Fourteen years ago my high school, South Delta Secondary, hired a new drama teacher named Mr. Van Camp. His predecessor, a cantankerous old grump who seemed to derive joy out of lecturing children about their lack of cultural knowledge without actually providing any, had been half-retired for years. The gorgeous, spacious (but intensely retro) theatre was mostly neglected, and the school put on one measly production a year. Enrolment was down, and most drama classes consisted of a few girl-packs that congregated at the back of the theatre gossiping. That was all about to change.
Mr. Van Camp had a bulldog face, a beach ball belly, spiky blond upswept hair and the sort of manic passion that makes people uncomfortable. He arrived to class wearing leather jackets (if memory serves, I believe he rode a motorcycle), he had a gruff masculine authority while being simultaneously capable of making a comic spectacle of himself, and his knowledge of theatre and acting was world-class. He was outrageously out of place in our lily-white, ultra-Christian town and he introduced our community to plays that would never have been put on otherwise, including incendiary stuff by a controversial playwright named John Lazarus. He was the first teacher I ever heard say the F-word in front of a class. And I learned something from him every single day I spent in his presence.
Within a few months of arriving at the school Mr. Van Camp had introduced an ambitious production schedule that included a one-act festival, a Shakespeare play and a full-scale musical. His classes were challenging and unpredictable, but where he really shone was in the extra-curricular hours. It was there that it became clear that Mr. Van Camp wasn’t especially interested in being a drama teacher. Closer to the truth: he wanted to run his own theatre company, using his students as the players, and that’s exactly what he did.
The first thing Mr. Van Camp cast me in was a play called Pizza: A Love Story. I played a supporting character, a Bill and Ted-esque delivery guy that ultimately ends up dancing in his underwear onstage and then accidentally sits in a pizza, which was covered in extra sauce. Our director was a girl in Grade 10 who took her role very seriously, as did we, and we ultimately took that play to a regional competition. It was my first taste of any sort of success.
There’s a good chance I will never throw myself as entirely into a creative endeavour as I did those performances of Pizza, and after that I was hooked on the adrenaline rush of applause, the communal feel of being one of the “theatre kids” and the pleasure I derived from creating flamboyant characters and bringing them to life. Onstage I was free of my awkward swimmer-nerd persona. I could forget about my horrifyingly uncool braces, my acne, my insecurities and become someone else entirely.
Mr. Van Camp spent a lot of time and attention on me. If you calculated it all up, we’d be talking about thousands and thousands of hours. I never found him especially approachable, and working with him on productions was like sharing space with a half-tame bear. He could switch almost instantly from loudly applauding one of your acting choices to screaming at the lighting guys 50 feet above him with a feral, booming snarl.
There were some students who hated Mr. Van Camp, and they invariably dropped out within the first few weeks of the semester. He had no time for laziness, apathy or bullying. He didn’t censor himself (much). He treated us like students, but not like children. I probably took him for granted. But I don’t now.
Mr. Van Camp cast me in Tommy, The Tempest, a bunch of one-act comedies, the musical Hair and when Romeo and Juliet rolled around in my Grade 12 year, he gave me the lead. I wasn’t an obvious choice for the role (I was more of a Cupid than a Romeo) but he gave me the chance and I took that really seriously. At the time, I was thrilled to learn that the female roles were double-cast and I would be publicly making out with two of my fellow students. It was like winning the lottery.
In my final year at the school, Mr. Van Camp encouraged me to submit a piece of my writing to a playwriting contest. When it was selected to be performed at UBC, he personally took on the extracurricular project and oversaw our rehearsal process. My friend Brandon was the director, we cast ourselves as the leads and picked up a few friends from drama class to round out the cast. After a month we road-tripped to the festival and performed my play in front of hundreds of people, and then we brought it back to my hometown and performed it again. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that was the crowning achievement of my life, to that point.
On the last day of the festival, as the students surged out on to the campus to break into the outdoor swimming pool, attempt to sneak into the campus pub underaged and generally wreak teenage havoc, Mr. Van Camp came by my room. He was mumbling along to “Things Have Changed” by Bob Dylan, and as he rounded the corner he crooned the words “there’s a woman in my lap and she’s drinking champagne.” His brow was wet with sweat and his eyes were half-closed. He clapped his meaty hand on my shoulder.
I wish I could remember our three-minute interaction better. It was the only time he dropped his teacher role for a moment and addressed me as a peer. I know he praised our performance and said something encouraging, and I know it meant a lot to me at the time. The actual words have faded from my memory, but the sentiment remains.
A few years later Mr. Van Camp was found dead in Stanley Park, sitting on a park bench looking out at the ocean. I’d graduated by that point, and had been accepted to Studio 58, a prestigious acting school he’d introduced me to. It was during a field trip there, when we saw the Laramie Project, that I first figured out the intense social power of art. I wanted to create something as poignant, as life-altering and ambitious. I’m still basically trying to do that these days. I went to his funeral, and the theatre was packed with former students, including some who were smoking a joint in his honour behind the auditorium. At one point the whole theatre broke into a rousing rendition of “Let the Sun Shine”. I would be surprised to find out that anybody there successfully made it through those four or five minutes without crying.
I recently took over the school board beat here at the Star. I was there when the Parents Etc. For Public Education March made their way down Baker Street, and I’m starting to introduce myself to the multi-faceted, ultra-complicated political web that is this strike. I have some opinions about it, but they’re not fully formed nor appropriate for sharing here. But when I sat down to write a column about this, the first thing that came to mind was Mr. Van Camp, and the way he altered the course of my life. His was a profession concerned with the most essential function of humanity: guiding young minds towards maturity. Can you think of anything more valuable?