At least as far as I’m concerned it is:
I love this design by our friend Peter Moller, making one think of an ancient copy of King Lear, complete with finger smudges!
The publication of my play Queen Lear through Blurb.com.
I have written about the current reality of the publishing world on this blog before but at the risk of repeating myself, here are some thoughts about where I feel things stand right now. Right now being on a Sunday morning in mid-October. A mild autumn day in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
I should preface this post by repeating something I said in an earlier post, that if someone tells you they know what’s going on in the publishing world these days, turn and run the other way. They are lying to you. No one knows. All we know for sure is that things are in a state of flux.
I have also mentioned in an earlier post, but it bears repeating now, that I have four books published by, one could say, traditional publishing houses (Coteau, Red Deer College Press and Broadview). While I believe I was paid a reasonable amount from Coteau, as far as I can remember, I have only received one royalty cheque in my almost twenty years from Red Deer, and that was for $16.00. Broadview sends me royalty statements informing me that I am in a never-ending negative position with them. They figure I owe them some $160.00 after 12 years with two of my books in their catalog. Who am I to argue?
Of course, until now I have published only plays, and one could say that plays don’t really sell all that well. The greatest possible benefit for the author is that their publication increases the likelihood of more productions. What the benefit is for the publisher, I couldn’t really say.
But listen to this. My play, my old chestnut, Some Assembly Required, was published by Coteau Books in Regina, my home town, in 1995 and was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award. The book sold out its run, but they decided not to reprint it and declined the opportunity to publish subsequent plays of mine. It was like I had done something wrong.
So, you can well imagine that when my friend Michael J. Finner approached me with the idea of starting a publishing company of our own, I was all ears. What did I have to lose? On a cold day in early January, 2008 we met and created B House Publications, with the soon to be realized goal of having my play Writer’s Block as our first publication – for sale in the lobby on opening night.
It was never my intention to have B House serve as a vanity press for me, and so I have worked hard, more so in the early days, finding writers I admire and helping them bring their work to publication. I am proud to say we have published some of Calgary’s very finest authors, including Kirk Miles, Tyler Perry, Jude Dillon, Lindsay Burns, Neil Fleming and others; and dozens of others through two Caffè Beano poetry anthologies. (Another of these, a book of smart phone photographs, is planned for next year, edited my our in-house photo guru, Jude Dillon. It will be launched at Beano’s Stampede Breakfast next July.)
The problem that arose is that I am only one person and can only spread myself so thin. I love the process of meeting with fellow authors and even editing their work and helping get it into book form. After that, in terms of marketing and distribution, I admit I am essentially useless and have let all of these authors down. There just aren’t enough hours in a day.
Until now, we have had our books, usually designed by the amazing Peter Moller, printed with a local company, Blitz Print in Calgary. They do very fine work and are reasonably priced if you’re thinking of printing a book in Calgary.
Someone would then end up with boxes of books in his or her closet, the idea being to sell these, becoming rich and famous during the process. In the early days, we had high hopes that these books would be sold here and afar, but because we never had any marketing support (let alone a plan for distribution) the books and the big dreams only went so far.
Many a time I felt so overwhelmed that I just wanted to abandon the entire project. But then a poet or playwright would approach me with a book idea and I just couldn’t say no. And so we have limped on. I love books and the chance to bring a new book into the world has always been too compelling not to do it.
For the last few years, B House has essentially been an opportunity for self-publishing but with our logo on the cover. Our writers have kept 100% of the royalties. I have spent thousand of hours on B House business and would hate to calculate what that has worked out to as an hourly wage. Meager comes to mind.
Altruism? You bet.
But I’ve also been driven by the fact that because we don’t know the future of publishing, it wasn’t a bad idea to keep this thing alive. You just never know. I honestly don’t know what the future holds, where this might lead, if anywhere, but it just made sense to try against all odds to keep the enterprise afloat.
5 years ago, I wrote the play Queen Lear. B House published it, using our model of having a good design and then printing it locally, we me carting home the books from Blitz Print. I think we printed 100 copies. And then we ran out. (To put it in perspective, a wildly successful play in Canada would be lucky to sell 1,000 copies. We’re not talking huge numbers here.)
I’ve had orders for the book over the last few years, but I just couldn’t see the point of continuing on with our same model. I really didn’t want to order 100 copies, sell ten, and then have those remaining 90 copies taking up space in my office. Boxes of unsold books cause their own kind of anxiety, let me tell you, quite unlike anything else.
This summer I heard about Blurb.com, which I suppose one could best describe as a virtual publisher. They create your book only when an order is placed for it, from one to – well, the sky’s the limit, I suppose. The information on the book and the mechanism for ordering sits on their website (blurb.com or blurb.ca) and so I can promote it, in blogs like this for example, and any way I see fit. But I don’t really have to worry about it after that. This finally offered B House some relief on the distribution side of things.
And so, after some research and growing pains, we finally got the reprint of Queen Lear up and available through Blurb.
The big difference for B House in using Blurb is that we don’t have to make an initial costly purchase of our book, and then find ourselves on the hook to distribute it. It’s just there, on their website. You can order one copy, they will print and mail it to you. Or you can order 100 copies. (In fact, I wish you would!)
Through Blurb, I am able to establish my own royalty which I don’t share with a publishing company. I set it myself and know exactly what I will make per book. If the total exceeds $25.00 in a month, it is deposited in a Pay Pal account for me. Simple. And effective.
At the same time, I can order copies of my own book at cost price and sell these in bookstores that I promote, in this case Calgary’s Shelf Life Books. And any other that would bother to ask me.
My goal here is not to circumvent booksellers. Only publishers.
Is this the future of publishing? Could it the end of conventional publishing as we know it? We have seen the demise of newspapers – I lost a good job when the Calgary Herald was in danger of going into the dumpster a few years ago. Is there any reason to think the same thing won’t happen with publishing houses?
Time will tell, I suppose. Despite what it might seem, I don’t wish any of them any ill fortune. I’m guess I’m old school, but I believe we need books and readers of books to salvage and maintain what’s left of our faltering civilization. Hopefully there is room for all of us, big and small. Or, as we like to say at B House, not small but boutique.
I’ll tell you something. Things are changing and I embrace the change. I welcome it. And I’m curious to see where this all ends up.
Thanks for reading!
Here’s a performance by a man who wrote a great book, his autobiography. Amazing how he keeps going strong after all these years. . .
It should have been so easy.
It’s a beautiful world after all. Kinda.
It should have been so simple. The pictures on the website – a stack of beautiful books, a fuzzy blanket, a steaming cup of tea – taken all together created a sense of serenity and well-being, maybe even exuding a whiff of old money. You know that smell. The smell of comfort, even smugness! Or maybe you don’t. (If not, sorry about that.)
On any account, it certainly looked easy. Three months ago, it looked like 10 minutes work, if you could even call it that. It would all be over before you could finish that cup of tea and curl up under that soft fuzzy blanket with a good book.
A book, no less, that you yourself had created!!
Three months later, the tea has turned to Irish Whiskey, the blanket has been burned and I have been reduced to a raging lunatic screaming in anguish on my kitchen floor, screams that no one seems to hear.
Welcome to the wonderful world of self-publishing.
Looking back, I can see that my problems began when I decided to try a new thing with a particular book design that had been created for another output mode entirely. Like trying to fly a bicycle, perhaps, or drink a shoe.
My problems were further complicated by the fact that I downloaded a program they told me I would need to create my book. Only now, as I am painfully aware, I should never have downloaded it in the first place, despite an invitation to do so and a big blue flashing box on my screen that lured in my cursor and cause me unwittingly to click on it and thus grease my descent into hell.
Actually, we never got too far right off the bat because my computer informed me that my startup disk was almost full. Well, I have no idea what my startup disc even is, or why it would be almost full, or what it could possibly be almost full of, so this message was as mystifying as it was alarming.
And so began the futile process of freeing up space on the enigmatic startup disc. As it turns out, you can empty your trash, but that only goes so far, obviously.
At this point, I quite convinced myself that this whole process would run a lot smoother on a new computer. I checked my savings account balance – $112.84. Well, scratch that option, although I must say I was somewhat proud that I was into the three figures range in my savings. It comes from being frugal, don’t you know.
Finally a friend sent me a link to a site with some sensible ideas of how to free up some startup disk space. A week into it, and I was ready to start the simple and, dare I say, elegant, process of creating my own book.
Despite the freed up disk space, it took several hours, seemingly, for the program I had erroneously downloaded to load itself, and that time could only be spent drinking copious amounts of Irish Whiskey.
But download it did, although my old MacBook Pro was smoking a shuddering like the star ship Enterprise fending off an attack from the Klingons.
Before I could actually resume the process I had apparently started a few weeks earlier, I was asked for my user name, which I couldn’t remember, and my password, which I probably knew (for a change) but it wasn’t going to do me much good without a user name, whatever it was.
A few days later, after typing in every series of letters and symbols imaginable that I could possibly identify as myself, I was in! O, brave new world! Now we were cooking with gas. Or so I thought, anyway.
I was instructed to simply “click and drag” the files my designer had sent into the little box. (By the way, in order to do so I had to learn all about the mysterious machinations of a thing called Dropbox. More time! More Irish!)
After several days, I managed to get his files open, as well as the program I shouldn’t have downloaded open at the same time. It was crunch time. Time for the magic to kick in. I held my breath. I clicked. I dragged. Nothing. I clicked again. I dragged again. Nothing. The files my designer had sent were for whatever reason undraggable! Undraggable files! What next?!?!
Oh, gentle reader, I’m glad you weren’t in my little kitchen to hear the volley of oaths that issued from my mouth that evening as I tried every conceivable method known to man, or woman, to drag those fucking files from my desktop into the little box in the program I never should have downloaded in the first place. Disgraceful. But, somehow, earned.
I contacted the company and sure enough, after several days of keen anticipation, a “real person” from the publisher informed that I couldn’t use PDF’s for my current purpose. I was stunned. This is hardly an obscure file format, this is PDF, for crisake! What the hell?
Clearly, I was out of my league. I called in every designer I know. I cajoled. I begged. I called in favours. One designer converted all of my files into JPG format, but then informed me the quality wouldn’t be good enough for print.
Another designer who had actually published a book with this publisher was good enough to come to my place yesterday to help me. I made her a cup of tea. She told me we would be finished by the time she had finished it. I laughed nervously, thinking I’d believe it when I saw it.
She showed me how to bypass the program I had been working in and things went swimmingly, everything was tickety-boo. The right sequence of buttons was clicked. We hugged and she was on her way.
And everything was perfect. At least, until I received an email informing me that the cover was all wrong. I frantically texted my guardian angel and she fixed up the cover and sent me the files and I went through the whole process again. Now, surely, everything would be ok.
I went out for a celebratory lunch. But when I got back home, there was another email from the publisher: the pages were not an acceptable size. Lord help me, Jesus.
So, now I have written a groveling pleading letter to my original designer asking him if he could possible be so kind as to change the dimensions of the interior pages. He’s already done way more than he should have had to and hasn’t actually been paid yet, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen with that. One thing I am reasonably sure of is that I’m not his favourite person right now.
Ahhh, dear reader. Somewhere the birds sing and the cows go moo and all is well with the universe. But not in my kitchen, currently. I still have miles to go before I sleep . . .
Stand by for further updates.
Thanks for reading!
So You think you have a play in you?
Over the years I have had the good fortune to work with some great writers as an instructor and mentor, both here in Calgary and throughout the world. Many of them have gone on to becoming very good writers, seeing their work produced at theatres throughout the land.
For the last few years I have taught playwriting at St. Mary’s University here in Calgary, so my workshops have been restricted to that community. Now I have been asked to lead a workshop for the community at large, as it were, and so I’m seeing if there is enough interest out there to undertake such an endeavour. I believe we currently have four or five people interested. The ideal number for such a workshop is 12, so I am writing this to see if there are some of you out there wanting to enter into a writing workshop with me this fall.
The way it works is we come together once a week for a few hours, probably on Monday evenings, and bring scenes we have been working on to be read aloud by fellow participants. To take part in this workshop you have to be willing not only to bring in material to be read, but to read the scripts your fellow writers bring in as well.
I give feedback. We all give feedback. And then you go away and bring us a revision for the next week, or new material if you are trying to finish a play during this process. There are guidelines and protocols for giving feedback so it is always constructive and helpful and never bruising to the ego.
I am even open to the idea of welcoming writers working in other genres to the workshop. I feel some cross-pollination can be instructive and beneficial, so if you’re working on a volume of poetry, for example, we would welcome you.
If there is enough interest, I will look for a place we can meet somewhere in the core area. We would meet for a few hours Monday evenings and I know at least a few of us will welcome a beer or a glass of wine at the end of the evening, so it’s not all work and privation.
Just to make sure you take this seriously and so I make a little money for my troubles, there will be a $250.00 fee for the workshop. We will start sometime towards the end of the month of September and go until December. If possible, on our final night, we will read excerpts of everyone’s work for an invited audience.
So, if you have a play in you that’s itching to get onto paper, here’s your big chance. If you’re interested please let me know. If you know of someone who might be, please feel free to forward this information to them.
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Writing Workshop” in the subject line to help me avoid total confusion in my Inbox.
Thanks for reading!
Typical daily traffic on my blog. And a section of Calgary’s beautiful bike path system.
You know how it is sometimes, you wake up in the morning feeling vaguely optimistic about the day ahead, and then some atrocity occurs and you find yourself cursing the gods above and questioning the very nature of human existence. Your own existence, on any account.
On the morning in question, I was attending a Stampede breakfast, happily munching on pancakes which I am probably allergic to and listening to country music which I’m definitely allergic to, when an acquaintance of mine came along and we did the “Hail fellow, well met” nonsense and proceeded to chitchat about everything that was new under the sun since last we’d spoken.
The conversation turned to blogs, as it will, when all other topics have been beaten into submission. We both knew I had one – this one, in fact – but only he knew that he had one too, but then he told me about it so I knew too, and I must admit it came as a surprise to me that he was writing one as he’s known as a person of the theatre and not as a writer.
A mutual friend who was witness to this momentous conversation asked, in the manner of a co-conspirator, how many “hits” his blog had received. He smiled, in the manner of the cat with a canary in its mouth, and reported that the blog was approaching a million hits. That’s 1,000,000 hits (Can). All this activity, all this traffic as we call it cyberly, in a year or so. In fact, less than a year.
Four eyes then slid over in my direction and I was asked just what kind of traffic I’d been enjoying on my blog, this one – and if you’re reading this, you’re part of my traffic and so thank you very much for your support.
Well, friends, numbers are odious, so I won’t bore you with specifics, but let’s just say that if my friend’s blog could be represented by the Deerfoot Trail, mine could then be represented by a small flood-damaged section of the bike path. This partly explains a low grade depression that kept me from writing this blog for the past while.
I think I’m OK now. Because as you know, I prefer the bike path and the people who frequent it (like you, dear reader) to the Deerfoot Trail. Any day of the week. So it serves me well to think of this is a “boutique blog,” important to discerning readers (like yourself), essentially ignored by the great unwashed.
Here’s the kicker and here’s the point: my friend’s blog is an example of what he happily calls “erotica.” He writes it in the voice and persona of submissive girl. (Which stretches my imagination in several directions, especially given the fact that my friend sports a rather lumber-jackerish beard and there is nothing girlish about him. But then again, what do I know?)
I mean it. What do I know?
As it happens, this was my second brush with an eroticist this summer. The first was in the embodiment of a very attractive young woman (although I have no idea whether she’s submissive or not) but I know attractive when I’m looking at it. She actually sent me a sample of her wares (after some begging on my part) and it was one of the erotic highlights of my reading career, maybe my life in total, made all the more poignant by imagining her (not to mention me!) in some of the erotic encounters portrayed therein in most detailed and delicious fashion.
In other words, it was hot. Fucking hot! Hot fucking! And I felt vaguely dirty after I read it. Especially the second and third times. She, too, proudly announces to poor unsuspecting souls like myself that she writes “erotica,” in the same way that she might say she writes poetry, or romance novels, or press releases for oil companies.
As far as I know, she doesn’t have a blog but if she did, I have no doubt her numbers would be in the zillions.
Well, I’m hardly a prude, but if you asked me, this is basically what we used to call “dirty” writing. In fact, when I was younger, there used to be what were referred to as “left-handed novels” and I’m sure you, delicate reader, can use your imagination as to what that means. I find myself struggling with the distinction between erotica and pornography, if in fact there even is one, a meaningful one, at any rate.
The dictionary on my computer (called the Free Dictionary, which is very good, and can be found at thefreedictionary.com), for example, defines erotica as “literature or art intended to arouse sexual desire” and pornography as “sexually explicit pictures, writing, or other material whose primary purpose is to cause sexual arousal.” Certainly, they seem like different sides of the same coin. A slim distinction, at best.
But I’m not writing this to take a holier-than-thou stance on erotica or pornography. Actually, as a writer, who teaches creative writing classes from time to time, I can only think than anyone getting their kicks from the written word, reading or writing it, this tiny island in the roiling sea of lewd and lascivious video images, is at least doing something beneficial for his or her mind. It seems downright quaint to think of someone getting his or her jollies from the written word. Maybe there’s hope after all!
What I find troubling is this reminder of the sheer volume of the interest in porn, sorry, erotica, compared to anything else. Such as this blog of mine, for example. Christopher Hedges tells us in his brilliantly depressing book Future of an Illusion that the pornographic movie industry grosses twice what the “ethical” industry earns. And I am reminded of a tidbit from the past, that at the time that VHS and Beta were fighting it out for supremacy. VHS won out, even though it was inferior technology, because the pornography industry embraced VHS. Bye bye Beta.
The young lady who shared her erotica with me challenged me to write some of my own. I tried, but I felt like a 12 year old boy who has been caught masturbating. I scrawled (yes, scrawled) a few naughty words, but I was simply too self-conscious for it to amount to anything.
So while my bearded friend in the guise of a submissive girl rolls on to his second million, I will toil away here in the “ethical” trenches with the small trickle of traffic I have become accustomed to. My traffic numbers aren’t tied to anything other than my sense of self-worth anyway, so what does it matter?
I’m guess when push comes to shove, I’m old school enough to think that some things are best kept private.
Still, a million hits!
Oh well. Thanks for reading!
Here’s some funky “traffic” of a different nature from a long time ago.
I was sad to learn that jazz bassist Charlie Haden passed away on Friday. I know that with so many great musicians in the world, even in my home town, it is hard to say who your favourite is, exactly. But Charlie was certainly in my top ten, and his album Now is the Hour might well be my favourite album ever, in any genre. You know how it is with certain albums, they find you at difficult times and then they become part of who you are, part of your story. “The Left Hand of God” from the same album is the one song I would asked to be played at my funeral.
No great surprise that I have a story about him . . .
A few years ago, I was writing for the Calgary Herald. I typically wrote a Saturday column on nothing in particular other than myself, but from time to time if something came up that caught my interest, I would ask if I could write about it. And so when it was announced that Charlie would be playing at the jazz festival in Calgary, I contacted my editor and asked if I could write a piece about him and so it was arranged. I was told his publicist (his wife, Ruth) would contact me.
A few days later, my phone rang and I answered it and the person asked “Is Eugene there?” and I said, “This is Eugene,” and then the person said, “Hi, Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man?”
I said, “Fine, Charlie, but give me a second.” I put the phone down and hyper ventilated and jumped around my living room for a minute trying to get it together to have a conversation with one of the greatest musicians on the planet. It was one of the few times in my life when I was totally star struck.
I regained my composure enough to have a decent conversation that I could turn into a piece for The Herald. When we were hanging up, I said, “If there’s anything I can do for you while you’re here, anything at all, just let me know.” He thanked me. I wrote my piece. Other than looking forward to hearing him actually play, I assumed that was that.
A few days later, the phone rang. I answered and the voice on the phone said, “Hi Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man?” I told him I was good and I asked him how he was. Seems he was having issues with the hotel the Festival had booked him in.
“You live there, man, do you think the Sandman Hotel is any good?” I said I thought it was an insult that they were putting an artist of his stature up at the Sandman and he agreed. (I was just being sycophantic, it’s not a bad place, really.) He told me that he didn’t like the look for the place, but he’d been told there were no other hotels available. I offered to make a few calls. He appreciated that. So I made the calls and used what influence I have but everywhere I called it was the same thing: no vacancy. Even for Charlie Haden.
Charlie called the next day. “Hi Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man? Any luck finding us a hotel?” Well, it’s tough to let down a hero, but I had to report that I’d had no luck. Charlie thanked my and we said good-bye and I assumed that was that.
The next day the phone rang. My phone doesn’t ring that often, so I was hardly surprised when I answered and heard, “Hi Eugene, this is Charlie Haden, how you doing, man?”
“Good, man,” I replied. “What’s up?”
“What do you know about the Hotel Arts?” he asked.
“It’s great, “ I said. “A lot of visiting theatre artists stay there. It’s one of our coolest hotels.”
“They managed to find a room there. They want to put us up there,” he said.
“Great!” I said.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “I’ve checked it out on line and I don’t think I like it.”
I had an idea. I offered to give up my place for Charlie and Ruth, and I would go stay at the Hotel Arts for a few days. I lived in a beautiful old house in Bankview at the time and as far as I was concerned they were welcome to it. And a few days at Hotel Arts would have been a nice little break for me.
Charlie wasn’t convinced. It was my best offer and so there wasn’t much left for us to talk about. When we hung up, I knew it would be the last time I would hear from Charlie Haden.
As it turned out, he stuck to his guns and ended up getting a suite at the Rimrock in Banff, one of the best hotels anywhere. Well, he’d been touring for over 50 years. What did you expect? When the road is home, you learn to take good care about where you stay.
Charlie and his band played an amazing concert at Knox Church downtown a few days later. It was truly one of the great artistic experiences of my life, a real highlight. Afterwards, I went down to the green room. I walked past the security guard assuring him that “It’s OK, man, Charlie and I are friends.” I was calling everyone “man” by then.
And there he was, Charlie Haden, in the flesh. I approached him and said, “Hi, Charlie, it’s Eugene Stickland, how you doing man?” We had a little chat, but it was clear his performance had taken a lot out of him. That’s when he told me he was staying at the Rimrock. You could tell there was nothing he wanted more at that moment than to be there. And who could blame him?
I thanked him for the beautiful music, and I guess that’s what I’m doing with this post. He was a real beauty, I have always been in awe of his sublime artistry and incredible versatility. He was an artist’s artist, truly one of the greats. He will be missed.
Please take a few minutes to listen to “The Left Hand of God.” I hope it moves you the way it moves me.
RIP, Charlie Haden.
Thanks for reading.
I have an idea for a series of posts along the lines of the series I wrote last summer about ten objects that can be found in my apartment. It’s about the important books in my life, which is something I’m sure I have in common with anyone who bothers to read my blog.
The old Cincinnati Public Library. What a crime they tore it down . . .
I asked myself a few questions that I thought I should try to answer, which got me thinking about the way that books can influence an entire culture. Then I thought it would be interesting to put those questions out there and get your response and in this manner conduct an informal survey.
I would appreciate your response, and assume it would be interesting for you to take a bit of time to consider these questions. You can reply either by writing a comment directly on my blog, then it would be there for the world to see, or if that’s too much bother you can do it on Facebook.
So without further ado, here is my survey. Thanks for taking the time to take part in it. I’ll share the results and begin my series when I feel I’ve had a significant response to the survey probably in a week or so. So, here we go . . .
THE EUGENIUS SURVEY:
1. Which 5 books do you believe have changed the course of history, or at least the way that we perceive the world? Some of these will be so self-evident that no explanation will be necessary, but feel free to comment on your choices if you like. Briefly, briefly.
2. Be brutally honest: how many of these have you actually read?
3. How many of these books do you personally believe? Or believe in?
4. Irrespective of the books you listed, what is the one book that you have read that has influenced you personally the most?
5. Do you believe that a book could still be written, whatever its mode of dissemination, that could wield as much influence as any of the books on your list? If not, why not?
That’s it, that’s all. Enter once, enter often. I’ll get back to you with the results and then I will begin a series of posts about the influential books in my life.
Thanks for reading.
Here’s something that has absolutely nothing to do with anything but maybe it will get your feet moving which is never a bad thing!
Last year I wrote a couple of posts about mentors of mine who helped me along the way, not simply in terms of teaching cold hard facts but more in espousing an attitude towards a life dedicated to the production and appreciation of art. Today, I am switching the focus on the other side of things, and looking at some of my own mentoring activities.
This examination was prompted by an unexpected invitation from a former student, Aaron Coates, to go for lunch recently so he could pick my brain before directing a workshop of a new play.
I’ve known Aaron since he was a student at Winston Churchill High School some 20 years ago now. He came into my student writers group at Alberta Theatre Projects when he was 16 or so, but that was just the beginning. When he was a little older, I became the Canadian Delegate to World Interplay, an international festival for young playwrights. Aaron attended the festival with me one year and acquitted himself very well, making international contacts in the theatre world that he maintains to this day.
Our time together in Australia led to one of the greatest lines in Canadian history, as far as I’m concerned. One evening we were taken to a billabong wildlife sanctuary that had all manner of creeping and crawling things in it, from crocodiles to pythons to – well, to a wombat, which is a kind of big furry rodent (marsupial, probably) that’s kind of cute, but not as cute as a koala bear, say.
We all got a chance to hold the wombat and have our photo taken with it. True to our nature, we Canadians were at the very back of the line, and it’s probably fair to say that by the time the wombat got to us, its patience had worn thin. I had my picture taken with it, then I handed it off to Aaron. From where I was standing, I could clearly see the wombat open its mouth and slowly turn its head and then clamp down hard on Aaron in the area of his right nipple.
Wincing in pain, Aaron turned to our Ranger Rick tour guide and handed him back the animal, saying, “I’m sorry. Your wombat bit me.”
Following the Australia trip, I helped Aaron get a commission from the Alberta Legal Society to write his play, The End of the Rope, which is about the last execution to take place in Alberta. The play had many productions in and around the province and is of great interest to anyone interested in Alberta’s history. (If you’re interested in reading it, or even arranging for a production, let me know and I’ll put you in touch with Aaron.)
Over the last decade or so, Aaron’s career has taken many interesting twists and turns. He teaches now at Company of Rogues Studio in Calgary. He is, along with Karen Johnson-Diamond, the co-artistic director of Dirty Laundry, Calgary’s amazing improv theatre company.
And just to show how what goes around comes around, Aaron and KJD have now started a program called Dirty Laundry: The Next Generation, aimed at training and supporting the next generation of improvisers. And so the wheels keep turning from generation to generation.
That he still comes around looking for advice from time to time in immensely gratifying, as I’m sure you can appreciate.
One of the holy writs: it applies to playwriting as well as poetry.
There have been so many others whom I have had the pleasure of teaching and guiding for at least part of their journey, in so many different settings, including ATP, Mount Royal University, Saint Mary’s University College, the National Theatre School, World Interplay, and many other one-offs and one night stands at various universities. And others I am forgetting now.
Another student who comes to mind is Michaela Jeffrey, who is now studying playwriting at the National Theatre School in Montreal.
Michaela recently reminded me of her first day in the student writer’s group at ATP. I had agreed that she could take part in the group a year earlier than usual, in her last year of Junior High. She was anxious to impress, and so put her heart and soul into writing a monologue to deliver at our Saturday morning workshop.
And this she did. She delivered the mother of all teen angst monologues, and she put everything she had into it. (There may have actually been real tears. I’m sure there probably were.) And then. she reminded me, when she was done there was a pause, as I sat eating my M and M’s, regarding her coolly, and then finally I said, “No one cares, Michaela. No one cares.”
I could say that to her because she was bright, and even at that young age was clearly a person of the theatre. A little tough love, perhaps, but she’s still at in, and as is the case with Aaron, I am so proud of my small contribution to what seems to be a very promising career.
Just yesterday as I was thinking of writing this piece, I ran into another former student on the street and so we stopped and chatted for a bit. I asked her what she was doing these days and she said, almost sheepishly, “Well, I have a job at a florists.” Then she got a look of true panic in her eyes and continued: “Oh, but that’s just a job I had to take because I needed some money. What I’m really doing is an animation project.” And then she really came to life when she told me about the thing that she is doing that is the thing that matters to her most, the art.
Again, I couldn’t be prouder that she was still at it. That’s all I’ve ever cared about with my students, is that they keep at it, and not give up on their dreams of being an artist. (I once had a former student contact me and tell me that he’d been admitted to law school. “You’re dead to me,” I said, and we never talked again. True story. Perhaps a tad harsh, but sometimes you have to make a stand.)
I could go on and on, I have had the opportunity to teach so many beautiful and talented people over the years, young and old. But I would just finish by saying this, which anyone who has ever taught will know to be true, that I have learned so much more than I have ever taught anyone,and taken so much more than I have given.
And so here’s to the next generation!
Thanks for reading.
Here’s a musical offering that I couldn’t resist . . . .