My heart pauses mid-beat. My brain flip-flops like a fish on a dock. My breath evaporates and I struggle to swallow strings of dry woolly saliva.
“Your craft needs work,” says an acting coach I’ve known 20 minutes and who I am paying to put an audition tape together.
In my mind’s eye, I envision myself packing boxes, booking a flight with Air North and asking for my old job back as a server at the Yukon Motel in Teslin.
A lump forms in my throat.
There was a time I was a jovial, perky server, full of dreams, greeting Teslin locals and American tourists heading to Alaska. Even bad mannered tourists, disgruntled by Canadian sugared ice tea and our Fruit-Loop colored currency were greeted with a twinkle in my eye and an understanding smile on my lips.
Back then I was fueled by dreams of saving enough money to one-day leave my village to explore the world beyond Teslin. These dreams carried me through the long workdays, grumpy customers, eccentric chefs, aching feet and sore eyes strained by fluorescent lighting.
That was then. This is now.
A new image clouds my head; an aging woman, a mop, a bucket, and a cynical disgust for ravenous tourists.
I can’t bear the thought.
“This is just my advice … but I think you can nail this scene and really showcase your talent with a little work.”
“I know a woman … she doesn’t regularly teach anymore but is beginning a five-week class this Monday…”
The Yukon Motel dissipates from my mind.
“This is a serious class. I’m telling you this because you seem serious. I’ll put in a reference for you.”
Later that night I get a call from an unknown number.
“Ashley? This is Kate.” A woman says abruptly.
“Hi Kate!” I say with enthusiasm.
“I usually audition people before the class starts, but Iris says you would benefit from my class.” She pauses.
“Yes, I haven’t been acting very long,” I improvise. “I really want to challenge fear … I think I could really benefit from your style.”
I find myself fighting for a seat in the class.
“Not everybody is accustomed to my method of teaching; it can be overwhelming to new students,” she warns.
“I want to go to scary places,” I insist.
At this point, I imagine obscure teaching methods. I shake away the picture of Kate cocking a gun in a student’s face.
“Recently I completed a personal growth course I attended back home in the Yukon,” I tell her.
“Have you ever participated in a class of my style?” she interrupts.
“I’m not sure.”
I imagine her on the other end of the line. What is she thinking? I need to be in this class. What does she want to hear besides my desire to be in the class?
“I have done some personal therapy,” I confide.
A minute later, the conversation is over. I am in the class.
The Beaumont Theatre
The following Monday, I find myself backstage swarming through a sea of black curtains. An opening emerges. I am on a shiny marble black stage. Students are scattered throughout the theater seats. Conversation stops dead and many eyes turn and stare.
“I am here for Kate’s class.” I stutter.
“Hi, Ashley.” I hear a direct and kind voice.
A small, pretty woman in her 30s. dressed in black from head to toe, wearing dark framed glasses greets me.
“Hi. I’m Ashley.”
She pauses and examines me.
“Hold on a second,” she says as she whizzes away.
I scan the theatre for possible threats in the environment. Climbing the seats, I look back towards the stage and catch a glimpse of what looks like a bottomless black hole. Worry rattles through out my stomach.
“Introduce yourselves!” Kate yells as she reads from a paper.
In whispers, I use this as an opportunity to inquire about Kate’s teaching methods. I get the same response from all the students; quiet reverence for a sensei or Zen Master.
“She is intuitive,” one person warns.
“She used to be a psychic,” a woman chips in.
Kate summons me to come to her.
“Ashley, this is your scene partner, Yvetta.” Kate says.
Yvetta is a lovely Croatian woman in her mid-40s.
“You two will be performing a scene from the play In the Boom Boom Room … Ashley, you are a young stripper and Yvetta is an older stripper who is in love with you. I want you two to choreograph a strip tease you will perform together on stage next class.”
A strip tease!
On stage … Sober? The floor beneath my feet turns to quicksand and reaches up my legs.
In an unconscious effort to relieve my anxiety, I burst into nervous giggles.
Kate gazes somberly. I catch sight of her mentally taking note. Her lips are pursed and her eyeballs scan back and forth.
“Come prepared. No nudity. Show me what you can bring.” She walks away.
Before I get home, I go to Blockbuster and rent as many stripper movies as possible. For a solid week, I feel sick with fear for the impending day of my performance. I purchase a costume that covers my parts and fits the role. I also enrol in Burlesque dance lessons. But nothing seems to fully sedate my fear.
What is the force of fear? Where does its power come from? In recent years these question permeate my mind a great deal. I have always been a sensitive person. When I was in primary school, my nose bled if my heart rate pumped too fast. I had three operations to have it fixed but continued to get them thereafter. Whitehorse doctors said it had to do with sinus problems directed related to a dry northern climate. My childish mind knew my nose bled when I was afraid.
A couple years ago, I was jogging in Teslin on a gravel road just off the Alaska Highway leading to my house. I came face to face with a black bear. I froze.
I felt trapped. I could not turn into the bush or retreat. Thick trees enclosed the open gravel road. The bear stopped and looked at me.
Seconds felt like minutes.
I was too afraid to look away.
The bear bolted into the bush and relief flooded my body. His legs and arms pumped with explosive power. He was more like a mechanical force than a furry animal.
Standing on that road facing that bear personifies all my fears. As an artist, acting is that bear. The following week I returned to class and performed an awkward striptease.
I have never been able to jog on that road alone again.
Ashley Hunking grew up in Teslin. She is now a freelance writer and actor who lives in Vancouver.