I’ve written a few pieces on here about mentors of mine. Here’s the story of an unlikely mentor who came to mind after a serendipitous meeting in Calgary the other evening. It harkens back to events of my life almost thirty years ago.
I was (as usual) minding my own business the other evening, having a beer at Ric’s Grill on 15th Avenue, when I looked up I couldn’t believe my eyes. There as large as life was Canadian theatre icon Paul Thompson walking in. It had been a long time since we’d seen each other and so we did some catching up.
Paul mentored me almost in accidental fashion in Toronto almost 30 years ago. Damn, that’s how long I’m been doing the theatre thing. More than 30 years ago! Where the hell did the time go?!
He mentored me in such a fashion to make me examine the word itself and the nature of the activity. We usually think of it as something sustained, the master passing down the wisdom of the ages and the secrets of the craft to the apprentice over time. Often enough this is the case.
But in other circumstances, it may be that the more experienced person comes along and through some act, or something he or she says, maybe even accidentally, confers some honour on the neophyte, providing a boost of confidence that allows the recipient of this largess to carry on.
You know, the art thing is lonely and we artists are often beset with insecurities and self-doubt. Sometimes a very simple, even random, act of kindness can lift us up and keep us going. That’s what Paul did for me. I have never forgotten. Here’s how it went down . . .
After graduating from the MFA Program in Theatre at York University way back when in 1984, some of my fellow grads and I put together a small, alternative, experimental, avant garde, like-nothing-you’ve-ever-seen-before-anywhere-ever theatre company called ACT IV. (We said is like the letters, not the number.) My partners in crime were actors Anthony Dunn and Sally Singal and the late and beautiful Larry Lewis, our director.
We formed the company around a small, alternative, experimental, avant garde, like-nothing-you’ve-ever-seen-before-anywhere-ever script of mine called The Family, which we produced at the back space at Theatre Passe Muraille.
One could argue about the merits of that script or the real artistic value of that production, but what fun we had putting it on! It was the magical time one can only dream of. Of course the first night all of our friends and classmates and family came and the place was full and everyone loved it and we thought to ourselves, “This isn’t so hard after all.”
The second night, 4 people. And we plumbed the depths of despair. And on through the run. What the hell? It’s the show we cut our teeth on. All good.
After the show had closed, months after, I received a phone call from Paul Thompson, which in Toronto at the time, if you were an aspiring theatre artist like myself, was rather like receiving a phone call from God. He had seen the play at Passe Muraille (a theatre which he helped to found, in the same way I suppose that I was helping to found ACT IV) and we had chatted after one of the performances and talked about getting together . . . but I never in my wildest dreams thought he would actually call me.
But he did. He invited me to go to a movie with him. “Sure, Paul,” I replied, nonchalantly, “I think I can make that.”
Of course, I had no money, but I did have a fat little leather wallet full of change, mostly quarters and dimes, for the laundry. I figured it would be enough to get me into the movie and so on the big day I shoved it into my pocket and went off to meet Paul at the University Theatre.
I did not decline his offer to buy the tickets. I don’t remember much about the movie other than constantly thinking to myself, “Why would a famous guy like Paul Thompson want to take me to a movie? Maybe he has me confused with someone else?!?!”
When the movie ended Paul suggested we go for a beer. I explained the situation with the little change purse and he said “Don’t worry it’s on me,” and so we were on our way for a beer together when he saw a man and woman he knew and said to me, “I just have to say hi to these people. Give me a minute.”
So I stood there while he talked to them, and then after a bit they looked over at me and Paul said, “Let me introduce you to Eugene Stickland. He’s a great young writer. Did you see his play at Passe Muraille? No? You missed it? Too bad. It was great. You’re going to be hearing a lot about this guy.”
And so these two people were lucky enough to be introduced to the great young writer.
And who were they? They were a couple of writers, too, as it turned out: Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood. And they were both so gracious.
I believe that my sense of my own identity, of seeing myself as a writer, and in believing that I could actually do it, came from that precise moment.
And so you can see why I have rather fond feelings for Paul Thompson. And you see what I mean about mentorship. There’s no finer example that I can think of.
The challenge, my friends, is to find such opportunities to make a difference in the lives and careers of the next generation.
As Paul did for me.
Thanks for reading.
By the way. I’ve been back on the ginkgo biloba the last month or so – not the drug store shit, you have to go to Chinatown and get the vials! – and I magically remembered that the movie we saw back in early 1985 was Ornette: Made in America. Here’s the trailer . . .