By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“I could not believe it! I could not get my head around it!” declares Allan Morgan.
The veteran Vancouver-based actor, whose conversation rolls in exclamation points, is known to Edmonton audiences since he was the touring productions of The Overcoat and the Electric Company’s Studies in Motion (“I ran jiggling across the stage naked!”). This amiable and highly amusing theatre artist is talking about the bizarre situation that proved the inspiration for his solo memoir play I Walked the Line. It joins the 2020 Chinook Series Friday for three performances under the Workshop West Playwrights Theatre banner.
If you’re an actor, “strike” usually means taking the set apart on the last night of the show. But when your day job between engagements is working for a union? And you and your fellow workers get locked out … by union management? Surely that’s a contradiction in terms, right? You’ve fallen down a rabbit hole into the wonderland where contradictions live, right?
Both theatrically and in subject matter, Morgan’s I Walked the Line has a highly unusual pedigree. For one thing, it was commissioned by a theatre manager friend, who also funded a couple of workshops, the lighting, the design — and even paid for a premiere run at Intrepid Theatre in Victory. When does that happen?
I Walked The Line started as a classic actorly response to a classic actorly crisis of income. When Morgan had a “dry spell” in theatre gigs five years ago — “it was getting depressing, really black” — he got himself a job working for a union, as a mail clerk. “I was scared shitless,” he recalls.; I knew nothing about mail clerk-ery. Hey, just like the movies, I was the guy in the bowtie who starts at the bottom and rises up!”
Union HQ was a sprawling building. “Everyone worked alone in their own cubicle. And as the mail guy I’d go through twice a day and pick up and deliver their mail, and talk to every single person there…. After a while I started decorating the mail cart, with lights, for national holidays and people’s birthdays. And people would start putting out candy bowls to keep me there longer.” Morgan laughs. “I pollinated the building!”
Mostly his co-workers were “older women from the suburbs, working as clerks or secretaries or assistants to lawyers or labour relations people. And I was the gay actor guy from downtown…. They and I would never normally have met. But over time we became very close.”
Morgan was the de factor building “social convener,” he laughs. For a workplace Pride Week gathering he worked up a piece he called Pride, 0 to 60, “about how my generation had grown up with one foot in the psychiatric/ medical definition of homosexuality” before the era and the social milieu for gays evolved. In time it became a solo show Pride for the Young Gay, the Un-Gay, and the Jaded Queen In All Of Us.
In I Walked The Line, Morgan tells his personal story of going on strike with his fellow employees against the union they worked for. “They were trying to take away sick days, lower our pay… and they locked us out. A union! People were flabbergasted. I was appalled. I come from a union family…. I don’t mention the name in the play. But it was the British Columbia Nurses’ Union.”
When the strike ended Morgan finally went back to work in the mail room — for a day. Then he was summarily fired, and marched out of the building. On a snow day, to add insult to injury.
There was, however, a taste of sweet revenge attached to the whole affair, “Jacobean really,” as he says brightly. Morgan’s face, plastered “on a giant poster … like Norma Rae,” advertised I Walked The Line at the Massey Theatre in New Westminster, at each bridge going in and out of that suburb. And he feels sure the union managers had to drive by it on the way to and from work every day. “They may have won the battle but I won the fucking war!” Morgan says cheerfully.
The other bonus was the affectionate support of his co-MoveUp workers. They showed up en masse on opening night, very excited to discover that they were in a play and “I was telling their story,” as he says. “It elevated every thing they did. They were crusaders!”
Chinook Series 2020
I Walked The Line: a play about unions, treachery, solidarity, Porta Potties & baked goods
Theatre: Bread & Roses, sponsored by The Other Guys Theatre and presented by Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by and starring: Allan Morgan
Directed by: Ross Desprez
Where: Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Friday through Sunday
Tickets: chinookseries.ca or at the door