(Mi)stakes – Richard Lam on Idiot’s Delight
It’s the first day of rehearsal. I have the smallest part in a very large play full of very, very talented people. It’s the first time that I, along with the other actors of the current Soulpepper Academy, will be taking the stage alongside Soulpepper veterans. For the past six months they have inspired us and instructed us and (ever so slightly) intimidated us. Technically we’ve already done one show at Soulpepper but this feels different. This one is on the stage, and if the stage does anything, it Creates Importance.
I’m nervous. The show is a gigantic affair – a cast of twenty, plus three musicians to round out the onstage band – and already my overactive and slightly over-caffeinated mind is concocting a hot, sweaty bouquet of worst-case scenarios. In my imagination I see myself being pulled out of the still-smouldering ashes of the Young Centre by a stern, Clint Eastwood-like firefighter. “Son,” he says, slowly, brushing ash off my shirt with one hand and crushing a lump of coal into a diamond with the other, “what exactly happened here?” And I hear my smoke-singed voice reply “I…I turned on the kettle and the coffeemaker at the same time.” The assembled firefighters gasp in horror, an outraged woman covers her young daughter’s ears, and Clint Eastwood just stares, his disappointment cutting deeper than any physical pain ever could. What I’m saying is the stakes felt high. It looked like a bunch of people around a table reading a play, but at any moment someone could make a mistake so terrible that the theatre would be destroyed.
The first mistake came about an hour later.
It’s an hour later. The first read of the play is humming along. What’s really coming across is the sharpness of Robert E. Sherwood’s dialogue – the ideas in the play are crisp and tight, and the veteran cast is tackling those ideas right out of the gate like a football team waiting at a gate to immediately tackle things that come out of that gate (I skipped simile class in high school). I am extremely impressed by the accents. Idiot’s Delight takes place in an Italian luxury hotel immediately before start of World War II. Sherwood’s characters are a grab bag of nationalities; as tensions increase among the nations of Europe, tensions between the characters increase in microcosm. Playing a part with an accent is rarely effortless for an actor, and this play calls for Russian, German, Italian, French, English, and American voices. The cast dives in headfirst, and the effect is electric.
We come to the introduction of Diego Matamoros’ character, an enigmatic arms dealer with a German surname and a French accent. The character is supposed to command the room and Diego’s voice rings out simply and clearly with his first line, precisely accented. I watched Soulpepper’s production of Angels in America three times, which is about 21 hours of watching Diego command rooms, there was no doubt in my mind that Diego could command a room, but I didn’t expect it on his first line in his first read, chalk one up for Diego. The read sears along at a tight pace – and then it happens.
In the script, the line is “where are our rooms”. Now that seems like a fairly innocent line, but there are a lot of “R” sounds in there, and as a hapless Anglophone who suffered through 10 years of mediocre west coast public school French classes and who has two “R” sounds in his own name, I can tell you that those French “R” sounds can really ruin your day. Maybe Diego is caught up in the momentum of the part, or maybe he had just used up his good karma for the week, because he tries to say “where are our rooms” but instead says something more like “WherCHHHRRRCCHHKKHCHCHHHRKRKRRRCH
This is not just a little hiccup in Diego’s line, this is the Hindenburg. He sounds like he needs serious medical attention. There is a cavernous silence in the room, in which the echo of his demonic noise seems to live for an eternity, and then the entire cast and crew laughs so hard I think someone actually dies. When the dust settles Diego looks slyly around the room and says, in a perfect deadpan, “Why don’t I take that line again?” And the cast laughs, and eases their way back into the read, and we continue on with smiles on our faces.
It’s January 15, 2014. We have been in rehearsal for five weeks. Albert Schultz, Artistic Director of Soulpepper and Director of Idiot’s Delight calls everyone in at the start of the day and sits us down. His freshly-minted Order of Canada glints on his lapel. “I woke up this morning at 6:30 and had a thought,” he begins, and the cast mock-groans because we like to have a good time, and Albert shoots back with “that’s worse than if I had an idea…at least ideas have forward momentum!” and everyone laughs.
“In all seriousness,” Albert continues, “I realized that we’ve built the end of the first act around something that we know about the relationships in the play that the audience doesn’t yet know. So, we’re going to have to figure out a new place to put the intermission.” Then he says “really everyone this is my fault,” and leads the entire company in a three-minute physical comedy sequence in which he repeatedly slaps himself in the face, with half of the company providing slapping sound effects while the other half yells variations of “No, Albert! Don’t do it! Don’t punish yourself!” And again everyone laughs and laughs, and I have a faint memory of being terrified of making any mistake whatsoever that seems so distant now.
In order to figure out what is right we must risk being wrong. When we are wrong, we can choose to be wrong with a smile on our faces and a joke in our hearts. When we laugh at our mistakes we own them. The courage and good humour of the veterans in our cast are infectious. We look up to them and learn from them, and when we laugh together they empower us to join them. So we do join them: in making mistakes, in learning, in crafting this play. And we laugh, and laugh, and laugh.