In January of 2008 I had just finished running Funny Business, a show in Toronto that I had written and self-produced, which, thanks to my stubborn belief that I could eventually get the damned thing profitable, I had kept running for five months, always putting any profits into advertising in order to keep it going rather than paying myself a producer’s fee. For months I would go to work at a Starbucks from 5:30 AM until my day at my office at the theatre started at 10:30 AM, where I would work on producer-y jobs until show time, during which I was the assistant stage manager. After the show I would stand outside the large scale musicals, like Dirty Dancing, The Drowsy Chaperone, and We Will Rock You, to hand out fliers to the people leaving the theatre—usually getting home by 11:30 PM. Then, I’d get up at 4:00 AM to start the whole thing again: work for nine dollars an hour and get yelled at by rich douches because their cappuccino wasn’t dry enough, then back to the theatre to sign over eight thousand dollars worth of payroll cheques to my cast, who would then yell at me because the theatre was too cold. Or too hot. Or because the pianist played the tempos too slow. Or too fast. By the end of the ordeal I was utterly exhausted and broke.
The day after we closed I flew to my parents’ home in Saskatchewan to rest and lick my wounds, only to discover my dad had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I spent the next half year doing my best to care for my mom while she cared for my dad before he passed away in June. By the end of this ordeal I was utterly exhausted, broke, and broken.
I spent that summer in Dawson City, Yukon, singing in a Klondike gold-rush era revue show that ran in a casino/tourist trap. At the end of the summer, I found myself at a crossroads. I had all of my worldly possessions with me in two suitcases. I felt very little calling me back to Toronto, the city that I felt I had been utterly defeated by. But I didn’t feel compelled to go anywhere else. Move to Vancouver? Meh. Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg? Meh. Move south to the States? Meh. Move back to Saskatchewan, go to University and start over? Meh.
It was then that the previous Bear backed out of a tour that my then girlfriend (and future missus) was about to start.
“Should I push them to hire you?” she’d asked.
But she pushed anyway, and the next thing I knew I was on a plane back to Toronto for rehearsals.
Two weeks later, I stood backstage in a theatre in a town called Lloydminster, where this column began, wondering if I was going to make it through the show alive (and then almost nearly didn’t). A week later I stood under the dominating majesty of the Rocky Mountains. A week later, I ate as much seafood during the West Coast swing as my stomach could tolerate. A week later, I was surrounded by Redwoods outside of San Francisco. A week later, the garish lights and incessant noise on the Vegas strip nearly induced a seizure (and a Russian pet circus nearly induced vomiting). A week later, I witnessed the much more spectacular lighting display of the stars in the endless skies of the prairie at night.
Then, a week later, I was back in Toronto, once again looking forward to life and optimistic about the future.
In many ways I’m still recovering from the ordeals of late 2007 through mid 2008. Every night for months after my father’s death, I would dream that he was still alive. I now only have these dreams once or twice a month. For months after Funny Business closed all I could talk about was the bitterness of employing my friends only for them to decide that they hated my guts the second I cut them their first check. Now I have an easier time remembering all the hilarious antics that went down on stage and off. But I’m more anxious than I used to be. More indecisive. And much more introverted.
But I don’t know where or what I’d be now if I didn’t have that opportunity to run away with the circus for a while. I had seriously considered giving up entirely. When you wear one of those mascot costumes you can only see through a small, mesh covered hole, usually in the character’s open mouth. Everything around you fades. The only thing that matters is what is directly in front of you. When you tour your daily needs of food and shelter are arranged by your road manager. All you have to do is show up.
If you’ve reached the point where you can’t process your life beyond the present moment, there might be no better place to recover than inside a bear’s head.
Since then, I’ve been on three more tours. I’ve seen most of North America and Western and Central Europe. But my last tour was now two years ago. I’ve gone from being utterly hopeless about my future to so excited about everything I’m doing in Toronto that I’m loathe to leave for too long.
I’m grateful for having learned about and experienced the Stump Complex, and how to cook in hotel rooms; for learning to live in the moment from Bird, empathy from Rabbit, perseverance from Fox, patience from crazy parents, and economics from merch markups; for small miracles in Marseilles, for the hours and hours of Trivial Pursuit, for the months spent trekking across Europe looking for eight-bit tile mosaics with the Missus.
But I’m most glad that, after that first show, I was always able to find my way offstage without accidentally stage diving onto a bunch of five year olds.