Political satirist and TV star Rick Mercer says that his award-winning career is all due to English and theatre teacher Lois Brown.
Now host of CBC-TV’s Monday Report, Mercer’s Talking to Americans, which snagged 2.7 million viewers, is the highest-rated comedy special in Canadian television history.
Mercer was a student at Prince of Wales Collegiate in St. John’s in the mid 1980s when his mentor and now colleague taught English and theatre at the school.
“He was in Grade 10, very talkative,” recalls Brown of when they met. “He came to talk to me when I didn’t have him in my class.”
“Rick was involved in an underground paper. He ran the principal’s phone number, saying they wanted him more accessible. And he published pages of poems. I thought, ‘Oh, this is an interesting person.’”
Brown coaxed Mercer into the drama club to stage-manage a production of The Venetian Twins, an 18th-century comedy by Carlo Goldoni.
“He’s not a great stage manager,” she admits. But he liked to observe and think and talk.
“I kept telling him that he should write and be in a play, rather than just talking to me while I worked! He certainly never came up to me and asked to be in one.”
“Traditionally, theatre programs do one big musical or the standard plays they’ve been doing for forever,” says Mercer. “She had a different approach.
“This was the time of the collective movement. People collectively wrote, produced and acted. She asked me if I would get involved. I wasn’t sure I was up to it. She had a notion that I could write and I kind of went along with it.”
"Lois constantly told me I could write ... that’s what gives me the most satisfaction. "
“We did a comedy show called The 20-Minute Psychiatric Workout. It had a punk band. It broke all the rules. We entered it into the local drama festival. Well, no one had ever entered a play they’d written themselves! Everything else was dreary serious stuff or dreary educational things about using condoms. Ours was outrageous.”
Their ranting collaboration won.
Mercer points out several teenagers in a framed cast photo of Psychiatric Workout, who are all now in show business. “It’s phenomenal how many people I know who are professionals in the arts and entertainment world because of her.”
Brown knew how to relate to kids and draw them in.
“The school was in the inner city and she had the weirdest people in her drama club,” he says. “Though I didn’t realize that at the time.” The kids were talented and restless and they needed something outside of class to focus on. And according to Mercer, “She went looking for them.”
“She was very radical. All the students called her Lois. That certainly wasn’t done then!”
Mercer credits the principal with being a risk taker who didn’t have to hire someone as flamboyant as Lois Brown, but did.
“She was quite an eccentric-looking woman. She had several pairs of cat’s eye glasses, and she worked as a performance artist downtown. I remember one girl said, ‘I saw Miss Brown downtown today, and she was wearing two different shoes! She shouldn’t be allowed to do that!’
“Lois constantly told me I could write. I think of myself as a writer first. That’s what gives me the most satisfaction. I wouldn’t have made it into theatre without her.
“I knew this would be my career early on. None of us would go to university. ‘We’re going to do comedy!’
“Lois didn’t suggest that, of course. Some of us were offered scholarships to theatre school and turned them down. We were a bit arrogant. She was aghast.
“We’re going to do edgy comedy, not classical drama. I wanted to work in bars!”
Asked what she feels she gave Mercer, Brown replies, “A student once said that my gift as a teacher was that I took them really seriously. I could give them opportunities to learn.
“Watching people learn is very invigorating,” she says. “And with theatre, there’s a lot of psychology and art. It’s between the student and the teacher … you connect.”
Lois Brown taught high school for only four years.
"A student once said that my gift as a teacher was that I took them really seriously. I could give them opportunities to learn.. "
“The 40-minute periods almost killed me. You can’t get started, and if you do get started, you’re cut short. I’m speaking specifically about teaching teenagers. You can actually influence them by things you say. In high school, you can turn people’s lives around. Forty minutes? If they’re not interested, what difference does it make? But for the interested ones, it’s not long enough.
“I come from a long line of teachers. I gave it everything I had and I burned out.”
Brown, who has a degree in drama from the University of Alberta, moved on to professional theatre in St. John’s.
Mercer and Brown stayed in touch after they both left the school. “She directed the first play that I wrote, The Beatles Play Bishops Falls. We became colleagues. Then she started stage-managing some of my larger touring shows.”
“Rick likes to say he didn’t finish school but finished everything except math. Even in high school, he and his friends formed a sketch comedy troupe, performing around St. John’s.
“They were very young when they did that – very brave,” says Brown with admiration. “People loved them. Members of CODCO thought they were fabulous. Their stuff was really funny.”
Mercer remembers: “In Grade 12, I took a theatre course from her and she almost failed me! I had basically stopped going to school.” Though not yet out of high school, his career was underway.
“She would have failed me but she wasn’t going to give me a lifetime of satisfaction of saying, ‘My theatre teacher failed me in high school.’ I think I got a C.”
Rick Mercer’s Monday Report starts its third season on CBC-TV in September.
Lois Brown is now a theatre director in St. John’s, where she teaches directing at Memorial University.