One year ago, I was running our final dress rehearsals for The Dreamcatchers; after which, all the scenery, costumes, makeup, gobos, gels, CD’s and toolboxes were to be packed into nineteen rather large suitcases. The beautiful Jiibay sticks had to be cut in three pieces in order to fit, and the holster, gun, billy sticks, sixteen O.P.P. caps and the hangman’s noose were lovingly bubble-wrapped. After almost two years of intense planning, promoting, politicking, fund-raising, creating, and rehearsing, this was a true labour of love. We were taking our devised and very Canadian theatre piece to Scotland, to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe – the mecca for all theatre practitioners. My people. My tribe.
I joked that this play would be my swan song. I didn’t realize, to a certain degree, it actually was.
I was 57 years old and had been teaching secondary school Drama in Toronto since 1979. During that time, I taught thousands and thousands of teenagers, some of whom would grow up to be doctors, lawyers, scientists, engineers, architects, bankers, professors, carpenters, plumbers, truck-drivers and every imaginable work position that is out there. More than a few, I’m proud to say, actually went on to become successful actors, writers, designers, directors and filmmakers.
I am one of the lucky ones. I love teaching. I love theatre. And, I loved sharing that love and respect for the arts with my students. Actually, it’s more than that. Theatre is my passion and obsession. Not only was I teaching drama during school hours, I was spending my evenings and weekends directing and producing. A sixty hour week was the norm, and a hundred hour week was not unheard closer to opening night. The best hours were those on the Saturdays and Sundays, or the late cold Monday nights in December when we could get lost in the folds and wrinkles of figuring out how to make that scene work, how to find just the right energy for that character, or how accidentally, we’d discover footlights gelled purple can create just the right tones of magic and shadows of mystery. Summers and holidays were invested in writing new plays, another obsessive-compulsive love. For a teacher in Ontario, extra-curricular activities and time are given freely, there is no compensation whatsoever. If you are involved in the theatre you understand why we spend so much time doing what we do; most people, however, believe, we’re certifiably nuts.
One would think a fire can only burn so intensely for so long before it extinguishes itself.
The longer I worked and the older I became, the more immersed I was. Teaching though, started to change, or at least the board politics became more complex over the years. Earlier in my career, I had become a department head in the east end of Toronto. I actually hate administrative work, and I wasn’t planning to climb the edu-ladder. Nonetheless, I did want to have a voice in the direction and shape of the program. I spent fifteen years developing a drama program that was recognized provincially for excellence of curriculum and outstanding productions. Eventually, I moved to a performing arts school where I was the Curriculum Leader of the Arts. At this school, students are required to audition and it has an excellent reputation for attracting those who are academically and artistically “gifted”. The parents are committed in providing their children with enriched opportunities. The environment there is exciting, vibrant, alive and throbbing with creative energies. It also happens to be exhausting to work there, and filled with never-ending pressures and deadlines.
Time flies. Just when I acclimatized to the culture and tempo of the new school, I went through almost four years of hell. A series of personal crises occurred: the palliative care and death of a close family member; my diagnosis of a debilitating autoimmune disease; then, another diagnosis, far more frightening and serious than the first; and finally, a long and painful recovery from thoracic surgery. I returned to work after three months sick leave to discover I was eligible to retire the following month – February 2009. Instead, I jumped right back into the swamp. I wrote a new play, ran morning rehearsals at seven, and evening ones that ran until ten at night. Three weeks after my return, Before the After Party a show about mortality, performed at a competition where it was chosen as the Outstanding Production to be featured at the Regional Showcase. I did my best to catch up with administrative work piled up in my absence, and to re-establish the flow with my classes – who basically had been on a hiatus from the time I was gone. I couldn’t yet climb a flight of stairs post surgery, but I returned to the sixty hour work week. I was not going to leave the job I loved with my tail between my legs. As a matter of fact, for the next two years, I truly believed I would keep doing what I loved so profoundly, until I dropped dead in the wings.
That brings us back to The Dreamcatchers. Creating and watching it come to fruition on the Edinburgh stage, both consumed and satiated me. It was as if I had arrived at my destination. As an educator, I had done all that needed to be done, and given all I had to give. I found it difficult to return to the same old, same old. That spring I’d been asked to work on a new drama textbook with McGraw-HIll Ryerson and their iLit series. Not only did they want me to be part of the team, but also to help promote the book after it was published, by providing workshops for teachers and students. The publishing world is completely alien to me, but I couldn’t turn down the chance to do something new, and to actually contribute to an educational project that is so innovative and visionary. I agreed, even though this was significantly inflating my already too heavy workload.
I was over-worked. I was tired.
Fast-forward to Thanksgiving weekend 2011. I woke up that Saturday morning upset, worrying and stressing about some administrative problem that seemed very significant at the time, but honestly it’s something I now consider to be trivial. As I kept turning the problem in my head, that morning, I had a flash of insight, an epiphany, an aha moment, if you will…… and, I knew exactly what to do. Could it be that simple? What would happen to me? How could I survive without? I mused for the next two days about my options, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized, this was the right thing to do.
On Monday, October 10, 2011 I typed up by notice of retirement and resignation letter. I handed it to the principal the next day. After thirty-three and a half years, I would soon be retired from teaching and my life as I knew it.
February 1st, 2012 was the beginning of my new existence. I’ve had to deconstruct all the parts of my life since then, and now I’m beginning to put some of them back together again. There have been moments of tears, and other moments of rue, but mostly there has been laughter, adventure, new friends and new experiences. I’m learning about myself and all the things that really matter. I’m creating a new life. I’m creating the new me.
Oh, the drama!