Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Slog, An Earthquake, A Visit From An Angel And The Road That Followed…

Ten years ago, I moved to Vancouver to try and break into the film and television industry. I had been in Calgary for five years prior to that studying in college and landed the occasional part in a play, a Movie of the Week and an unforgettable appearance as a prostitute in “Lonesome Dove – The Outlaw Years”. (My character was shot dead minutes after the teaser ended so ‘unforgettable’ may not be the most appropriate adjective in this scenario.)

While I lived in Calgary, my Mom and sister moved from the prairies out west to Cowtown and we all shacked up on a couple of different occasions – once upon their arrival while my Mom was getting acclimatized to the city and another time when I had given up my apartment to move in with her and “save money” for my move to Vancouver.

“Save money” is an interesting term, isn’t it? That’s an option that tends to work best for people who a.) Have a job; or b.) Don’t spend all their coin when they do have a job on a bunch of useless crap as a way of self-sabotaging a move out to Vancouver. Door #1, aka: a job, wasn’t always open for me. As an out of work actor, the pay (or pittance as I like to call it) I made working in various coffee shops wouldn’t have covered the cost of gas required to drive to the local U-Haul office, let alone the cost of renting one of those beasts to haul my gack all the way to Vancouver. When I was working, the money seemed to slip through my fingers without cause or reason.

I lived with my Mom for nine months at that time, a symbolic number, I realize, in retrospect. It was warm and cozy in there living rent-free and surrounded by my Mom’s knickknacks and excellent cooking and all. I remember the incredible birthday party she threw for me when I turned 24. We gave it a little kid theme and we had a cotton candy machine and everything! She baked a huge homemade cake and my friend, Steve, came over and did his “Scientific Steve” show for us, the one in which he taught school children about science through magic tricks. Only, at my party we’d all had a few drinks and Steve spoke to us the way he never could to all those rascally little ankle-biters who normally attended his presentations at the shows. (“Scientific Steeeeeeeeeeve,” one of us little darlings would holler in the whiniest voice possible while he was in the middle of a sentence, “what’s the formula to calculate the superficial velocity of this cheese-doodle when I throw it at the side of your head?!!!” - “Well Billy, you sniveling little ass-wipe, if you shut your f*#@-ing mouth long enough for me to get a word in edgewise, I’d be happy to tell you.”) Overall, the party was a hit and the time I spent living with my Mom was a much-needed cushion to pad the blow of what would become life in the big city on the left coast.

I arrived in Vancouver ready to roll right into the top spot on a hit series. I had a two year college education and a resume with three things on it. I mean, I was ready to take this city by storm! Instead, I gained 20lbs, worked two jobs every day (the first started at 5:30am, the second clocked out at 10pm) and watched in horror one day as the clutch in my '88 Chevy Corsica broke while I was driving in the middle of traffic in downtown Vancouver. The move to the coast was not going as planned.

It took me nearly two years to find an agent. When I finally did land an agent, a month later she retired. (A month after that, she started taking new clients and would mysteriously cross the street if she saw me coming in her direction.) Another time, I had an agent approach me after a show I had just performed. He was absolutely tickled by my work and invited me to come and meet with him to discuss representation. A week and a half later, I sat down in his office and he looked at me utterly perplexed and asked, “Why are we meeting again?”

I could not get arrested. Literally. If the cops saw me jay-walking, they would just say, “I’m sorry, we’re not fining any new actors right now. We’re too busy giving tickets to actors who already have agents.” I don’t know what I would have done if not for the success and stimulation of a one-woman show I did called, “Would You Like Fries With That?” – A phrase more relevant to my life as an out of work actor at that time than I care to remember.

I was beginning to wonder if the move to Vancouver had been a mistake. I was working a ridiculous amount of hours just to get by, not getting seen by casting directors, had no agent to speak of and missed my family terribly. My Mom sent me gift cards for groceries, care packages and love letters. She left encouraging messages on my voicemail. She even sent me $50 once so I could buy a book of sheet music entitled, “Best Songs Of The 70s”, in the hopes that I would knock ‘em dead at a musical theatre audition for a touring production of “The Lion King”. (This just in: there is no song from the ‘70s that can erase the expression of total shock followed by sheer terror from the face of a producer when I open my mouth to sing “Hot Stuff” by Donna Summer at an audition.) But none of that mattered to my Mom, a woman who would not let her daughter give up on her dream. My Mom had been an actor in community theatre when I was a kid and inspired me to follow that path myself. Every time I felt down and out – and there were times I was slumped on the kitchen floor in tears in the face of an industry that just didn’t seem to want me in it – my Mom’s voice would arrive over the phone lines and pick me back up again. It was her laughter, I think, that cheered me up the most. Getting my Mom to laugh that high-pitch squeal that can only come out of a person who is laughing so hard that they seriously cannot even breathe is like winning the lottery. It’s Christmas morning. It’s a humor high and it got me through those early dreadful days in Vancouver.

It’s no coincidence, then, that I dabbled in stand-up at that time and it was at one particular gig that I met the agent of a fellow performer. This guy expressed interest in my work and he really meant it! At the time, his roster was full but it wasn’t long before we connected again and everything just clicked. It was as if the Universe had had enough of kicking me in the ass for a while. The clouds began to part and that massive fist that usually followed me around waiting to flick the proverbial hat off my head when I wasn’t looking decided to cut me some slack already and turn to some other unsuspecting shmuck to crush their dreams like clockwork every day of the week. Finally it was my turn to catch a break! I called my Mom and she was thrilled! Things were going to start turning around for me.

Or so I thought. You see, once you wade through the slog of getting an agent, your agent has to convince the casting directors to see you for auditions. Well, it seems no casting directors were looking for the Enid-Raye Adams type, whatever that means. Months went by and nothing. Nada. Zippo. Zilch. I was at my wits end. All this crap was starting to feel like the biggest waste of time. Perhaps the point had come where I needed to consider giving it all up and getting a “real job”. My failure as an actor, coupled with the fact that my relationship with my then-boyfriend was souring faster than a glass of thick milk left on the counter too long, meant I had only one recourse. There was only one thing I could do to get out of the quicksand of Vancouver: go home to my Mom in Calgary.

And that is precisely what I did. From the moment I saw her, I forgot about the slog. For three days, I enjoyed her smiling face, those warm eyes peeking up at me over her reading glasses and some phenomenally tasty roast beef and gravy. The playoffs were on CBC, there was a can of evaporated milk in the cupboard awaiting my cup of morning coffee and all was right with the world. My Mom and I hung out and shared all the little moments, the quiet ones that only a mother and daughter collect between them. When I left to head back to my big goals of becoming a successful actor in Vancouver, she waved and cheered me on. I felt nurtured, rejuvenated and ready to charge ahead. Nothing could prepare me for the earthquake to come.

It was about 4:45pm two days later that I got the call. My Mom, at the age of 44, had suffered a brain aneurism and would be lucky to make it through the night. My whole world collapsed as if the earth really was shaking beneath me. Only it wasn’t going to swallow me whole and spare me from this nightmare. I was going to survive this tremor and would have to find a way to navigate my way through a world without my Mom in it. Over the course of the weeks that followed, my body would not allow me to eat. Every day an hour before dinner, I would slink into depression and burst into tears as if to commemorate that moment in time when I received that terrible phone call. My whole family and I were in shock. I literally felt as if I was trapped inside a snow globe driving down the longest road imaginable with no end in sight. Is there any way to accurately describe what it’s like to lose your Mom? I don’t know, honestly, but the lofty attempt of it is for another blog on another day. All I can say is that it’s a tangible absence in a crazy time that can be felt but not conveyed.

After travelling back and forth between Vancouver and Calgary to handle my Mom’s affairs, I finally settled back into my small apartment on Granville Street and into what was the loneliest time of my life. I could walk into a room filled with people and feel totally alone. I began to question everything that I once held important to me. I began to take a second look at the way I had lived my life until then. In the shakiness of daily life, I took stock and found that I no longer gave a rat’s ass about being an actor. There was too much heartache going on in this new world without my Mom and I didn’t need the extra hassles of this stupid old dream weighing me down. It was settled then. I wasn’t going to give being an actor another thought.

But my Mom had other plans for me.

One night, a couple months after her death, she came to me in a dream. She was dressed all in white, sitting on a bed which was covered chaotically in white wrapping paper. One of our family’s favorite Christmas traditions occurred every Christmas Eve. My Mom bought gifts in excess with plenty of time to spare but was a notorious procrastinator when it came to wrapping them. She left all the wrapping until the very last minute, holed up in her bedroom, and whether or not we would get out the door in time for Christmas Eve Service at church was a mystery left to unfold in a choir of custom made swear words created by my Mother. Every year without fail, each rant topped the previous year’s unique ream of cusses, all while my brother and sister and I pressed our ears to the door of her bedroom giggling uncontrollably as we listened in on her traditional tirade, the absurd yet comical combination of which we found to be highly entertaining. So it didn’t surprise me to see my Mom surrounded by wrapping paper in my dream. Though this time, the chaos had a grace and an elegance to it.

And I was so happy to see her! She was wearing her reading glasses and she looked absolutely divine, in a sexy school teacher sort of way. In my dream, she was on the phone but never spoke. Instead she had a notepad which contained a list of things I was to do to become a successful actor. Every time she communicated an item to me, she would cross it off the list. I was to quit my job waitressing at the diner and rest during this incredibly difficult time: Not to worry, I would be taken care of. Check. I was to join the Union Of BC Performers. Check. Buy a fax machine. Check. And on it went. In the silence that cradled us, she – so unbelievably beautiful - looked up over the rim of her glasses at me making sure that she was being heard. Despite the absence of her voice, I was hearing her loud and clear. She was telling me that if I did all the things she said, this dream of mine would come true. An amazing role would come along in an amazing show that would kick everything off and I would know it when I saw it.

Then my ethereal Mom hung up the phone and I tiptoed down the hall away from her room, out of the angelic visit and into the morning that awaited.

Over the next few months, I did everything she said to do. And I waited.
Then something really lovely happened. In the course of taking on the task at hand, the big wave of grief I was under lifted somewhat and I lingered in stillness. It was at this point, in my calm, that I got a call from my agent. A big casting director in town, who had never seen me before, was willing to prescreen me for a role on “Da Vinci’s Inquest”, one of the best shows in Canada. I went to the fax machine to collect the scene I would be learning for the audition and as soon as I read it - goose bumps! I knew this was the role my Mom was talking about. It had her fingerprints all over it.

The character was Janet Jefferson, a young woman dealing with the untimely death of her mother…

And the rest, as they say, is history. I was lucky enough to book that job and it opened up doors for me that had previously been closed. Since then, I have been blessed to have many great working experiences and have ventured into writing and directing as well. Many of the stories I seem to need to tell are inspired in some form or another by my Mom’s life, her passing and the road that followed.

I would love to be able to say that I went on to win awards for my work (no Oscar yet but I did win a pile of pork chops once at a meat draw), that I directed my very own personal and well-received films and that I finally, FINALLY landed the lead in a series (Chris Haddock, can you hear me? Chris Haddock, can you see me? Chris Haddock, can you find me just off-camera to the right?).

But I don’t know what happens next. I guess I’m still writing the story.

I’ll let you know how it turns out…

1 comment:

SĂ©bastian Hell said...

That was moving, touching.

At first I could relate, as I'm going through the dilemma of maybe trying to get myself a 'real job' instead of writing all the time and playing music.

And then, the story about your mother, who seems just like mine, encouraging and caring, made me cry.