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A profile of the late, great Janis Spence

I was shocked today to learn of the passing of actor, writer and director Janis Spence, at the age of 61. She was hit with a stroke in October of last year, and recently had fallen into a coma.

Anyone who worked with or knew Janis Spence will agree: she was a true original. According to an excellent article at the CBC web site, she "helped spark an artistic renaissance in St. John's during the late 1970s", and that is no exaggeration.

I interviewed Janis several times whilst working the entertainment beat, and wrote a cover story about her in July of 1990 for The Newfoundland Signal. I have found the article in my archives and you know what? It just may be the most in-depth profile ever written about this remarkable woman. A google search reveals bits and pieces about Janis - that's a generational thing - though I bet many stories are being told right now, down at the Ship, at the Hall, and behind the doors of many row houses in downtown St. John's.

I also took the photo for this piece (sorry, but it's scanned from newsprint; I will replace with the original when I find it). If you could open those blinds behind Janis, you would have seen the most amazing view of St. John's, from her third-floor flat on Queen's Road. It was a magical place, and the interview was among the most memorable I've done.

Janis would bounce back and forth, from almost insecure shyness - she didn't like talking about herself - to a strength and confidence that could blister paint right off the wall. She had a wicked sense of humor and wielded it like a sword. And there was that wisdom that seemed out of place coming from one so young. I remember thinking that she must have been an amazing mother to her children (of whom she was extremely proud).

This evening, CBC Radio On The Go interviewed Mary Walsh, a good friend and colleague of Janis's. It was sad, funny, heartfelt and uplifting by turns. They also aired one of her "The Last Word" commentaries, the final one she did for CBC Radio, that fully demonstrated Janis's strength as both writer and performer. To hear the Walsh interview visit the CBC story link above, then click on 'Related'.

If you should ever happen to hear the song Wave Over Wave by Jim Payne and Kelly Russell, take a moment and listen to the monologue in the middle; the story of the woman who is left at home whilst the man goes to sea. It is classic Newfoundland'; classic Janis Spence.

Janis was a humble person, and found it hard to fathom that others might be interested in hearing about her. When you read the story that follows, I think you will agree - it was definitely worth the telling.

Note: if you would like to learn more about Janis the writer and performer, you can read some great reviews and actually download - a talking book that captures Janis at her best. Please go to the Rattling Books page for more information and hear an audio sample.

Janis Spence's darkly funny visions of humanity

Actors don't get any respect.

It's an oft-repeated line that Janis Spence wields convincingly.

"You get treated like shit in Newfoundland if you're an actor," said the 44-year-old writer-director, in an interview with The Signal. This attitude is most conspicuous when dealing with financial institutions, she said, and is exacerbated if the actor is a woman.

She has raised two children on her own and never missed a rent payment ever, said Spence, author of the critically acclaimed plays Chickens and Cat Lover. But that doesn't seem to matter at the bank.

"Do you think I could get a mortgage on a house? Never in a million years! If you write down actor', you might as well write down prostitute'."

Spence conceded that some actors do find themselves in financial straits, but added that bank managers generally won't take them on faith. "They don't back the arts. Canadians in general don't back the arts Canadians are very proud of hockey players, very proud of young Olympic champions... but very embarrassed about the arts or artists."

Although she has all but pulled back from performing, Spence says she has enormous respect for actors, calling them "the most delicate, the most wonderful people in the world and the craziest, because nothing could be crazier than pretending to be somebody else in front of a whole crowd of people. I mean, how loony can you get?"

These days, Spence considers herself first and foremost a writer, a writer-director second, and an actor third.

"I love acting but I love writing more. It's a question of control, of complete autonomy. I get to say what I want and there's no interference from anybody."

One obstacle that dissuades her from acting, Spence said, is the audition process: "I refuse to do auditions, actually. I haven't done one for the last 10 years. If they haven't seen my work before, all I can say is, Well, too bad for you; you're missing out."

At the root of this attitude is an aversion to humiliation in any form, Spence said. "I think everywhere you work in life, (the rules) are courtesy, respect, kindness and dignity. I think good rehearsal halls with really good directors and really good companies that's the ultimate."

But finding those things is the exception rather than the rule, she added. "It's as rare as anything else in life, as rare as really good doctors, lawyers and teachers who are truly called."

Actor-writer Cathy Jones of the Codco comedy troupe worked with Spence to create the Live Soap series in 1984 at the LSPU Hall. In an interview, Jones said Spence is a "brilliant" writer: "She always has a very good sense of what people really do and what people really say She knows what someone would say if they went to Home Hardware and couldn't get the thing they wanted to get She rips through the bull and gets to what's really going on."

Jones said if she harbors one "secret wish", it is to collaborate on another writing project with Spence.

Local actor-writer Greg Thomey echoed those sentiments. Thomey, who has worked with Spence on numerous projects over the last 10 years, said people jump at an opportunity to work with Spence.

"She has a great eye for the stage and a great talent for recognizing a good line, when it comes to writing She's a very hard worker and I think she's becoming recognized a little more around here. I think she's a well-kept secret. The quality of work she has produced consistently has been very high."

Thomey said Spence always has a strong idea of what she wants to communicate with her writing: "She was always very focused. In that way, it's no surprise to me when people talk about her There are certain people that you are inspired by, and Janis is definitely one of them."

Spence said theatre in Newfoundland has been developed in isolation, with one direct result being that local artists and theatergoers have no preconceived notions of what should or shouldn't be staged, and a more vibrant, daring scene has arisen. Much of what is produced on the mainland is "crap", she said.

"It's sentimental. They like all their emotions on the surface Newfoundlanders have a much darker, dark, dark, brooding sense of humor And they make fun of themselves, which is the beginning of truth in art, being able to not take yourself too seriously."

That sense of humor, she said, is probably an emotional shield people wear to help them handle adversity, everything from poor weather to a weak economy.

"We have a kind of survivalist instinct, that kind of humor that comes from surviving and clinging onto something It gives you an edge, it gives you an energy, it gives you emotion and passion in the stuff produced here that you don't see in Toronto."

That dark edge is very much in evidence in Spence's work as well.

"I basically think everything is funny, though maybe not at the time The way people communicate with each other; don't listen, don't hear, don't understand what's going on and sometimes it's the misunderstandings that lead to out-and-out tragedy. I guess you call it irony."

And underneath the humor, Spence said, is a subtext that may not be funny at all: "Some of the deeper reasons for these things happening are not funny. The ways they are exhibited are very funny."

Such insight into human nature doesn't come easily. For Janis Spence, it is the culmination of years of paying the proverbial dues, living a roller-coaster existence that entailed equal measures of toil and heartbreak, laughter and love.

Spence was born in England and emigrated with her family to Canada in 1958, at the age of 11, on the S.S. Newfoundland. One of her most deeply etched memories is that first panoramic vista of St. John's, seen coming through the Narrows:

"I said, Wow, what a weird place!' I had never seen any gathering of wooden houses before ever All the stuff in the Battery, the houses on stilts and flakes and stuff, was amazing. It was like coming into a new world, the most amazing-looking place I had ever seen in my life."

Spence was educated at a Protestant school and came to deeply dislike the denominational system, which she said has cast a pall of religious bigotry over Newfoundland society.

"I think the school system is responsible for so much wrong and evil-doing in this province I went to three or four different schools around the city, and we were taught to hate Catholics. The only thing that saved it was humanity, because Protestant girls would go out with Catholic boys, and Catholic girls would go out with Protestant boys, and we beat it that way."

She married at age 19, had two children, and was divorced at 25, at which point she moved with her children to Toronto. Spence held a string of jobs in Ontario, and claims she was fired from many of them.

"I don't get along with authority very well. I've been fired from dozens of jobs, and it usually involves a huge bust-up with me saying, Fk off, turkey."

The jobs she liked least included waitressing (she was fired for pouring a jug of beer on a male customer who had been harassing her) and working in a meat processing plant, which she said was dehumanizing. On the other hand, she enjoyed her stint as a courier driver (it allowed some independence) and as a business development officer for a federal agency. To land the latter job, Spence whispers, she claimed to have a university degree in anthropology and English (she actually has a Grade Eleven education).

"I had the highest success rating in the entire department for those two years," she said.

Since the age of 16, Spence has nurtured a devotion for theatre. Her first acting experience was with ex-husband Michael Cook, with whom she co-wrote scripts for the Our Man Friday program, which was broadcast live each week on CBC. That was followed by performances with the St. John's Players and work with CBC Radio, which ended when Spence moved to Toronto. She did some acting work in Ontario, appearing as an extra in one scene of a CBC production, for which she walked out of an elevator 34 times. "And they only paid me $34. Can you believe it?"

Finally, she decided it was time to get down to business: she applied as a mature student to McMaster University's medical school. She wrote an extensive entry exam and was waiting for the results when she received a call from CBC TV in Newfoundland, asking if she would audition for a part in the new series Up At Ours.

Spence said she was torn between training to become a doctor - the tests and interviews had gone quite well, she said and taking an acting job in the province she loved. The next morning, she flagged down a cab and wound up telling the driver about her dilemma.

"I said, I'm freakin' out, I don't know what to do,' and he said, What do you wanna do?' I said, I dunno, I do like to act.' He said, You want to do that more than poke around at people's insides and stuff?' I said, Yeah, yeah I do,' and he said, Well, go for it,' and I said, Thank you!'"

Spence returned to Newfoundland in 1979 and worked on the Up At Ours series for four years, maintaining households in St. John's and Toronto for the duration. She said she loved the work, though she did have complaints with the Up At Ours scripts. They were written, she said, by several different people and were lacking in consistency.

"It was like the characters kept changing not very good scripts. People weren't used to writing for TV. And there, right on the set, they had four writers: me, Mary Walsh, Ray Guy and Kevin Noble. And do you think we could change a line? No way!"

When Up At Ours ended, Spence pulled up all remaining roots in Toronto and moved to St. John's. "Mary Walsh was very instrumental in my decision. I asked her if she thought I was good enough, if I should stick at it, and she said, Yes, go for it, do anything you possibly can.' So I did a lot of stuff and worked with a lot of different people, had some really miserable experiences and some really good experiences."

One of the reasons she is able to communicate the vagaries of the human condition, Spence said, is through her own fascination with people. She claims she has never met a boring person and even if she did, that would be stimulating as well.

"Even their boringness (would be interesting), just to observe somebody in full boring flight."

Conversely, Spence said she is "pretty shy" and doesn't like meeting people: "I hate meeting new people. I know more than enough people already And the thought of meeting anyone's parents, I just go Oh no' and revert back to 14 instantly. My ears go red, I get a red triangle on my neck and people go, This is a really weird person; what's wrong with her?"

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  • Janet
    July 27, 2010 - 14:53

    It's a great treat to find this time capsule of Janis from 1990.

    Thank-you very much.