I like to think of my time at U of T (2.5 years and counting) as a series of experiences, good and bad.
Good: learning a lot, being introduced to awesome new things.
Bad: cramming for exams, bureaucratic nonsense.
Good: finding a great job through the Career Centre.
Bad: spending $60 on a textbook I never used.
Good: sitting in the studio audience of a Christian talk show on CBC and meeting guest Margaret Atwood.
The background to that story is absurdly simple: My phone pinged one afternoon with an e-mail from Context with Lorna Dueck, inviting me and my club (that’s blogUT with a U-T) to sit in the audience for a taping of their show. As the e-mail went on to explain, Context is a Christian talk show that welcomes guests and audience members of diverse faiths and perspectives. I guess ours was the student perspective? The e-mail mentioned free refreshments, gifts for studio audience members, and, oh yeah, that the guest would be CanLit giant (and subject of many an essay o’ mine) Margaret Atwood. I RSVPd in a heartbeat.
In the week-and-a-half before the taping, I couldn’t stop thinking of it. Would I get a chance to talk to Atwood? Would people see me on TV? Would I get to say something from the audience? Would Atwood sign a book? Do I own a book by her? I only had anthologies including her work, so I picked up a hard-cover copy of The Blind Assassin from a used book store, which happened to be a first edition. I read the whole thing in a weekend.
On the evening of, I met my friend outside of the CBC building on Front. We lined up with the other guests and were told that we’d get a chance for Atwood to sign our books. As I stood in line, I worried about what I’d say. Would I mention that I was studying writing at UofT? Would I bring up a certain story of hers that I’d loved? Here is the whole conversation, as it transpired:
TRAIN: (Giving her my copy of The Blind Assassin) “Um, it’s Louis. With an S.”
ATWOOD: “The French way.”
TRAIN: “Yeah. But I’m not French.”
And that was it. You should understand that I do tend to freeze up around cool people. As a result of working with blogUT alone I’ve had the chance to botch engagements with Tony Award-winner William Finn and Man of Steel director Zack Snyder. (If you were with us, you could meet cool people too, and probably with more success…)
After the signing, we got seated in the audience. It is smaller than it looks on TV. Someone from the show came out to get us excited. He did so by talking about his own experiences reading Atwood, about that essay he had to write about The Stone Angel. “She didn’t write that,” I whispered to my friend, just before a fellow in the third row shouted, “She didn’t write that!”
Then a woman from the show came out to teach us how to be an audience. She showed us the APPLAUSE sign above the stage, incorrectly referring to it as an “applause-o-meter,” as if we were telling it how to react, and not the other way round. She had us record some stock applause, in varying levels of intensity. The whole thing was strangely enjoyable, and in retrospect it’s a little scary how much fun I had clapping exactly as much as I was told. But it worked; they got the footage and we got in the mood to applaud like lunatics for whatever stepped on stage.
Then the show began. Lorna entered, elegant and serious, and introduced the guest a few times. Atwood entered and was warmly welcomed by the host a few times. And then the interview began. I had watched a few snippets of the show in preparation, but I was surprised at how thoughtful the discussion was. Although the perspective was Christian, the topic, environmentalism, was handled with a degree of rationality and care such that it was meaningful to everyone in the audience. After the interview, and some technical difficulties, they filmed another Atwood environmentalism segment, and then another entire episode. From the time we arrived to the time we left, the whole thing took over four hours.
As we left, we were offered some parting gifts: small flashlights, coupons for a restaurant I’d never heard of, and copies of seemingly self-published Christian books. My friend and I turned down the books. Back out on Front, we stepped into a Starbucks. The barista asked where we were coming from.
“We were actually just in the studio audience of a Christian talk show,” I said. “But you probably get that all the time.”