An attempt to channel genius

In every life there are milestones; those times that leave their mark and shape us into the people that we are. In the theatrical world, where I live most of my life, most of these milestones are “firsts”. The first time in front of an audience, the first time you see your name on a marquee, the first time an audience laughs at your joke, or the first time in a big professional theatre. Everyone involved on the stage remembers these moments.

For me, all of those firsts seem like a millennia ago, and I can barely remember what it feels like to have that endless nervous energy that propels an artist’s performance or design. These days, there are so many shows, so many hours in the dark trying to tell a story to an audience that these single moments blur into performances, then the performances into productions, and productions into seasons. Too many to remember them all, so they get grouped together.

Of course there are many events (some special, some not) that I will always remember, but for this haggard curmudgeon, in the autumn of his career, I don’t anticipate many more extraordinary experiences that I haven’t already had.

My next production, and the weeks that have led up to it, are a notable exception.

The Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre‘s production of The Glass Menagerie will mark my 45th sound design and my 100th production for MTC as the head of audio spanning back to September 1998. These may seem like big numbers to some, but in comparison to most of the crew here, I have barely half as many productions under my belt. Still, these are numbers to be noted and I recognise that I’m lucky to have had the opportunity to work on so many scripts and with so many people. I’m truly blessed, even if I rarely think so.

But it won’t be the voluminous performance records that I have achieved that will make this next show stand out for me, and become a milestone in my career. During this production, I get the opportunity to honour, and say goodbye to a friend.

Tennessee Williams calls The Glass Menagerie a memory play, and I can’t think of a more appropriate play to resurrect Marc Desormeaux‘s composition of the Stratford Festival’s production of the same (which was also used by the Citadel theatre in Edmonton for their production).

It’s appropriate in many ways. Marc’s first design in Winnipeg was A Streetcar Named Desire in January 2000, a different Tennessee Williams play, and my 9th production with MTC. I have so many fond memories of Marc in those years, and as Williams says, during the opening scene of Menagerie, “In memory, everything seems to happen to music.”

About two months ago, I received a pile of CDs and DVDs full of audio, recording, and playback data from all of the sessions used to make the music, and I was given the great honour of designing the sound using all of this source material.

It has been one of the most difficult, but fulfilling projects of my career, to make this brilliant man’s score sing again in our concrete hall. Within the recordings, there are bits of Marc’s voice between tracks talking about the play with other musicians and technicians. It was so hard to listen to him talk and not be able to ask him questions, but such a joy to hear him play and remix and edit his music to fit our production.

It took a long time, longer than I’m used to, because I wanted to take great care with this material, and because I could only work for a few hours at a time before I would become sad about the loss of such a talented and lovely person who was behind some of the most beautiful scores in Canadian theatre.

I can remember during Orpheus Descending, he sat at the back of our theatre and said “Johnny! We’re going to make these people weep!” and then he would laugh that signature laugh and smile about the music. As I sit and listen to his wondrous score for Laura, Amanda, Tom, and the Gentleman Caller, I smile with a tear in my eye and remember my friend.

We open on Thursday, and I’m more than a little nervous about this one and whether I’ve dealt with the music in the best way possible. But that’s just another gift from Marc, propelling me and my design forward with a nervous energy that I thought I would never experience again. I wish I could thank him for that in person, but I can’t, so instead, I’ve inserted Marc’s voice into the show. After the final walkout music, when most of the audience will be reaching the lobby, Marc’s voice will shoot out and say “The best advice I ever got was ‘don’t think too much’… ha ha ha ha”.

It makes me so happy to hear that laugh in our auditorium, even if it will be for the last time.

During rehearsals, I put a small picture of Marc on my production table, and when I needed to edit a piece to fit into a scene, I would stare at the picture and ask “What would you do Marc? How would you deal with this scene?”

I hope I got it right.


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6 thoughts on “An attempt to channel genius

  1. Natalie says:

    Break a leg tonight! What a beautiful tribute for a wonderful man.

  2. Glenn says:

    Theatre is such a fleeting experience. It’s great to know Marc’s work is living on. Thanks for the tribute.

  3. Trish says:

    Dear JBJ, once again, a heart-achingly eloquent tribute to Marc. Many thanks for the great care taken. I know you got it right. You opened on his birthday…

    • JBJ says:


      I had no idea that we opened on Marc’s birthday… I’m a bit of a puddle after learning that. It was the greatest of honours to work with his music again and our production is all that much richer because of Marc’s beautiful melodies.

      We close this weekend, and I’ll be more than a little sad not to hear the notes bounce off the walls of our auditorium next week, but I’ll keep some copies of his music on hand to keep me company when I’m blue.

      I’ve also added the bit of his voice, that I played every night after the walkout music, to this post so anyone can hear his advice. 🙂

      Be well.

  4. Kelli fox says:

    Wow … how fantastic to hear his voice. Thank you for adding that. I didn’t realize our opening landed on his birthday. What a beautiful bit of poetic timing.

  5. Fran says:

    Dear JBJ,

    Thank you so much for this tribute. It feels so good to know that my little brother still lives i the heart of people. Your offering does offer him thanks. He would be so proud of your gesture. I truly believe he was with you that night.

    Thank you for making my day.

    Take care

    Fran (Marc’s sister)

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