At the start of my three years as a playwriting student at The National Theatre School of Canada (NTS), my dad gave me two bits of advice, both of which I think are still essential for a theatre career. He said:
- “Remember how smart you are.”
- “Enjoy the ride.”
For years, it felt impossible to take his advice seriously. The pulsing of “opportunity” and “lack of opportunity” in Toronto distracted me from what I am capable of and I blamed that distraction on the people in the industry which of course made “the ride” unpleasant.
My struggle with Toronto theatre began when I graduated from the NTS playwriting program in 2016. Previous to NTS, my social anxiety would command every bit of my life. I was practically afraid of my own shadow. But, once I graduated, my ego was inflated and I felt certain I could become a prize of Canadian Theatre. I pictured myself holding happenings, becoming the commanding center of a new wave in experimental, absurdist storytelling. I’d be a Bob Dylan.
Despite my newfound ego-inflation, I wasn’t cured of my social anxiety. I was still bound to feel lost. For one thing, my shows are experimental and I didn’t assume the confidence it takes to enjoy being different in a competitive industry. And, beyond my own personal awkwardness, beginnings are hard. Everything is challenging when it’s new. Even though I felt confident as a “certified” NTS playwright, I still had to overcome the unanticipated “new kid” insecurities that almost always drive confidence away.
As I immediately moved into my parents’ basement on the outskirts of Toronto, I wasn’t finding myself at the center of any happenings. And, even as I searched, I wasn’t sure there were any “happenings” the way I pictured them. I got closer with a few good friends and tried to create pieces with them but, even as a confident playwright I felt stonewalled by–what felt like– Toronto’s small institutionalized community. Looking back, I don’t think I was right to feel immediately cynical about fitting in. I wore cynicism as a kind of protective gear to guard my socially anxious, flakey, thin skin.
My first theatre experience back in Toronto was co-producing my play, Plucked, directed by Carly Chamberlain. Plucked is a one-act play about a farm where women turn into chickens and the men farm their eggs. Even though I was excited to share my experimental auto-fiction with Toronto, I didn’t know how to represent myself. My Summerworks hustle was weak. At one point, I took part in a panel discussion but, I was so anxious. I felt I misunderstood every question and escaped immediately afterward with my mother. I stayed home for the remainder of the festival.
Still, Plucked was nominated for best production that year and caught the attention of Richard Rose at the Tarragon Theatre. I then met with their literary manager, Andrea Romaldi. Despite Andrea being relaxed and approachable, I was a sweaty mess in the meeting. I didn’t understand what kinds of questions to ask her and I couldn’t find the words to describe my work. Instead, I listened as she told me that it takes a lot of stamina to be a playwright in Toronto and that often people don’t make it because they give up. She told me that after a while the competition thins out and that’s when people start to succeed.
Despite my knowledge that Andrea was trying to inform and encourage me, I had too much anxiety to calmly appreciate her advice. Instead, ambivalent thoughts circled through my head.
“I’m good enough.”
“I’m not good enough.”
“I am meant to do this.”
“No, I’m not.”
I toppled into a heavy depression.
It seemed that no matter what I wrote, I wouldn’t get far without networking. I felt it would take my whole life to learn how to navigate social scenarios well enough to use relationships as currency. How could I take part in a panel? How could I meet with new people who may be interested in working with me? How could I go to openings or launch parties? How could I do any of it when I get so anxious in front of people, my mouth dries up, I sweat through my clothes and I feel an unending need to escape?
I forgot how smart I am. I completed my undergrad with a Bachelor of Science. I created and produced multiple festivals for new, young talent. I wrote and self-produced well-received plays that no one else could have ever made. But, I forgot about all of that. I became jealous of my peers. I became cynical. Theatre stopped being creative, expansive and hopeful.
I produced one final play in Fringe 2017, a site-specific piece set in a dumpster, which was the obvious place for my career. And, I knew I wouldn’t be back.
Then, over the course of 2020, I, like so many of us, was forced to make hard changes.
I moved out of my parents, into a one-room home, just outside of Toronto and I got a job in a non-theatre industry. The result was radical isolation. I found myself in a place of “beginning” again, the same place I was in when I began my experience in Toronto theatre. I did not have the skills or confidence to perform well at my new job and I failed every day which spun me into a state of anxiety. On top of that, I was feeling extremely lonely.
For comfort, I fell back on my habit of writing about fictional places. While I was alone, I re-visited the joy I’ve always had for playing in imaginary spaces and acting like an idiot until the time runs out. The process of creating fiction brought me incredible joy.
I feel smitten with the absurdity and romance of creation.
I started writing a play about a place that doesn’t exist where talking birds play guitar and the radio is just a man in your living room named RADIO. Every time I write, I think about who will play the part of so-and-so, who will make this show with me, where will it go? I feel smitten with the absurdity and romance of creation. It’s like, I can see the silhouette of my show on the horizon and, no matter how long it takes me to get there, as long as I keep my eye on it, I’ll feel its excitement or its majesty or its jest. Because, if you’re creating something you truly love, as long as you can see it, you should feel a heart-swelling joy, right? Or at least, you should feel curious. Which is far more enjoyable than feeling what I was feeling before.
Before I had gone to NTS, I would work on scripts until they were ready for production and then I would produce them. Of course, I didn’t make any money because I wasn’t trying to make money. All I was trying to do was express stories I thought needed to be heard. I remember before my ego was damaged, it was such a pleasure to see where talent and skill could take an idea. I realize now, the people I’ve been envious of are merely trusting and growing their talents and skills as they apply them industrially for the sake of distribution. They aren’t quitting on themselves. What a concept.
Toronto theatre is what it is. It’s a safari. It’s beautiful, scary and sometimes it smells like shit. I used to think the shit smell was the exclusivity I projected onto the industry, and it used to scare me because I knew I couldn’t conform. But, it isn’t exclusivity. Yes, there is a certain element of insertion required when working in the industry but drop the cynicism. Armor yourself with acceptance instead. And, as always: remember how smart you are and enjoy the ride.