A rehearsal from hell!

Barbara Merriam (stage manager) and Monica Browness (costume designer) with Juno the Canine Convict.

Juno the Dog believes that I am trying to poison her, and she is telling everyone who will listen. I’m innocent, of course, but I admit the evidence is against me. Here is the story of how I came to lose my dog’s trust and, incidentally, ruin a perfectly good rehearsal.

Juno has had an operation on her inner foreleg. I won’t go into the details, except to say that the insurance company has despaired of ever making money out of us. Too bad for them. After having to re-mortgage my house twice to finance my old dog Jake in his sunset years, I was wiser the second time round: I swallowed hard and agreed to pay a whopping monthly fee for what started out as 80 percent coverage for just about everything that fate could throw at us. Then young Juno started to generate record medical bills, with such unexpected catastrophes as the time she swallowed a rope whole. That was memorable. Anyway, the bastards thereafter demoted us to 50 percent coverage (see the small print), premiums to remain whopping. I hate insurance with a deep, visceral passion, but can I live without it? In the immortal words of Dirty Harry: “Do I feel lucky?”

Back to the theme of poison. Could it be my cooking? I long ago gave up cooking for human beings, friends, neighbours, family. The best they can get chez me these days is Thai takeout or a big salad. However, such is my devotion to Juno that I actually turn on the stove for her, and I cook her real food – lots of meat mixed with dried and powdered vegetables and herbs. It doesn’t appeal to me, but she has always assured me that it’s good. For four years now, she has been the only living creature on God’s earth who really seemed to like my cooking. Now I’ve ruined it all. I should never have tried putting the antibiotics in Juno’s food.

I did wonder briefly if it was shame and not suspicion that had taken her appetite. You see, my Juno is usually a snappy dresser. She has, for instance, a rather fetching pink collar designed to assure the world that she is party girl at heart and not quite as dangerous as she looks. Another collar, one that she prefers in winter, has little hearts on it and an embroidered motto: “I love snow!” So you see, she is a dog with a certain amount of taste, and the fact that we have been sharing a wardrobe lately has been hard on her. After surgery, the vet suggested a T-shirt to stop the incision from rubbing and, as Juno didn’t own one at the time, I rooted out a favourite item of my own. I thought it looked nice, with a bold motif of blue and white stripes, but Juno’s view was that she looked like a canine convict.

“Things could always be worse,” I told Juno, and sure enough, they were. The T-shirt did not succeed in protecting the incision: on the 10th day, almost ready to have her stitches removed, Juno ripped the wound open. The vet frowned and threw the book at us. We were sentenced to 15 days in the dreaded “cone.” And that is how Juno came to wreck a recent rehearsal of Jack Straw by Somerset Maugham.

Juno doesn’t like the cone, to put it mildly. For those of you who don’t hang around with vets and still enjoy a bank balance, the word “cone” may not convey the same dread as it does to Juno and me. Let me enlighten you. This well known torture device is a clear plastic cone that fits over the animal’s neck and forms a protective cylinder around the head. It does prevent the animal from licking or chewing at a wound, but that is absolutely its only virtue. You only have to see a dog trying to navigate between chairs and tables with a cylinder of clear plastic banging into everything as it goes to know that the cone is no fun.

Right from the beginning, Juno took a dim view of this device. I put it on her with some difficulty, because Juno is big and can be determined. I won, but neither of us was happy about it. Her heart was beating like a jack-hammer and she was hyperventilating; and I was frankly close to tears. First it was poison, followed by an enormous fashion mistake and now outright torture! Now, I am nothing if not weak. I felt so sorry for the creature, I took off the cone and resolved to keep a 24-hour watch on Juno so that she couldn’t lick the incision. You probably have already seen the fatal flaw in this plan, but it took me a while to get there.

To begin with, I cancelled a lot of engagements in order to mount guard, but there were some obligations – such as rehearsals – that I couldn’t miss. So I asked for help. Monica – our talented costume designer – really shouldn’t be let out alone. Having no instinct at all for self-preservation, she kindly agreed to look after Juno at a rehearsal, to hold her leash and make sure she didn’t worry at her leg while we were working on Act II. And so, having laid the groundwork of what (briefly) seemed to me a strong plan, I set out for rehearsal with Juno by my side.

It was one of those nights. A play being what it is – a story with a beginning, middle and end – the end often tends to lag a bit in terms of preparation. So while we all knew our lines for Act I, were confident in the blocking and capable of stumbling through the first part of the play with some degree of confidence, the same could not be said for the play’s tail end. The blocking was still fluid there; and while we had put down our books, we were still uncertain of the lines. Everything was slow and hesitant, and it felt terrible.

Oh, let me digress: learning lines is sheer murder for most of us over the age of 40. You have to cram them into the cranium to begin with, and this is a painful process that neither gin nor general anesthetic can relieve: you have to go through the horror sober and fully awake. Having done that, you are condemned simply to repeating the lines, day after day, till they are firmly imprinted. If you’re lucky, you have a partner or friend who is willing to hear lines and share the excruciating boredom. I should mention that Juno has consistently refused to indulge me.

The problem is, no matter how hard you work at home, when you stand up at a rehearsal for the first time without that comforting book in hand, the lines seem just to evaporate. That’s why we have a prompter. This year, we actually have three sharing the job. None of them has prompted before, so I gave them a little lecture on what to expect. Actors are different, I intoned, in how they ask for a prompt. Some say: “Line, please.” Others, less polite but more efficient, simply say: “Line.” Then there is the less economic but still useful, “What is it?” What I forgot to mention to our neophyte prompters is that a significant sub-species of actor will glare at the ceiling for a long, pregnant moment and then say “Fuck!” Never mind, prompters generally get the idea.

Anyway, that is where we were with Act II last Tuesday – uncertain and hesitant, stumbling through the blocking, reaching for words. Until the blocking (the choreography of a play) gels and the lines are firmly imprinted, a rehearsal can be very unpleasant – especially for someone like me who, in the excitement of early rehearsals tends to scribble illegibly in my script, abbreviating idiosyncratically and periodically mixing up “left” and “right.” In reviewing the script at home, therefore, I am left scratching my head over such notations as, “St a/c righ Wak L, rnd tru.” Now, what this actually means is: “Sit in the armchair on the right, then walk RIGHT (not left, as indicated by the “L”) around the chair. And your guess is as good as mine as to how “tru” came to mean chair.

You see the problem? Add to that a certain level of physical discomfort. In many ways, we are lucky at Linden House. We get to rehearse free of charge in the splendid penthouse of the Rockcliffe Retirement Residence, a big room with huge windows on all sides looking down over the Rideau River. Here, we get to enjoy sunsets and comfortable armchairs and even a piano, for those who are so inclined. What we do not have are windows that open wide. And, as in most large buildings, the management here turns on the heat at the beginning of September, no matter what the temperature outside. Naturally, they want to make their fragile residents comfortable. Efforts to persuade them that refrigerating the elderly will make them last longer have proved futile. And so we suffer for art.

There we were last Tuesday – sweating, running over each other’s lines, wondering where the lines that had poured out so fluently at home had gone, wondering desperately where to move and when. I have to add, hoping to give nothing away about the upcoming play, that I do quite a lot of shouting. (I am coming now to the crux of my story now.) I was shouting, you see, and Juno did not take it lying down.

Juno was the sweetest little thing when she first arrived in my life. She was ten weeks old, a furry black mix of Labrador and English mastiff, and she weighed just ten pounds. This has changed over time. She now weighs close to 110 pounds and, in growing up, she has identified a purpose in life: and that is to protect me from myself and others. Thus, when she heard me calling out, she knew that her moment had come: she rose to her feet and began to bark and whine, to lunge and pull on the leash. And when Juno pulls on her leash, the person on the other end of it knows they have been pulled. Monica and Juno abruptly joined us on stage.

This was not a happy moment for me. As Juno continued to participate in the rehearsal, I could see in the director’s eye exactly how happy he was with Juno (and me). Now, despite all indications to the contrary, I am a sensible woman, and I know that in these crises it is important to resist your first impulse – which is almost always towards suicide. Unfortunately, I had the means to suicide at hand. There is a large balcony adjoining our rehearsal space. Actor John Hardie had taken one look at it and said that a retirement residence in Britain would never have allowed it. “Why not?” I asked. “Because the residents would all leap over the railing and kill themselves,” he said. It gives one a poor impression of the level of good cheer among elderly Brits.

Anyway, as Juno continued to warn the whole world that she was on duty and not to mess with me, it occurred to me that maybe those British pensioners had had a point. For good or ill, I resisted the impulse. Actually, I am pretty sure now that it was the right decision, because the next rehearsal went really well. That’s life. That’s certainly theatre.


As for dogs, I know when I am beaten. I stood down from my 24-hour guard, and Juno is wearing the cone now – an improved model that doesn’t scare her quite as much as the original one. It actually looks like a stiff blue cape, and it makes Juno resemble a giant blue flower. So we have solved two problems at a blow: medical and fashion-related. As for Problem # 3, I have been forcing antibiotics down her throat in a spoonful of peanut butter rather than as part of a meal and, though she doesn’t like it, she has stopped accusing me of trying to poison the food supply. Also, I have found a new food for Juno that she doesn’t associate with poison, and she allows as how she might, in time, forgive me for attempted murder. She has just come in from enjoying her breakfast and is lying peaceably at my feet.

Rehearsals, well…they continue. We know our lines now and are settling into the blocking and beginning to run the scenes, and suddenly it is all great fun. If you have staggered through this far, dear reader, in the continuing annals of Juno the Dog and her human pal, you may want to buy a ticket or two for Jack Straw, an early play by Somerset Maugham. It’s the only way you’ll get to find out what I was shouting about at that rehearsal. Get your tickets online at www.lindenpro.ca or at Books on Beechwood (35 Beechwood). For information, call 613-842-4913.

Unfortunately, Juno the Dog will not be appearing this year. The director says she has absolutely no talent.