After the experience of The Golden Doom the ‘new’ GPSS Drama Club was ready to spread its wings a little. Doom hadn't been the most ambitious production in the world, true; but it was the perfect thing to cut our teeth on. With its simple plot, lighting and set, we could focus on the fundamentals. The picture that emerged was reassuring. After The Golden Doom, we all - Brian included - knew that we could mount a play with a minimum of catastrophe and error. In fact, it was clear that we had a certain amount of native talent as a group; and we certainly liked working together. These were important lessons to learn, and they stood us in good stead later on. Any Theatre group, after all, is a bit like a ship. You don’t have to leave port in perfect shape. It’s okay to have a leak or two. But it helps if you have a few good sailing points; and just because you’ll tolerate leaks doesn’t mean you don’t want to know where they are.
Now it was time to try something more challenging. But we could never have imagined just how unique that challenge was to be.
When we all met again in January of 1976 to start our next production, it was obvious that Brian had been doing some thinking over the Christmas break. Not just thinking; in fact he had been remarkably busy - for when we all arrived at that first meeting lo and behold he had written a play for us. And not just any slapdash thing; it was a good play ... a play with ideas, and theatricality, and great characters. It's impossible for me to look back now and not shake my head in amazement. How lucky we all were, without even realizing it! Our new drama teacher, it turned out, was not just a dedicated hard-worker and an imaginative director; he was also a (very) talented playwright to boot! Simply amazing.
The play was called Second and it was set in a shell-hole in the middle of a battlefield in an unspecified war. Two soldiers, Cole and "The Sergeant," are discovered at lights up recovering from an explosion that has narrowly missed killing them. I even remember (after all these years) my first line of dialogue: "Christ, that was close! I don't think I've ever had one come that close before and make it." The two men recover themselves in the bottom of a large shell-crater, gathering their wits and talking a bit. It quickly becomes obvious who’s who: the Sergeant is a very old-school, tough, all-Army, no-nonsense kind of guy, while Cole, a private, is a much more sensitive, thoughtful young man. Importantly, the audience should feel at first that the Sergeant, though a hard man, is perfectly at home on the battlefield, while Cole is ill-suited for it, even dangerously out of place. For the tables are about to turn.
After a few moments of talk, something startling happens: a Roman Soldier (that is, from two thousand years ago) walks right through the side of the shell hole. Hail friends, he says, I’ve come to welcome you! He goes on like this for a minute, and then turns and leaves as he came. Before the two men can fully recover, an IRA member appears, and also begins talking. It soon becomes apparent that something deeply strange is going on. In fairly short order a Vietnamese guerrilla, a doctor, an English noblewoman, and others come and go.
Slowly the Sergeant crumbles as these events remain beyond his capacity to understand; but Cole, for his part, begins to gain strength as he begins to guess what is happening. Finally he says it out loud: We’re dead, sergeant. Don’t you see? The two men didn’t survive the shell blast at the beginning of the play. They died - and now they’re entering the land of the spirits. The Sergeant, of course, balks at this; he simply won’t accept it. It almost becomes a fistfight, in fact, until suddenly the Sergeant collapses and Cole, tenderly, holds him. The two lie at the bottom of the shell cracter, with Cole going, It’s all right, Sergeant. It’s all right. And then (I always loved this effect) there's a swift change of lights, and in a wink they go from living men to twisted corpses. Beautiful.
We dove into Second with delight and tremendous pleasure. Don't ever let anyone tell you young actors need fluff to build their skills with. What young actors need is good material right from the start. That was certainly the case with us. We worked like slaves on that show. The play opened with a series of tableaux on top of the shell hole, figures in silhouette in different poses of battle. (The three figures were David Cable, Jason Correia, and Cathy Lane, who also directed the sequence, for which she won several awards.) The hole itself was the same large boxes we had used in The Golden Doom, but now placed on end and with a huge canvas tarp draped over them. Painted to look like earth, falling down into the 'hole' and gathered into 'rocks' at the bottom, the tarp under the lights looked remarkably like blasted dirt. It was terrific to work on.
Everyone in the show was well-cast, which isn't surprising since Brian wrote each character with a specific actor in mind. (Again - we didn't know how lucky we were.) There were many wonderful performances, and just remembering a few offhand, I can still see Mike Royston (with Denise Baker in the photo at right) as the Vietnamese Soldier - with his blasted face and withered arm, going "Ma Regiment! Ma Regiment! I must find ma regiment!"; or Linda Gamst as the English noblewoman, who’s lost everything in the Napoleonic wars, clawing the earth with desperate fingers; or little Maureen Bolton (photo below left, being made up by Lori Brown) as the IRA fighter, a wild-eyed woman, dangerous and bitter. Terrific stuff. A production that, really was mature well beyond its years.
We first performed Second at Glenview sometime that spring, and then we did something else that was completely novel to us all; Brian entered our show into the Simpsons-Sears Student Drama Festival for our local region. In fact, thinking back now, I seem to remember that there was some discussion among the company before this step was actually taken; you have to hand it to Brian for being democratic, he was letting us all air our feelings. Some thought it might be a kind of sell-out to go "commercial" with our play (i.e., pursue prizes) instead of just performing for its own sake. Others thought the festival would be an adventure. I really can't remember anymore what I thought. But in any event, the decision was ultimately taken that we would attend Guelph CVI in a few weeks' time and perform Second there at the first, bottom rung of the Sears Festival.
The Simpsons-Sears Collegiate Drama Festival, by the way, was (and still is) a competitive drama festival for high school students held across Ontario each year. Schools are invited to submit productions which are performed in festivals, then adjudged and awarded prizes according to their technical and artistic merits. Sears Festivals are held in tiers; at the bottom is the local area, then there are Regional Festivals, and then, at the top of the top, there’s a Final Competition held in Toronto at the large (800+ seats) and beautiful St. Lawrence Centre for the Performing Arts.
[This information may no longer be correct - it’s what I remember from 1976. For more accurate info visit the official Sears Festival website.]
While the Sears Festival can be a bit daunting at times - and while there are certainly schools throughout Ontario that abuse the friendly spirit of things by being over-competitive - by and large it is a thrill to participate in. And a real eye-opener too. I got to do it two years in a row, with Second and the following year in Clowns. Both times I remember the novelty of visiting other high schools and seeing what other drama clubs were up to, and even talk to the other students sometimes (that is, of course, when awkward adolescent self-consciousness would permit). And the adjudications were not to be missed: at the end of each festival, besides simply handing out awards, each show would be critiqued by an experienced theatre professional who’d give detailed, informative and (as often as not) loving feedback on what they had just seen you do. These words of wisdom were invaluable; and for me it was also the first time in my life that I realized theatre really was a calling - that grownups who weren't rich or famous nonetheless dedicated their lives to it - loving it so much, in fact, that they'd come out on a rainy night for free to talk to you about it. In the years since I've never forgotten those people and the example of their dedication. Never.
We rode up to Guelph C.V.I. in a school bus and arrived late in the afternoon. We were assigned a classroom near the gym to use as a dressing room, and moved in as best we could, laying coats on desks, makeup kits over here, costumes and props over there. Even now, as I write this, I get butterflies remembering the eerie, tense stillness before the show; back then I would be on pins and needles all day, from the moment I woke up in the morning. We hung around, visiting the stage, watching our set get put up, then, later, getting into costume and makeup as the performance hour approached. I was very nervous and could barely talk to anybody. At some point somebody brought out a camera and decided this would be a good time to take a few pictures for the Glenview yearbook! Gawd. But I'm glad they did, now. They’re the only photos I have of this show. (You can see how nervous I am; in both pictures I'm trying to smile but I can't even look at the lens.)
We did the show without mishap. I don't remember a thing about it. We must have attended the adjudication (we didn’t win), but the next thing I remember is being back in the bus and pulling away from the school. It was dark now, and late - after midnight - and I was exhausted and yet also euphoric and amazed at what we had just accomplished. We had gone into a 'hostile' school (silly term, I know, but that's partly how it felt) and performed our little original play, and done very well, thank you very much ... and now we all felt simply terrific. We were the underdogs, but we had come through the fire! And come away all the smarter, too. No, we didn’t win at Guelph, but we all went away thinking, we’ll be back. And next year, sure enough, we were.
We performed Second once more at Glenview, and then laid the play to rest. I still have my script, though. As I’ve learned over the years, you never throw away good material.