With community theatre, in which my career began in 2014 with the role of Judge Omar Gaffney in Harvey, it was much the same as it had been at the Seniors’ College. A promising beginning, including being cast in three of my first five auditions—one at each of the three major local community theatres—Dartmouth Players, Theatre Arts Guild (TAG), and Bedford Players—soon gave way to repeated rejection and disappointment. The last major role for which I was cast was that of crime writer Edgar Chambers in Bedford Players’ Habit of Murder. After that, I was never cast again at either TAG or Dartmouth Players, and only landed cameo roles in two biopics at Bedford, and in the comic murder mystery Habit of Murder, also at Bedford. After succeeding in three of my first five auditions, I went something like three for twenty-five. And this despite the fact that I was physically stronger and more flexible after my two hip replacement operations in 2015, and a significantly better, more knowledgeable, and more experienced actor than I had been my first two years in theatre, even to the extent of taking workshops and private lessons in an attempt to hone my skills. As I kept getting better at my craft, my audition record kept getting worse. Again, trying to riddle this out proved increasingly frustrating, so I finally gave up the attempt.
By the fall of 2016, frustrated by my seeming inability to crack the literary and theatre communities, as well as by my continuing lack of a relationship, I recognized that I probably had little future in Nova Scotia, and should seriously consider moving. One place that quickly caught my eye was Victoria, B.C., which in addition to its equable climate, offered a strong theatre community and an equally strong literary community. But the city’s high rents and the huge costs entailed in moving there made such a move an economic non-starter. Reluctantly, I crossed Victoria off my list of possible relocation destinations.
My second possible destination was West Quebec, just outside of Ottawa. There I would be close to the two children I had who were still speaking to me. Equally to the point, there I had two very dear friends: my old workmate Denise Giroux, who lived in Cantley, and my old literary friend Elena Calvo, who lived in Hull. Having such good friends close at hand would be a big help when it came time to actually relocate. And Ottawa had a strong literary community featuring OIW, which had been such a big part of my life when I’d lived there, and a vibrant theatre community as well, of which I had been a tangential part as an understudy for an Ottawa Little Theatre production. West Quebec had a vibrant theatre community as well. The rents appeared manageable, and the moving costs, while significant, were far less than those entailed in moving to Victoria. Early in the fall of 2016, I began to explore both drive-it-yourself and commercial moving options.
I’d just begun packing when U.S. Election Day came. Against all the odds and all the polls, Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump. Trump’s election sent me into a deep depression from which it took months to recover. Any thoughts of moving were put on indefinite hold, as I once again hunkered down in Nova Scotia for security.
The continuing need for security kept me from seriously considering a move until the spring of 2019, even as I realized I had next to no chance to grow so long as I remained in Nova Scotia. On the relationship front, with the exception of a fairly brief (three-month) fling with a Halifax woman about my age, I continued to strike out completely with the dating services and in personal encounters with possibly eligible women. Now it was becoming hard for me to get even a second date after the initial meeting,
Meanwhile, my theatre career was yielding mostly a growing (and increasingly frustrating) string of rejections. On occasion, my rejection was due to the fact that the director already knew who (s)he was going to cast for the part. More than once, I heard an older male actor say, straight out, that he had been invited to audition for a particular role—one in which I was interested. Though I kept on going to those auditions, in the hope that the “chosen” actor might become ill or have a conflict that would keep him from accepting the role, in my heart I knew I had little chance. Worse yet, I lost out on three roles I arguably should have had at Dartmouth Players because the entire play was recast by the director in such a way that it no longer contained any of the parts specifically written for older males. In the face of such chronic systemic ageism, there is absolutely nothing an older actor can do, except move to a more promising locale. By the middle of 2019, I’d had no fewer than 20 audition rejections since the beginning of 2016–enough to have made a less determined character give up on theatre altogether.
What kept me going, and what may have kept me here slightly longer than I would otherwise have stayed, were I two amazingly powerful experiences, experiences that convinced me I had something special to contribute, and in dramatic as well as comic roles. The first of those experiences was being cast by new director Lita Llewellyn in local playwright Joanne Miller’s comic murder mystery, Habit of Murder. I was cast in two different small roles: that of a dim-witted and foul-mouthed but occasionally funny construction worker, whom I nicknamed “Archie” after his model, Archie Bunker of “All in the Family” fame, and that of a plain-spoken but intelligent and articulate farmer, “Poppy.”
I had lots of fun doing Archie, poking around on the ceiling with a long stick that resembled a pool cue with a long bridge and ticking off my fellow construction worker with my obscenities and cynicism about local customs. But the part that really stretched me as an actor was “Poppy,” the first serious (albeit small) dramatic role I’d played since age 18. During my time on stage, I get into a serious argument with the much younger hockey coach “Leo,” who is also my business partner on the financially failing farm. Leo wants to burn down the barn for the insurance money, a scheme I refuse to have anything to do with. Before long, our altercation turns physical; there’s a serious fight scene, for which Lita brought in a professional fight choreographer to work with me and my acting partner, Rafael Franco. Doing that scene, which Rafael and I would rehearse every night at intermission (the scene came early in the second act) helped me tap into huge, hitherto unknown reserves of physical and emotional energy, and discover important things about my masculinity—most important of all that there was plenty of it there. As I often told Lita, Rafael, and others in the cast, doing that scene every night taught me more about my essential masculinity than five years in a men’s group. The potential for this kind of powerful emotional discovery is why I do theatre. And the experience convinced me I’d done the right thing in sticking to theatre despite my many bitter disappointments, and despite the exceptionally severe “post-partum” blues I experienced after the run ended in March through most of the spring, a condition that two further rejections that spring did little to alleviate.
The other experience was a comedy and introductory film acting workshop I took in Parrsboro at the end of August. The workshop was facilitated by noted TV actor Sheila McCarthy. I was paired with a chap named Robert More, then director of the Parrsboro Creative Centre, which was hosting the workshop, and someone who had had professional theatre training, followed by a number of years’ experience as a professional actor. Together we worked up a fairly extended scene from Neil Simon’s classic, The Odd Couple. Without blowing my own horn too much, I can say that throughout our time together, I was working as Robert’s equal—a fact he generously acknowledged.
What this experience told me was that my Habit of Murder experience hadn’t been just a flash in the pan. I did have something powerful and important to offer to audiences. At the same time, the experience reinforced the feeling I’d already had, that I would need to leave Nova Scotia to realize that potential, whether because my large size, equally large vocabulary, and high energy level frightened people, or because, as an outsider, I was a threat to established groups and cliques, or for some other reason altogether.
For by this time, I was definite about leaving Nova Scotia. It was during a meeting with my three old literary friends, Elena Calvo, Adele Graf, and Ralph Smith at an outdoor café in Centretown in late July of 2019, that I finally decided, once and for all, to make my move back to the Ottawa area. Being with these three long-time friends, even if only for a short period, made me realize I wanted to live near them and be able to meet them fairly often. Over the iced tea and latte, I pledged to move back to the area within one year (it was then late July).
Shortly after this second, highly positive theatre experience in Tatamagouche, which I followed by a week-long visit to relatives in Maine, my whole perspective on doing theatre in Nova Scotia changed. On returning from Maine, I found that, for the first time in several years, I was no longer passionately interested in when the next audition was, what the next show would be and at which theatre, who would be directing, etc., etc. To say I no longer cared at all would have been a bit of a stretch. But I did now feel a measure of detachment I hadn’t felt at any time since I started in theatre in 2014. For I knew, now, what I had to offer—a lot if the director had the mother wit to recognize it. If I didn’t fit in one or other of the local theatre companies, it probably wasn’t my fault. I always came prepared, learned my lines, followed the director’s instructions and worked as hard as I could, never giving any show less than my best effort, while at the same time making sure I was an easy guy to work with. I couldn’t do any more than I’d been doing. If my best efforts were not enough, then leaving was a no-brainer, if I wanted to have any future in theatre at all.
Even as I packed my book collection, from which I would prune over 300 items by late winter, I was hit anew by the nagging question of why Nova Scotia, which had worked so well for me in 1970, when I’d first moved here, seemed to be working out so badly for me in 2019. It was Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which I’d re-read that spring for the first time in many years, that provided me with the answer. In 1970, my needs had been the primary ones of economic and physical security. Dalhousie met those needs amazingly well, even giving me, as a sort of plus, a place I could call home for a few years, which as I mentioned earlier met some of the “belongingness” needs we’ll be talking about in more detail shortly.
In 2019, my situation was almost completely different. As a pensioner, I had enough to live on, and a bit to spare. Materially, I wanted for nothing. But I was (as I still often am) bitterly lonely–lonely for friends, lonely for a family that scarcely existed for me any more, and lonely for a close, physically affectionate relationship with a significant other, of the sort I hadn’t had for many years. In short, what I was missing was a sense of connection. None of the plays I’d been in, board meetings and church services I’d attended, and hours I’d spent at the tennis club had managed to provide me with that. I was striking out completely on Maslow’s Level 3, his “belongingness” level. Recognizing this was a key factor in solidifying my resolve to move, as it demonstrated the futility of attempting to do anything more about the situation where I was. Nine-plus years was more than a fair try.
I will admit to having had a few second thoughts during the fall of 2019, after Dartmouth Players posted an audition notice for Much Ado About Nothing, long my favourite Shakespeare comedy. Given my Ph.D. in English, acting experience, and the fact that the play contains several good parts for older men, I figured I would be a shoo-in for one of those roles, and even began to nourish the fond hope that this gig might restart my flagging Metro Halifax theatre career. But I wound up not being cast at all. The part for which I’d read, designed for a man of at least 60, was given to a man less than half my age. Indeed, the vast majority of parts were given to actors under 40, although it is clear from the play that at least five or six of those parts are intended for actors of late middle age or older. Once again, I’d been left completely helpless in the face of systemic ageism, an ageism applied ruthlessly and comprehensively enough to distort the playwright’s original intentions.
Any second thoughts I’d started to have about the move died aborning when I received my e-mailed rejection for Much Ado. As painful as it was, the rejection had the effect of galvanizing me into action on the move. No longer could I maintain even the pretense that Metro Halifax would have anything to offer me. I returned to the tasks of packing, checking out moving options, and looking for available apartments in Ottawa and West Quebec with renewed energy.
More than one friend, on hearing of my plans of leaving, has asked if it is really wise to leave a place in a fit of pique. Won’t I simply find that I bring the same state of mind, and therefore emotional problems and emotional baggage, to whatever new place I go to? In the first place, it’s important to point out that I am not leaving Nova Scotia in a sudden fit of pique. As you’ve already seen, the decision is one that has been nearly four years in the making.
In any case, my friends’ argument seems to me simply a restatement of the old story about someone leaving one place and going to another, and asking an inhabitant of the new place how the people are there. The response of the inhabitant is to ask the person how the people were where he was, and to say they will be exactly the same in the new place. While the old story is not altogether without foundation, it is, like many expressions of the conventional wisdom, a significant oversimplification.
It’s true that our state of mind is an important determinant of how we will get along in any particular place. But it’s far from the only determinant. The suitability of the environment can’t simply be written off. Not all places are created equal for all people. Most of us do do better in some places than in others.
Consider the case of Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista. Before being traded to the Blue Jays, Bautista was playing for Pittsburgh—but not every day. Once traded to Toronto, he was made a regular, with all the confidence-building that that entails, and before long he had hit 50 home runs for the Jays. A guy who hadn’t even considered good enough to be a regular for his old team was hitting a near-record number of home runs for his new team. It was much the same with David Ortiz, an average player for the Minnesota Twins who, on being traded to the Boston Red Sox, became anything but average—in fact, the heart of their offense and a spark plug to two World Series titles for the Sox. Now retired, Ortiz seems a good bet to be elected to the Hall of Fame in short order, once he becomes eligible.
Try telling either of these guys that environment doesn’t matter. To them, it mattered very much indeed. For my part, I think it entirely possible that I might have my own “Jose Bautista” experience on moving to West Quebec and finding my literary and dramatic skills once again in demand.
Part III will appear tomorrow.