Spend an hour with drummer Dave Symington, the soft-spoken star of the one-man show Re-calculating, and you’ll walk away not only riotously entertained, but also awed by the general badassness that’s been part of his journey.
Speaking to the Straight between rehearsals at the Vancouver offices of Realwheels Theatre, a disability-based company, Symington smiles and says: “To be honest, I started rebelling pretty early.”
“I started smoking at six years old,” he says with a laugh. “That still shocks me when I think about it. I took to it right away.”
By the time Symington was an adolescent in Kingston, Ontario, he was giving his parents more to worry about than a cigarette habit.
“I never got charged with anything, but I did a few nights in jail for being drunk and disorderly,” he admits. “At 14 or 15 I ran away with a friend of mine—we took a bus and ended up in Thunder Bay. When we tried to cross the border in Niagara Falls, the only ID I had was a bank-book. I was like, ‘It’s got my signature in it,’ and they were like, ‘Get the hell out of here.’ We got stuck on the bridge, but eventually they let us back into Canada.”
After which things got worse. Determined to take a bus to Vancouver instead and then work their way down to California, Symington and his friend decided to break into a dorm room at Thunder Bay’s Lakehead University.
“We saw a pool table in there, so we figured we’d play pool until it was time to get the bus,” Symington recounts. “We were making a lot of noise, apparently, and suddenly we were surrounded by security guards and police. They basically broke in through the window—it was like they swarmed us. We spent the night in jail, where we found out there was a Canada-wide search for us. So they flew us back to Toronto, escorted, where both our dads were waiting for us. It was not good.”
While all this might make Symington seem like a man who ended up a career reprobate, life had other plans for him. After he made his way to Vancouver, where he continued to party and—by his own admission—be less than a model citizen, everything changed at age 19. A diving accident left him a quadriplegic, this eventually leading him to rethink many of the attitudes, including ones toward disabilities, that had once been ingrained in his personality.
That process made him a natural for Re-calculating. Written by Lucas Foss (Little Voices) and Liesl Lafferty (A Town Called Hockey), the play focuses on a character who has to rethink his life after an accident.
“I think it’s generally a story about stories,” Symington offers, “a guy’s experiences after going through a portion of his life without a disability, and then this transition into having acquired a disability, and how it impacts on his view of the world. There are moments of enlightenment, or epiphanies of sorts, that occur to this guy, subtly, that make us see there is another way. I don’t want to use the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ thing, but there are alternate paths to take, to find joy in our lives despite our circumstances.”
Symington is playing a character named Jonathan in Re-calculating, but the two have plenty in common. Where the show has Jonathan grappling with the recent death of his father, Symington’s world was rocked not long ago by the loss of his mother, which led him down a dark hole that’s required serious soul-searching to escape.
The character also finds a creative outlet in drumming, something that Symington loves. Using Velcro gloves that help him hold his sticks, he’s played in such bands as Spinal Chord, featuring former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan on vocals and keyboards. His other accomplishments include cofounding VAMS (Vancouver Adapted Music Society), piling up university degrees, and spending years working as a counsellor.
What Symington hadn’t done before signing on for Re-calculating was act; he jokes that his only real previous experience can be seen on YouTube in Spinal Chord’s somewhat surreal video for its song “Mary”. Initially, he was desperate for an excuse to say no to Re-calculating when approached about doing the play, mostly because the idea of stepping out from behind the drums terrified him. But eventually he realized that he wanted to be challenged.
Symington is reluctant to reveal too much about Re-calculating, but notes there’s plenty of humour in its story. He will allow, however, that, like Jonathan, he’s made some big personal changes, including finding joy in the cards that are dealt to you.
“At this point in my life, I can’t imagine living any other way,” Symington says. “I don’t lay in bed wishing to not have a disability. Ever. There are certain parts of me that think ‘Sure, I’d love to ride a bike again or play a regular set of drums.’ But it’s not an overall, ‘I wish I’d never been born’ kind of feeling.
“I’d say this is about the best time in my life right now,” he continues. “I’m not a religious person, but I don’t mind the word blessed. I’m not saying that disability is a blessing, but without it, so much in my life wouldn’t have happened the way it did—people that I’ve met, relationships that I’ve had, places I’ve gone.”
And, of course, stories to tell that go beyond being a young badass.
Realwheels Theatre presents Re-calculating from Thursday to Saturday (January 22 to 24) at CBC’s Studio 700.