Behind the Scenes: I was hired to be the entertaining guest speaker at Round Square’s European Conference. I wrote and delivered this speech based upon the conference theme which was “Life is Full of Ups and Downs”. My laptop, which I was reading my speech from, decided to support the conference theme and the battery died part way through my speech. I looked up at the sea of faces and considered winging it, but they’d travelled from across Europe and the UK for this, so I told them what had happened, and laughed with them as I retrieved my paper notes….
“Life is Full of Ups and Downs”
Life sure is full of ups and downs. I used to have a great job. I mean I had a great job – right out of university. I was a professional actor. And then it all went wrong. I had the leading female role. It was my first Equity (Equity is the professional actors union) – it was my first Equity job. To this day I am on record at Equity and at that theatre for “wrecking the show”. Yup. It was the second last scene of the play. My husband in the play is diabetic, and is sitting there eating this huge slab of chocolate cake. He’s trying to kill himself – he’s diabetic remember – it’s literally death by chocolate. There is a moment of silence. Then this old woman in the audience bellows out loud – “HOW COME THEY GET CAKE AND WE DON’T GET CAKE?” Yes, actually out loud, in the middle of a play, at the theatre. “HOW COME THEY GET CAKE ….” Lights go to black. The next scene is my husband’s funeral. Spot light comes up on me centre stage. I’m supposed to be singing a solo hymn. Instead, I’m laughing. The rest of the cast is in darkness around the grave. I know they’re laughing too. I can hear them snickering behind me. But I’m in the spotlight centre stage. And I’m the one everyone can see laughing. The stage manager reported me. To this day it says on record, “Kirsten wrecked the show in the final scene of the play. She was visibly laughing during the funeral.” –And all because some old woman wanted a piece of cake.
I got a bit of a reputation for being easy to crack up in serious moments on stage. Some technicians took care of it, in my next professional acting job, at a different theatre. The play was a four-hander, just four leading roles. It is the marriage proposal scene. My character has to stick her head inside the freezer, looking for ice. The technicians had plastered the inside of the freezer with photographs of naked ladies. I’m staring at nipples. The actor asks me to marry him. I turn around he hands me a teacup and I’m suppressing, stifling, laughter. You can hear the teacup rattling at the back of the theatre as I try not to laugh out loud. I’m jiggling, tears are streaming down my face – snot shoots out my nose. That wasn’t supposed to happen in the play. I was supposed to reject the marriage proposal nicely. We get off stage and the actor says to me – “Kirsten, you hurt my feelings. I felt like you laughed at me when I asked you to marry me.”
In all my years of university….training to be a professional actress…in both Canada and England – Nothing like this ever happened to me. I was sabotaging my own career. I was out of control.
The next play I was in – was the worst. My Uncle, in the play, had died and had been buried – but his wishes were that he be cremated. So my family goes and digs up Uncle Alfie so we can burn his remains in our back yard. We have his casket in our living room. There’s a moment of mournful silence. And an audience member right up front – cuts the cheese. It was the fart that was heard around the world. I was laughing so hard that I had to do the rest of the entire scene with my back to the audience.
That’s when I became a director.
And I had a great job. The best job there is in the theatre. I was the Artistic Director of Canada’s oldest professional summer theatre. The Artistic Director gets to do it all – you choose the plays, you decide which ones you want to direct, you hire directors for other shows, you cast the actors that you want and more. The only downside is you have to report to something called a board of directors. And my board was hell – they’d have fundraisers and would lose money – yeah they had fund losers. They were rude to all my theatre staff. They’d say embarrassing things to press and media at openings. To deal with all the stress I went on long mountain bike trips abroad on my winter holidays when the theatre was closed. The first trip – myself, my husband Malcolm and a few friends biked from Las Vegas Nevada, through Arizona, around the grand canyon. It was grueling and great. After the next theatre season. I mountain biked right across Costa Rica. It felt wonderful to bike hours up steep mountains (well not really) – to meet people in towns and villages that tour buses would fly past. I loved it. I got back to Canada. And what!?!?! The board had fired my right hand man – they’d fired an excellent general manager – a man who had managed to help clear the theatre’s long standing debts. STRESS. I started to vomit. I vomited for weeks. I was diagnosed with ulcers. I was even throwing up when the theatre’s publicist brought both her’s and my letters of resignation into the bathroom. This job was everything to me. It was a title – an important title. I didn’t want to lose my title – what was I if I wasn’t an artistic director? I was no one. I signed the letter of resignation she’d prepared and she signed hers.
I was unemployed. And I was sick. Then one day my husband suggested I go see a tropical disease specialist. And guess what? All the vomiting – It hadn’t been from stress. I’d picked up a slew of tropical parasites from bicycling across Costa Rica. I’d quit my job for the wrong reason. The ulcers weren’t caused by stress but by the critters living in my stomach. Horror. The theatre had already filled my job. As soon as my amoebas and other critters had been cured my stomach was totally fine and I was still without a job.
I thought maybe I’d go back to acting again. I went for a couple of auditions in Toronto. They were disasters. Nightmares. I couldn’t go back to acting… not after being the person who hired the actors. Plus I knew acting was over for me. I’d just wreck more plays. And to top it off something was going on with my weight – one week I was fat and the next week I was skinny. If a director cast me as a fat girl – a skinny girl might show up for rehearsals and vice versa. This didn’t work for acting either.
While I tried to figure out what to do – I wrote a play, a comedy about a group of actors performing at a Summer theatre. When I was finished I sent it off to Theatre Aquarius, a really good professional theatre in Canada. My play was chosen to be workshopped – in their new play series. A workshop is when the playwright and a director are given a group of actors to work through the script. The playwright can make changes through the process. It ended with a sold out reading and an offer that my play would be great for a full mainstage production.
I figured out what I was going to do. I was going to move to Costa Rica. Open a mountain bike touring company, working with local Costa Rican Bed & Breakfasts that didn’t have tours in their offerings. And I would write plays for the professional theatre during Costa Rica’s rainy season. My husband’s a pretty easy going guy (even though he is a karate world champion) – so he went along with my scheme.
I also sent my play to England, to the Artistic Director of East 15 Acting School, where I’d trained. I thought she’d be proud to see how my career was moving along. She said she’d like to have the third year BA’s do a production of my play. FABULOUS.
I rented out my house to a man in the mafia (don’t ask)…he paid cash up front. I had my two dogs, Siamese cat, mountain bikes, computers and husband loaded in the van and we headed off for the 13-day drive from north of Toronto to Costa Rica. Our route took us through the US, across the border at Texas into Mexico and through guerilla road blocks in Chiapas, – then through Guatemala, El Salvador where we almost ended up moving because our youngest dog disappeared for one minute. Then it was over the border that evening to Honduras. We paid the usual bribes to exit a Latin American country. We were on the bridge that separated El Salvador from Honduras in no man’s land when the Honduran Army stormed the bridge. Sixteen year old soldiers, charged with testosterone and machismo (macho macho men) surrounded the cars on the bridge pointing their machine guns right at us. They kept us captive this way over night. We never found out why. We did find out that members of the Honduran army are only paid One dollar per day. We breezed through Nicarauga – staying in hotels where your car actually shared your room with you. And then it was into Costa Rica. We were exhausted. We had no where to live. We had pets and this grand scheme of mine wasn’t feeling like such a great idea anymore.
I telephoned the acting school in England to finalize the contract negotiations and the amount of money they’d pay me for being able to produce my play. I was asked to direct it too. I was offered a half term teaching and directing at the university. I said “YES”. I felt really guilty though. I’d be leaving my husband and my animals in Costa Rica to take this job and we hadn’t made any progress in setting up our business in Costa Rica. Everything was so difficult to accomplish. It was going to take two years to get a Costa Rican phone number – even after paying a two thousand dollar bribe. Then I was asked to direct the play that was scheduled before mine – and to teach a full term of university in England. What to do? I said YES. Now I was feeling even more guilty.
All it took was one tiny mishap, though. And I said to Malcolm. “Forget this Costa Rican mountain bike business. Let’s go back to Canada.” We were at the Azul Marcado (the Blue Market) in Allejuelah Costa Rica. I was in the laundry soap aisle and saw Azul brand soap in little individual packages. Perfect. I bought the store brand product – went back to our temporary rented house and proceeded to dye all of our clothes blue. It wasn’t Azul brand soap. It was blue dye. Malcolm stood there in his horrible blue T-shirt and matching blue shorts and blue socks looking like a hippy cult member of some sort and I said – “Forget this! Let’s sell the van and fly back to Canada with the pets!” So we did.
Our house was rented to a man in the mafia. Malcolm’s karate dojo (the gym in our house where he teaches karate) was now filled with stuffed endangered species. A white Siberian tiger, a gigantic tortoise, apes, even a panda – I didn’t really feel comfortable asking this man and his wife if they would leave and find somewhere else to live – in fact I pictured myself stuffed and among his collection.
So we moved into Malcolm’s parent’s awful awful guest flat – with green shag carpet and lemon walls. And I left Malc there – and went to England to teach at the university. What a great job. I had a great job. Before the end of the term – I was asked to come back after Easter break for the next term. I was teaching 3rd year and post grad acting and was directing their mainstage productions. I went back to Canada for spring break – to Malcolm, the dogs and the awful green shag carpet. I had to renew my passport before going back to England. So I put my passport in the glove box of my car, along with all my personal documents and papers. I decided to stop for an oil change on the way to the passport office. My car was stolen from the service bay in the garage – with all my documents in it. I died. I’d never be able to get my birth certificate from England, my Canadian citizenship card, my adoption papers etc back in time to get a passport, in time to go back to work. Three days later the police called. They’d found my car. I was so excited. They said, “Mam you don’t seem to understand. Your vehicle has been torched. It was set on fire on the ice of Lake Simcoe. There is nothing left. Not even the tires.”
I couldn’t leave Canada. I lost my great job. There was one good thing still on the horizon. The premiere of my play was to take place in Canada. Then the artistic director of the theatre died of a massive heart attack. And the board of directors announced that there would be no more new plays – no Canadian premieres in the next season.
I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was living at my husband’s parents place in an ugly green carpeted flat. Some sort of important mafia dude, nicknamed Buffy, was living in my house with his dead animals. And I had no job. Then my mom and dad said they were moving to France. I wouldn’t even be able to visit my parents in France because Canadian immigration informed me it would take years of paperwork to process me. It in fact took them over two years. I didn’t know what to do.
And then one day I got an idea. I asked my mom while she was cleaning out my old childhood room before their move to France – if she’d look for my travel diary and my scrapbook from my trip to the Soviet Union when I was eleven. When I was just eleven years old my parents had sent me to the USSR to go to Soviet summer camp for the entire summer, no phoning home. My mom had forced me to keep a journal, which I did. My mom delivered my childhood photo album and travel diary before my parents left Canada for France. I decided to put the journal onto my computer – using the information and photos and combining it with memories of that crazy summer. When I got to page 55 and I hadn’t even left Moscow for the summer camp yet. I realized that I had a book. And I wrote “Lost in Moscow” which was published by Turnstone. The strange thing is, after the summer in Russia — When I was eleven — I was asked by an adult what I wanted to be when I grew up – I’d answered “an author”. And I was laughed at and told that was an impossible thing to do. So I went into the theatre.
That summer when I was eleven would change me forever some of it good and some of it bad… And if I hadn’t kept that journal – there wouldn’t be “Lost in Moscow” – and if my car hadn’t been stolen and I hadn’t lost my job teaching university in the UK – and a man didn’t die of a heart attack – there wouldn’t be “Lost in Moscow”. It seems to me, every time something bad happens something astonishingly good is over the hill or around the bend. And I have a great job. I’m an author and a humorous adventure travel writer, I write for newspapers and magazines, I’ve just finished my third book and I write a column for Leap Local a responsible tourism organization here in the UK, plus my second play is going to have its second workshop at a theatre in Philadelphia USA when I return from England – I have a great job – for now…