Art Imitates Life Imitating Art in Negatunity

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NegatunityThe journey of Matthew St. Amand’s Negatunity – a new play making its world premiere this month at The Shadowbox Theatre – illustrates just how closely life and art can intertwine. That means it’s a very personal journey as well. It’s impossible for me to write about Negatunity without getting personal both because the play itself is personal and because the story of how it got to the stage is personal. So bear with me, because this may get a little TMI.

In 2013, St. Amand started writing this semi-autobiographical script – about a man falling off the Ambassador Bridge while his life flashes before his eyes – as an attempt to find meaning in a tragic incident from his childhood. The writing process took four years, but after some periods of hesitation, writer’s block, and self-doubt, the story began to flow out of him. The end result is a strange, utterly unique script that’s impossible to classify – dramatic but not quite a drama, funny but not quite a comedy, surreal but grounded, absurd but sober. Somehow it all works. Tragedy helped him create something beautiful.

In 2017, he sent the script to me at Post Productions. We were producing another one of his plays, Shelter in Place, at the time. All of us at Post Productions loved the script for Negatunity, so we made plans to produce it in 2019. Unfortunately, scheduling issues led us to postpone Negatunity to June 2020 and . . . well, we know how that year turned out.
When I first read the script, I wanted to play the lead role, Singleton Kastamangas, even though I’d already decided I didn’t want to act anymore. Singleton is such a fascinating character to me. I understand him. I empathize with him. How could I not want to play him?

But a few months later, I discovered I was rapidly going blind. By February 2019, I was completely blind in one eye and mostly blind in the other. Still, by that point I’d committed to play Cradeau in our production of No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre (because Fay Lynn said she wouldn’t play Inez otherwise). On the morning of the fourth performance, I woke up completely blind. The retina of my “good” eye had detached while I slept. Well, you know the old saying, “The show must go on!” With the help of the cast and crew, I figured out how to perform the role sightless, and we finished the remaining four performances. Still, the experience was so stressful (and, honestly, terrifying) that even the thought of acting again caused intense anxiety. I haven’t acted in a play since.

So a new actor – a far superior actor, to be fair – was cast as Singleton. But as 2020 reared its ugly head, he had to drop out. Fay convinced me to return to the role. Anxious but determined to make the best of the situation, I agreed. After all, I still loved the script and the character. By this point I couldn’t read print, and could only read from a screen slowly and under certain conditions. This meant I had to have my part memorized before I started rehearsals with the rest of the cast. And since reading was now so difficult, I had to memorize the script by listening to Fay read it to me, line by line, then repeating the lines back to her. Over and over. A tedious process. We spent all of March 2020 doing this.

Auditions for the other roles were scheduled for the end of March, 2020. Then everything shut down due to the pandemic. So auditions were held virtually instead (actors sent us videos). A cast was chosen and rehearsals were held initially via Zoom. Once we were allowed to gather in small groups again, rehearsals were held in-person – with everyone masked and distanced. Things seemed to be going well – despite the omnipresence of Covid-19 and the fact that theatres were still closed.

In May 2020, it became clear that theatres would not re-open in time for Negatunity to run in June, as scheduled. So we moved the show to August. Unfortunately this meant losing a cast member who was moving away for college. As has become tradition at Post Productions, since we were short on time we replaced him with one of the partners, Nikolas Prsa.

At first the rehearsal and pre-production processes went smoothly – until I fell down the stairs at home. As a blind person, I fall down stairs a lot. It’s basically a hobby. This time, though, I seemed to have sprained my ankle. So for the next few weeks, we rehearsed with me sitting down 80 percent of the time, hobbling around the stage the rest of the time.

At the end of July, I became very ill and spent several days in the hospital due to sepsis. It turned out that my ankle wasn’t sprained; it was broken. And somehow the broken bones had become infected. Upon discharge from the hospital, I was put on heavy antibiotics administered intravenously 24/7. The infection was too powerful and within two weeks, I learned I would die unless my lower leg was amputated . . . immediately. This happened the week before Negatunity was supposed to open – and while I was in the hospital, Windsor entered a new zone. The production would have opened had I not been laying about legless in the hospital.

So Negatunity was rescheduled again, this time for January 2021. Unfortunately this meant we lost another cast member. As in Post Productions tradition, another partner, Fay, stepped up to fill the role. She is also directing Negatunity, however, this complicated her job.

Negatunity Poster

Rehearsals for Negatunity were put on hold for a couple of months because we were getting Fatboy and The Beauty Queen of Leenane ready to open (which, thankfully, they did) – and because I was in a wheelchair. It wasn’t clear how long it would take me to heal so I could get a prosthetic leg and learn to walk again. It ended up taking four months, so once Negatunity started rehearsing again, I was just speaking lines from the wheelchair.

Then Windsor went into lockdown. Negatunity was rescheduled again – this time to April 2021. Rehearsals were cancelled. We took two months off to work on other projects.
Then the province entered another lockdown, then stay-at-home orders were issued . . . and here we are now. You know what? We saw it coming so we’d already set in motion a Plan B: hiring terrific local filmmaker Mitchell Branget – who had worked on our production of The Pillowman in 2019 – to film three dress rehearsals of Negatunity and edit them into a product that exists in a hazy minimal space between live theatre and television. It’s neither, but a bit of both.

So after all of the turmoil and chaos, our ragtag clan of dedicated professionals made sure you could see this tender and beautiful and hilarious play – because we’ve fought like hell for a year to bring it to life. We don’t give up.

Why am I telling you all of this? Well, because imagine how good the play must be if we’re so stubborn to bring it to life that not even pandemics and near-death experiences and emergency amputations can stop us. We believe in Matt St. Amand’s script. The journey to bring Negatunity to life was itself a series of negatunities. We didn’t wallow in misery. With every setback we encountered, we rolled up our sleeves, took control, and re-calibrated. We used every obstacle as an opportunity, and made existential Gatorade from the lemons of misfortune. And you know what? As a result, the Negatunity you’ll see in 2021 is a far better production than the one you would have seen in 2020.

We humans can understand ourselves better as we learn to understand others. A personal story like Negatunity and the personal story of how this cast and crew refused to give up on it, can inspire reflection, change perspectives, maybe even move people to do something with their own lives that they’ve been putting off far too long. Life is short. Mind the gap.

You can purchase an e-ticket to watch Negatunity in the pandemic-tastic comfort of your own home for $25 until May 31. After that date it’ll be whisked off to the land of the dead to cavort and frolic with memories and ghosts and long-forgotten dreams.

But until then you can watch it as many times as you wish and even download it to your hard drive. It’s easy and simple. Go to postproductionswindsor.ca to find out how.

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