TJ Dawe gets a taste of his own Medicine

As revealed in his new show, TJ Dawe looked to Gabor Maté and a South American psychedelic to unlock his profound loneliness
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By 2009, after 10 years of touring the fringe-festival circuit with shows such as The Slip-Knot, Labrador, and Dishpig, TJ Dawe had reached a certain pinnacle of success, having been recognized as one of the most gifted solo performers on the Canadian stage. But he’d also, as he acknowledges over the phone from his Vancouver home, “reached the point of exhaustion”.

Being writer, producer, performer, and booker of his own act was beginning to take a toll, he says. So it was time to kick back, recharge, and examine his own motivation for wanting complete control over his every artistic utterance. What he found, he explains, shook him to his very core.

“I trained to be a regular actor,” he says. “I went to UVic, and I got a degree in theatre to be an auditioning actor, and it never quite fit. I didn’t like being in other people’s plays. I didn’t like being in ensembles; even when it was close friends, I still felt like I wasn’t really part of the group.”

And this sense of alienation wasn’t something that developed in theatre school. For as long as Dawe could remember, he’d felt similarly alone even in that closest of social networks: the family.

“I didn’t grow up in a tremendously unhappy family,” he stresses. “There was no abuse, no molestation; I was never beaten or anything like that. We’d just never been that close. My sister and I were very antagonistic, growing up.…And I just never opened up to my parents. I grew up very guarded about my personality. I’d just go to my room, and I believed, quite honestly, that nobody understood me.”

Seeking to understand his sense of profound loneliness, Dawe spent his time off delving into various psychological theories, including those of the Vancouver-based physician and addiction specialist Gabor Maté. He shared Maté’s books with his mother and sister, and through them began to repair his family bonds. And in time he wrote another one-man show, Lucky 9, about that process.

Maté, he explains, “includes his email address in his books, so I very sheepishly sent him an email letting him know I was doing this show in Vancouver about how his work had affected my life. What I didn’t know was that friends of his family had already seen it in Victoria, and recommended it to him. So I kind of pitched him and folded my laptop and went off to do my opening performance, not knowing that he’d already bought tickets for himself.”

Maté loved the show, Dawe says. “And then a few days later he actually gave me a phone call and told me about these retreats that he does involving ayahuasca, which I’d vaguely heard of. But he got the impression from watching the show that I was interested in finding out the truth about myself, or about life, whether the truth was what I wanted to hear or not—and under the right circumstances that’s what ayahuasca can do for the person.”

The actor embarked on a retreat under Maté’s direction, and his experiences under the influence of the South American psychedelic—developed by Amazonian shamans in pre-Columbian times—are at the root of his new one-hander, Medicine. They’ve also contributed to a comprehensive realignment of Dawe’s psyche, and to an artistic reinvigoration that’s seen him become a happy and healthy collaborator on some big-time projects.

Part of this involves surrender: letting go of old fears, including a deep mistrust of intimacy, but also surrendering to the spirit of the drug, which its indigenous exponents see as a conscious entity.

“On that retreat, they were telling us that the plant has a consciousness,” he explains. “And I guess I’m just going to go with that. If you actually believe that you’re in the presence of a spirit, and a spirit that’s specifically interacting with you at that moment, it’s extremely overwhelming. And I think that’s necessary—and it’s ultimately good, even though it’s difficult.

“We’re used to going through life believing we’re in control, and I think this tight grip we have on our own lives is part of what a lot of the people on that retreat, including myself, needed to unlock ourselves from,” he continues. “Suddenly, you’re in the grip of something much bigger, and you can see things that you never could before, and you see that that gripping part of you isn’t actually in control.…It’s a survival strategy adopted in early life that helps you get your needs met when you’re very young, but that doesn’t necessarily have your long-term psychological well-being in mind.”

Dawe doesn’t hold back in describing his own revelation, although he’d prefer that people hear about it during a performance of Medicine. Suffice it to say that he’s established a new rapport with his surviving family members, and although he’ll continue to make extraordinary solo shows, he’s now able to work happily and effectively with others. Among the ensemble projects on the go are a stage show based on Frank Warren’s Internet-based mail-art project PostSecret, and The F Word, a film adaptation of Dawe and Michael Rinaldi’s play Toothpaste and Cigars, starring Daniel Radcliffe.

So far, Dawe hasn’t discussed ayahuasca with Harry Potter. But he has found new magic in his own life and art.

“Having done the retreat itself, and then furthermore having done this show about it, really cements what I’ve learned,” he says. “It’s freed me to go beyond always having to have artistic control, always being a solo performer. I’m sure I’ll still do a lot of solo work, even after this; I mean, it’s a big passion of mine. But now it’s not my compulsion. Now it’s my choice.”

Medicine runs at the Firehall Arts Centre from tonight to next Sunday (January 3 to 13).

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