Friday, February 08, 2008

Janis Spence

Yesterday morning (February 7, 2008) Janis Spence died in a St. John's hospital where she had lain for several months following a serious stroke. She was 61 years old.

I write this post to mark Janis passing and pay tribute to the incalcuble contribution she made to Rattling Books. Filling out the title was hard. It is a fact that yesterday Janis died but she is so alive in my head that to make a headline of her death seems a misleading thing. I tried many phrases after her name in the title above but none of them were true so eventually I gave up. Janis Spence isn't someone who can really die. She was too alive for that.

When I was in grade eleven my family moved to St. John's from Grand Bank and I discovered the theatre at the LSPU Hall. It was the late 70's and Janis Spence was in the thick of it with other names now household (e.g. Mary Walsh, Andy Jones). Going to their shows exercised all the emotions and gut and brain muscles. The CBC notice on Janis yesterday said of her and that time "an actor, playwright and director who helped spark an artistic renaissance in St. John's during the late 1970s".
That is my first thank-you. To Janis as actor and playwright.
Years pass. I am not always in St. John's. I am not always going to theatre. I listen to the radio. Janis is there with her caustic wit and a cat character. On the local CBC Radio and also on the national program Sunday Morning. It is hilarious. She makes me love radio.

My second thank-you. Janis as radio broadcaster and social critic.
More years pass. I hear nothing of Janis Spence. We cross paths socially a bit. I know her only superficially. She intimidates me. She has a punk attitude and seems "tough" and merciless. I associate her with a crowd infamous for self abuse and picking fights when drunk. I pass. As do more years.

I start Rattling Books, an audio publishing venture. One of my first titles is Donovan's Station, a novel by Robin McGrath. I hear it in the voice of Janis Spence. She agrees to do it and I move all the file boxes out of my office to make room for Janis. We create a "studio" in my tiny office and hole up there off and on for a week. Sometimes the surf is too loud and we have to cancel. Even so there is the faintest hum of surf in that recording somewhere although no one has ever noticed. When I told Janis that it was there - in the final recording - she laughed. She could see the truth in it. She didn't go in for dismay.
My third thank-you. Janis as narrator. Keziah Donovan.
Working on Donovan's Station we slowly got to know each other on our tea breaks and in the discussions around the recording. I started what I now see as my apprenticeship with Janis Spence.

My fourth thank-you. Janis as teacher. Narration 101.

In the course of recording Donovan's Station I learn that Janis has retreated from theatre and become a recluse in her downtown home where she gives herself over to writing. She identifies herself now not as an actor but as a Writer. She has a collection of short stories she'd like to publish. They become the next project of Rattling Books. Janis continues the treks down to Tors Cove and we record on the beach in spanish room. She insists it have no capitals. For the cover she selected a photograph by her dear friend Justin Hall whose work she admired immensely.

My fifth thank-you. Janis as Author.

written and read by Janis Spence

What an unassuming but brilliant little gem this recording is. Set in Newfoundland, all six stories stand proudly on their own, but together they have the sweep of a novel. The reason is Janis Spence’s marvelous characters, “who wore their lives as casually as big sweaters.” ...Spence gives a masterful performance of all the roles she’s created.

- AudioFile Magazine, Earphones Award

One of the most extraordinary things about Spence’s characters is that they are not particularly likeable, yet by the time we have finished with them we have enormous sympathy for their faults and failings.

..without sounding the least bit over-the-top, she shifts from hearty priest to ancient crone to drugged-out con artist in the blink of an eye. And she is funny! On the Beach in Spanish Room is a wry, witty, humorous, compelling narrative that will stay with you for years.

- Robin McGrath, Northeast Avalon Times

Real people, crashing through life often inflicting suffering, revealing themselves blotchy, acne-prone, wart-covered and then occasionally surprising you with rivulets of kindness in polluted rivers of love.
Oh, it’s black. And sometimes bleak, yet amazing in its ability to lift the characters above it through irony, humour and the character’s own sense of the absurd.

- Sheilagh Walsh, The Current

In the course of recording first Donovan's Station and then on the beach in spanish room I am getting to know Janis better and falling in love with her. She advises me on a multitude of decisions that will shape Rattling Books. I trust her judgement implicitly. It jives with my own sense of things but is informed by years of working in the theatre - something I know nothing about. She knows the lay of the land and she guides me through it. She decides Ron Hynes should be the male voice for Michael Crummey's Hard Light: 32 Little Stories. It is a brilliant choice. I ask her to direct the actors and she is delighted. She casts Frank Holden to read The Last Voyage of the Karluk and we end up recording it at Frank's house. It is a difficult book to read aloud and hard work. We drink gallons of tea and spend hours of tea breaks chewing the fat and laughing. Janis in those strident glasses gesticulating. Beating off her hot flashes with a waving fan. The twinkle in her eye a pair of hands rubbed together with glee. She would get going with her surgical but ultimately humane wit and actually personify glee.
Working with Janis and Frank we went through all the emotions and all the brain and gut muscles. I am flooded with memories of Janis and her delight in the absurdity of it all. She had the intelligent person's reaction to the tragedy of humanity - humour. That project, The Last Voyage of the Karluk was the longest and hardest project we did together. Janis and Frank produced a fabulous performance.

In this tale of Arctic exploration, narrator Frank Holden turns in a masterful performance as Robert Bartlett, captain of the ill-fated Karluk , which sank off the Siberian coast in 1914. From the Newfoundland accent to the fortitude of a polar adventurer, Holden inhabits his subject. The narration soars as the typically reserved Bartlett reunites with his rescued crew, an emotional breathiness imbuing Holden's voice.
- Publisher's Weekly

Frank Holden does an exceptional job channeling Bartlett and capturing his frank, straightforward tone so expertly that I quickly believed I was listening to Bartlett himself. By the time the captain reunites with his shipwrecked crew—people he did not know if he would ever see alive again—his famous restraint breaks and his deep, unreserved emotion (courtesy of Holden) is heartbreaking and real. Thank you to Rattling Books and Frank Holden for retelling this important and inspiring tale, and for creating this moving, enthralling time machine, which transported me to another time and to another place with an extraordinary hero. As intimately as I know this story, I found myself completely swept away by it, as if I was hearing it for the first time.

- Jennifer Niven, Author of the Ice Master

My sixth thank-you. Janis as Acting Director.

Janis went on to cast, direct and narrate several other projects with Rattling Books. Janis directed the narrators for In the Chambers of the Sea by Susan Rendell, Mary Lewis, Holly Hogan and Lisa Moore doing Open by Lisa Moore, Jody Richardson reading The Lure of the Labrador Wild and Chris Brookes as Wilfred Grenfell in Adrift on an Ice Pan.

As a narrator Janis can be heard as the principal voice on Donovan's Station by Robin McGrath and her own collection of short fiction on the beach in spanish room. In addition she narrated several of the stories in Susan Rendell's collection In the Chambers of the Sea and appears on Adrift on an Ice Pan by Wilfred Grenfell and The Grey Islands by John Steffler.

Janis Spence helped shape Rattling Books and taught me everything I know about casting and working with actors. She gave me the confidence to pursue the kind of understated narrations that we both loved.

My seventh thank-you. Janis as mentor.

I only got to know Janis Spence in the last years of her life but she has left me flooding with memories. Her fierceness. Her laugh. The glint of her ascerbic wit flashing. For me the surest sign of intelligence is humour and Janis was as smart as they get.

In re-reading this I realize the tenses are all over the place. I start to edit but stop. There is no correct tense for the presence of someone who passes from life into the minds of those that knew them.

I love you Janis Spence.