THE LIFE GAME by Keith Johnstone
July 04th, 2013
THE LIFE GAME improv / created by Keith Johnstone
Truth To Be Told Theatre, Studio 1358, find Granville Island
Seeing Nicola Cavendish on stage again, as the interviewee for The Life Game, was like seeing an old friend, even though we’ve never spoken.
About thirty years ago, Cavendish appeared in just about every fourth or fifth show in town. She was a predictable delight, a comic actor who evolved into a wide-ranging star, much beloved and respected by the theatre community. So hearing that Cavendish was allowing herself to be used as the subject of—or guinea pig for—the ongoing (roughly annual) Life Game improv show was big news for anyone in her approximate age range. Like seeing your old favorite rock band reunited at a casino, just showing up was a way to say thanks.
For that matter, any younger actor in town with a sense of Vancouver theatre history should have been curious. Dressed down and carrying a stubby beer bottle onto a minimalist stage—or was that some newly fashionable, retro-hip beverage just shaped like a stubby?—Cavendish was the opposite of Laura Desmond. She was as unobtrusive as possible, politely hesitant about what the heck this was all about, but cooperative like a veteran actor who had dealt with many an iffy director.
For most of the show’s stilted interview process, designed to unveil facets of her character and life story, Cavendish spoke with a shy voice, at odds with some of her effervescent roles and the sentimental hit show she penned, It’s Snowing on Saltspring, many moons ago. Her interviewer was clearly inexperienced, often embarrassingly so; most of his questions were disjointed and pre-selected (“When did you lose your virginity?”) rather than arising from spontaneous conversation.
Cavendish was trying to be a good guest, even docile, but it didn’t take long before one sensed there was a critical part of her brain, clicking away, thinking, “Hey, this isn’t really working.” Realizing very quickly that the actors who had volunteered to replicate events in her life were simply not in her league, she feigned her way through the ordeal, mostly subdued, but eventually Cavendish had to gamely try and salvage the undertaking with some improvised monologues of her own.
No rabbit came out of a hat. Cavendish mostly kept her privacy in tact. “Abortion is its own punishment,” was the most memorable line, coming as it was from a childless woman who lost her beloved husband with tragic suddenness. (The show never revealed the cause of her husband’s death—bizarrely the result of an infection resulting from a seemingly minor cut.)
It didn’t help that the interview sofa was placed at an extreme edge of the stage, close to the audience, making it extremely difficult for much of the audience to even see Cavendish throughout the evening. Hey, haven’t these people ever done a show before?
Nearly all the improvised scenes to re-enact moments in Cavendish’s life, moments which she had just ably described for everyone—the euthanasia of her beloved dog, for instance—fell flat. An overall sense of low level pandering to serve the improv process was exacerbated by having a secretary on stage who dutifully jotted down phrases from Cavendish’s testimony, and by having her notes continuously visible above the stage on an overhead projector. It felt like high school.
When asked if she might ever kill someone, Cavendish didn’t hesitate to say, “Clifford Olson. Paul Bernardo. Willie Pickton.” And so the names Paul Bernardo and Willie Pickton were recorded for posterity, as if someone was taking rather inept minutes of a meeting, a public gathering that sorely lacked Roberts Rules of Order. Oddly, Clifford Olson was not recorded in the list of people Cavendish could kill; possibly the recordist was too young to recognize his name.
Such snippets, jotted down without any context, presumably were meant to serve as a shorthand transcript of the divinations. Evidently the audience could not be trusted to have a memory. Or, Lord help us, were these minutes supposed to constitute some sort of post-operative gift to the subject after the show? Or were they to be regurgitated in a grant proposal? Whatever the designed conceit or purpose, this process was akin to placing English subtitles on an English movie.
The Life Game concept was created by Keith Johnstone, whose venerable presence was on-hand to presumably serve Cavendish, and the audience, as a co-director, but his obtrusive suggestions for scenes to be staged, derived from Cavendish’s narrative, proved to be alarmingly and consistently unwelcome. “Can we have an angel, please?” There was even an interview between an angel and God after Cavendish had re-asserted she was an agnostic. Johnstone’s unsuccessful intrusions happened enough times so that eventually Cavendish took charge and kiboshed one of his suggestions. The show was terminated shortly thereafter.
Doing double duty as the evening’s informal host, the interviewer had been taking directives from one or both of the show’s two ‘co-directors’ in the front row. No rabbit will come out of a hat if the magician is a puppet. The evening ended abruptly, lacking decorum, so that Cavendish was not adequately thanked for her essentially sacrificial participation.
The purpose of The Life Game is to “remind us, however ordinary, we all have quite extraordinary life story to tell.” (That is precisely what has been stated in the program that somebody failed to adequately proof-read. Or edit.) But Cavendish is extraordinary. The theatrical conceit that an inexperienced interviewer and maudlin improvisations are necessary to reveal her extraordinary nature proved cumbersome, even irritating.
Cavendish is articulate. She knows herself. An experienced and mature interviewer could have taken us ten times farther, ten times faster, without the clunky detours required to satisfy The Life Game template.
— Paul Durras