King George V was a nice old brick school in Chippawa, Ontario. It had grades Kindergarten to Eight. It’s closed now. I had three big brothers and I’m sure that when I started to go to school we walked there together, but I don’t remember that. Any memory I have of the way to school or the way home is of me walking alone, which I didn’t mind.
I walked along past the Sealtest gas station, and then past Mackenzie’s store, just before the bridge. In the big window of Mackenzie’s there were china plates and teapots and a white Hudson Bay coat, striped all colours. They had some sort of yellow plastic blind in the window to protect all these fine things from the sun, but I didn’t like the way it made the white coat yellow. There is a Tim Horton’s there now.
Then the bridge. The bridge spanned the Welland River, which everyone in Chippawa called the crick. Make no mistake, it was a river, deep and fast. I am frightened of it still. After the Bridge came The Square. The barber pole with the stripes that always keep going up – why? How? Snodgrass Pharmacy, LaBelle’s Jewelers and Robson’s Bakery. Then at the corner by the Town Hall there was a traffic light. You have to wait for it to change.
Confession: I used to think there was someone, maybe someone in a uniform like a bus driver, whose job it was to sit inside the gas station on the opposite corner all day long. This person watched the traffic and when they saw that it was safe for me to cross they would flip the switch so the light would change. Talk about self-important. Even the traffic lights revolved around me.
I am always getting things back asswards like that. Family lore has it that when I was about one and a half we went to see the Victoria Day fireworks at Fireman’s Park. My Dad was holding me in his arms. Everybody was ooh-ing and ah-ing at the fireworks, and when my Dad turned to look at me to see: was I frightened? was I enjoying the show? he saw me smiling and ooh-ing and ah-ing like the others. Except I was looking at a street light. I may be fairly dim.
Once I made it across the corner I would have to look if there were puddles on the pavement by the gas station. Why does gasoline make rainbows in puddles? I don’t know. I could look it up, but some things it’s better not to understand. In that same gas station window where I thought the man sat watching the traffic for me, they had one of those birds. You know the kind of toy bird that tips over and dips its beak into a glass of water? That too, I could understand perfectly well if I stopped to think about it, but I won’t and you can’t make me. When I am on my deathbed, I expect that one of the things I’m going to feel really satisfied about is that I had the opportunity to watch that bird and wonder about it.
Almost at school now. Just another block or two, past the Avondale Convenience Store (candy!), past my friend Kathy’s house (so many Barbies!), and then the big brick school with chestnut trees all in front. Interesting to look back on that school from the world now, which is so safety-obsessed that my son and daughter’s elementary school outlawed running on the pavement and picking up snow. People: you can only do so much. No one is safe in this world, all right? I wonder how the staff of KGV managed at recess. It must have been one non-stop chestnut bomb war. It’s a wonder anybody graduated from that school with both their eyes. Considering all the thirsty birds and barber poles and Hudson Bay coats along the way, it’s a wonder I ever got to school at all. But I did, and something that happened at that school changed everything. Thanks for dawdling all along the way with me. Here’s where I was headed:
When I was about six or seven, the Junior High part of the school put on their annual musical. They did The Mikado. And why not?
I want you to imagine, if you will (if you even can), what that production might have been like. It was 1970. Schools didn’t have the kinds of fancy-ass stuff they do now. Nobody had much lighting equipment, or the money to rent some. My brother Lloyd was in the chorus and they sat in bleachers to one side of the stage. Imagine the “oriental-ness” that a junior high could achieve with a budget of maybe 20 dollars in a town so small, so backwater, that people said “crick.” There would have been a lot of home-made kimonos and more than a few modified bathrobes. Black wigs? I don’t recall, but what do you want to bet the “makeup committee” went in pretty heavily for black eyeliner? There were some painted backdrops, built by the shops class no doubt, and I remember a lot of it was a pretty twilight shade of blue. But then, I thought there was a guy flipping the switch for traffic lights, so my recollections are suspect. The music teacher plonking away at the piano, and maybe a couple of other instruments to make up the band. The oldest person in the cast would have been fourteen. My mother saved the program. It lists five lighting designers. You don’t often see that, and there have been Broadway shows with shorter director’s notes.
Whatever you are imagining right now is not what I saw, sitting in my stacking chair. I was enraptured.
Forty-five years later, I have seen only a handful of productions as enchanting. And I’ve seen some shows where a considerable amount of coin was thrown around to try and make me feel as gobsmacked, as filled with wonder, as that rickety production of the Mikado did. Yes, I was young, and yes, it was new, but I saw other things for the first time at that age. I had a pet deer but I didn’t become a zookeeper. I had a wood-carver for a father but I didn’t take that way to school, so to speak. But the first time I went to the “theatre” I knew I had to have it. The next year I got my very first role, as a Martian in the Christmas play. (?) I had a mixing bowl covered in tinfoil for a helmet. I was so happy.
That show was also the beginning of my lifelong love affair with Japan. The Mikado is set in Japan because people in Victorian England also had a thing for all things Japanese. I know now that the “Japan” depicted in The Mikado is fake as hell, never existed, and nowadays may offend some viewers, but I was six at the time. Paper lanterns and origami: I love all that stuff, every bit of it. A folding paper parasol in a drink is one of life’s highest delights. But I also want to make it clear that I have been to Japan and I love the Japan of now too: the flashing lights, the sake in the vending machines, the bullet train, the way the people stampede, ever so calmly, into elevators. Plastic replicas of food in restaurant windows: that’s just good marketing. Karaoke the way it was meant to be done. It’s nice that the gardens in Japan now are still as magical as everything I imagined as a child, and when I am on my deathbed, it would be nice if someone could arrange for it to be in a Japanese garden.
It can be hard to be a grown-up and find anything to wonder at. You forget to look. You get tired, you get jaded. I find it helps to look very closely at things that are small. Part of the reason I like writing is because I like to watch the words come out of the pen. It helps to look in windows as you walk. I’m still not tired of watching precipitation, and I should get me one of them birds. But I have to say, I don’t often see a play I love these days.
I write plays and teach theatre and take apart other people’s plays for a living. And I still don’t get how it works, not really. This I have looked up, more than once. I think about it all the time. You can analyse a script to death, or not. You can study acting until your hair bleeds tears. But it’s not explainable, not entirely. Some plays should work and they don’t. Some don’t look very promising on the first read, but some combination of ingredients, some alignment of planets, some accident of timing makes it catch fire and hopefully there is somebody sitting out there waiting to be stunned by it if you can only get her to buy a ticket. I hope it’s me. I still do theatre because it still makes me wonder. How do you make something as “nameless and joymaking” as the 1970 Junior High production of The Mikado at King George V School? How I would love to make a show that good. See a show that good.
While I was in Japan I saw a production that was better than The Mikado at King George V, if you can believe that. It was absolutely perfect and when I talk about it I start to cry. So I know it’s possible, and I know that the way I fell for The Mikado wasn’t just love at first sight.
Apparently, the year after they did The Mikado, King George V School Junior High did a production of Old Yeller. I don’t remember that, and it may be just as well.
By the way, “nameless and joymaking” is J.D. Salinger talking. If you want to know the truth.