James Long was so afraid of dog pee he almost lost the suitcase responsible for Clark and I Somewhere in Connecticut.
It was raining and the Vancouver-based actor was trying to hurry his “remarkably lazy, slow dog” around the block so he could get to an evening performance, when he stumbled upon the suitcase.
It was in the alley behind his house.
“I’m a bit of garbage picker anyway, so I peeked in and it was filled with photo albums,” said Long.
But he didn’t want to touch it, because “dogs had probably peed on it.”
So, the suitcase stayed out in the rain.
It was 2005, and Long’s company, Theatre Replacement, was up to its ears in grant writing.
The company had been focusing on making new shows out of biographical material, but Long didn’t have a concrete idea for the Canada Council Grant.
“So I was basically busy making stuff up, I couldn’t really nail stuff down and I was buzzing around trying to find the seed,” he said.
It wasn’t until later that night, after talking to his director at the show, that Long returned to the suitcase full of photo albums.
“We drove back and got them and started leafing through and they were astounding – they were amazing,” he said.
One album was dedicated solely to a toy Pomeranian named Mandy, compete with eight-by-10 portraits and a copy of the fluffy dog’s eulogy.
Carefully put together with detailed captions, the albums appeared to document the lives of a family revolving around a patriarch and his second wife.
“The woman who put the albums together seemed to have married into the family,” said Long, trying to make sense of the captions.
“And we filled in the gaps about this patriarch who was awesome to his kids and grandkids.”
Suddenly, as Long started to weave a narrative through the albums, his whole Canada Council Grant made a lot more sense.
Originally toying with the idea of cannibalism, Long tied in the notion of appropriating others’ lives without permission as cannibalistic, and the idea “tickled the jury,” he said.
The money came through, and Long and his director started working on a show.
“We tried having me talk about my childhood in front of photos of their childhood,” he said. But after showing some of the scenes to an audience of peers, Long realized it wasn’t working.
Nobody cared about Long’s childhood memories. “They just wanted to hear about the people in the photos,” he said.
So Long started digging.
Identifying the family’s summer cottage, Long headed out of town to nose around.
“I didn’t actually want to talk to anyone,” he said. “I just wanted to get a sense of the place.”
But it was a small town, and a simple conversation with the woman who lived across the street from the shuttered cottage led to a meeting with an editor at the local paper who knew the family, and next thing he knew, Long was on the phone with one of the patriarch’s daughters.
It turned out to be terrible timing.
Her brother had just died, and she wasn’t thrilled that her family’s old photo albums were in the hands of some strange actor from Vancouver.
Her sister-in-law, despite her recent loss, was much friendlier and agreed to meet with Long.
“She kept tearing up,” he said. The couple owned a winery, and after her husband’s death she wasn’t sure how they were even going to harvest all the grapes.
“But she was so kind, and gave us a bottle of wine,” he said.
The visit also shed some light on the patriarch, who wasn’t such a kind loving father after all.
The visit gave Long some great material, and just as the play was coming together, the lawsuits started.
“It wasn’t an issue of copyright,” said Long. “It was privacy law.”
On Christmas Eve, Long got a letter from the family’s lawyer threatening to sue him $20,000 for every photo he used.
At this point, the show was slated to open in just over a month.
“It was poor form on their part, and poor form on my part for pressuring it,” said Long. “It was a reflection on humanity and it was a little depressing for me that there was no trust left.”
It didn’t help that the film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan had just come out, he added.
Long somehow figured it out – it’s in the show, and he didn’t want to give it away – and was able to use the photos without getting sued.
The result is a piece that has Long jumping from documentarian to active participant and back, all in a giant pink bunny suit.
The rabbit was in one of the photos, a picture of a little girl, who later ended up a drug addict in Vancouver’s downtown Eastside, sitting on the Easter Bunny’s knee.
It was a little creepy, said Long.
So he decided to enter the albums’ history as the rabbit.
Theatre Replacement is trying to step away from the traditional notion of theatre as narrative, revolving around conflict and relationship.
“We get bogged down in that all the time,” said Long. “But in visual arts we can approach material from so many different angles – you can really deconstruct a photograph, the way one would deconstruct an art piece.
“And we started deconstructing our memories in the same way.”
Narrative stories are great, in books or movies, but theatre can move beyond that, said Long.
“I’d much rather treat theatre like a really cool dinner party where you have a couple great conversations, maybe you dance for awhile, maybe you go outside and have a smoke with someone, and all these elements piece together into an evening that’s a really good time.
“Nobody has to get shot in the bathroom at a dinner party to make the evening really exciting,” he said.
“And that’s how we approach the creative process – what is interesting is not necessarily what goes together narratively.”
Clark and I Somewhere in Connecticut is at the Old Fire Hall from January 20 through 23 at 7:30 p.m.
Contact Genesee Keevil at