June 23, 2018
A mother and son, on stage and off, consider what brings them together
There is something in the water at the World Waterpark at West Edmonton Mall and it’s not just the occasional unknown floating object—it’s a buoyant ambition, a resilience that keeps dreams afloat, a dexterity that says anything is possible.
All over the world, there are remarkable artists doing great work who took the Edmonton waters (not the chlorinated WEM water, but the elixir of possibility that comes from our taps). Like pilgrims at Lourdes or visitors to spa towns, they’ve experienced at best a small miracle, and at least the rejuvenating cleanse that comes from knowing no one is going to stop you doing what you want. The thing about Edmonton is how good a total immersion feels—a baptismal soak that says, “I’m in, come what may.” And when it comes, Edmonton will reward your loyalty and send you off into the world with an explosive splash. Ejected from the winding water slide in a rush of adrenalin, the city lets you go.
I’m 21, arriving from the UK with two suitcases filled with the most improbable things: a treasured vase from my grandmother, a lithograph by Augustus John, a Royal Doulton cheese dish. And when I unpacked this Mary Poppins portmanteau, I realized that I had not brought socks. Hello Edmonton.
I was intrigued but confused. Where were all the people? After living in London, being jostled daily on the Tube and the Strand, there was something eerily silent about walking the High Level Bridge to the the university to study and teach and not passing a soul. But Edmonton, quiet and vast, was opening her arms, and gently saying, “Welcome. You are at home here. Be what you want.”
Edmonton invites a loyalty and stick-to-itiveness while you’re with her. No easy escape to the next party, no flibbertigibbetness. You stay longer at the table, holding your end of the conversation. Holding a gaze. Fighting for an idea. Digging a little deeper for the point. It takes time to bundle up—an effort to leave, finding my coat on the pile in the bedroom, sourcing my boots from the jumble in the hall, bracing for the blast of cold.
So stay. Stick with the conversation. Love the ones you’re with. And long past the moment when you might have left, might have given up, here it is: a look, an
acknowledgement. A depth of feeling from a hard-won moment. And that’s how the art is in Edmonton. It is stubborn. Slow to reveal. Deep when it comes. Real. Grateful for the effort. That’s how the artists are, as well. They don’t leave the party too soon. I take their motivations and inspirations with me everywhere I go. Stay. Stick with it. Labour.
Stepping into a rehearsal room for the first time as a child. A spare and blank space. A crucible for what will be made here. A work hall. A sanctuary. A womb. They’re not all the same, but they all feel the same. Teeming with possibility. Itching to get going. Ready for beauty to be built. My first was the Citadel. There’s never been one more exciting. Everything
I learned about bringing those spaces to life, I learned under the watchful and inspiring eye of Bob.
“If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you . . . ”
And more than anything, I have a feeling of being
home. A place to be safe. A place to take risks. A place to create something from nothing, and to build a family each time. This is a feeling I can replicate anywhere I go, and every rehearsal space has it. Travelling up in the elevator with Cicely Tyson and James Earl Jones at the 42nd Street Studios in New York—we’re going to the same place—we’re going to a new home with that familiar feeling. It’s a feeling I’ve tested in 30 theatres over 50 weeks on a US tour with my new family. A feeling I trust. A place that is always the Citadel. Always Edmonton. Always wondrous.
It took a while to see her beauty and appreciate her generosity. An upbringing in the UK is an education in skepticism and self-doubt. Can I really do anything I want? Will Edmonton flirt a little then ignore me at the next party? Is she constant? Is she true? Is she waiting for something better to come along?
But I learn that it is almost impossible to disappoint her. Arriving over-dressed at student parties, I am made to feel at home. Ordering pizza over the phone and struggling to make my accent understood, I’m told I sound just like Lady Di (I don’t, but Edmonton doesn’t care about lineage). Edmonton thrives on my contentment, not on my insecurity. She is as constant as the sky. Wide. Blue. Clear. Sure. All she asks is that I become the same. That’s not easy. I am Low. Grey. Overcast. Uncertain. But she teaches me.
Week three in Edmonton. Blinding headaches. An inability to open my eyes without searing pain. The nausea that accompanies extreme throbbing. A tumour for sure. An anxious visit to the campus health centre. A kindly doc with a Scottish burr. “Where are you from?” “Wales. Just arrived. Never had this kind of pain.” A careful look behind my eyes with the opthalmoscope. “It’s just the light. You’re not used to it. Buy some good sunglasses. Welcome to Alberta.”
I remember sitting in my car seat in the back of the car. How old? How light? How short? Who knows? It was Easter time and all kinds of CBC coverage of the holy days. We were outside Mountain Equipment Co-op on 124 Street and I asked, “Do we believe in God, Mum?” Pause. Pause. Pulled the car over. Stopped. Turned. “I don’t. You may in time. We don’t go to church. But we do go to the theatre.” And there it was. A reverence. A belief. A commitment to the holiness of sitting in the dark. Alone. Experiencing something that will never happen again. Watching meaning unfold. Becoming more human. I turned to religion.
A girl from the seaside making sense of the prairie.
And now, 13 years later, making sense of single. Making a new home for our two-person family. “Hi, you’ve reached Catrin and Ben, please leave a message.” My dear and outspoken girlfriend reminds me that, “until that five-year-old is helping to pay the mortgage you shouldn’t make it sound like he’s your man . . . ” We are early adopters of Edmonton’s warehouse district and the CBC does a radio piece on children living downtown. I assure them that we do what everyone else does and make a pitch for more playgrounds in the city core. Years pass in contented singledom, and then comes a whale of a man from Ontario with Alberta sky-blue eyes and a smile as wide as the North Saskatchewan River. Edmonton becomes home for us all—new sisters, too—as only Edmonton could. Gently, generously, without hesitation or adjudication. I buy a painting of a red canoe on a mountain lake. It’s called The Crossing. “Welcome home, darling.”
Auditioning. Knowing that everything I want rides on the moment. Starting to understand that fit is everything. That it’s not just me. Hard to learn at nine. Important to learn for my life. I didn’t get the part. But I shook Bob’s hand. Tried to grip with manly strength. Held his gaze, “I really want this.” Doing my utmost to telegraph a seriousness, a gravitas, a deep “knowing.” Just a round-faced boy. Willing to give up everything else: skiing, baseball, soccer. I had to enter this church.
“We’d like to offer Ben a part in a play. But you should read it first. It’s dark. He’s young. You may not be comfortable with it. He kills both his parents onstage . . . ”
Mother and father smothered with a pillow by a son. For art. For story. For beauty. Reading the script and deciding about exposing a boy to a life hallmarked by complexity, darkness, the struggle between reality and invention. And knowing, even then, that he had already chosen his sacred way. That it would always be a quiet place we could connect. That, even in those awkward years, we would be able to sit shoulder to shoulder in a theatre, sharing an experience, at home in the silence. Facing the horrors and the splendour. Loving the play or hating it.
“I think he should do the play.”
It’s 2001, and I’m watching Hamlet. It’s complicated, and I struggle to understand the ghosts and the relationships and the disappointments. Yet David Storch’s Hamlet is mesmerizing; I can’t look away. He’s confused, he’s raging, he’s athletic. The words are muscular and strong. The music of the words is harmonic and dissonant. A new high priest: Shakespeare. A new depth of commitment. Four hundred years. Still so angry. Still so sure. Still so accurate. My stiff shirt is tight on my neck, but Mum tells me we dress to honour the performances. I am a bit uncomfortable, and then I realise I’m supposed to be.
We are in the car again. Always the car for the big moments. You are 17 and applying to theatre schools. Only theatre schools. The careful and doubtful in me fears for this plan. All the eggs in one basket. What if? I suggest an alternative: a safe bachelor of arts degree at the University of Alberta. Just in case. Just like me. Cautious. You fix me with a kind but firm stare: “You might need a Plan B. I don’t.”
I’m reminded that advice is often fear disguised as wisdom. It is me who can’t see the future. You can live with the consequences of the boldness. My timidity has no place in your head. I vow to keep my fear to myself. You can always do a BA later.
We are in New York on a post-graduation theatre spree. Two plays a day, packing them in. That crush of humanity and souvenirs and pretzels and litter on Broadway. And then, the sanctuary of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where Denzel Washington is playing in A Raisin in the Sun. This is not a movie-star performance. He’s subtle and quiet and a powerful ensemble member. It’s beautiful to watch and David Cromer’s weaselly Karl Lindner is pitch-perfect. A sliver of a performance, but I chase him down the street afterwards to thank him for that bit of precision. As a treat, you take my grandmother and me to Sardi’s. It is time travel. Elderly waiters in burgundy red blazers. Crab cakes. Old fashioned cocktails and actors . . . everywhere I look, a famous face smiling a cartoon grin down from the walls. As we leave, I say, “Next time we come here, I’ll be opening on Broadway, and I’ll buy.” We laugh. Somehow, miraculously, it was the next time we were at Sardi’s. I opened in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time at the Ethel Barrymore: a warren of dressing rooms and stories. My new home. The ghost of beautiful Philip Seymour Hoffman in the halls. Death of a Salesman before death of an actor. Nain and Mum in the second row, beside a lady making sandwiches from a bag of groceries. The same lady wept at the stage door after the show. Christopher had spoken to her.
Dinner at Sardi’s after the show. Without prompting, they hand me the lower-priced actor’s menu, and serve me hot water, honey and lemon. They know I’ve just come off the stage. I had the crab cakes again, and someone came over to say they’d enjoyed the play. They apologized for interrupting our family time. Apologized—for making my dream come true! My shout this time. I ask for the cheque.
A Canadian citizenship ceremony: post forms, post line-ups, post test—and after 25 years of landed immigrant status, I’m finally taking the plunge. And I want to do it alone, in quiet communion with what is now my country in the basement of the library. But after the oath, I look up and there he is, Mr. Alberta with the sky-blue eyes: big and smiling and full of optimism. Like the country. “Welcome to Canada.”
The card is actually green. Of course it is. But still it surprises me. There it is, nestled in my hand. My unsmiling face on my permission to stay. A welcome that
I bought. An opportunity that I paid for. A complicated time to call America home when so much of what it does and says these days is so unlike what I know and value. I’m quiet about the moment; I want to celebrate it alone. I’ve been carried away from home by the comforting waters of the North Saskatchewan, and now I can see the Hudson River from the end of my new street. Everything I am has been shaped by that early taking of the waters. I choose a quiet communion at Lillie’s, my favourite bar. The bar-keeper is
from Liverpool, that port on the River Mersey, not far from where Mum was born. He is big and smiling and full of optimism . . .
You are at Home Here by Catrin Owen and Ben Wheelright originally ran in the Canada150 issue of Eighteen Bridges magazine, which was a special collection of essays commissioned for Edmonton Community Foundation’s (ECF) High Level Lit project — a partnership between ECF, Eighteen Bridges, and LitFest. The published collection of these essays was awarded Best Editorial Package of the Year at the 2017 Alberta Magazine Publishers Association Awards and was instrumental in Eighteen Bridges being named Magazine of the Year at those same awards. The project was also nominated for two National Magazine Awards, including Omar Mouallem’s essay Homeland for the Holidays, which won gold in the Personal Journalism category. To mark Canada’s 151st anniversary of Confederation, ECF is making digital versions of these stories available to the public.