Equal parts terror and joy, first time experiences are often the most thrilling.
You can tell 25-year-old actor and playwright Damien Atkins is going through a big, big first. He is determinedly holding at bay the terror of having his first multi-character play (and only the second play he ever wrote) produced – and produced at the venerable Stratford Festival.
“Most of the time I want to crawl out of my own skin because there’s too much sensation,” says Atkins.
With a couple of weeks to go before opening night, he focusses on the support he’s getting from some amazing talent. The experience is too rich to be undermined by the very real threat that critics and theatre-folk may be envious of anyone who rises too fast too soon.
“I’m smart enough to know that it’s about learning, as opposed to result. Whether the play comes off well or not, or whether I’m satisfied with it, it’s all about being present in rehearsals and learning what I’m supposed to learn.
“I’m pleased and grateful. But I didn’t ask for this. Did I think in a million fucking years that it would get produced at Stratford? Absolutely not.”
The play, Good Mother, is about a woman who loses her memory after a massive brain injury. The play charts the devastating effects on the family – her husband, sister and, most importantly, her 18-year-old daughter.
“The lights come up on the mother having a stroke – a violent, awful beginning,” says Atkins. “You meet her one minute too late to know who she was.”
Her family keeps hoping for the mother to resurface – but she doesn’t. To no effect, they keep telling her of their memories – and they all remember her differently. “You get a clear picture of what she was like and what the gap is between how they remember and who she really was.
“The play is about memory and how memory plays tricks on you, how you hold onto things that you need to let go of.”
Atkins cringes when he admits that the idea for the brain injury came from an episode of Oprah. “When they hear that, everybody goes: ‘And it’s now at Stratford?’ Well, yes,” he laughs.
It’s a device that condenses a powerful dynamic; how we need to stop looking at parents as a morass of memories, as everything they’ve done for you – and to you. At some point, you have to see your parents for who they are, not who they’ve been.
“I have the theme of this play in one sentence: The first step in survival is acceptance.
“The daughter [played by Michele Graff] spends the first two years in shock with no acceptance. And the first glimmer of hope is when she finally looks at her mum, as she is now.”
The play’s other inspiration is the song “Good Mother” by Jann Arden. “It’s a song about gratitude for your parents. And I thought it was a unique sentiment,” says Atkins, before recounting the lyrics. “‘I’ve got money in my pocket/ I like the colour of my hair/ I’ve got a friend who loves me/ Got a house, I’ve got a car/ I’ve got a good mother/ And her voice is what keeps me here/ Feet on ground/ Heart in hand/ Facing forward/ Be yourself.’
“I found the song triggers a chord in almost everybody. More than any other song, people say: ‘That song makes me cry.’ And I know people who cannot listen to it because they find it too emotionally stirring – people whose mothers have died or who have strange relationships with their mothers.”
He began working on the play in earnest four years ago. The Good Mother is only his second play. “It’s narratively a simple story but emotionally complex. So I felt it was a good place for me to start.”
In 1999, during his first year as a member of the Stratford ensemble, he staged a private reading of Good Mother that got a lot of people talking.
“Richard Monette [Stratford’s artistic director] asked me for a copy, and I truly thought he was bullshitting, so I didn’t give it to him. And he kept pestering me about it so I finally just gave him the thing. And he said why don’t you just do another reading.
“That was so stressful. But it went over really well. And I didn’t hear from him for four months. And then he finally came to me and said: ‘I just got board approval for the play.'”
A month later, Atkins’s script for Good Mother was awarded the $25,000 Prism International Prize.
“When I got the call saying I won, I went, ‘You’re kidding.’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Do you know how old I am?’ He said, ‘No. Should I?’ I said, ‘No. You’ll find out.’
“I just thought sign the thing before they try and take it back. I mean, part of this award is that I’m writer in residence at UBC – Jesus, God. I have to give a lecture on the art of writing plays or something like that.
“It’s all a lovely honour,” says Atkins. Sometimes he feels the attention is a bit much. “You’re just thrust into it,” he says.
“There are similarities with the play – though it’s not as dire – being thrust into a situation where you really have no idea what it’s going to be and you don’t think you’re ready. Now you just have to cope.”
At Stratford, the mother is played by Seana McKenna; she won a Genie for her role in the 1997 movie The Hanging Garden.
Atkins is very grateful for McKenna’s involvement; she took part in the first reading and championed the play from the start. “Seana is incredibly supportive; she’s always up for anything.
“She’s truly a miracle. I really don’t know of a more perfect actress I’ve ever seen.
“She’s got a tough part; she doesn’t have the same clear emotional arc that everyone else has because she’s kind of like the alien of the play. You never really get inside her head – until a certain point. You don’t really know what’s going on, you just see her struggle.
“There are interesting things that happen with brain injuries, like personality flips, so Seana goes from laughing to crying to screaming within four seconds.
“There is always an air of mystery around her and you cannot take your eyes off of her.”
Good Mother is directed by the Dora Award-winning director of The Drawer Boy, Miles Potter (who is also McKenna’s husband).
Writing a nine-character family drama seems a huge departure for Atkins.
His first play, Miss Chatelaine, was a coming of age monologue (also inspired by a pop song). It began life as a Fringe hit in his hometown of Edmonton; it played Toronto at the beginning of 1999. With 46 characters, Atkins’ tour de force performance helped secure him the numerous character roles he’s been getting since, in stage, film and TV.
His third play, Real Live Girl, opens at Buddies In Bad Times Theatre in December (there was a wonderful workshop production last year). This cabaret piece allows Atkins to show off his amazing voice as he explores the girly side of manhood through songs written for women.
Everything feminine fascinates Atkins, so Good Mother fits nicely with his other works.
“I never really gave any thought to why, as a gay man, I’m approaching this story, but you can see it in the play. It’s about a girl’s relationship with her mother. It might as well be about me and my mother – and my mother is nothing like this woman. And, well, I’m a lot like this girl.
“There are a lot of subtle gender flips: The women in the play are extremely aggressive and extremely masculine and hyper direct. The men are quite reserved and passive and subordinate.
“And [in my life] I’ve surrounded myself with women like that. I don’t know if it’s because I’m gay or not. It probably is.
“Gay men are familiar with a wide breadth of femininity.
“I needed to write a story that was female-centred. So, in that way, it’s deep within my sexuality, but it doesn’t have any of the political ramifications. It’s about my connection with women.”
When counting up the number of female characters, Atkins can’t come up with the right total until he realizes that he’s counting himself – he plays Dr Maury van Doot, a young medical resident.
“I wrote my character to be played by a woman; it was going to be a wacky pants role. So in the end I’m still playing the girl part. No, no, no. I’m playing the guy part but it was written for a girl.” He shrugs, smiling.
“It’s a paradox. There is nothing particularly gay about Good Mother and yet it’s deeply gay because it’s written by somebody who is deeply gay.”
Wed, Aug 22-Sep 27.
Tom Patterson Theatre.
Previews for Good Mother begin Sat, Aug 18.
Equal parts terror and joy, first time experiences are often the most thrilling.