How Did You Get To Be Here?
It's the 2nd of April, a Wednesday night, and the collected company of Glasgow Music Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along is crowded around a piano in the downstairs studio of Dance Glasgow. We’re busking our way through 'That Frank', a number from early on in the show in which the company boasts and revels in the many recent successes of my character, composer-turned- movie-producer Frank Shepard.
It is also, unbeknownst to the rest of the cast, my 34th birthday, and with a quiet satisfaction I consider that one could do far worse for yourself than to have a room full of friends sing your praises for an hour. But the true gifts, the ones I have been revelling in for months, are the spoils of these evenings of hard work as we endeavour to shape the beautiful moments for which Sondheim has provided such remarkable blueprints.
Merrily examines how one’s path through life is shaped by seemingly small choices, by risks and dedication, by compromises and regrets; and it puts the question to its lead characters early on in the proceedings: “How did you get to be here?” It is certainly a question I have been recently asking quite frequently in the context of preparing the show. What is it about these projects that are so captivating as to draw in amateurs like me, and have us gladly sink the few free hours remaining to us after the day job is done? What sparked this love of theatre and music in me, and has led me here?
The answer is obvious – a very common source, all too often taken for granted but which, day after day, transforms lives. My teachers have led me here. And so, if I’m going to take any time at all to discuss this hobby of mine that has so enriched my life these last years, it seems only right to take the briefest of moments to tell you about a couple of the people who’ve brought me to it.
My hometown of Nanaimo (chief exports: Nanaimo Bars, Diana Krall – you’re welcome) is on an island just off the west coast of Canada. From the 8th – 12th years of my education, I attended Nanaimo District Secondary School, and was there very fortunate to meet two men whose passions for their art and education would inspire me for years to come.
Ken Brewer taught the various incarnations of concert and jazz bands at the school during those years, tasked with the unimaginable duty of trying to guide unwieldy gangs of budding young musicians, layabouts and reprobates, toward some form of musical education. I can now only marvel at the mental fortitude it must have taken to brave the daily onslaught of neophyte musicians armed with brass and woodwind instruments. And yet, teach us he did, and with a passion so strong and infectious that we couldn’t help but be caught up in it.
A moment that so perfectly captures this contagious excitement is a memory of a hot afternoon in one of my first few years at the school. The class was, on the day, relatively unfocussed, and what had begun as an attempt to engage us in an informal discussion of the emotional power of music was quickly devolving into disinterested groups of clockwatching students, eager to escape. Sensing the class’ interest frittering away, Mr. Brewer changed tacks, and made us a deal. He would, first, prove his point; show us that emotion could be captured on a page and released back into the air. And, he added, it would only take him three minutes. After that, we were free to go. With that, he spun around in his chair, kicked the play button on a very small stereo wired to some very big speakers, and made believers of us all.
Pavarotti. Nessun Dorma. Entry level stuff for any dedicated student of music, sure, but for a great many of us in that class, it was unlike anything we had ever heard before. Breath caught in throats as the tension grew, and as we reached the climax of the aria, as the walls shook from the sound blasting out of those speakers, and as the chills raced up our spines, Mr. Brewer leapt out of his chair, eyes wide, a grin across his face, pointing to the speakers. The final chord was struck, reverberated, died away. He looked out across the room, to the focused lot of us. You could’ve heard a pin drop in that place.
“Get what I mean?” he asked. Yeah. We got it.
Halfway across the school grounds from the band room, you would in those years find a decrepit little shed of a building – to call it a classroom would be a generous allowance – which was the extent of my school’s theatre department. Propped up against its walls you could often spot a grizzled little Englishman, likely sporting a tam and garish waistcoat, catching up, as he liked to say, with his associates Messrs. Benson & Hedges. Ian Graham taught drama at NDSS, and while he too would push me to better appreciate the arts in much the same way as my music teacher, his approach was as different from Mr. Brewer’s as night was from day.
Put simply, and I’ll need to unpack this for you a bit, he never really made us do anything. Self-direction was the order of the day, and for students looking for an easy mark, they needed to do little else than construct a set of juggling balls (apparently a critically important aspect of the art) and recite The Road Not Taken while keeping three balls up in the air.
But for those of us who were most comfortable with our noses buried in books, that dingy little building was a treasure trove of poetry, prose and monologues, and if we wanted to explore them, we were given all the freedom in the world to do so. And when we had questions about the texts, Mr. Graham was ready to talk to us for as long as we wanted. This, I think, was the true gift in his teaching – giving his students the benefit of the doubt that if they were interested enough to pursue what he had to offer, they could be trusted with the responsibility of taking the initiative to learn. Given the gift of his trust, we would invariably push ourselves to prove worthy of it. In the end, Mr. Graham would teach us as much about growing up as he would about the stage.
I bounced between these two for five years, a quiet student feeding off their wonderful if polarising personalities. The only time they would attempt to work together would be for the greater good of the school musicals, semi-yearly affairs, of which the most special to me would be our production of West Side Story. Throughout the whole process the two of them fought like... well, like Jets & Sharks; but the results were there for all to see on the stage. I fell in love with that show then and there, a slight, awkward 15-year-old kid given the chance to play Action. Remembering the combined contributions of these two teachers and the results they produced made it all the more special when I was given the chance to return to the same play 15 years later to play Tony in my first show with Glasgow Music Theatre.
It would be soon after my high school graduation that I would learn that Ian Graham’s long-time association with his collaborators Mssrs. B & H had taken their toll. Cancer took him very quickly, and far too soon. The last time I spoke to him, I was already deep into an engineering degree and full of promises of one day finding time to get back on the stage. He told me he believed me.
And what of the other one? I had never written to him after graduation to say thank you, not once, and when I sat down to write this piece, I didn’t know what I could say about where he was. So tonight I went hunting, and I found a running order for a concert band festival, held on November 19, 2013 – mere months ago - in which the NDSS Senior Concert Band would be performing under the baton of Mr. Ken Brewer. So all these years later, he is still there, still teaching, still sharing the gift he so generously gave me all those years ago. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to know that.
So yes. Taken at face value, I’ve spun you a diverting little tale, waxing nostalgic about a music teacher that turned on his stereo and a drama teacher that didn’t often teach. On the surface, that may not strike you as Dead Poets Society level stuff and one would be well within the bounds of reason to question just how rose-tinted my glasses are as I look back on those years.
But what I want to impart in some small way is the fact that these two teachers, in their own unique fashion, poured their love of their art into their work and wanted nothing more than to share their passions with those around them. I can think of no greater compliment to pay them both than to say I wouldn’t be where I am, mere weeks from opening night of the most challenging and rewarding production I’ve ever had the good fortune to be involved in, were it not for their patience, guidance and dedication. To have teachers such as these in your life is a gift of the highest order. We should all be so lucky as to be taught by those who love their work, and to have the opportunity one day to thank them for it.
Merrily We Roll Along will run from 6th-10th May 2014, at Scottish Youth Theatre at The Old Sheriff Court.