I was scared. I imagined standing in front of hundreds of people and delivering lines and forgetting the words and stammering and the audience snickered, laughed outright, and I froze with a shocked face, wide eyes, dropped jaw — imagine Jack Torrence at the end of Kubrick’s The Shining— and then the audience jumped on stage and poked and chastised and I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t run. I was paralyzed. It was terrifying.
That’s how I felt when my sister Peggy said, “Come on, audition with me.”
“No,” I said.”
“It’ll be fun. It doesn’t mean you’ll even get a role.”
That made me feel even better. “No.”
“Both of us may not. And even if we do … just give a try,” she said.
“If you don’t like the rehearsals, or the people–”
“…or it’s too scary, you can always quit.”
I didn’t like that word. And after all I’d been through over the last couple of years – the accident, the coma, the numbness, the torpor – I felt that if I gave up and embraced the disability I may find myself stuck in that moment forever. The future would become stagnant. It frightened me more than almost anything, the word quit.
“OK,” I said, “I’ll audition.”
The production was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance, a rollicking musical about pirates, cops, a major general, with an obligatory love story. The kicker was, the show would be the inaugural production in the newly constructed Festival Place Theatre. The entire community was thrilled about this new facility and many felt it would be an honour to be one of the first people on the stage. As a result more than a hundred people auditioned for roles. I was selected, a fact that both thrilled me and made me nauseous. I learned later that the community theatre group producing the play, Sherard Theatre, had a mandate to include anyone who auditioned. I would have gotten some sort of role either on stage or behind the scenes no matter what, just for showing up.
But that didn’t matter. What mattered was that none of these folks – except my sister – knew that I’d suffered a recent brain injury. They accepted me for who I was.
The cast supported each other, regardless of ability. We learned our lines together. We learned our blocking together. We learned the plot, with its twists and turns, together. We laughed together. As the production developed I grew as a person and tackled activities that were difficult: memorization, social interaction, physical movement, public speaking. The experience changed my life.
I wrote my first play during that production. I used it a year later in a portfolio submitted to the Writing Program at the University of Victoria. They accepted me into the drama stream. Four years after that I graduated into a changed life.
My accident happened in 1990. I graduated with an undergraduate degree in 1997. Those seven years were the most intense learning I’d done since birth. Looking back I realize that these changes were, to some extent, initiated through the arts.
The arts can change lives. And don’t take it just from me.
Encounters with arts or heritage expose people to ideas and understandings, new or old, about how to interpret the world around them. This provides people with a greater diversity of options for social action and relationships. This diversity of options is what Swidler has called social repertoire, or the individual’s cultural tool kit. It is out of this repertoire of understandings that individuals craft strategies of action to make their way through life (Stanley, 2005a, 2005b; Swidler, 1998, 2003). Being better equipped for social interaction and having more options available can increase the individual’s confidence and capacity for collective action, or what Appadurai (2004) has called “the capacity to aspire.” (Introduction: The Social Effects of Culture)
If you are overcoming trauma or know someone who is, invest in the arts. Sing or play music or dance or draw or paint or sculpt or act … take it from me: it can change your life.
In the spring of 1990 Allan Boss was in a motor vehicle accident. He suffered a severe traumatic brain injury. The attending neurosurgeon informed his family that he would never walk again or talk again. He recovered and finished three university degrees including a Ph.D. (in Drama), has written/edited four published books and his CBC Ideas docudrama “Updrafts” about recovering from brain injury won nominations for multiple international awards including the Peabody and the Prix Italia. He is currently writing a non-fiction book about his recovery.