Friday, June 25, 2010

Tracy Wright: The light that will never go out.

On June 23rd, 2010, I received an email I'd been hoping was a long way off. Tracy Wright, the brilliant, beloved Canadian stage and screen actress, had passed away the day before. While it was far preferable and much kinder to hear it from Don McKellar, her husband and frequent collaborator, than to see it on the news (as so many others did), there was simply no way to dull the pain of hearing that she had lost the fight against cancer, and that we in turn had lost her.

I've long neglected this blog for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that I've not had a lot to say. It's still too raw, too surreal, to say much of substance, but if anything could move me to write again, it's Tracy. I'll never do her justice, but that won't stop me from trying.

Back when I was just a little kid, Tracy lived in the third bedroom of our apartment. She and my uncle had been dating for some time, and my family adored her, though perhaps nobody more than me. She had a crazy way of doing things, and was a constant source of laughter and music and cheer in our household; she was a fantastic playmate for me, too, and was certainly creative when it came time to watch over me for an afternoon. One of my mother's favourite examples of this took place when I was only three years old: Upon returning to our apartment from an afternoon out, my mother greeted Tracy and me, and asked how we'd spent the day.

"Oh, we did some singing," Tracy replied. Mom naturally assumed that I'd been giving ever-patient Tracy the preschool version of opera by way of Sesame Street, until Tracy added, "Heather, sing the song I taught you for your mom!"

My mother smiled and waited to hear some familiar kids' show tunes, but instead, she was surprised - and endlessly amused - when I opened my mouth and began to sing Ronnie Hawkins' "Who Do You Love," just the way Tracy had shown me to belt it out.

For anyone who doesn't know the song, and isn't sure why hearing it sung by a three year old would be hilarious, have a listen:

Yep. Tracy was the best kind of zany. She was the poster child for the saying, "To know her is to love her." And I did. We all did. Had she and my uncle chosen to get married, I couldn't have asked for a better aunt. And, marriage or not, she had already become very much a part of our family.

[ Above: My Uncle Dan and Tracy, circa 1981 - I'll ask around to see if I can verify the date - on one of our many trips to High Park. ]

1982 letter

1981 letter

[ Above: Letters to me from my Uncle Dan, who never neglected to tell me somewhere in there that "Tracy says hi!" Click to enlarge. ]

As it turned out, marriage wasn't in the cards for Tracy and my uncle, and over time we all lost touch with her. We knew she had gone to pursue a career in acting, and every so often we would catch a glimpse of her in a movie or on TV, and we would wonder aloud how she was doing, if she was happy, and I always wondered if she ever thought of me, or even remembered me. Even as a young girl I knew she was one of the funniest people I would ever meet.

Fast forward many years. After taking a couple of film classes in university, I began watching movies more critically, and it wasn't long before I discovered the genius that is Don McKellar. When I first saw his 1998 masterpiece, "Last Night", it shot straight up into my Top 10 Favourite Movies Of All Time, and has never lost its spot. Of course, there was an added bonus to the film, too: Tracy was one of the stars. I loved her role; I loved the way Don wrote it, and I loved the way Tracy brought it to life. She had a sweetness and a vulnerability to her that made the audience connect to her, and she carried those qualities with her into other roles. Even now, when I mention an indie film in which Tracy appeared, friends who aren't as familiar with her work will ask which part she played, and invariably they'll follow it up with, "Oh, wow - she was my favourite character!"

In the summer of 2005, I happened to catch a movie after work one night. It was called "Me And You And Everyone We Know", and I knew nothing about it aside from having heard that it was being very well received by audiences and critics alike. Imagine my surprise when, only a few scenes in, there was Tracy, larger than life on the big screen in front of me. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but the performance that really stood out for me (and made me cry right there in the theatre) was hers. It was then that I decided to roll the dice and write her a letter, telling her how much I'd loved her portrayal of Nancy, who has what I and many others feel is the most poignant scene in the film. I figured that, even if she had no recollection of who I was, she deserved to get accolades for a job so very well done. I took a shot in the dark with the address I chose, enclosed a photo of a family wedding in which she'd been a bridesmaid and I'd been the flower girl (cheesily circling each of us and scrawling, "There's me...and you...and...well, you know how it goes!" on the back), and sent it off.

A few months later, having very nearly forgotten that I'd posted that letter, I came home from work one evening and - lo and behold! - there was an email awaiting me, what she called a "long overdue reply" to my letter. She had even put "tracy wright - thanking you for your letter" in the subject line; that was how unassuming she was. She never expected me to remember her (!!!), and said that she was so happy to hear from me: "i thank you again for your kind words and for making the effort to write. i remember you very fondly as a little girl. i am amazed if you remember me at all were pretty young. but, i always thought you were a special kid. [...] i didnt have a lot of experience with kids ... but, in any case, it was something i felt. so there." I couldn't help but smile. She also made mention of the current happy state of her life, and once again she showed how completely modest and unassuming she was: "i am in a relationship with don mckellar (he's the guy who directed 'last night')and we live together in a nice house with our adorable little cat pinky. [...] is pretty good."

Yeah, I was fairly sure I'd heard of that McKellar guy. And to find out that they were living contentedly in a lovely part of the city made me very happy. She'd always been so good to me, and she - the queen of the understatement! - deserved to have her life being "pretty good," at the very least.

We stayed in touch over the following five years, and I was lucky enough to see her perform Daniel MacIvor's fantastic play, "A Beautiful View", with Caroline Gillis.

[ Caroline and Tracy in "A Beautiful View" ]

It was lovely to see one another again after so many years, and it was an honour to meet Caroline and Don, both of whom were very important people in her life. With Tracy, you always got the feeling that, if someone had gotten her stamp of approval, they must be pretty extraordinary. When she introduced me to Don, I considered that proof positive. They were a match that was a delight to behold.

And this is where the story turns tragic.

I happened to catch an interview with Don on "The Hour" one evening at the start of 2010, and noticed that he was wearing a wedding ring. Intrigued, I did a quick Google search, and was over the moon when I read that he and Tracy had tied the knot after so many years together. I immediately sent her a sappy email brimming with my congratulations and wishing them both nothing but the best.

The email I got in response, only hours later, was devastating. Yes, she said, she and Don had gotten married, and it had been a very happy occasion...but she added that she wanted to tell me something before I heard it from anyone else. She'd been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few weeks earlier, and the prognosis was not good. I felt as though someone had kicked me in the gut. This wasn't fair. She was so young and healthy and happy. And, selfishly, I wanted more time with her, more chances to see her perform, more everything.

I set about doing the only thing I knew how to do: I started sending her little things in the mail. Postcards from my travels. A chocolate bar with the wartime slogan "Keep Calm And Carry On" emblazoned across its package, which, as she pointed out in her thank-you email, made it "not only delicious, but inspirational." I happened to meet up with her friend Bruce McDonald, another great Canadian director, while acting as an extra in his upcoming film project, and I asked him to pose for a photo with me where we'd wave at the camera and I'd email it to Tracy to make her smile. It worked; I got a message back the next morning thanking me for thinking of her.

She fought hard right up to the end. She finished more than one project while she was still well enough to do so, and has therefore left us with things to which we can look forward. Hundreds upon hundreds of people turned up to her visitation yesterday - so many, in fact, that the messages of love from her friends and family in the condolence book drained the ink out of two pens in 3 hours, and I'm sure the third pen (which was the one I left for others to use before heading out) was well on its way to running dry, too. As I said to Don and several others, it was a true testament to Tracy's impact on the lives of everyone she touched, that so many words of love, kindness and sorrow were being left that they were demanding a fresh supply of writing implements.

That's just the kind of woman Tracy was.

Whether you had the great fortune of meeting her, or have enjoyed seeing her on stage or on screen, consider yourselves lucky. It's rare for a Tracy Wright to come along in life. I'll be forever grateful that she was a part of mine, and whenever I miss her - which will be often, I know - I can put in one of her movies and remember everything about her that was talented, and lovable, and completely, thoroughly unique.

I can remember her, Tracy Lauren Wright, as the light that will never go out on the Canadian stages she graced, and in my heart.

In lieu of flowers, a donation in her honour may be made online to the Toronto Arts Council Foundation, or in person/by mail at 141 Bathurst Street, Toronto M5V 2R2.

ETA: Another big loss for Canada befell us when the great Maury Chaykin passed away on July 27th, 2010, his 61st birthday. For a beautiful piece written by Daniel MacIvor about both Tracy and Maury, please check out "Blue/This Is Was".

Also worth noting: "TRIGGER," Tracy's project with Daniel, Don, Molly Parker, and Bruce McDonald, will be screening at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12th, 2010 and will open in other theatres two weeks later. It will be a lovely way to remember her.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Stalkeriffic! When does being a "fan" go too far?

I can spare you the English lesson about how the word "fan" is derived from "fanatic." But why, I wonder, do we give such a negative connotation to the latter when the former is perfectly acceptable? Everyone is a "fan" of something. But if you add those extra two syllables, you've basically just called someone "batshit crazy" and "obsessed." So where does one draw the line?

I bring this up because of the recent brouhaha over at Oh No They Didn't!. (Let's skip past the whole "yeah, yeah, I'm a card-carrying member and contributor" bit, shall we?) A rundown, for the TL;DR crowd (that's "too long; didn't read," for you non-netspeak types):

A teenage girl - 13 or 14, it seems - somehow purchased the address of her favourite singer's private residence, got her mother (!!!) to drive her and a friend to said house, took a bunch of creepily intimate pictures (things like the guy's dogs, who were inside the house, and what was on his front porch, etc.), and then stuck around for 2 hours until he got home so she could get his autograph and take photos of him with them. (All of the photos and screencaps are at the above "brouhaha" link. I'd rather not host the Facebook profile 'caps of a kid here. Just in case.)

I haven't quite made sense of what happened in which order, but it would seem that the girl proceeded to post the pictures of this guy's house (it was Alex Gaskarth from All Time Low, for the record) all over Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and anything else she could get her hands on...and someone, I suppose, directed Alex's attention to the things she posted. I guess he'd assumed, when he signed the autographs and took a picture with her, that she and her friend had just been passersby who were fans, and didn't realize that this girl had, in fact, hatched one hell of a scheme in order to get to him that night (including, as she so wisely posted back and forth with her friend on her public Facebook status, "Oh we are totallllly stalking him...we cann get arrested together...OMG we can tell the cops he raped u[s] and then we could ride in the same police car as him! FUCK I AM GENIOUS" / "oh my god. perfect! alex fucking gaskarth is a [r]apist! fuck yessss! now we just need someone to drive us.....").

Needless to say, the foul language and spelling errors are not mine. The way moronic teenagers "spell" today is a subject for another blog entry entirely(yyyyy). I weep for our youth(hhhhhh).

But more importantly...did they really just post what I think they posted? Why, yes, they did! LOL LET'S ACCUSE OUR FAVOURITE SINGERRRRRR OF BEING A RAPIST SO WE CAN BE IN THE BACKSEAT OF A COP CAR TOGETHERRRRRRR LOLOLOL

What the hell.

I could spend hours dissecting the many ways in which this is just over the top stupid and flat-out wrong, but I trust you can come to those conclusions yourselves. Rape jokes aren't funny; false accusations aren't a joke anyway; these children need to be chained nauseum. Here's what appeared on the singer's Twitter page not long after he realized that this fan encounter wasn't quite normal:


I'm a little surprised he didn't call the police, but given the girls' plan, perhaps it was best he didn't. Ay yi yi. The fact that the girl has since taken to begging Alex's forgiveness on Twitter is an extra dose of disturbing. And some of the discussions in the ONTD comments don't help, either. I don't think it makes me a "special snowflake" if I say that no, even at 12 or 13, I didn't think stalking my celebrity crushes was something I just had to do. My friends and I had posters on our walls, wrote silly stories about meeting rock stars, giggled over late-night phone calls as we watched MuchMusic spotlights or stayed up to see our favourite actors in their latest movie. That is what I thought "normal" teenagers do when they're fans...but as you can see from that discussion thread, my opinion is but one in a sea of many.

Granted, somewhere in all of that talk, the subject of social networking comes up. I'd be stupid to say that the existence of MySpace and Facebook and Twitter - hell, the internet in general - hasn't drastically changed the face of being a "fan" since I was a kid. My favourite movie stars weren't accessible at all in most cases, beyond whatever interview popped up in the latest TeenBeat magazine. (Oh, god, I'm aging myself.) Nowadays, you can have long conversations with John Mayer or Clive Barker or Kevin Spacey on Twitter, because it's a safe space for them to get to know their fans, and for their fans to get a glimpse into what used to be a completely mysterious way of life.

(Ah, yes. The Trent Reznor/social media debacle of 2009 also begs for its own blog entry. Someday soon, I promise. In the meantime, this discussion, to which I contributed, does a pretty damn fine job of breaking down the reasons why not ALL celebrities should let their fans see what's behind the curtain.)

Back to the original question, then: What divides "fan" from "fanatic," aside from four letters and the idea that you're certifiable?

I've done some things that people might consider extreme to see a concert of a favourite band (whether spending insane amounts of money for the ticket or travelling to another country - or continent - for the show) or attend the reading of a favourite author (like wearing a bridesmaid dress and carrying a bouquet while roaming around downtown Toronto trying to hail a cab... It's a long story). But as far as I know, I've never crossed that creepy line. I've been lucky enough to meet all sorts of famous people, many of whom I admire greatly and whose work I love dearly. I've gone on to be an acquaintance or a friend of some of these people; others I've seen or met once and have been perfectly happy with that. The line, for me, is that I've never visited myself upon my favourite singer's private property, be it a car or a house or whatever else. Every celebrity meeting I've had has taken place in an open, non-intrusive way: I meet them at their public event, or I'm introduced by mutual friends, or we happen to be at the same club or party, where it's normal to approach anyone and have a drink and some conversation. If ever I end up with that famous person's home address or phone number, it's because that person gave it to me, and nobody's going to buy it from me for any amount of money. If we become acquainted with each other on a more friendly, let's-hang-out level, it happens organically. I'm a collector of experiences, that much is for certain, but I'm not one who is comfortable crossing any sort of line without a green light first.

Take my most "extreme" fan activity: Flying to the UK to see a concert. Yes, I did that in 2008. The band I'd loved for 20 years was touring, but not in my part of the world. I had a good job and was making good money at the I just decided to go for it. My father and I took the whirlwind trip of a lifetime together, visiting our family's homeland of Scotland for the first time ever, and the concert was the icing on the cake. My mother wasn't well enough to come with us, and she'd asked if I would bring home one souvenir for her: A photo of me with the band she loved nearly as much as I did. So, once at the venue, I sent a note backstage with my polite request, and thought, "Hey, if they can do it, great. If they can't, I'm still so lucky to get to see them perform live after all these years." I could've remained just another anonymous face in the crowd and I'd still have loved that show. As it turned out, they were extraordinarily gracious, and invited me backstage to meet with them after the show, and my Mom got the picture she wanted so much. I also came away from that evening having met some fantastic new people, and loved the country so much that I went back again a year later, no concert tickets in hand that time. It was one of the best things I've ever done...and I got to meet some of my musical heroes without being creepy about it. I didn't lurk next to a stage door in the rain for hours, or hunt down their tour bus, or try to befriend security so I could sneak in somehow. I simply asked. And I was rewarded a thousand times more than I'd have imagined I would be.

Now, I know this can't possibly be a typical fan experience. I can scarcely imagine my hardcore U2 fan friends would get a response like I did to a pre-show handwritten note sent backstage. Even bands who aren't as detached from their fans as those heavy hitters are probably very often inaccessible to their audience. But that's the thing: I don't think a band being harder to reach means that a fan should try harder to reach them. It's a fine line, between lucking out and getting that autograph, and turning into a full-time, full-fledged groupie. (Don't get me started on that subject. The road manager of a friend's band once referred to me as a "groupie," and he nearly had his nose broken in return.)

I ask the question again, and have no intention of answering it myself, because I think it differs for a lot of people...and, frankly, I just don't have the answer. Where is that line? What does someone have to do to escalate from loyal fan to psychotic stalker? And the question that is perhaps of the most interest to me: How far would you go - or have you gone - to see or meet your favourite band/actor/writer/celebrity? How far is too far? Is there a price tag, a measurement in miles, or a social line that you can point at and say, "I won't go past that point, right there"?

Here's hoping the teenage All Time Low stalker asks these questions next time, before she again publicly makes an ass of herself. And let us hope, too, that this was her "all time low."

I couldn't resist.