You are going to die in an hour and a half.
You are going to die at the end of the play.
— Queen Marguerite, Exit the King
My real introduction to theatre1 began with Eugene Ionesco’s, Exit the King. It was a small production at The Guild, in the early part of 1997, in Whitehorse, Yukon. I remember the time and year distinctly, because it was one of the first assignments to be done for my first semester in the MAD program.
MAD stands for Music, Art, and Drama, a school-within-a-school program at my high school, where a group of students were separated from the main system to study in a more focused way. In my first semester of MAD, that meant that my classes for the semester took place at the Yukon Arts Centre, an impressive and relatively new building at the time. During our four months in this building, we performed a variety show, a series of one act plays, and then a big musical at the end. I had entered the program, because of several of my friends having switched to it, with a focus on music; I left with a greater appreciation for the arts that has lived long past my time there.
Exit the King, in hindsight, is a rather odd introduction to theatre for a teenager. A French absurdist playwright, Eugene Ionesco, wrote it as a lesson on death. The King is in denial that he is dying and refuses to give up his power over his kingdom. Through the play, with the assistance of the Queen and the Doctor, he begins to understand and accept that his life is fading. As a teenager, you identify with the King since he, like you, is invincible, ready to take on all the challenges of the world, and believes that life will never end. And yet, it reminds you that life is a constant flirtation with death, and that, ultimately, you will give in to her ways.
This production has remained memorable for me nearly twenty years later, because it is a fantastic play, but also because Queen Marguerite was played by my drama teacher, Mary Sloan.
June 15 happened to be her last day of teaching the senior groups of MAD2.
As her final major musical production closed for the school a month ago, I found myself thinking about the impact she and her teaching partner, Jeff Nordlund, have had on me, and about all the other lives they have touched through their MAD program. The MAD program did what regular high school fails to do on a regular basis: it prepared us for life.
The MAD program was less about music, art, and drama, and more about taking a group of 25 teenagers from all walks of life, putting them together and learning how to make something out of nothing. The regular high school amplifies the separation of the student body and creates the cliques for you through how people dress, their grades, or their school activities outside the classroom. MAD basically destroyed a lot of those cliques.3 From the first day of that semester, you learned that you will have to work with everyone in the group, that you will be put into situations you aren’t comfortable with, and that everyone is equal. If you couldn’t accept those challenges, you were better off leaving and returning to the regular school. The acceptance of others’ abilities and appearance was as important as working on improving your own abilities.
A dedication and respect of the work was equally important. You had to show up on time, to do the work that allowed you to learn your lines ahead of schedule or be able to do that one dance move properly. To do otherwise, showed disrespect to the rest of the group. The consequences were as extreme as being stripped of a part or being kicked out of MAD. There was no discussion with a principal and hoping to resolve your differences. Change was made for the better of the group, not a single person.
Of course, this wasn’t a military setting where we were being grilled for every wrong doing. This was a setting where we were routinely setup to fail, to laugh at our failures, to learn from our failures, and to grow together. More often than not, we conquered those failures and the fear of failing. MAD allowed me to get over my fear of public speaking to such a degree that I went from having small roles on stage in my first year, to being able to pull off this performance with a good friend the following year:
Incredibly, we nailed it.4 There is no bigger rush than being on stage with one other person, in front of 400 critical teens, and hearing them burst into laughter. The entire time, we both knew that one minor slip-up could throw off the entire bit, but we both thrived under that pressure and ignored our fear of failure to make people laugh. And the fact that these kids were laughing at a routine done 50 years before, that they had likely never even heard of (pre-YouTube), made it that much better.
The lessons we learned in those incredibly long, stressful, fun-filled days did more for my mental health than any time I spent sitting in a desk surrounded by other students. I found the work on the productions rewarding enough that it pushed me to attempt to make a career of it. Much of what I learned in the final years of high school in the MAD program, allowed me to make the adjustment to University life much better than I could have imagined. Although I no longer work in theatre,5 I still utilize these skills in my current career path in the hospitality industry, and also as a father.
Being tired and not feeling like doing something is an excuse found throughout life. It isn’t one you find in the performing arts world, nor in parenthood. You have to wake up and do the work without resisting. Afterwards, the reward is more gratifying than anything money can buy.
Like the King, it took me a long time to fully realize the importance of the lessons that were taught to me those days. 17 years later. I don’t think I could give enough credit to the MAD program for helping me discover who I was and what I was passionate about in life. Mary and Jeff believed in each and every one of us, treated us as friends as much as students. I am sure I echo the sentiments of all those students that they have touched through the years when I say, “Thank you.”
Sometimes you have a dream. And you get involved, you believe in it, you love it. In the morning when you open your eyes, the two worlds are still confused. The brilliance of the light blurs the faces of the night. You’d like to remember, you’d like to hold them back. But they slip between your fingers, the brutal reality of day drives them away. What did I dream about, you ask yourself? What was it happened? Who was I kissing? Who did I love? What was I saying and what was I told? That you find you’re left with a vague regret for all those things that were or seemed to have been. You no longer know what it was that was there all around you.
Queen Marguerite, Exit the King
- The first production that I remember seeing was Dancing At Lughnasa. The only real memory of it was that it was performed at the United Church in Whitehorse, and that I was completely lost by the performance, likely because I was too young to appreciate it. Afterwards, there was a performance of Fried Green Tomatoes done by the MAD program when I was in junior high, but I don’t remember much about it either. ↩
- She will officially be done next January, after another semester of teaching Grade 9/10s. ↩
- That being said, we were still high school students, and drama was to be had. ↩
- The same performance didn’t go too well when we first tried it on the local radio station. Sorry, Robin. ↩
- A story to be told someday. ↩