Bill’s Glorious Comeback
With Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life, Trevor Cole brings his first novel to the stage, and brings his father Bill Cole back to Headwaters.
“There is nothing so humiliating as to be accosted by the fetid flesh of one’s undead past.”
That lament, spoken by a television actor embarrassed by his early film work, appears in the novel Norman Bray in the Performance of His Life. While many writers may likewise have reason to fret about their undead past, Trevor Cole, the man who wrote the line, does not.
An accomplished journalist who has been nominated for 24 National Magazine Awards and won nine, Cole made the leap to fiction in the early 2000s. Norman Bray was his first effort. When it was published in 2004, it received widespread acclaim, including nominations for a Governor General’s Literary Award and Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. It has been optioned for television, optioned twice for film, and was made into a CBC radio adaptation and audio book.
Cole’s second novel, The Fearsome Particles, was also nominated for a Governor General’s Award and long listed for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His third offering, Practical Jean, brought what must have been a career highlight when among other recognition it received the prestigious Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 2011.
Now the author is taking another leap, with his adaptation of Norman Bray for the stage. The play will make its world debut April 10 at Theatre Orangeville, running until April 26. It will be directed by the theatre’s artistic director David Nairn and star Stephen Sparks as Norman, Heidi Lynch and Jesse Griffiths.
It’s fitting that the play should open here. Cole spent the years 1966 through 1972, from age six to 12, living near Grand Valley. His father was noted Canadian actor Bill Cole. Though Bill Cole appeared in the first televised version of Anne of Green Gables on CBC TV in 1951, he was better known as a stage actor, appearing in productions across the country including Toronto, the Charlottetown Festival and Stratford, with such contemporaries as Don Harron and William Needles (father of playwright and columnist for this magazine Dan Needles).
Bill, who died in 2005, also taught briefly in the drama department at Orangeville District Secondary School in the late 1960s. For some years after his time there, bus trips were organized so ODSS students could see their former teacher appear on stage in Toronto.
Though Trevor’s book and play are works of fiction, it is his father Bill who served as the model for the character of Norman Bray.
Norman is an aging actor who is by turns obstinate, infuriating and oblivious. His artificially inflated self-regard has brought him to the brink of ruin financially, in both his career and closest relationships. This is a darkly funny, yet ultimately endearing glimpse into what happens when unstoppable narcissism crashes head-on into immovable reality.
Trevor Cole has written and spoken publicly about his personal experience growing up with a man who sucked all the oxygen from the room. I sat down with him to talk about the challenges of staging his first play, empathy, fear, and how to cope with a bathrobe-clad narcissist in the living room.
Jeff Rollings There are those who claim the book is always better than the film. I wonder, are you worried something like that could happen with your play?
Trevor Cole Well, I don’t think I can say which is better. I think each is its own thing. Certainly the book is longer and is a more complex story, but some would argue that the play is the natural medium for this story, and that it lives best on the stage. We’ll have to see. A lot of the people who know Norman Bray know him from the 15-part CBC Radio adaptation, which was then turned into an audiobook. A lot of people who know and love the book know and love it through that radio adaptation, which only captured maybe 40 per cent of the book. It didn’t capture a lot of the comic set pieces I treasure about the book, because they didn’t push the plot forward. For those people who only know the radio adaptation, and love the book because of it, I can’t say that is a bad version, because it obviously worked for them.
The challenge for me with the radio adaptation, and now with this stage adaptation, is realizing that Norman is my father. So whenever I see Norman, whenever I wrote Norman’s words, whenever I think about Norman, I see my father. And nobody can be my father onstage. It’s about allowing the actor to do his own thing with the role. Once I feel I’m comfortable with that, then I’ll feel I’ve actually become a playwright, or adapted myself to the stage.
JR I’ve heard you talk about how your dad was always performing, whether he was on stage or not. So how is it for you to see some actor performing your father performing?
TC It brings back a lot of memories, and a lot of images come back. When I see a scene being done, I will sometimes think about how Dad would do it, because it’s just natural. Nobody is quite the narcissist my father was, and that’s a good thing. I really love what Stephen Sparks, the actor who’s playing Norman – I’ve seen him just in readings so far – is doing and I’m excited by what he’s going to do. He’s going to make it his, and that’s when it will live. Nobody can perform the vision of my father I have in my head.
JR I saw a video clip of your father before reading the book, so of course I had him in my head too.
TC Dad had a very powerful presence all the time. Even watching television, Dad was a presence in the room. He never faded away. He was always vivid. That’s what I tried to capture in the essence of Norman.
JR Is it difficult to bring – this guy can be so utterly unlikable – to bring that to the stage and still ensure that people enjoy the play?
TC Here’s the big thing about Norman. I didn’t write an unlikable character. I wrote a character that I quite love. He was my dad, or based on my dad. So when I was writing Norman, I had love in my heart, and nothing else. I was showing him warts and all, but I loved him. Readers can be frustrated by him – usually it’s men more than women who dislike Norman. Women find a soft spot for him. A lot of women readers want to take Norman under their wing and show him the way forward. There’s a lot of affection for him. Men tend to see elements of themselves that they reject in him. And so Norman angers them because it cuts too close to the bone or something.
JR I imagine everyone who reads that book is constantly measuring themselves against Norman’s narcissism.
TC Absolutely. Or it starts to ring bells about people they grew up with, or that they knew, so they’re working with that balance as well. But the thing is, in the book, Norman does outrageous things. He acts selfishly and is oblivious to the needs of others, but the saving grace is that you know what’s going through his head. You’re not on the outside of Norman, as the rest of the people in the book are. You’re on the inside. So you can see how he goes from A to B, or from A to Z, in his mind. You can see how he works through an issue or a situation. And even though you might not take the same path Norman takes, you see how he got there. That builds in a certain amount of empathy for him because you can relate to him. The challenge of mounting Norman on the stage is generating that same empathy, even though you can’t be on the inside of him in the same way, because you are watching, you’re not participating inside his mind. So that’s an acting challenge as much as it is a writing challenge. The goal is for Norman to be likeable enough that you care about what happens to him.
JR While many narcissists are sweet and lovable to the outside world, they can also be nasty and cruel to family members and those closest to them. Yet Norman is never nasty or cruel.
TC I would argue that narcissists, when they are nasty or cruel, aren’t doing it deliberately. You have to think of a narcissist as a child in an adult’s body. So when a child has a tantrum, they may say bad things and act in a nasty way, but they are expressing an inner hurt. Narcissists are the same way. It’s just that they have more power behind the words because they’re adults. When a narcissist is mean and cruel, he’s lashing out. It’s an expression of insecurity and self-preservation and hurt. A narcissist is never cruel to be cruel, or rarely. When you’re cruel to be cruel, then you’re getting into a whole other layer down the spectrum of personality disorder. You’re getting closer to psychopath. Dad could be cruel, but I grew to understand that it was coming from not a mean place, but a damaged place or hurt place.
In the case of Norman, I didn’t need to express that part of the narcissistic personality. Even though it’s a story about a narcissist, it’s not a book about narcissism; it’s a book about a character. So Norman is not a cruel man, he’s a selfish, oblivious man, but he’s not cruel. I had no interest in writing about a cruel person. I didn’t need to mine that part of my experience.
JR How does it feel as opening night draws closer?
TC The thing about being a novelist is it’s all in your head. You make it live on the page, but it’s very intangible in a way. It’s also very singular. It’s a very lonely process creating a world in your head and then putting it on the page. What’s exciting for me about this process is that it’s very different. You’re collaborating, you’re working with other people. And the words you create have an immediate effect on someone else and they have to work with those words. Then I have to take their needs as actors into consideration in a way that I never had to in the novel. There are theatrical needs, there are things that you have to keep in mind when you’re writing lines and you’re doing a scene. It’s a whole other process and it’s thrilling because it’s not lonely work at all. You feel like you’re working with people, and that’s kind of cool.
JR I see your jumps from journalism to fiction to stage writing as being very courageous and I wonder about the motivation. To begin with, is it terrifying? Beyond that, what compels you to do that?
TC The very first professional writing I did was writing 30-second radio commercials. I went from that into writing magazine stories, and then into novels. Each jump is a stretch, and that’s deliberate. I get bored with myself easily. If I feel like I’m mastering something, then it means it’s time to challenge myself again and do something new that I haven’t done before. I’m much more interested in life when I’m a little bit scared of what I’m doing. If it feels like, Yeah, I’ve done this before, I’ve got this, then I start to lose interest. That’s why I quit the magazine in order to write novels. I wanted to write bigger. I wanted the challenge of a big canvas. I felt it was in me and I wanted to pursue it. And now, with doing this adaptation, it’s a new form, and it’s a new way to frighten myself and see if I can rise to the challenge.
JR What’s next for Trevor Cole?
TC I have a nonfiction thing that I’m writing now, which is challenging. That’s the project on my plate at the moment, and it scares the daylights out of me. I don’t know if I can do it. People tell me I can do it. I don’t know. It keeps me up at night, and I worry about it.
JR When will we see another novel?
TC I have a novel coming out this fall, which I wrote last year. It’s called Hope Makes Love. It’s about two characters, Hope and Zep. It’s about love, and it’s about fear.
This interview has been condensed and edited for publication.