Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Your People Leave

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Your People Leave

For a long time now, I’ve had the privilege of meeting people who get what I do. That doesn’t mean they understand it, it means they receive it. But meeting readers of The Drifts is a whole different tamale. For some reason. These characters have been banging pots and clamoring inside my head for years and, now that they’ve moved out, I miss them some. When I meet a reader who’s connected with them, out of the nest, so to speak, I get closer to catching up with them; to seeing how they’re faring out there.

Back in 1987, no ’85 or ’86, and out of left field I got two lead roles at the Okemos Barn Theatre. I left those credits on my resume for as long as I could ‘cause I was so damned proud of them. Red, white and adored the Barn is, alas, no more. Their houses were packed; nobody got paid. Everyone supported them. One role was as Groucho Marx in a musical I searched, unsuccessfully, through 8 pages of Google results for the name of; the other as that blind kid in the treacly, Butterflies Are Free. I walked around in ever-widening circles in downtown Lansing (Michigan, my hometown) learning how to not see. The rehearsals and performances were a blast. Lucile Belen, a local florist celebrity, played my mother; I was some stuff. Tens of people came up to me after those performances, grinning or stone-faced. Groucho busted their guts, the blind guy got them sexed up. For the season, I won Best Actor in a Drama AND Best Actor in a Musical. Sniff me.

That was it for me, I saw my picture on the cover of the Lansing State Journal’s entertainment section and knew I had to try frying bigger fish. Little did I know then, that I like being a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Anyway…I moved to Chicago, was an extra on Shelly Hack’s series, Jack & Mike and got trained up properly. Over and over, after performances, people would come up to me, moved, shaken or needing to make contact with me. They had no stake in stroking me. Even tho’ I secretly wanted to make my living as an actor, I really didn’t dare think of that. Yet, my whole being was thrusting in that direction. Getting compliments was difficult. Physically difficult. They didn’t make me nauseous, they hurt. Later, in L.A., and elsewhere, I could tell when something I’d done had aired on TV or someone had seen something I’d done in a theatre. Eyes lingered on me longer. Strangers mistook (and mistake) me for someone else. Or, they’ll just flat out quote my lines to me.

Seinfeld’s the best. I have two Seinfeld stories. Not about the shoots but the years and years after. Both TO stories. I was at the Davenport-Perth Community Centre for an arts education confab. When I’m not causing trouble on stage, in front of a camera or on a page, I am a passionate arts educator. On my way into the loo, two huge guys, seventeen-ish, passed me in the doorway. Lots of gold chains, fur collared snow jackets and pants revealing the hump of their bums and their boxers. Just after I got past, one of them said, Hey, aren’t you that dude on Seinfeld?

Another time I was buying a ticket at the Diesel playhouse and as I approached the ticket window, the guy behind the bars, started reciting the lines from my Seinfeld episode. I didn’t even remember them. It took me a moment to recognize what he was saying. I thought he was on a head-set cell phone and was talking to someone else.

When I did General Hospital, inmates at a Kansas psychiatric facility invited me to a BBQ in my honour. I was advised not to answer the fan mail I got. Part of me wishes I had gone to that BBQ instead of being hesitant for my safety. God knows, I've had runs-ins with worse characters than that. Oh, well. Next time, next time.

Now, I’ve put The Drifts out. People are moved. My sister could hardly get through it for the points of recognition. She wasn’t recognizing facts, per se, but dynamics. And there have been others. But the other day, at Proud Voices, a young woman approached me after the reading and asked if I’d sign her copy. I just love your book. — Oh, good. Of course. I asked her what her name was. — Jessica. As I was signing, I asked her if she was pulled or drawn to any particular person in the book. — Dol. Dol. — Ah. Yes. — I cried. — Yes.

Jessica’s sat with me, as have all of the others over the years. You make something as an artist and unleash it on the world. And, trust me, the people in The Drifts have been unleashed. You never know how it is, or how they are, going to be received — or where. There are people right now having their own private experiences with that bandaged-finger guy I played on Seinfeld; or with Dol, Wilson, Julie or Charlie. These characters are, if I can get out of the way, people now — out in the world. In living rooms and under reading lamps. How odd that remains. How obvious, how necessary. I’ve met these people within me and now they are without me. They’re walking around out there with only the thinnest slip, but the widest of gaps, of relation to me. And, in those moments when an audience member or a reader broaches the divide we recognize something of each other, in each other.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Thom Vernon

Thom Vernon has worked in film, television and theatre since 1989. He has been the Actors’ Gang Youth Education Program director and has worked as an arts educator at the Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People. The Drifts (Coach House Books) is his first novel.

Go to Thom Vernon’s Author Page