I was born in Edmonton, but not this one. This one is currently scrolling past me as I sit on a bus with a handful of other performers, cruising out of town after ten days worth of festival. This Edmonton isn’t in my native North London, but in Alberta, Canada, and, as my bus rolls past Humpty’s Family restaurant and Hudson’s Bay homewares, and slipstreams onto the freeway, just by where McDonalds and Tim Hortons glare at each other across the street, I thought I’d write a few thoughts about the last week and change.
I spent most of the flight here calm, chilled, but with irregular spikes of sudden panic. I don’t do outdoor shows as regularly as I once did, and although they’re still some of the most rewarding and enjoyable things that I do, there’s always a little period of adjusting back to the medium. This period tends to involve random little jolts of electrified worry, spasming out of nowhere, and filling my brain with things I need to remember to do, things I need to remember to find out how to do, and twelve dozen different flavours of “what if…?”
It’s like how sometimes, when you’re drifting off to sleep and jolt yourself awake, you think you were dreaming of tripping or falling. That’s not what happens. What happens is that, for whatever reason, your muscles spasm, waking you up, and then your brain scrambles to find a reason that your body did that, and fabricates a memory of tripping or falling. It gives you a plausible backstory to explain the feeling away. It’s true. Crazy, right? Well, it’s kinda the same with stress. I’m lightly stressed because I’m going away, leaving my two favourite ladies (ok, one of them is a cat), to do my stupid job, and from that point on, very little is guaranteed. What if it rains? What if nobody likes me? What if I’m no good at this any more? My brain tries to find reasons to explain away my baseline anxiety, but the bottom line is, it’s a bit of a stressful job, but it’ll probably all be fine. (Spoiler: It all turns out fine)
I get to the hotel and unpack. I’m very happy to find out that the hotel has a gym. Exercise and meditation are good for keeping your shit together when working away from home. I also brought my camera. I’m pretty shy, but having a camera gives me the inspiration to go out looking for interesting things to see, and the bravery to talk to people. It’s sometimes a little easier interacting with the world through a lens.
Then its downstairs to the conference room and meeting all the other performers. I’ve written before about how one of the sad parts of my job can be that many of ones friends are scattered around the world, and part of your life for short periods every couple of years. The flipside to this is the joy of being in a completely new part of the world, walking into a room, and seeing a bunch of people that you love, as happy to see you as you are to see them. Quickly, we all catch up, new friends are introduced, and in no time we’re a gang again. Stresses reduced by the simple knowledge that they are shared.
At one point in the introduction meeting, a local performer stands up, and addresses the people who have travelled from outside Canada. “Here”, she says, almost sternly but not quite, “We say thank you to the bus driver. That’s just what we’re like. So….”, and she fixes the room with a stare. This is Canada, dammit, and you will be DELIGHTFUL. Perfect.
On the morning of the first day of shows, news comes through the social media grapevine that one of our global family has died. Nils Pol was a street performer, juggler, clown. He had struggled with cancer for more than a while, and it finally put him to sleep. We were sad, of course, but being street performers, talk quickly turned to tales of silly things he’d done, shows, gags, and proof was instantly and effortlessly given to the theory that you live on through your work. There he was, living on. More than that, Nils designed the best juggling hat you could buy. We all use them. If you’ve ever seen me do my hat and cane routine – thats a Nils Pol hat. Every street performer who does hat tricks, used one of his beautiful hats, so there it is, he’s been in all of our shows for years, and will continue to be, except now, whenever we look at the hat in our hand, it’ll mean something extra.
On the first day I arrived I’d noticed a good looking diner. If you know me, you’ll know I prize a good greasy spoon above most things in life, so I made a mental note to go back. Boy howdy did it deliver, when I did.
The Commodore Restaurant isn’t huge, but it’s big enough to feel spacious and calm. Tables run along one long wall, and a couple of curved counters flanked with stools along the other. My friend Fraser and I sit down and get greeted by Wilma, who presents us with the breakfast menu, which has remained pretty much unchanged since the place opened in 1942. More combinations of eggs and hotcakes than you might think were mathematically possible. When Wilma returns with my omelette, home fries and french toast, we chat some more. She hasn’t been working there long, she says, just 33 years. Seven days a week. Never had a vacation. But her house is paid off, and she put her kid through college, and she loves hanging out with all her regulars every day. She’s genuinely cheerful. It’s not a “have a nice day” act, she’s happy. Interested in the people she meets. Curious, and aware, completely, of the emotional importance of her job. I tell her how much I love places like hers, and how important they are, and a customer, eavesdropping, agrees.
The week passes. The more shows I do, the more the anxiety lessens. Like a boxer loosening up into the middle rounds and finding their rhythm, all the little nuances of my act come trickling back to me, and before long I’m bouncing around, having lovely show after lovely show. I enjoy telling my audiences I’m from the other, “slightly more stabby” Edmonton. I get laughs from saying that, yes, I’ve come all the way from London – the real London, not their cheapo Canadian knock-off. As often happens when I work places like this, the ex-pats come and chat to me after my shows, telling me where in the UK they came from, and how long they’ve lived out here. I get given free ice-creams, pose for selfies, and generally have a very fine time being reminded of what a beautiful transaction street performing is. Everyone leaves happy – me and them – win win.
It’s mostly very hot weather. In one show I have two distinct dizzy spells. It’s hard work. I like hard work. My skin is dry and rough from the sun. My throat raspy from yelling jokes at strangers. My circus schtick makes my back throb. There is no more satisfying kind of exhaustion. My moods swing, and I do all I can to keep myself stable, but sometimes you just don’t have the tools. One morning I wake up feeling low. Screwy circadians from the jetlag don’t help. I roll myself out of bed and convince myself to go to the gym. An hour of cardio later and it doesn’t seem to be helping much. I sit down on the weights bench and start lifting, and my phones shuffle throws up a silly, hardly listened to, song, which is way too embarrassing to name (“Gettin’ jiggy with it” by Will Smith), and the dumb bouncy positivity of the thing unplugs a valve in my head and suddenly I’m doing dumbbell curls while crying and laughing. Which is, of course, when someone else comes in to use them gym, sees me, does a perfect U-turn, and leaves. You never can tell what’s going to convince the black dog to leave, right?
On the final night of the run, we take over city hall, and turn the spectacular seat of local government into our playroom for a night. Nearly a thousand people come and sit on the stairs, line the walls and watch all the artists do something different. I get to be a part of a hat juggling routine. Our own little secret tribute to Nils Pol. I’m also lucky enough to be the person chosen to open the show. A spotlight finds me two stories up, I saunter to the top of a long flight of stairs, and slide down the bannister, as the spotlight follows me. The crowd actually gasps. Then I do it again, down a second long staircase, sliding off the bannister onto the marble floor and taking stage centre as a thousand people applaud my coolness. It was, no doubt at all, one of the most pleasurable moments of my performing career. No real trick, no gag, just character, stagecraft, and the thing that my parents used to shout at me for doing. It was two days ago, and when I think about it I still feel a little butterfly in my chest. Thanks, theatre.
And here I am, on a bus scattered with dozing variety acts, watching the pine trees and flat yellow fields slide past as the drizzle draws its own roadways on my window. Signs for almost impossibly correct places zip by – Pelican Creek. Zip. Green view. Zip. Ridge Valley. Zip. Next stop, Grande Prairie, for another week of shows to a whole new town full of people. Lets go. Zip.