“If you decide to be an actor, stick to your decision. The folks you meet in supposed positions of authority – critics, teachers, casting directors – will, in the main, be your intellectual and moral inferiors. They will lack your imagination, which is why they became bureaucrats rather than artists; and they lack your fortitude, having elected institutional support over a life of self reliance. They spend their lives learning lessons very different from the ones you learn, and many or most of them will envy you and this envy will express itself as contempt. It’s a cheap trick of unhappy people, and if you understand it for what it is, you need not adopt or be overly saddened by their view of you. It is the view of folks on the verandah talking about the lazy slaves. There is nothing contemptible in the effort to learn and to practice the art of the actor – irrespective of the success of such efforts – and anyone who suggests there is, who tries to control through scorn, contempt, condescension, and supposed (though undemonstrated) superior knowledge is a shameful exploiter.”
– David Mamet
True and False: Heresy and Common Sense For The Actor, 1997
The legend of Mafu Jiang
By Ian Mackenzie
Last time we spoke, I gave you probably more information than you needed on Steel’s print marketing strategy: you may recall the pickaxe, the Stranger Theatre ad, the half-baked Photoshop humour.
Since then, we’ve developed our final publicity materials for the show. No real drama to report on that front. After all, if we’ve done our job, those posters and postcards should be speaking for themselves (or, more accurately, speaking for our show).
The big news is the discovery of Mafu Jiang. He’s an independent printer trained and equipped in the ancient art of high-quality digital printing. We used him to print our publicity materials for this show. His prices are incredible, and his quality is top notch.
1000 postcards (two-sided colour) for $200.
100 posters on high-quality glossy stock for $60.
Anyone who’s grown tired of the Kinkos manoeuvre or of similarly high-priced print options, you need to write this information down – talk to Mafu Jiang.
Here’s the info:
416 303 3214
Located near Lansdowne & Dundas in Toronto
An independent printer for the independent theatre. What’s not to love?
An actor’s 30-hour research bender
By James Murray
The question is this: As the sole performer in Praxis Theatre’s upcoming rail-inspired play Steel, how can I learn the requisite Canadian rail history without having to sift through Pierre Berton’s 496-page rail primer The Last Spike?
I’ve been listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s Canadian Railroad Trilogy, but I’m afraid that only serves as a small dose of inspiration. Clearly, I need a more adventurous research project.
With that in mind, I called Derek Ridsdale – an old Ottawa Valley high school chum. (Those in the know call him “Uncle Ridsy”. It’s an inside joke, and only a marginally funny one at that. Take it or leave it.)
These days Uncle Ridsy is based in London, Ontario, and has been working for Canadian Pacific Railway for 13 years. His family are fourth-generation railway workers. Coincidentally, one of the characters I play in Steel, George, is a fourth-generation steel worker – “making history with 10,000 tons of steel.” As it turns out, the semi-fictional George and the very real Uncle Ridsy have much in common.
Here’s another charcteristic they share: when Uncle Ridsy’s name comes up in discussions among friends, his charismatic and energetic storytelling ability is the gravitas around which our reminisces orbit. When he has a tale that sufficiently excites his interest, Uncle Ridsy is prone to standing up and waving his arms wildly in the air, acting out each nuance of his story. Steel‘s George has been written with a similar delivery in mind.
This parallel and divine coincidence provided an amazing opportunity for me. So I phoned him up: “Uncle Ridsy? It’s Jimmy Murray!”
“I’m doing research for a role. Can I come see you in London so you can tell me stories about the railroad? Please. Uncle Ridsy?”
His response: “Sure buddy! C’mon out fuck! I’ll tell ya everything ya need to fuckin’ know fuck! I’ll take ya out to the yard, put a maul in yer hand, you can drive all the fuckin’ spikes ya want!”
So I did.
Booze and steaks
I meet Uncle Ridsy at Yorkdale Mall in north Toronto for lunch at The Pickle Barrel. We both order ruben sandwiches. His wife, Melissa happens to be working in the Greater Toronto Area that day so she picks us up.
It’s a pleasant 90-minute drive from Toronto to London, with the music of “Guided By Voices” and “Tapes ’n Tapes” playing loudly in the background – a view of sunshine reflecting off the snowbanks and frozen trees. I fall asleep.
I awake in the parking lot of a liquor store in downtown London. Uncle Ridsy is slapping my knee.
“We need booze and steaks!” he says.
We obtain the provisions and head out to their cozy, suburban home. He calls it ‘The Ranch’. I receive a warm welcome from Jack and Charlie – a chihuahua-maltese mutt and a well-fed tabby cat, respectively.
Uncle Risdy gives me a quick tour of the house before we get down to business with the tunes, the Tuborg and the steaks.
I pull out my photocopy of the Steel script and my Praxis Theatre notebook.
How to derail a train
“First things first,” I say, “what’s a section gang?”
Uncle Ridsy begins: “Yeah, yeah . . . they’re the nuts, bolts and rail boys. The train can damage the track at any time, eh? So they send the gang out to repair it.”
That is, out to repair that particular ‘section’ of track . . . hence the name “section” gangs.
“How do they repair the track and what tools do they use?”
Temperature, apparently, is the problem.
When the temperature drops to -30°C during our harsh Canadian winters, the rails shrink and the nuts, bolts and spikes can fly out, explains Uncle Ridsy. In the summer, when it gets as hot as +30°C, the rail can be damaged by heat kinks, which can derail a train. No problem, he says, the section gangs use specialty tools like track jacks, track wrenches, spike mauls and tamping bars.
This technical line of inquiry goes on for some time. My questions and his answers becoming more arbitrary as one topic leads to the next.
Wow. Did I ever not know anything about how the railroad works.
Under the volcano
He fills me in about the track bed and how it used to be made of molten lava, which is apparently really harmful to the environment. Now they use chipped limestone they get from a plant up in Beachville, Ontario.
We cover the yard crews, which consist of a brake man, a conductor and an engineer. Uncle Ridsy goes off on a tirade about how one guy can put a mile-long train together by himself using a remote control beltpac.
I learn about the different types of cars: hoppers, flatbeds and gondolas. We even stage a scene from the play so I can understand the basic physics behind how the cars actually attach: the big metal hooks are called ‘couplings’ and when they attach, they call it the ‘knuckle’.
The more I ask him to specify, the more I get out of him.
What the fuck is an S&C box?
The biggest challenge comes when he tries to elucidate the systematic procedures of the ‘Signals and Communications Dept.’ or S&C box, which is his current placement. He is a signalman, stationed in a small box or bungalow somewhere along the endless miles of track. The S&C box stores a multitude of current relays, a rectifier that converts alternate current (AC) to direct current (DC) and a bank of batteries.
It took Ridsy almost 13 years to learn how to operate this highly sophisticated control system, forgive me if I can’t go too deeply into it here.
Uncle Ridsy and the poem
My next set of questions pertain specifically to excerpts from the script. For this to work, poor Ridsy has to interpret the script’s poetic description of the signalman job:
“I tried to write freelance but they offered me steady money, tied to the nexus of ten thousand steel roads, calibrating signals: it’s a little glass box with a solenoid coil and when you run a current through it, it pushes against a spring and makes a connection: electric violence, caged, a thunderbolt bent double.”
Boy do we ever sweat with this one. Uncle Ridsy fights like a pitbull trying to decipher this poem and the whole system for me. He’s madly scribbling diagrams all over my notebook and his phone bill. When we finally reach a slight level of satisfaction, he says, “Steak’s ready!”
We eat, drink, listen to some more fine music then cab down to Scott’s Corner Pub for a nightcap.
A broken knuckle
The next day Ridsy takes me on a all-access tour of the railyard.
I’m playing with all these 25 lb. tools and get a tour of an actual S&C box, at which point Uncle Ridsy gets all worked up again trying to explain the details of the various switches and levers. Then he shows me the car attachment devices: the coupling, hot shot and knuckle. It makes me think of a particularly grisly scene from the play . . . holy shit!
As we’re driving out, I see a broken knuckle on the ground.
“Stop,” I say, “I wanna grab that. That’d be perfect for the set!”
“Dude, it’ll rip through my fuckin’ car!” Uncle Ridsy says. “Weighs about 400 lb.!”
Are you on the bus or are you off the bus?
Ridsdale, Melissa and I top off the trip with dinner at a Vietnamese-Thai fusion place. I climb on the 8:30 pm Greyhound with a belly full of pad thai and pass out. It was 30 hours well spent.
As an actor trying to understand the inner workings of the Canadian rail system for a part, this trip to London helped immensely. It gives me insight into what the characters in the play are talking about and what they’re going through.
I’m sure Andrew Zadel would have been happy to fill in the blanks, but – you’ve heard – our playwright’s in the Congo.
Andrew. Come back. Your play misses you.
How to write a play
By Andrew Zadel
Some guy once said, “I am not a writer except when I write”. So, according to that guy, I have not been a writer for quite some time, but instead am just a stodgy international civil servant with a profound, unshakeable and yet completely uninspiring sense of self-loathing. And I trust that guy – whoever the fuck he is. He seems to know a lot about me.
My psychic told me that in a former life I was a playwright and musician in Montreal. But now I work for the UN in The Democratic (and hot) Republic of Congo, right on the Rwandan border. In the last two months the area has seen a major volcanic eruption, massive rebel military advances with concomitant thievery and sexual violence, and the displacement of 100,000 people.
I have written all about it: daily reports, weekly reports, monthly reports . . . it’s kind of like being a secretary in hell. Lots of reports. No play. Ever seen The Shining?
Anyway, despite the Sisyphean office purgatory that actually briefly robbed me of my ability to walk due to the complete atrophying of my back muscles, no one can dispute the fact that I wrote this play called Steel that is going to be performed in Toronto in March by the handsome and talented James Murray.
Other than that, my only connection to the Toronto arts scene is my obsessive and repetitive consumption of the latest offerings of all-girl power trio Magenta Lane. If I can convince the drummer to go see the play, it will be almost like being “on the scene” – in a 21st century “I have given my body to the Internet” kind of way.
This social amputation is almost fitting, however, given that Steel was always written in isolation. The first round was staring out the window of a VIA train from Vancouver to Toronto. The landscape made it onto the paper, but there was hardly a play there.
Luckily, as some kind of slow-burning investment, my dad had bought a condo in the marshy retirement community of Alexandria, Ontario. I locked myself in there for a week with five boxes of cereal, a book about turn-of-the-century railway work gangs, and somebody’s PhD thesis about tourism on the Queen Charlotte Islands. I forbade myself from walking over to the Tim Horton’s, lest I lose a day or two hanging out with bored rural high school kids. My only human contact was listening one night to someone screaming and sobbing violently outside the neighbouring hospital.
So, as planned, I was left with no other options and I wrote. And I wrote and I read and I wrote some more. And then I deleted, and I deleted some more. Art is communication, and I was stuck talking to myself in an unfinished apartment overlooking a Canada geese breeding ground. If you press the delete key often enough, you can even erase the words from inside your stomach.
So the play got written, but only after I made it back to my fellow human beings. There is definitely a small part of my soul that was eaten by Alexandria, Ontario. But at least it seems to have been spat back into the text: the grandfather I knew only as a pair of calloused hands offering me bubblegum, the raw and unfinished country I have wandered from time to time, the eight-foot beams I stacked under summer sun in a Montreal rail yard . . .
I guess that’s why people like this play – because it is about all of us. It’s about getting out of bed every day and doing shit that you don’t want to do, because people expect things from you and you’re standing there staring at a table with no bread on it. You gotta do what you gotta do. You can’t just pack it all in and be a playwright. right?
Okay, back to work. Reports to be written. Somebody eat a snowflake for me.