Bad Weather Moods, Friends and To Kill A Mockingbird

I was in a bad mood going into Theatre Calgary’s production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Something had crawled inside my head a day ago and hadn’t left. Nothing particular or specific, just that pervasive sense of (boring) cynical negativity that makes me no fun to be around. I ask weird questions when I’m in this space. It’s clear by looking at me something’s wrong and I’m just not myself. But these moods are like weather, and I’ve found that just waiting until it passes is the best thing possible.

I was not looking forward to the play.

I had been before. My oldest friend, Aaron Conrad, is in it, and I’ve tried to see all of Aaron’s plays since he started acting in high school . I have to claim bias up front, but the truth is it’s always easy going to Aaron’s plays. Have you ever been friends or family with an artist (of whatever discipline) where you go out to support them but when it comes right down to it you just can’t get your head or heart around what they do? You’d never tell them to their face, of course, but the fact is that you just don’t dig their stuff. You wouldn’t engage with it at all if you didn’t know them. Those kinds of people? That’s not Aaron for me. What I’ve always appreciated about his work is that he’s good at what he does, but more importantly he’s invested in getting better. You hear it in the way he talks, whether it be about a specific role or about the profession in general. It’s always enlightening listening to actors talk about their career. They feel it more than the rest of us do, I think.

In Mockingbird, Aaron was playing the part of Boo Radley. It’s a small but integral part, and from what I understand he got the role primarily because of his excellent (again, bias) work as one of the (I forget the name) mental patients in last year’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. While I had problems with that staging of Nest, what Aaron did was impressive, and I can see why someone seeing his performance there could have found a way for him in Mockingbird. Whether or not that’s the case, I’m not sure/can’t remember.

So it’s a shame that I wasn’t looking forward to it. That the mood had come on that made me resent even stepping out the door when all I wanted to do was go back to bed or spend a quiet night at home not thinking about anything in particular. It’s not the attitude that you want to come to a friend’s work with. In addition, I was starting to suspect that my feelings for last year’s Nest were going to repeat in Mockingbird. I had been told that reviews for this production were mediocre. I was prepared for a difficult/bad mood evening.

I forget how much I like theatres. The actual structure of a theatre. It’s a good idea. When I walked through the smaller hallways and doorways with my mother and sister (who I had come to the play with) we emerged into a large open space that is specifically theatrical. The levels of seats. The tall ceilings. The boxes where the audience mills about the edges, giving the room a depth that would be lost if we were all in the same plane. I looked over at the stage and saw that it was set up like a courtroom, with jury seats where members of the audience could sit. And in the middle of this courtroom stood a tree. A large tree with branches that disappeared upwards out of view.

My first thought was that, if you were ever to have a museum to trees, this was how you’d do it. A large theatre with a tree in an enclosed space, with the tree almost standing in as performer. With roots and dirt for stage. There would be something remarkable about going through hallways and small rooms and coming into a theatre with a tree inside, a massive living, green tree that you would sit and stare at.

My second thought was that the stage was too small. My dread deepened. I couldn’t imagine how the play could work in such a small space. I didn’t like the idea of the audience on stage. It didn’t speak to me immediately (the absolute sign that it will not/cannot work, of course). I sat in my seat and watched the audience get settled. Like last year’s Nest, I found that most of the audience were middle-aged and older. There seemed to be a few younger people here and there, but my first read of the crowd was older. I started to look up the levels and saw people talking, interacting, and something happened that made me relax just the littlest bit. I think I heard someone say before that there were 600 seats in that theatre. If every seat were full that would mean that there would be 600 men and women sitting down to enjoy a performance, a fiction, that was unique in its presenting. We’d sit in the dark and have a relationship with the people on stage for a couple of hours. If the play was good, we’d laugh, we’d cry, we’d have something to think about. Made me realize that it wasn’t just the architecture of theatres that was a good idea. Theatre is a good idea. 600 people all thinking different thoughts with different histories watching the same performance that is interactive is a good idea.

It’s not big revelation, I know, but it started me down the path of getting out of my mood. Sometimes the simplest stuff does. Depression, when it hits, is like being told you’re not just someone else entirely but believing it entirely. It’s like dreaming and not remembering your waking life. And then something happens and you remember. You follow the path out, if you can, and for the next two or three hours that’s what I did.

The play was great. The characters from the book came alive in the performances. I came to understand and appreciate the idea of the jury/audience and the play between the two and by the end of it I couldn’t see how it could have been any other way. It struck me that To Kill a Mockingbird could come across very easily as heavy-handed if you didn’t do it right. It’s very on point with its message, with the questions it is asking, but even though I saw those center stage what saved it for me were the characters and the performances. I cared about these people and I found myself thinking throughout what the message and questions meant for me. I was thinking a lot about courage, and what it meant to start when you knew you were going to lose but starting anyway. Which led me to think about a lot of other things.

And Aaron, of course, for what time he was on the stage, shone.

It’s good to have talented friends. It’s better to have families who put up with sudden mood shifts. And it’s a great thing that we, as a species, came up with theatre. Or fiction. Or music. Or domesticated dogs, for that matter. Architecture. The whole lot. Sometimes it’s a book that rescues me from a bad day. More often times it’s my wife. But yesterday it was a play. And it was a very good play indeed.


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William Neil Scott

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