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.
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 . . . .