“Does she mean us?” a few of us wondered aloud, amused and puzzled. I was pretty sure we were there to see a one-man show centred around a bullied high school junior’s tragic suicide and the after-effects on his teachers and classmates, not be transported back into a high school classroom. Turns out, we were about to experience both.
Realistic art room props and “student” art projects flanked the walls. This, coupled with the sparse and heavily spaced seating (about twenty seats in total, with about 2 chair widths between rows), gave me a sense of being in an actual classroom. Caryhn, my companion, was seated beside me, but at enough of a distance that if I had wanted to speak with her discreetly, I would have had to pass a note. Very high school.
Mr. McKenzie (played, along with every character, by Rob Salerno) flitted about the stage, picking up crayons, washing brushes, and we waited for stragglers to meander into the classroom. I was nervous at the prospect of being called on by the teacher to speak in front of the class. I’m relatively new to theatre, but this was the most unique and intimate setting I’ve encountered.
Salerno’s Mr. McKenzie had that cool art teacher vibe, and with the bright lighting on the audience, we couldn’t hide or escape his gaze. I almost felt like a student again. The visceral setting was my favourite part of the experience, and I use “experience” here deliberately. It felt engaged and close – with Salerno actually sitting amongst the audience/fellow classmates at times.
First Day Back centres around the aftermath of the tragic suicide of Ollie, a seemingly outgoing, joyful, hopeful, and recently-out-as-gay junior in Oshawa. It takes place in an after-school “safe space” meeting. Through Salerno’s Mr. McKenzie, several students, and Ollie himself, we glean details into why he chose suicide. My companion and I agreed that some of the student performances – largely monologues – while decently segued from one to the next, weren’t convincing as typical teenagers, and were at times too long. In addition, some of the female students’ voices sounded stereotypically flamboyant – almost uncomfortably so, given the subject matter, though I doubt this was intentional.
The “discussions” of bullying were strong, and didn’t shy away from dissecting the ways in which schools, teachers, and society enforce and breed conformity, competition, and bullying. The nickname thrust upon one student, “Dumb Dumb DeMarco” – who embodied the “hurt people hurt people” mantra – made me (and some other audience members) laugh. That was a stinging and instant reminder that bullies aren’t just scary others – in certain situations or places they could be any of us.
In the closing speech we finally meet Ollie, recording a video. At around 15 minutes, it could have been shorter or broken up into shorter 2-3 minutes segments, much like actual videos online. That would have also given us a chance to get to know Ollie sooner, and perhaps given the tragedy of his suicide more impact. Carhyn and I are uncertain if this was intentional, but the space was very warm, and much like a real classroom, made us both feel very sleepy, thirsty, and anxious for some fresh air by the end.
If you want literal in-your-face engagement, strong themes, raw emotion, unique staging, and don’t mind maybe feeling like a high school student again, you may enjoy this show. Overall, I did, and am happy to have experienced it. If you’re looking for realistic dialogue, and clearly distinguished characters, I would suggest skipping this one.
- First Day Back is playing until June 27 at The Storefront Theatre (955 Bloor Street West)
- Shows run Thursday to Saturday at 8pm with an additional matinee on Sundays at 2pm
- Ticket prices range from $10 – $25, with $20 advance, $15 arts workers, and $10 under 18 and are available online or through the box office at 416-531-1117 a half hour before showtime
- Limited seating for each show.
Photo of Rob Salerno by Dahlia Katz and courtesy Ten Foot Pole Theatre.