Friday, November 23, 2012

Response: Tony Palermo on "My First Time"

[ED: Readers are invited to comment on articles appearing on the CharPo websites.]

My First Time
by Tony Palermo
I had never really seen (or paid attention to) a play until I was 19 years old.
[In reponse to My First Time by Gaëtan L. Charlebois]

(Tony Palermo was the founder of Gravy Bath Productions and the New Classical Theatre Festival. Having studied at John Abbott College, Tony was a producer, director and playwright from 1999-2006)

I too had an interesting cherry-popping experience with the theatre. It happened in two parts: First when I hated theatre (brutally disgusted is more like it) and then when I loved it (...uncontrollably at times).

I had never really seen (or paid attention to) a play until I was 19 years old. I think a few desperately lame productions travelled through my high school auditorium when I was a teenager but none of them left an impression (clearly) as I would usually take the opportunity to skip class ('foxer l'école' as we used to call it) or get severely intoxicated on hallucinogens and/or meth-amphetamines.

I was however truly committed to making my classroom the stage for obnoxious displays of what I considered 'very funny shit'. Seldom witty, mostly aggressive, often uncomfortable humor that the kids in my school ate up. I was rewarded with two trophies at my graduation: Most likely to be an actor and Most likely to end up in jail.

So with 60% average grades, I squeaked into college thinking I was going to be an actor. I signed up for the Theatre Workshop Program at John Abbott College and they sent me 10 photocopied pages of a 'script' to memorize and audition with the next week.

Let's put things into context here: I grew up in Roxboro. [Ed: a suburb of Montreal] 'Nough said.

At that point, I had never read a script, a play, a book, nor studied or memorized anything in my life. Nothing.

This wasn't the place for me. Not theatre. Clearly.

The script was for Theatre Workshop's 1997 production of 'You Can't Take it With You'. I read the first page. Didn't get it. Didn't understand the concept...reading, memorizing, auditioning. I gave up.

So I walked to the Technical Program's offices and asked if I could swing a hammer for them. I did so for the next two years, watching plays from the sidelines with little to no understanding of what was being talked about and more importantly having a growing feeling that I didn't belong nor could I relate to this 'boring' pastime.

I wanted 'action', 'laughs', 'danger',...something. This wasn't the place for me. Not theatre. Clearly.

I was almost done college and about to embark on a full-time career as night-time cinema cleaner at Plaza Cote-des-Neiges (which I had been doing for several years already to pay for my 'boring' time-wasting at Abbott); when my Tech Teacher, Cyrile, asked me what I was going to do now that I was finished school. A question no one had asked me up until that moment. I thought it through. Carefully.
By golly; an Actor, I thought.

It was probably more like: I dunno, what do you want from me?, an Actor, I guess. But whatever. Fuck.

That Fall I confidently signed up for John Abbott's Professional Theatre Program as an actor and 'auditioned' (if you want to call it was pretty much 'awful talking' and 'striving to remember words' and 'walking awkwardly back and forth from the same spot') for dozens of Shakespeare-in-the-park and Shakespeare-on-the-mountain and musical Shakespeare fringe productions around the city. I landed none of them. I was terribly unskilled and 'boring' and the directors knew this. I knew it as well and didn't blame them.

But then...something happened that hadn't happened before. Someone made a mistake and cast me as one-of-two stagehands in a production of Morris Panych's Lawrence & Holloman at the Geordie Space. I was ecstatic. We even convinced them to let us dress up differently for each scene-change so that Nic Wright and I (sorry Nic) could act out different characters that were 'stuck moving the set pieces'.

I watched every night from the sidelines at how engaging the 'action' was and how loud the audience's 'laughs' were and how visceral the 'danger' in the actor's movements and speech was. I was forever changed.

I never looked at theatre the same way again and never once attempted to produce anything less than synergistic, thought-provoking and current. It's still what I look for today in a production and when I find it: I get that ol' feeling again and what a great feeling it is.

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