beautiful vanessa walton-bone
There was a time four or five years ago when a menacing cloud of death seemed to be looming over the Canadian Theatre and we lost a great many precious artists and human beings in a very short period of time. It was during that time that I started to try to write celebrations of life here on TWISI for those who had left us. I didn’t know any of those people well and I remember having this strange nagging thought, “What will you do if ever you have to write about a friend’s death, to celebrate someone who you love dearly, whilst grieving?” In my imagination, I responded stoically, but in reality it shook and shattered me more than I ever would have thought possible.
On October 9, 2013 my dear friend Vanessa Walton-Bone, a beloved and courageous actor in Nova Scotia, passed away from complications from cancer. Since October 9, 2013 the words have seemed more stuck as they try to maneuver from my heart down to my fingers. Perhaps the part of my heart where the words ought to be shrivelled up with the pain of it, perhaps losing Vanessa made me lose a bit of the belief that what I do, what I write, matters.
Let me tell you a bit about Vanessa. If you imagine a tall, beautiful, slim woman, whose mouth is always laughing- cackling laughter, whose eyes are perpetually sparkling mischief, if you can imagine her at a dance call for CATS in 1981, with a British accent that makes even the most innocuous thing sound playfully suggestive… an artist’s heart, an adventurer’s mind… that was Vanessa. The first time that I saw her in Halifax was in a production of Twelfth Night that Lunasea Theatre produced with an all-female cast and Vanessa was cast as Malvolio. It was a glorious production, filled with a great many of Halifax’s most talented female actors, but it was Vanessa’s Malvolio, utterly hysterical, perfectly nuanced, masterfully portrayed, that blew everything else out of the water for me. “Wow,” I remember thinking that day, home for Christmas from my life in Toronto, “If this woman is performing at this caliber in Halifax, really exciting things are starting to happening here.”
I am not sure what I was expecting when I met Vanessa later that night, bursting with adjectives to try to capture her performance somehow. I wasn’t prepared at all for how warm she was, how genuinely humble… for how grateful she was to be able to do the work that she loved. Our friendship bloomed as our paths continued to cross out and about in the theatre community, especially after I moved back to Halifax in 2011. When things got dark and spiralling out of control in my life, Vanessa became one of my safe ports in the storm. I knew there was a constant hug, a friendly smile and unwavering faith and support, in me from her. Her light was an essential one for me in Halifax, a beacon I clung to to steady myself, and once extinguished I find that in many ways I am still floundering around in the dark.
I wish I could tell you the story of how Vanessa’s life has inspired me to be a better artist, a more rigorous writer, a more passionate voice for the Canadian Theatre, a more joyful, sparkling young lady, who grabs hold of each day by the horns and jumps on regardless of the direction, intent to laugh and delight her way through every opportunity and every glorious moment. I wish I could tell you how Vanessa inspired me to cut and spike my hair, pierce my tongue, buy leather pants and learn how to put eyeliner on my top eyelids. The story of my grief seems so much more selfish. It seems fashioned from weakness and self-pity, of excuses and the inability to let go of someone who hasn’t be here for a year and a half.
This “obituary” of sorts has been looming over me since October, 2013. Until Vanessa’s death I had been writing for TWISI regularly, I went to the theatre on a frequent schedule and the words came out the way they were supposed to, onto the paper. I was buoyed by my own sense of purpose, and my ardent love and passion for the Canadian Theatre, for this work that I created for myself out of blood and sweat and tears and root beer. I fell off my own bandwagon hard, wandering, aimless, with my pencil and a vague sense of where I should be going or what I should be doing, but the lights had gone out. The reviews slowed and slowed, until they finally stopped all together. Always, I had this piece in the back of my mind. That if I could just write about Vanessa, perhaps the rest would come. But, I couldn’t make Vanessa words. Vanessa was always so much more than words. I’ve trickled back into my old world in Toronto, trickled back into reviewing the shows, to doing the work I love, without my heart being entirely in it.
Vanessa went to the theatre like she did all things, with gusto. She was generous and smart and insightful and kind when we spoke about productions we had seen, she was infectious, because she loved so deeply and so freely. I found myself recently getting swept away again, by familiar old emotions, that awaken that sense of excitement in my belly, that sense of mirth in my heart. That sense of unbridled joy that the theatre can conjure up that I know no other art form to do better. Those feelings don’t always inspire me to write. I find I’m shy of it now…. like a lover I’ve neglected, perhaps, for much too long. I’m afraid of the consequences of my suddenly leaping toward it, and it not being there to catch me. Falling on my face. I’ve done that consistently for four years and yet I’m still afraid of it. Even though I’ve learned I keep getting back up.
Of course I know that the last thing Vanessa would have wanted for me was for me to lose my passion for the theatre, for me to wander so far away from my dreams and goals for myself and for TWISI. She wouldn’t have wanted me to grow cynical or scared or to allow myself to feel bullied or marginalized or intimidated. She would want to shake the apathy from my shoulders and rekindle that spark in my soul.
So, here is the end of a year and a half long obituary stuck in a numbing grief and freed by a thawing joy. Tonight I found Vanessa’s Instagram account. On the first photo she had written, “If you need me, I’ll be in the refrigerator.”
I think I finally found her.