I got the job at the old Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod after singing “Ain’t She Sweet” during an audition at the Yates. The year before, the Empress’s Great West Summer Theatre troupe had an argument about the leasing terms and decided to go elsewhere. When their troupe dissolved, the Fort Macleod mayor opened up the summer months to bidding. The Star Singers of Lethbridge got the bid and held auditions at the Yates. Jordan was there. He made an impression. He had straight red bangs that hung down to his chin, and during the improv sketches, he walked with purpose, pushing back with his feet so that he looked like he was moving far and fast. He always cut across stage in diagonals, to show depth. And he never turned his head away from the audience. When he sang “Stars” from Les Misérables, several fellow auditioners clapped. Les Mis was still new then. I remember that he forced a vibrato. Star Singers hired four guys and four girls to make up the cast. I was the youngest of the group, and shy. “Shocked” would be the best word to describe how I felt. I was from Ridgeview, a town that had fewer inhabitants than the other cast members’ high schools had students. The rest of the cast had experience in drama clubs, show choirs, and improv. I sang and played the piano and violin, but I had very little acting experience — just a few parts with the Ridgeview Playhouse as a kid. I was surprised that they hired me. My mother wasn’t. “You should’ve seen yourself up there,” she said after I finished singing my audition piece. “A regular little showman.” We had practiced the song “Ain’t She Sweet” with a few cheesy hand gestures and stage movements. When I sang, “Just cast your eye in her direction,” I swept a hand cross-wise in front of me like I was measuring the horizon. I moulded my hands in the form of a woman’s curves. “Ain’t that perfection,” I sang.
I took the back staircase down to the dressing rooms. Sam was donning his maître d’ shirt for the Roadkill Café sketch. I had five minutes to mess up my hair with gel and cover my face with bruiselike splotches of makeup. Sam was eighteen, only two years older than I was, but looked thirty. He started bartending illegally at the end of grade ten, before he was even sixteen. He had three goals in life: to be a bartender, to be a professional actor, and to make a million dollars. “Two out of three,” he told me the first week that we worked together. He left and I turned to the mirror. I’ve always prided myself on my face’s elasticity. How I can mould it like Play-Doh to do whatever I want. There are twenty-four muscles in the human face, an infinite number of expressions. Jordan said that for hours, he would stare at his image, going through every nuance in expression, just so that he would know how his face worked. You had to be very particular, he said, to be an actor. That first week in May, Ben, Sam, and I were going through the Roadkill Café sketch, just brainstorming for ideas while we watched Jordan loudly talking to himself on an empty row near the Empress stage. Ben started laughing. “Do you need someone to talk to?” he yelled over. Jordan kept talking to the wall. “I don’t think so,” we could hear him saying. He shook his head. “Stupid, stupid, stupid.” By the end of the summer, we’d all be doing the same thing, trying to get into character. Backstage, in the dark, I could see Kelly changing into her “Black Velvet” Alannah Myles outfit. She attached inserts inside her cream-coloured bra to make herself more chesty. She only had a few minutes before we’d be done with our scene and she didn’t have time to trek down below the stage and into the hallway that cut through the bottom of the Empress. Every day I thought she was embarrassed as I watched her undress, although it never bothered her when Jordan was around. We often came into the girls’ dressing room for makeup or props and all four of the girls would be in various stages of dress. When Jordan entered through the swinging door, they greeted him like one of their own. When I followed behind, Kelly reached for a towel to cover up. “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup,” Sam said. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Igor!” It was my cue. I staggered onstage, dragging a palsied right foot. I had cotton balls in my mouth and my face looked like it’d been run over by a semi. I dumped a bag of black plastic flies into Sam’s bowl, waited for Ben’s clap, and I lumbered back. Exit stage left.
The first few days of rehearsal, I wouldn’t talk. I could imagine Jordan, Carli, and Bernice meeting together and discussing my reticence as they would a lack of funding or a freak accident. They would look for blame, try to figure out a way to circumvent it. “He seemed so outgoing,” they’d say of my audition. “I had no idea.” Truth is, the cast intimidated me. There was Lynette Hamilton, the brunette who had tap danced at the Jubilee Auditorium in Calgary; Austin who had won international awards in the Lethbridge Jazz choir two years running; and, of course, Jordan, the creative genius who was finishing up his second year in acting at the University of British Columbia and had played any number of roles from Winthrop in The Music Man to the lead in Sweeney Todd. The cast were all ostensibly extroverts and when we first rehearsed they swarmed the stage with impersonations and improv. It was like being in a room with Tracy Ullman and Robin Williams competing for airtime and I was the straight man, the dummy who couldn’t talk. Some of the things they did embarrassed me, like when Jordan lined us up on all fours and checked if we were breathing from our diaphragms. He made us pant. “Good, good,” he said, the harder we panted. He seized my midsection like he was squeezing a bellows. “We’re going to play Freeze,” Bernice said. “Eric, you should like this.” I shrank into my seat. “Carli and I will start acting out a scene. At any point, one of you can yell ‘Freeze,’ then take the sketch any direction you want.” They acted a birth. Carli, who used to dance professionally in Chicago, played an orderly who had to take care of Bernice until the doctor arrived. She pretended to hook up an I.V. and stick a needle in Bernice’s rear. Everyone laughed like it was a regular party. Bernice, who had two boys of her own, puffed out her cheeks, held her abdomen, and hyperventilated. She leaned forward to take pressure off her back and Sam yelled “Freeze!” He tapped Bernice on the shoulder, took the exact position that she was in, then pretended he was a golfer bending over on a putt. “Caddie,” he said. “Pitching wedge.” He placed the pitching wedge on the ground, swung hard, and threw his club when he realized that he’d missed. The caddy knelt down to pick up the imaginary club that Sam had thrown, and Jordan yelled “Freeze!” He took Carli’s position with one knee on the ground, then raised his head and said, “Alice, dear Alice, I’ve been thinking about this a long time. Last night I withdrew all my government savings bonds and cashed in three hundred thousand aluminum cans to give you this.” He held his hands forward and said, “Creak,” as he opened the box. “It’s an engagement ring.” Sam, as Alice, swooned, sat down on Jordan’s knee and put his hand in his hair. “For me?” he asked. “Alice, will you marry me?” Sam took his hand from Jordan’s hair and smiled, pretending to hold the ring in his hand. I yelled, “Freeze!”
Back in the dressing room, I noticed it. A note, under a daisy in a vase. Condensation had dampened a ring into the yellow Post-it. “Sam,” it read. “I consider you my closest friend.” Jordan’s frenzied initials marked the bottom of the note. I had seen those same letters scrawled on so many programs when we stood in lines after every performance, thanking patrons on their way out. I often garnered attention from younger girls or older women, who thought my rendition of Kermit the Frog’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green” (replaced with the words, “It’s Not Easy Being Dumb”) hopelessly endearing. Jordan always attracted a different crowd — displaced urbanites or other actors, friends from Lethbridge or Vancouver. He scribbled his initials, “JP,” then added quips from old song titles or the Muppets. Now, looking at the Post-it, I felt the weight of my intrusion. I had shared a dressing room with Sam the whole season, spent nights at his house, gone with him to parties and publicity events. And this square piece of paper somehow claimed him, set him apart. I put the piece of paper in my pocket and dumped out the vase of water into the sink. The daisy lay limply across the drain. I picked it up, removed the petals one by one and put them down the drain until it was just a stem with a yellow head. Then I tore the stem in two and tossed it in the wastebasket. I left in my costume to wait in the wings.
After playing “Freeze,” after my stint on Jordan’s knee, pretending to be a ventriloquist dummy, everyone clapped. I had jumped in, just like the others, taken a scene and changed it to what I wanted it to be. Jordan told us once how certain actors played parts, while others became their parts. “It’s the difference between mediocrity and stardom,” he said. The cast liked our ventriloquist sketch so much, they decided to put it in the show. “Bravo,” Bernice said. “Belissima.” We practiced the sketch again, Jordan and I, to brainstorm lines. We hashed out details: drinking water, Jordan throwing his voice. It was high comedy. But I couldn’t hold the dummy smile for long. “You’ll have to do something about that,” he said. So afterwards, I sat in front of the mirror looking at my face, forcing an exaggerated smile and opening my eyes wide. After thirty seconds, the edges of my mouth started to twitch. My eyes began to hurt. I held it longer: a minute, two. My jaw wobbled, my cheeks shook. My face no longer looked like a smile. Ridges appeared, wrinkles. Tears slid from my eyes. After ten minutes, my wooden composure had turned into a seeping, soft, dolorous face.
Every revue needs a can-can. We lined up for our own tailor-made bit of political satire, singing “In the Navy,” replacing the word “Navy” with “Mounties.” Mounties have a high profile in Fort Macleod, home of the Empress Theatre and the fort that the early Royal Canadian Mounted Police established to put an end to the whisky trade, something that they never truly accomplished. The cast, all white kids from the suburbs, locked their cars in the parking lot behind the Empress. In the middle of the day once, we were accosted by an Indian wanting change. Spray paint fanned from his nostril to his cheek. One time we found the window on the driver’s side of Austin’s car shattered in pieces, his stereo stolen. We reported the theft and comforted Austin. “It’s okay,” he said. “It’s my dad’s car.” We were high-kicking now. Ben strutted in front of us. He wore the same uniform: black pants with a yellow stripe, exaggerated saddlebags on the side, a red coat with brass buttons. But instead of our straight-brimmed porkpie hats, he sported a turban. Canada is a cultural mosaic, the turban implied. It will protect you, your religion, your freedoms. You can maintain your culture and still be a Mountie. We got to the chorus. “We want you as a new recruit,” we sang. Our buckles gleamed in the lights, our leather boots clomped out the beat. The audience laughed and laughed.
I went to the Salvation Army on the first Tuesday of the month, when they let you stuff anything you want in a bag for five bucks. The store was bustling with families, Hutterites, and farmers. My friend Steve was with me. He was also a thespian, having been in plays at Lethbridge Collegiate Institute. He’d been in Harvey and Grease, but only had bit parts. Steve hated secondhand shopping because he was so tall. None of the clothes fit. But I was medium-sized, with an average waistline, average shoe size, average height. At the checkout my bag was full. “Aren’t you in that show in Fort Macleod?” the lady behind the counter asked. “Yes,” I said. Steve nudged me. This seemed to happen to me a lot lately. The woman didn’t ring up my bag. “I want to thank you,” she said. She had auburn hair with a tuft of grey at the crown, saucer-sized glasses with filigree hinges. “For what?” “I have a seven-year-old son who we’ve been trying to get to take music lessons. He has an ear for music, but he won’t do a thing when we tell him to. But when he saw your fiddle number, he all of the sudden wanted to play the violin. ‘I want to do that, Mom,’ he said. Ever since then he’s been taking lessons.” “Wow,” I said. She handed me my bagful of clothes. “Take it,” she said. “It’s only five bucks,” I said. “That’s okay,” she said. Outside, Steve turned to me and said, “Only you, Freeze.”
My “fiddle number” was “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” I was the only violinist in the cast, so it was up to me to play both the Devil’s and Johnny’s parts. When I was the Devil, I slid a red headband with horns onto my head. I was lit up, the lights covered with red gels. As Johnny, I took off the headband and the light changed to white. On cue, I played the repetitive motif, complete with double stops and improvised flourishes. When the audience clapped, I tapped my feet on the blacktop in rhythm. When they didn’t, I moved with the music, dipping the violin neck up and down and playing runs along the fingerboard. “The Devil Went down to Georgia” was Carli’s idea. A number where she could dance and they could use my talent on the violin. She interpreted the story with her body, sheathed in devil-red spandex. I accompanied on the violin, with our piano-effects guy on a portable Roland. It was a serious number. But after almost a month of watching Carli shimmy and jeté onstage, Jordan had had enough. “Bad reviews,” Jordan said one afternoon. He bought ten copies of the article. You could tell what the journalist thought by skimming the adjectives. “Brilliant” for Jordan, “endearing” for me, “nuanced” for Kelly, and “overzealous” for Carli and Bernice. Carli and Bernice were the directors and hadn’t yet arrived. “What do we do about it?” Sam said. “I think they should be cut,” Jordan said. Jordan was adept at passive voice. Decisions were made. That’s how the show progressed. “They’re not that bad,” I said. “Carli is fat,” Jordan said. “You’re so rude,” Lynette said. “She’s a dancer. It looks ridiculous. And it’s the only serious piece in the show. The audience never knows what to do.” Carli entered through the Empress’s double doors wearing a bohemian skirt and a red beret. Fat? I hadn’t thought of her as such. “What’s wrong?” she asked. Jordan passed her a paper. I read over it while we waited for her to finish. “The two overzealous directors repeatedly interrupt the show’s flow, culminating in a passé performance of the choreographer in an otherwise satisfactory ‘Devil Went Down to Georgia.’” “These reviews,” she said, shaking the paper. No one said a word. “We think it’s a little more than that,” Jordan started. He explained how we had been getting reviews like this from other sources as well, and that when Mark Campbell came, he was fine with everything except the directors’ bit parts to try to give the show narrative cohesion. “‘It’s improv,’” he quoted Mark as saying. “You have to maintain that energy.” Carli nodded for a while until she realized how what he was saying implicated, or rather extricated her, then she said, “Hold it. If I’m right, you’re telling me that you want me out.” “Not so bluntly, but yes.” Carli stormed out. On her way, she called Jordan conceited, reprehensible. When Bernice came in, they phoned Beverley, the CEO of Star Singers, our producer. Beverley asked for Jordan to come on the line, to explain his side. They argued for an hour while we waited, listening to the cursing and cheap shots. That night, we replaced Carli with Kelly and Lynette who wore fishnet stockings and leather jackets, their ’80s hair done up in red bandanas, sex props for the devil. The audience loved it.
After the number, Lynette complained about the push-up bra she had to wear during “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” It chafed her skin and made her boobs look too big. “Why do women wear bras anyway?” I asked. She stopped in the stairwell and Jordan caught up. “Because, dummy, if we didn’t, our boobs would fall off.” “Very funny,” I said. “Look Jordan, he doesn’t believe me.” “Some people never learn.” They pushed past me. Jordan had his hand on her back, like an usher. We were at the line of dressing rooms. “Could you help me out of this?” she asked. She took off her jacket, lifted up her hair and scrunched it against her head. The bra was black. They entered the dressing room and as I passed I heard them laughing.
Near the end of the summer, at a party, I skunked the mayor of Fort Macleod in a game of Ping-Pong. “Nice forehand smash,” he said. “Strong.” He shook my hand like he was in a photo giving me a billboard check for a million dollars. “Thanks,” I said. Bud Murray ran the Ford car lot until he had accumulated enough wealth to retire, then he worked as mayor. Every summer for Canada Day, he waxed his ’57 Mustang convertible and rode it up and down Main Street, mere steps from the Empress entrance. He depended on attractions like our show for summer tourism dollars and this party was for us. That afternoon he played host on his estate just south of Fort Macleod, a corner lot in a gated community. He had a private pool, a barbecue, and a smoker. He insisted on cooking the meat himself, fending off jokes about leftover horse meat from the glue factory, one of Fort Macleod’s main industries. I liked watching how Mayor Murray could work his guests. He had the infectious laugh of a politician and knew when to dig or tease, and when to lay off. He had seen the show seven times and talked with us after each performance. I went inside to get something to eat. Meat from the mayor’s smoker sat in a stringy stack. I picked up a paper plate and scooped some of the meat onto a bun with a fork. I grabbed an orange pop and went outside to talk with Kelly and the mayor’s wife. “Did I ever tell you that you remind me of my nephew?” Mrs. Murray said. She hadn’t, but I wasn’t surprised. Looking like someone else was part of being an actor. “I don’t think you have,” I said. “He’s a regular comedian, just like yourself. Oh, he doesn’t act professionally or anything, but he was Gilbert Blythe in Anne of Green Gables.” “Have him try out. He could be in the cast next year.” “Oh, you’re so funny,” she said. Mayor Murray came over and removed a red-and-white apron. “This boy beat me in Ping-Pong,” he said, “right in my own house.” “You’re too good a host,” I said. “You lost on purpose.” “I wouldn’t think that,” Mrs. Murray said. “Buddy takes his Ping-Pong very seriously.” “How about a rematch?” the mayor asked. “Sure,” I said. The first game, the game I skunked him, we were almost alone in his downstairs family room. This time, his wife and Kelly followed us, as did other members of the cast: Jordan, Sam, and Lynette. We rallied for a bit and then started to play. Mayor Murray was keeping up. He held the paddle traditionally and he had a fierce backhand smash. But he had problems getting to the sides quickly enough; his girth made rounding the corners difficult, and most of the time he would just let the ball go rather than relinquish his dominant position behind the middle line. I played pen-style, with a weaker backhand, but, like he had already mentioned to me, a powerful forehand smash — almost unreturnable when it connected. But now my smash wasn’t connecting with the same accuracy and we were nearing the end of the game. It was 19–16. I had a comfortable enough lead, but it was my serve and I was nervous. The mayor was sweating under the armpits and his bald head beaded up. Practically the whole party was there. I netted my first serve. 19–17. “Don’t give up now,” the mayor said. He smiled, holding his paddle between both hands, waiting for the serve. I tried backspin to his forehand and he returned it with ease. I sliced sideways and the ball went down again to his forehand, bouncing off the side, too high. He reached over for it and hit it hard, straight down the side. I backed up, tried to side slice it again, but the return didn’t reach the net. It was 19–18. I decided to dead hit it — no spin, and fast to his forehand. He was expecting spin and overcompensated, sending the ball too far and hitting me in the chest. “Don’t take it personal,” I said. The mayor didn’t smile this time. I threw the ball over to him for the game point. He backspun it to my forehand and I smashed it home. The mayor congratulated me again but with not quite the same enthusiasm. “Twice in a row,” he said. “That’s what I like about you theatre people. Always have to be on your toes.” “Thanks,” I said. The mayor laughed. “You’re a performer, all right. Hey, is it true what Jordan says? That you’re just like your character in real life?” The question caught me off guard. Jordan said that? Certain things, I suppose were similar — the joking around, the gullibility. But other aspects, like my character’s struggle to understand even basic concepts, his mimicry of Jordan, and the forced confusion he felt were different. “I’m not sure,” I said. “Ha, ha,” he said. “Yes, yes, that’s right. Always on, I see. What a character.” He patted me on the back. I turned to the rest of the group to receive my congratulations.
It was the final curtain call. I was backstage. I had just changed out of my black pants from “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and back into my dummy character’s jeans and green T-shirt. Jordan was there. And Sam. Jordan was holding Sam’s head with both hands and kissing his mouth. “Just showing Sam how to stage-kiss,” Jordan said. He smiled. Sam shifted his weight onto one foot, rocking away from Jordan. My pants hung on a nail and I reached for them, instinctively. “Curtain call,” I said. I took my jeans and left. Now I waited behind the curtain as Bernice and Carli finished their short dialogue, praising, as they did every night, the show-within-a-show that we collectively produced. “And that’s show business!” Carli said. The music swelled and the audience clapped. Carli and Bernice parted for the wings. Kelly, next to me, said, “Where are they?” Jordan and Sam hadn’t yet emerged from the basement. All of us were standing, hands locked, watching for their figures to come up the stairs. The curtain stayed down until I saw Sam’s head. Both Sam and Jordan rushed for either side of the lineup and Jordan gave the signal for the curtain. The whole cast walked out together, stepped mid-stage, into the lights. Then each actor took two steps forward for applause, doing something in character. Sam struck a body-building pose, Kelly kissed her hand and waved, Lynette tap-danced. When it got to me, I walked out, as I always did, looking disoriented and confused. I turned in a circle, squinted at the audience and they clapped loudly. I saw a familiar head in the back, red hair bobbing up and down, holding her stomach as the laughter came rolling out.