A Round Eight Knockout Punch of Intimidation

I was asked recently, quite out of the blue, “what is the most intimidated you’ve ever felt in a room full of writers/arts people?”

It took me only a moment to come up with an experience, as I realize I molded almost my entire artistic career in a way that ensured I never found myself in a room full of writers/arts people. That mold also ensured that i never found myself in a room with an extra dollar in my pocket.

So I don’t have a lot of experiences for my mind to Rolodex through. But there was one time when I did find myself in a room. With arts people. And I did end up feeling intimidated.

Let me take you back to Charlottetown. Mid-September 1991. John A. MacDonald was still very much a man to look up to. It would be another few years, in fact, until a gang of young men, barely pubescent, would look up to him so much, to the extent that they’d take to strutting around the summertime streets of Charlottetown dressed in replica costumes of 1864 fineries, calling themselves “The Fathers of Confederation”. It would be another couple of years before they felt compelled to add Mothers, Wives and Daughters of Confederation to the mix as well. And another 29 or so years until a drunken lad decides to vandalize the statue of a bench-sitting MacDonald and in the quick sobriety that followed, claim it to be an act of social conscienceness. How far we’ve come!!

1991. PEI Tourism was focused almost entirely on one entity. Anne of Green Gables. The idea of promoting Island golf courses to the world was not even on the horizon.

I was merely a few years into my independent theatre *ahem* career *ahem*. I was asked to take part, as a reader/actor, in a day-long dramaturgy reading of a new play by a writer I hadn’t heard of, nor do I remember today who it was. It might have been a screenplay.

The workshop was being held in a conference room at The Confederation Centre of the Arts. But it wasn’t hosted by them. It might have been a PARC thing. PARC is, I’m guessing, the Playwrights Atlantic Resource Council, and they’re still a thing. They’ve asked me to join their community a few times, but scroll up and read paragraph two again.

I was pleased to be asked to take part, and I was a bit nervous walking into the room. I took comfort in recognizing a number of the faces, and people seemed to accept me as legitimately being there. We sat around a big, long table – maybe 8 to 12 people – mostly actors, plus the writer, a dramaturge, a stage manager type assistant. Maybe a couple of observers.

Many of the actors were from that year’s Charlottetwon Festival. You know. “Real Actors”. Most with training, some with longevity. The air of triple threats hung in the room. And here was I, a big nobody really, whose claim to fame was not yet evident. It was September, so I would have just wrapped the first low, low, low budget season of Annekenstein. I assume it was the burgeoning cache from that which was the reason I was asked to take part in the workshop.

As a workshop, it must have had at least a little bit of money behind it, because the scripts were bound with those brass rivet-type binder thingies. The scripts I was used to were hand-written on yellow foolscap. And there were at least two trays of muffins and an urn of coffee. Were I a person who cared about such riches, I surely would have thought that I had “Made It!” But I was more a rebellious punk who believed that comforts such as food and drink and scripts bound with those brass rivet-type binder thingies were the things that separated true artists from those who sold out and made paycheques while being well-lit on stages that gullible tourists would flock to see. No sir. Give me a too-small room with a leaky ceiling and too-expensive rent with folding metal chairs for 30 audience members to sit upon upon rickety risers, and let me call that a theatre!! That’s where REAL art is being made! Real art like our children’s play knock-off of Robert Munsch’s “The Paperbag Princess”.

What I’m trying to say, I guess, is that, sitting there, in that room, I felt a bit like an imposter, in amongst real, serious, professional theatah people.

And while that was a bit intimidating, I could handle it well enough. They were all lovely people, and I always thought I did a pretty good job with cold-reading things. So I felt that I belonged.

What I had a harder time handling – and the element that turned this into a next-level intimidating experience – was that one of the characters I was asked to read was Jamaican, and I was to attempt to inhabit a Jamaican patois.

I don’t know if you know me, or if you’ve seen me. But I’m not Jamaican. I don’t sound Jamaican. I shouldn’t ever be attempting Jamaican accents. I’d be more attuned to portraying white Canadian guy.

When this was revealed to the room, that I was to read the Jamaican character, I could see a reaction on many of my fellow actors’ faces. A couple of reactions, actually. One was “thank god I’m not doing that”. Another was a very specific look, which I will attempt to describe here.

Imagine you’ve made a big bet on a sporting event. Like a boxing match. A big enough bet that, should you lose, your spouse will know because there’ll be no money left in the bank account. So, huge stakes. Imagine you’re there, at the event, and you’ve bragged to those around you about the big bet you’ve made. These people also know, because of your big mouth, especially when you drink – and right now you’re pretty well sauced – of your troubled relationship at home, and how your spouse is already ready to leave you – you know that, even though it’s unsaid – you can see it in their eyes. In fact, you tell the crowd, you believe they’ve already left you. Not in a physical sense, because you still sleep together in the same bed. But in a spiritual sense. You know this in the way they toss the plate of scrambled eggs down on the table in front of you at breakfast. You can see it in the way they look past you, not at you, and you assume they’re likely daydreaming of a better life. A life that doesn’t contain you. So, even though you know your relationship is over, you still believe, somewhere deep inside you, that if you could just score this big score – betting everything on the heavy underdog in the fight – it might make things better. Things would go back to the way things were early in the relationship, where they’d laugh deep and hard at how unfunny your jokes were and you knew they were laughing because they loved you. Your guy is holding his own in the match, and through the first seven rounds you’ve convinced yourself you’re going to win the bet. Rounds five, six and seven, particularly, you get so excited that you tell those around you your life sad life story and how now, with this win, things are gonna turn around! You’re on the top of the world, moments away from your new life!! Then, early in round eight, your guy doesn’t see the roundhouse. Nobody sees it. Later, the pundits will wonder if it was planned. But why plan for the underdog to take a dive? It doesn’t make sense. Anyway, the roundhouse lands square on the jaw and your guy goes down like a sack of bricks. Match over. Mere moments later, you crumple to the floor of the arena, so immediate and encompassing is your failure. While lying there, crying, in a heap, you look up at those who surround you. Many have already forgotten you, moved on to their own next chapters, but a couple, you notice, look down at you. They know your situation. How you’re going to have to go home to your spouse, and all will be revealed. You see them looking down at you. Pity in their eyes. Lips clenched tight. An imperceptible shake of the head at the pathetic beast that is before them.

Anyway, that’s the look that I saw in others when I was given the role of the Jamaican guy.

The play, as I recall, took place in Toronto, and it was supposed to be a gritty, hard-hitting story full of social issues and tortured souls. Not a lot of levity. My Jamaican guy was newly arrived in Toronto, so his accent was supposed to be full-on Jamaican. Thankfully, he was something of a secondary character, so not a whole lot of lines.

But what was worse still, was the writer admitted at the beginning of the reading that the Jamaican character’s dialogue wasn’t, as of yet, particularly written with any necessarily Jamaican patterns of speech. But I was to try and see if I could make it work.

In hindsight, I have wondered if the whole thing was an elaborate joke on me. I mean, who would create a Jamaican character and not write their dialogue with the flow and cadence of Jamaican speech? Whatever the reasons, the reality is it happened.

So, when asked about a particulary intimidating experience in a room full of writers/arts people, that is the experience that came to mind.

As for the reading? Well, I’s think me nailed it, mon!!

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