A Bit About Me
A Post by Confluence Artist, Berend McKenzie
I’m in Canmore on a writing getaway as I create this blog post.
In October, Catalyst Theatre’s staff, and I completed two large grant applications. The goal and plan are to host a large group of artists to help me get a clearer vision of my musical In the Centre. Thank you to Jonathan, Lana and Jessica for all your help and attention.
Since many readers of this (so the two of you) never met me, I wanted to give you a little background of what has brought me to this point and my fellowship with Catalyst. To entice you… here is a picture of me in drag and my newly found sister… see the resemblance?
In January of 2019, my partner of 28 years died of cancer. As a result, Vancouver became a graveyard of memory for me. It was filled with memories of Ray and everything I’d lost. So in October of that year, I decided to move back to my hometown of Edmonton. I had been a makeup artist for over 16 years and got a job at Southgate Mall. Very soon after my employment began, I realized that it was all too soon. My heartache was brutal, and I would spend the thirty minutes driving to work and back, sobbing and crying in the car.
Then Covid hit, and I was forced, like so many, to stay home.
At first, I was terrified because, unlike so many, I knew, deep in my heart, that Covid-19 was here for a long time. I’d lived through the AIDS pandemic and knew that I needed to buckle down for the long haul. I felt dread like I had never felt before. Here I was, in a relatively new city, isolated and alone without my Ray. Every morning, in the beginning, was like Groundhog Day, and I wasn’t sure that there would be much left of my sanity when the world opened up again.
And the grief was still brutal and constant. I had spontaneous moments of buckling to the floor while making dinner or cleaning my toilet. At first, I would curse these episodes of despair as nothing but self-induced hysteria. But, my inner macho-man (if there ever was one) was telling me to “buck up! Get over it! Stop being a wimp!”.
Though I wanted nothing more than to never get out of bed, I found myself up at ungodly times in the morning with nothing to do. About two weeks in, a voice in my head said. “You have been given a gift of time. Use it to write.” So I shut off my television, had a shower, put on my favourite Indian oil from Durga Interiors in Vancouver, and sat at my computer and wrote.
I wrote a short story called Hockey Night in Canada and got it published in an anthology. I sent that story to a film director friend here in Edmonton who thought it would make a great web series. I thought about maybe going to film school. I researched where I might enroll to learn the basics and found that most film courses were thousands of dollars and that everything would be online learning. I started seeing friends in the film industry sharing their financial worries on social media. But, unfortunately, no one knew if and when they would be back to work.
I had a thought.
I reached out to some of my out-of-work screenwriting friends and asked if I could hire them to be my teachers? A win-win for everyone! I found a local screenwriter here in Edmonton and, with her help, turned my short story into my first web series. I sent the final project to another accomplished director/writer. They suggested that I turn the web series into a full-length feature film. I spent six months learning about storyboarding, scene structure, plot, and character development with these friends. We laughed and shared our worries about the future. It bonded me to these people for life.
One of the most challenging times I had during the pandemic was watching George Floyd die on my television repeatedly for days on end. My grief, like so many, was palpable. Friends would ask how I was doing, and all I could tell them was, “I was tired.” I was tired of seeing people of colour discarded and being treated less than humans. I was tired of people looking to me to answer how to fix the complicit problem of racism like I had all the answers. I was tired of watching some friends retreat to their racist corners while proclaiming that “blue lives and all lives matter.” I was tired of hoping that the world finally understood what we BIPOC people have been saying for years. I was tired of the sinking feeling that nothing would really change at the end of the day.
I lost several friendships over several months. It was painful then but a necessary step for my own mental health. Then, suddenly, everything was clear to me. I could see, often for the first time, the microaggressions and subtle racism people in my own circles had towards me and to those with brown and black skin. I was grateful to have something like my writing to funnel my feelings and thoughts into. So I shut off the news and wrote.
At the end of 2020, I applied for two programs. One was for the prestigious Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Mentorship Program and The Global Access Academy Writing Program. The latter was a BIPOC screenwriting initiative co-produced by Warner Media and Telefilm Canada. I got accepted into the mentorship program and was paired with a language scientist, published author and a fabulous human named Julie Sedivy. The project I chose to work on was writing a book about the trauma I suffered as a child at the hands of my adopted parents.
Over four months, I wrote more than 100,000 words and managed to eke out 7 chapters. This was a transformative period for me. By the end of the mentorship, I was able to look at my younger self and say, “You were innocent, you didn’t deserve what happened to you, you are a survivor, I forgive you, and I will take care of you from now on.”
It only took 53 years!
Something shifted in me. Never before had I been so transformed by writing. I felt lighter and less attached to my past. This was when my world opened up.
For my birthday, I sent my DNA in to be tested. And in June, I had the first conversation with my eldest sister! I’m not kidding when I say that we are twins in so many respects and that in drag, we look identical! I feel like I came from somewhere now. That I wasn’t a mistake. Overnight I have a baby brother, an older brother and a niece.
At this same time, I received a surprise email saying that I had been short-listed for the Warner Media Writing Academy. And before I knew it, I had been accepted into the program! Now I’m the Confluence Fellow and beginning the journey of writing my first musical.
I have received the gifts of 2021 with gratitude in my heart. I only wish Ray was here to see it.
If you have questions about the Confluence Fellowship, the Warner Media Global Access Writing Academy or the Writers’ Guild of Alberta Mentorship Program, I’m here to help.
Treaty Six (Edmonton)