In a recent Creative Nonfiction class we have been focusing on a different form of writing each week. Recently we worked on profiles. I had such a fun time doing it and know so many people I’d like to share with you that over the upcoming months I’ll be sharing more of these. Today I’d like you to meet Ken Hall whom I’ve been lucky enough to have as a teacher in classes from Improv to Clown to Mindfulness.
“It’s kind of strange to be here at my folks’ place,” performer, Ken Hall says, “because I’ve spent so much of my youth here. There’s a lot of memories of the area. It’s so fantastical that if I could somehow go back and talk to my teenage self, and be like ‘Hey man don’t worry, this kind of stuff is waiting for you’ it’d be kind of hard to imagine.”
And then it happens, we do go back in time. It’s morning and teenagers are walking down Mount Pleasant Road in small groups on their way to Northern Secondary School. Ken takes me off the main road into a quiet residential street and there is a younger Ken. Present day Ken tells me “So much of the big theme in my life was that I don’t fit in, and I feel like I’ve always been different and in many ways I am different. I’m 4 feet 7 and ¾, I have major scoliosis. I stand out when I walk down the street and people have always indicated in a variety of different ways that I’m weird, or asking me ‘What’s wrong with you?” Walking to school in those days was an exercise in avoiding notice, avoiding people, because meeting people meant bullying.
Present day Ken runs ahead and walks next to his teenage self, talking animatedly as he goes. When I catch up he is saying “The career success I’ve had, I wouldn’t have had it if I was ‘regular size’ like five feet six or six foot, I wouldn’t have been a series regular on People of Earth, I wouldn’t be doing Pogo as part of Umbrella Academy and a lot of other things!”
Grown-up Ken turns to me, looking sad. “I don’t think he can hear me.”
The world around us blurs and we’re at a party in someone’s basement. Late Teens Ken is playing drums with a punk band. Everyone is very drunk, shouting and laughing loudly. Present-day Ken motions to me to join him outside. I know Ken as the teacher of improv and clown classes, as a high energy stage performer whether performing on an improv stage or with Cirque du Soleil. Seeing his teenage self unsteady on his feet doesn’t make sense to me.
“The people that I gravitated to then, they didn’t judge me. The irony is that most of society would kind of look down at these kids, judging by the way that they dressed. But they’re the ones who stood up for me. They were the early ones who had my back. When other people were bullying me and wanting to push me around, they would say ‘Hold on, you’re not gonna do that. If you’re gonna do that to him you’re gonna do that to us.’” He tells me, smiling.
But just a few years later, as he found himself drinking more and more, falling down and having blackouts, he got a call from a drinking buddy telling him he had to stop. He was in trouble. He began going to AA meetings after that.
At the same time, he went back to his inner compass, revisiting the things he loved when he was younger. A creative writing class led to a drama class which led to improv. His face lights up as he tells me of one of his first scenes that started with a wedding proposal and ending with everyone in the scene dissolving in laughter. Improv led to a rediscovery of play. And now, as an improv teacher, much of what he teaches revolves around following the fun.
He says “The rules of improv are to say ‘yes, and’… to be spontaneous, to take risks. All the rules of improv were starting to spill into my regular life. And like-minded people I was connecting to who weren’t shocked by me, they were extending a hand and saying ‘Do you want to go for some sushi?’ and I want to say no but I’m like ‘yes’. And then I go have sushi for the first time in my life and it’s so good! I’m like ‘Oh my god I’ve been living life all wrong, saying no to opportunities, to evolving, to risk taking. I look back and I’m like No wonder I’ve been so miserable and scared.”
From there, he tells me, the path seems to clear. He likens it to merging on to a highway. Things just start flowing and moving forward, with saying “Yes” as a default. “Why would I say no? I know what I’m going to get when I say no, I don’t know what I’m going to get when I say yes.”
He smiles broadly and says “Walking down the street to Northern Secondary. The south doors where all the cool kids, the badass kids would smoke cigarettes. It’s such a remarkable turn of events to be like man, anything is possible and when you begin to connect with who you are, with what feels good for you, then I think the universe gives it back in a lot of ways.”