A Man Draws A Bird “because he wants to fly”: theatre, music, and Taiko drumming in a new Booming Tree show

Greg Shimizu and Twilla MacLeod, A Man Draws A Bird. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

As in so many life-changers, there was a moment when it all could have been different. And that was the moment — on one of those lingering Edmonton summer evenings in 2012 — that Greg Shimizu got on his high-end carbon fibre bike to go for a spin.

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Shimizu, a seven-time Canadian national team triathlon athlete, in training for the world championships in his age group, was super-fit, pumped, adrenalized, chafing at the bit after a three-day break in Victoria where his dad was getting an honorary degree. 

His favourite route took him through Hawrelak Park and into the Legislature grounds. He liked it because it was , “treed, peaceful, green, calming.” The last thing he remembers about that ride, “a flicker of a memory really,” was riding down a hill. A van was coming up, and hung a sudden U-turn in front of him. 

The next thing he remembers was opening his eyes in the hospital. “What happened?” asked actor/musician Twilla MacLeod, his partner in life and in Booming Tree Taiko, their drumming duo. The answer was simple, and revealing. “I don’t know.”

Broken bones, cracked ribs and torn-up AC joints eventually mend;  smashed cheekbones reassemble themselves after a traumatic accident. To the naked eye and the mirror, you are your old self. But in the shadowy shifting world of brain injury into which you’re violently reborn, nothing is the same. You are only a reasonable facsimile of you, a doppelgänger not quite put together the same way. For you or your partner. As Shimizu puts it, “I was in the earthquake; Twilla was hit by the tsunami….”

Twilla MacLeod and Greg Shimizu, A Man Draws A Bird. Photo supplied.

That’s the world into which Shimizu and MacLeod take us in A Man Draws A Bird, a unique fusion of theatre, true story, music, and Taiko drumming premiering tonight at the Backstage Theatre. A show about identity — “part theatre/ part concert” as MacLeod puts it — it was developed with the material assistance of the Westbury Family Fringe Theatre Award.

“We didn’t hear the word ‘concussion’ at all,” says MacLeod of the aftermath of Shimizu’s accident seven years ago. Five hours later, Shimizu was home.

His nightmare was about to begin. “You assume your (inner) computer processor will just re-boot,” he says. “It’s like the first time you’re drunk, and you think what the hell’s the matter with me? And you assume that you’ll bounce back, like a hangover, that everything will be all right.”

What ensued was seven years of crushing fatigue, constant headaches, sleeplessness, and the sense that a self had somehow fractured and slipped away, in shards. Shimizu has been “the reverse of a vampire; night is the worst time for me,” he says. “Concussion slowly, slowly, takes things from your life…. Your work, your relationships with people, your energy, your focus, your personality.” Ah, and your memory. Who are you without your memories?

The commonplace advice to “rest,” proved counter-productive for Shimizu. “I have to make myself do things! It’s like walking on fire; you have to keep moving to distract you from pain…”

“It takes so much more energy to do things,” says the vigorous, vivid multi-tasker, one of the world’s natural extroverts. In addition to age-group triathlons and Taiko drumming, Shimizu had owned, and worked, the Whyte Avenue bar/cafe The Pour House. It was too much: He had to sell it, a further blow to his sense of self. But Booming Tree he couldn’t give up. “It gave Greg so much joy,” says MacLeod of the duo that performs at a wide variety of Edmonton events and festivals.

“I couldn’t let (concussion) take away our Taiko,” says Shimizu, an activist for brain injury causes. “It’s the glue that holds us together, connects us to each other and who we are….” Macleod nod. “It’s our craft and our identity.”

Unlike his partner (MacLeod is a U of A theatre and music grad), Shimizu isn’t a trained actor. Now, in the expanding sense of possibility that A Man Draws A Bird has galvanized, his creative energy is directed into performing in an original theatre piece spun from his own experience. Together the pair has gathered collaborators, including Newfoundland-based playwright/director Charlie Tomlinson and jazz musician Farley Scott.

MacLeod describes the score, which includes seven original songs, as a “folky, roots, old-style country” melange. Taiko drumming is there, not as part of that score but “because it’s a big part of our life,” says MacLeod of Booming Tree. “Taiko is such a big powerful voice,” she says of the challenging, highly physical Japanese art form. “And our story is mall.”

Rehearsals haven’t been without challenges, as MacLeod and Shimizu point out. If memory is problematic in the story, it remains so in real life too. And Shimizu can’t ever quite predict when his energy is going to crash.

But “in year 7 I’m SO much better,” grins Shimizu. “And this is is cathartic!” says MacLeod. “A man draws a bird because he wants to fly…. It’s not ‘woe is me’. It’s about survival, and the music is all happy!”


A Man Draws A Bird

Theatre: Booming Tree and Fringe Theatre Adventures

Created by and starring: Twilla MacLeod and Greg Shimizu

Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 Ave.

Running: tonight through May 11

Tickets: tickets.fringetheatre.ca

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