The Life Game

Nicki2At Studio 1398 until April 14 or at the door

Posted on April 11, 2013

It’s hard to imagine the celebrated Canadian actor/writer/director Nicola Cavendish as “shy” and lacking in confidence but that’s the way she describes herself as a child. She grew up to become one of the most fearless – and most beloved – actors here and abroad.

“You can’t go wrong casting actor Nicola Cavendish who makes us laugh just by walking on stage. In this show she scurries rather than walks, her ample bosom keeping time with her bobbing grey ringlets”, was how I described her in the Arts Club production of Arsenic and Old Lace. Or, as Shirley in Shirley Valentine, “The real joy – and it’s tremendous – is in the pleasure of seeing Cavendish again. A national treasure, she can wrap an audience around her little finger with a tiny smile, a goofy look, a slumpy walk – even by walking offstage. Natural charm washes off her like warm Aegean wavelets and it never feels like you’re watching her so much as you’re spending time with her.”

So, was I interested in seeing her as the featured guest in The Life Game, a Truth Be Told Theatre production? Twist my arm.

Created by Keith Johnstone, one of the recognized authorities in the field of improvisation, The Life Game is a unique theatre experience: each night a guest is interviewed on stage about his/her life – where were you born, what was your father/mother like, what were you like as a little boy/girl and on down the lifeline to when did you lose your virginity, which achievements are you most proud of, what do you regret, etcetera. The questions vary every night and with every guest. While this is going on, at the director’s instruction improv artists re-enact scenes from ‘the life’. When they get it right, the guest rings a bell; when they miss the boat, the guest sounds a horn and the actors try again. Go to and click on ‘video’ to see how it all works.

This is risky, scary stuff for everyone but Truth Be Told Theatre eases everyone into the process by starting off with all the performers, the guest, the director, the crew and the audience all mingling around the bar and a table full of goodies from Duso’s. It’s a party and we’re all invited. After last call at the table and the bar, the audience moves into their seats, the guest and the interviewer sit down on a comfy couch and the performers sit in shadows on chairs waiting to be directed to move into the scene. Ken Lawson, sound improviser, is at the keyboard.

The performers take on the various people in the guest’s life. On April 10 when I attended, Denise Jones played Cavendish; Brian Anderson was her father and, later, her partner; Veena Sood played her mother. Bruce Horak was an angel and her dog; Emmelia Gordon was her sister. David Milchard was the interviewer.

Life has been hard for Cavendish in the last few years. Her partner of thirty-five years, whom she referred affectionately to as “Mikey Boy” – died suddenly but, she said, “I was there with him and that was a gift.” They met during rehearsal for Hamlet; she was playing Ophelia, he was a Harley-driving props man who smoked a little dope. A lifelong owner and lover of dogs, Cavendish had to put down her beloved German Shepherd cross a year later. And, as a diabetic since she was a teenager, she has ongoing health issues and carries a $10,000 blood glucose ‘gadget’ that she didn’t have to pay for because, “I’m an actor?”


Cavendish on abortion: “Abortion is its own punishment”. On living your life, “Believe in yourself”. “Always question”. “If something is worth fighting for – fight for it!” On suicide, “Never ever ever would I take my life.”

Through all the tribulations, Cavendish has retained a sense of humour and generous spirit that’s so full and overflowing it spilled off the set and flooded the whole room the night she was Truth Be Told’s guest. When asked, “When did you win?” – a strange question, I thought – she responded after a moment’s hesitation, “When I was born. When we were all born. Because we got to be here. We’ve won.”

I remember being wrapped in a warm glow after seeing Nicola Cavendish as Michel Tremblay’s mother in For The Pleasure of Seeing Her Again at The Stanley back in 2000. I had that same feeling last night. At sixty-one she is wise but still girlish, still has a little girl’s mischievous sparkle in her eye and those rosy-red apple cheeks. I had the feeling that if we hung around her for longer than an evening, she’d ‘rub off’ on us and we’d all be better for it.

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These are, obviously, one-off evenings. Coming up on April 11 is James Sanders (quadriplegic from a spinal cord injury and now artistic director of Realwheels Theatre); April 12: Randy Myers (a professional wrestler); April 13: Lee Su-Feh (dancer/performer with Battery Opera); April 14: Michael Vandermeer (sculptor at IE Creative).