written by Elias Campbell
I've always considered my mom to be one of my best friends. I feel a twinge of embarrassment in that admission. Maybe it's because of the dreaded "Mama's Boy" label or the unfortunate association with Norman Bates. Your mom is the one person who's supposed to love and accept you no matter what, so if she's your best friend it must be because no one else can stand the sight of you, right? Maybe. But if you know my mom, you also know she's pretty fucking cool.
It took a bit of time for me to actually see my mom as her own person. I've always loved my parents but when I was a kid, on some level, they were just fixtures in my life that I considered insofar as I needed them: What are we having for dinner? Can I have money to go to the movies? Can you drive me to band practice? The transportation-sustenance-bank machine. It felt like they'd always be there so I didn't realize how insanely lucky I was to be born into this family. Over time though, as I matured, my mom began to emerge from the shadows of my selfish, slanted perspective.
When she was around my age, she was doing social work in Kingston, Ontario and was inspired to write something about the people she was encountering on a regular basis. Still in theatre school at the time, she wrote scenes on her Smith Corona typewriter whenever she could, eventually finishing it while living in Toronto. That play, The Crackwalker, went on to become a huge success and launched her career as a playwright. Since then, she's written many other critically-acclaimed works, become a professor at a University, and received a Governor General's Award.
As a pre-pubescent snot and moody teenager, I'd be taken with my sisters to see her plays but I'd never fully grasp what was occurring on stage. It all seemed like a big deal but I couldn't really understand why. Midway through university though, I finally had the chance to see something of hers at a time when I was intellectually and emotionally prepared for it. The play happened to be her very first, The Crackwalker. If you haven't seen this play, I highly recommend it. There's something miraculous about it. I remember leaving the theatre in a daze, with the distinct feeling that something had shifted inside of me. This thing had gotten under my skin and I'd carry it with me now. Over the years, I've felt equally moved by many other works of hers, including Lost and Delirious, Palace of the End, Hothouse, and RARE. I've always been fascinated by the sheer power of her work: How do you create something that impacts people on such a deep, profound level? It's a remarkable gift, and a question I've been asking myself since I started creating things too.
I have a ton of admiration for my mom as an artist, and her career probably has something to do with why I write and direct, but I have just as much admiration for her as a person. She has the biggest heart, and treats everyone with dignity, respect and care. When we go out together, she makes conversation with just about every single person we encounter, and not just to fill dead air. She's genuinely fascinated with people, which is partly what makes her such a good writer. The amount of conversations I've overheard her have with cab drivers could fill a novel. A riveting one too. The strangers she connects with seem truly touched by the interaction because they're encountering someone that's fully interested in who they are; reminding them that no matter their job, history, or what they look like, they matter. In recent years, with her Rare Theatre group, she's given a voice to performers who have suffered terrible illnesses, to people with Down Syndrome and people in wheelchairs. The commitment to these projects and the level of empathy I see in her when she's working on them is an inspiration.
In the rockiest years of our relationship, when I ceased making eye contact and virtually stopped speaking altogether, she remained supportive and did everything she could to be there for me despite my ghastly moods. In later years, when I'd come home from university for a weekend, gloomy and homesick, she'd make apple crumble and we'd walk the dogs together, talk about everything that was going on, things I couldn't talk about with anyone else. Knowing that I always had that to come home to gave me enormous strength when I went back out into the world.
Unlike my mom, talking to strangers and making new friends is something I've always had a difficult time with. I used to worry that it was because there was something wrong with me. I was afraid of people. I didn't know what to say to them, partly because I couldn't imagine them ever really wanting to hear from me. Some have told me that my shyness in earlier years was easily misinterpreted as either indifference or a sense of superiority. This was initially a shock to me but I came to understand that I wasn't the only person that was nervous in their own skin and afraid of judgement. Over time, I've relaxed, developed the confidence to open up. And despite streaks of misanthropy, I even manage the occasional conversation with cab drivers.
When I wrote my first play in my early twenties, my mom offered encouragement and gave me notes on the script. I continued to develop it and ultimately directed it. The play wasn't revelatory but it was a beginning. And it felt like she gave me that. She's continued to support the work that I do, although I've become too proud in recent years to solicit feedback. She totally understands and doesn't take offence.
At some point after shooting the first four episodes of Just Cuddle, Michael and I decided that we were going to try and raise money for a second season. We'd ended the fourth episode with one of Winter's clients taking her own life. This ending demanded that we deal with the consequences. After discussing the idea that Katherine's mother confront Winter months later about what happened to her daughter, Michael suggested that maybe my mom could play the part of Katherine's mother. I immediately agreed. In addition to being a fantastic playwright, she's also an extremely talented actor and I now had the unique fortune of being able to cast her in something.
The character of Katherine's mother, Marianne, is estranged from her daughter. Marianne's grief is compounded by the anger she feels about not being a part of her daughter's life in her final years; she wasn't the one her daughter called when she needed help. And that flicker of doubt about whether there was anything else she could have done to repair things, to avoid losing all that time with her child, haunts her. I knew how deeply my mom would be able to feel this. I have four sisters and we're all quite close with her. The emotional weight of losing touch with one of her children, let alone losing one of them, is something that she clearly understood. The inverse of that feeling, the joy of being so closely connected to her family, is very real and powerful for her.
This episode, for me, was harder than any other episode of the series. When Michael and I were breaking the story and then going back and forth on the script, we felt the incredible challenge of this emotionally heavy territory. If we didn't do it right, it wasn't just a misstep, it was veering on irresponsible. From a directorial standpoint, there was a tonal shift and a complexity in this episode that was new for the series. I was also going to be working with my mom, which I had never done before. It felt like it could be a vulnerable position. What if, in front of our accomplished team on set, she didn't treat me as the director but instead reverted to some shade of our mother-son dynamic? How would I manage that?
Leading up to the shooting of the episode, I ran lines with her and we spoke about who the character was, how she felt about what happened between she and her daughter, how she felt about Winter's character. We figured out how to make adjustments as we were shooting and as it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. She looked to me not as the son who still occasionally does his laundry at home, but as if I were any other director, concerned with capturing something real and meaningful. I did the same for her, treating her not as the mom who recently figured out how to use emojis and stickers (and now uses them far too liberally), but as a skilled actor with a deep emotional reservoir. The experience felt like something special to me.
Recently, my mom lost her own mother and I felt the depth of that loss. I don't think there's anything quite like it. Her mother was razor sharp, dynamic, hilarious, adventurous. She earned a Master's Degree in the 1950s (a rarity for a woman at the time), traveled the world, and taught drama to university students. She was beloved by her family and friends and won't soon be forgotten.
Understanding who you are seems inextricable from understanding who your parents are, where they came from and what they gave to you. I owe my mom the world and I'm glad we got the chance to work on something we cared about together.
You can check out her episode of Just Cuddle here