, and they weren’t doing as good a job holding up the superstructure as they usually do. Anyway, this is fear.

Blaine was at my side as well when I took up scuba diving. AM I NUTS? I’ll never forget the day that Blaine – a certified madman if ever I knew one – said not to be afraid of the deep black waters of the St. Lawrence in November because HE WOULD LOOK AFTER ME! I rolled about laughing for 20 minutes or so, then decided that scuba diving was one shiver too far. I had been the only woman in the pool classes who had to be rescued repeatedly by the life guard, even when we were working in the shallow end. Scuba diving was definitely not the sport for me.

So what am I doing to ensure that I have enough fear these days? I haven’t canoed much in the last few years and, as I say, I shelved scuba diving shortly after the launch of my career. So what am I doing now for adrenilin? I founded a theatre company, that’s what, and reached deep into my credit line to pay for it. As a source of fear, however, impending financial ruin is beginning to fade as the Linden House audience grows, and people tell us that they like what we’re doing. So what next?

Oh, I know! I’ll leave the safe little world – well, relatively safe – of amateur theatre (where after all, the audiences are getting what they pay for) and try a little professional work. Yikes! Maggie? Are you sure this is good for me? I have just finished the first full week of working five days, all day long, 10 to 6 daily, in the REAL theatre! I am excited, happy, challenged and – oh yes – SCARED! Once again, my knees are knocking together.

It’s Saturday morning now after a tough week, and this was supposed to be a day of rest. I was very tired on Friday night and planning to sleep in. Juno the Dog had other plans.

I woke up. The first thing I saw was a large, dark, furry face thrust into mine. Oh good, I thought. Juno. The second thing I saw was the clock, glowing red with the disappointing information that it was 6:23 in the morning. I didn’t see the third thing because a big, wet, shiny black nose was thrust into my face, and I retreated under the pillow.

Just before Juno’s rude intervention, I had been dreaming that I was writing an exam – with a pencil. You know, don’t you, that professional actors always use pencils to mark the blocking (movements) on their scripts? They do. So do amateurs, as a matter of fact. But I find pencils dispiriting. They make such a damned little, half-hearted mark on the page. I have a passionate temperament, and it follows that I am an ink person, purple or green by preference, just so long as the ink is squidgy and the mark is bold. To give you an idea of the extent of my madness, I do crossword puzzles with a pen and regularly abandon Sudokus because I can no longer read my inky notations. (This is a lie. I abandon them because I am “a bear of little brain,” and I run out of ideas.) Anyway, in the theatre, it is the ultimate triumph of optimism over experience to mark your script in ink. As the blocking evolves, so does my script. I add to the effect by regularly dropping the book in the bath. If there was a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Books, I would be on the Ten Most Wanted List.

So back to fear. The thing about being a volunteer, any kind of volunteer – a fireman, for instance – is that the public is obliged to make do with what it gets, which in the case of firemen is probably a pile of ashes where the ancestral mansion used to lie.

My parents had this experience when I was a little girl. They had a log cabin up near Wakefield, which they had the bad luck to heat at least partially with a big iron stove. Have you ever heard of creosote? Well, we had it big, choking the chimney with highly flammable stuff. When the chimney finally caught fire one winter’s day, an excited crowd of volunteers arrived from the village, bringing with them a siren, some axes and a certain joie de vivre. I don’t think they had had a fire recently, and they were inclined to see it as a “good thing.”

Oh, they were grand. They leaped on the roof and proceeded to cut a big hole in the living room ceiling. Unfortunately, the fire was raging not in the living room at all – the firemen could have entered there by the door – but in the chimney about a dozen feet away. “Ooops,” said the fire chief and blushed. I believe he then walked across the roof and poured some water down the chimney. Anyway, the house did not burn down on that occasion. It burned down later.

I tell you this because, as an actor, I have always been a volunteer among volunteers – you know, pitching in to lug tables around, delivering flyers door to door and so on. Now, someone is paying me to act. Gosh! (Another “involuntary response cry,” expressing awed amazement.)

The play is The Communication Cord, by Irish playwright, Brian Friel. It opens at The Gladstone on March 28. For three full weeks after that, I get to pretend that I am an Irishwoman who in youth shared her house with a cow though, in terms of livestock, she has now been reduced to three hens and, apparently, no damn dog. During her lifetime, Ireland has changed and, with the arrival of weekenders – “the bucks with the money” – on the beautiful coast of Donegal, Nora has an eye open to the main chance. She is a chatty, friendly, manipulative soul who spends much of her day at the window spying out the doings of the neighbourhood. Her cousin Jack refers to her as “a lying, hypocritical old bitch,” but personally I think she is sweet.

Actually, Nora Dan turns up in an earlier, more sober play by Friel called Translations, which established some of the themes about language and communication, deception and understanding that he returns to in The Communication Cord. The first play was set in 1831, however, and the second in modern times.

Clearly, I am aging fast. Last fall, I played a middle-aged aristocrat. By December, I had been reduced to an 84-year-old servant. Now, it seems, I am playing a jolly peasant who, if she is the same Nora Dan as in Translations, has just celebrated her 200th birthday. If things keep going this way, I shall probably be dead in the next play.

At least I have learned what questions not to ask. Last year, when I played the elderly servant, I made the mistake of asking the director what make-up I should have in order to look 84. He said breezily, “Oh, you’re fine the way the way you are.” I looked at him coldly.

A lot of Canadians have Irish ancestors. I myself had an Irish great-grandmother, fondly referred to in the family as “that old devil.” She came to Canada in a wooden sailing ship, set up shop in Montreal where she was bold enough to sell beer – atta girl! – and apparently devoted herself to making her relatives miserable. Oh well, nobody’s perfect.

I know Ireland a little too. My experiences of that beautiful land date back to 1971, when I actually went to Donegal – pronounced “DunnyGALL” – which is the homeland of Nora Dan in the play. Oh, it was “beau-ti-ful,” as Nora Dan would have said. It was fall, and the fuchsia hedges were in full bloom. I was visiting a marine archaeologist who lived on a clifftop overlooking the silver-pocked sea where he spent his days diving in search of relics of the Spanish Armada. Have you ever heard anything so romantic?

It wasn’t all joy, however. I remember being invited out to dinner in a rather decayed mansion next door and being served a giant tankard of Guinness as an aperitif. Seriously, the glass was about a foot high, which is precisely 20 percent of my height. I still feel queasy when I think about that shiny black expanse of drink with an inch of creamy foam on top. Oh well, what doesn’t kill us makes us strong, and after all, I am descended from a woman who sold beer. I survived.

Even more exciting than a full tankard of Guinness was a cycling trip I took in 1984, when a friend and I decided to spend our holidays mending punctures on backroads in Ireland. At that time in my life, absolutely my only practical skill was the patching of bicycle tubes. I am not sure I could do it now, but I was an artist in those days. We especially enjoyed this recreation in the pouring rain, between bouts of poring over the map in a state of increasing confusion.

Ireland is a strange country in some ways. First, speaking as a cyclist, the whole of Ireland appears to be uphill. Isn’t that odd? You struggle uphill for about an hour and then, boom! A moment of wind in your face, a rapid descent, and there you are again, at the bottom of another blessed hill. Even more bewilderingly, the signs at country crossroads always point in the wrong direction. We got lost about 20 minutes out of Rosslare Habour and stayed lost for two solid weeks.

We finally solved the problem. A fellow in a pub told us that he and his friends made a habit of turning the signs at crossroads, “Jes’ for a crack,” he said, which means “joke,” I believe, in the Irish vernacular. I looked at him coldly.

Eight hundred years of occupation have bred an odd sense of humour into the Irish character. After a week or so of cycling through pretty steep country, we became wary of closely spaced contour lines on the map. Warned of an approaching mountain and a little confused about how to avoid it, we stopped at a village shop to enquire. “Oh, just take the road there, to the left, and yez’ll be grand,” cried the jolly shopkeeper.

A little while later, pushing my bike up a long, nearly vertical slope, I began to wonder – if this was the “easy” road, what would that dense swirl in the contours have been like? I think I even said as much to my friend. Finally, backs breaking from the strain, we arrived at the top of the slope and stood there panting, looking down an equally steep slope on the other side of the summit. We were silent for a while, until at last my friend said: “You know what I think?” I did. I knew exactly. We had just pushed our bikes up the highest, steepest mountain in Ireland. As I recall, that was the last time we asked directions or treated road signs with any respect at all. And, if the shopkeeper had had the bad luck to turn up at that moment, I would have looked at him coldly. (By the way: this is your warning. For the next five weeks, I am pretending to be Irish, so don’t bother asking me for directions.)

Now, let’s get down to business. There are five very good reasons to see the upcoming production of The Communication Cord:

Reason number 1:The quality of direction. The Communication Cord is being directed by the Irish-born John P. Kelly. This is a talented and immensely experienced director, whom critic Alvina Ruprecht has described as one of the two most interesting English-language directors in Ottawa.

Reason number 2: The play itself. The Communication Cord is a very, very funny play, but it is also intelligent. Indeed, Brian Friel is considered the greatest living playwright in Ireland.

Reason number 3: The acting. The play is very well cast, and the characters are wonderful, to wit: a romantically challenged academic and his TWO girl friends (both of whom, for reasons that may be implicit in the number “two,” are annoyed at him). As well, there is an Irish barrister (a serial dater), an Irish politician (who spends a good part of the play trying to connect with his inner animal), a German billionaire (who is learning English from the wrong teachers) and a French charmer who goes for gold. And then Nora Dan, of course.

Reason number 4: You have an opportunity here to improve your word power through exposure to the Irish vernacular – “to cod,” for example, which is sure to come in handy on your next trip to Ireland. It means “to play a trick.” Armed with this knowledge and aware of its role in Irish tourism, you will read the road sign. You will turn the opposite way to the one indicated, and you will be saved.

Speaking of Irish vernacular, wait till you hear my accent. John Kelly allows as how it’s “very good, though not exactly Donegal.” I asked him, if not Donegal, where exactly it belonged in Ireland. “Well, nowhere,” he admitted. “It’s what we call ‘Oyrish.’” I then asked an Irish friend if my accent sounded all right. “Stage Irish!” she exclaimed. “I hate it.” “Oh dear,” says I. “You’d better not see this play.” But she says she’s coming because she loves me, and I applaud that instinct. Which brings me to…

Reason number 5: You love me too and want to make me happy??? If this resonates at all – and I am acutely aware that it may not – I would appreciate your rallying round. The fact is, I am anxious to recruit enough followers to pay my salary at least. Then, if on opening night I find myself looking through a hole in the living room ceiling instead of down the chimney, the producer and I will be able to console ourselves that at least I came cheap.

I look forward to seeing you in the audience and knowing from your laughter that you are enjoying this lovely play as much as I am.

The Communication Cord
The Gladstone, 910 Gladstone
March 28 to April 14 at 8 pm
Tickets: 613-233-4523 or, to order online: http://thegladstone.ca/

PS I forgot! I was going to tell you about “response cries.” I haven’t got the time now, but come and see the play. It’s all explained.

Also, I realize I should be changing the photos that go with this post (“Naughty Lady Kitty” is now officially out of date) but I CAN’T REMEMBER HOW!!! Curses.