Actor, singer, dancer and writer Melissa Morris made a number of friends in this area back in the salad days of Orillia Summer Theatre, when pro and amateur actors alike trod the boards together. John Bleasby last talked to Melissa Morris 14 months ago when she was about to hop a plane and fly to Amman Jordan to teach at the Stardust Academy, a brand-new triple threat theatre school based on the curriculum developed at Toronto’s Randolph Academy. Melissa came back to Canada to work summer theatre, but returned to Jordan again in September. John and Melissa re-connected via the internet to find out why.
What was the biggest surprise for you when you first started working in Jordan?
I was surprised how similar the students are to kids in Canada. They are very energetic and positive and talkative. The study of drama/dance/music carries the same excitement here in Jordan as it does in Canada, perhaps even more since it is burgeoning here. They have a lot exposure to Western music. Maybe this shouldn’t be too surprising but I do find it funny how much they like Justin Bieber! They know all the same fairy tales as we do, yet they have an entire second culture! They are so lucky that they have two cultures!
Many here would be surprised to hear that there is interest in Western dance, music and theatre. Are there public performances of classics like ‘West Side Story’ or ‘My Fair Lady’?
I have not seen any public plays here. I heard about a production of a play based on Khalil Gibran brought in from Lebanon, but there is no Western Theatre here. However, I do know that in the schools they are doing all sorts of things like ‘Little Mermaid’, ‘The Lion King’, and ‘Les Miserables’. In fact, my boss put on a very tame version of ‘Rent’!
What are the students’ goals and ambitions in terms of music, dance and theatre? Is it restricted to the schools?
So far, kind of… but the place I work is extracurricular academy for triple threat skills and is the first of its kind in Jordan. People don’t really go into the performing arts post-secondary, although I do know of a couple of exceptions to that.
What is your role in this academy, your typical day and your typical student?
Well, today, I taught drama to a class of seventeen 5 – 7year olds. We played some theatre games, and did a vocal warm-up and started learning the verses to ‘It’s a Small World’. I have a 13 year old who wants to sing Adele and Demi Lovato. I teach a Glee class of nine 8 – 11 year olds where we work on singing and dancing. We are currently working on ‘Call Me Maybe’. These are mostly girls but there are a handful of boys ranging from 4 years to adult. And I am teaching a DJ how to play piano as well.
Are these children of Jordanians or Western expats?
These are Jordanian, or quite often Palestinian. Jordan’s Palestinian population is something like 80% kids. Many of their parents were educated in the West and this type of experience is a big priority for them. They want their kids to experience the arts and sports and everything here. They have money and they want to make sure their kids get a well-rounded experience! School much more stressful for students here than I have ever seen elsewhere. They are literally professional students from grade 5. They have midterms and crazy assessments and hours of homework. They are taking International Baccalaureate courses, so the pressure is very high. They want to make it into Western universities.
We have preconceived ideas of life in the Middle East, particularly for young Western women. Can you wear Western clothing, walk around unescorted, travel freely and so on?
I walk around by myself, for sure. I wear western clothing, but I may wear a longer skirt, or a sweater on top of a tank top or wear a scarf. I know people are going to stare at me. The staring is partly cultural, and partly because I am a foreigner, and partly because I don’t dress exceptionally conservatively.
My understanding is that from a Western perspective Jordan is the most progressive of the Middle Eastern countries. Would you say that is accurate?
Yes, Jordan is very progressive. Maybe Lebanon would be more so. It is a monarchy, but the King is well liked and respected. There are protests sometimes to challenge the idea of monarchy, but hell, this happens all over the world. Everyone has i-Phones and technology is quite advanced. There is nightlife here. People speak English, at least a little.
There is also a significant Christian population, so it is not a big deal that I am “Christian”. One of the things my students thought I should learn in Arabic was “Are you Muslim or Christian?” When people ask you, you tell them, and that is it. Conversation complete. They are very accepting. In fact, this year I am planning a Christmas Concert. I can mention Jesus and everything! Even the Muslims are happy to “celebrate” Christmas.
You obviously liked what you saw and experienced in your first year. Why did you go back for a second year?
I love it here. First off, the pace is great. As a Torontonian, you’re used to working your ass off, commuting, and running around like a crazy person. In Jordan, people are so relaxed. I have lots of time and a beautiful studio and a fantastic piano, so I get to do my own thing a lot. The kids are great and it is very satisfying to see improvement. I just wish there were opportunities to perform though!
Another reason I came back is because I feel it would be very limiting to spend all my time in Canada. I would be denying myself the privilege of learning about another culture and another part of the world. I believe people must learn that the Middle East is not what we see on CNN! My new philosophy on travel is that going to a resort in Mexico does not allow you experience Mexico. I really want to be entrenched in a culture, in a city, to have a neighbourhood, and understand the people a bit better. I hope this job will lead me to other opportunities now that I have opened up the box and allowed myself to think outside it!
I also think that living in Toronto, living the stressed actor life, causes us poor delicate artists to make each audition the be-all-and-end-all. Now I think: It’s just a play! It’s just a commercial! Not that I ever want to demean our profession and our hard work and our investment in the industry, but hiking the Pyramids kind of made me feel silly about getting depressed about missing out on a McDonalds commercial. Perspective: This has given me perspective.
Are you writing music over there?
Yes, I am writing. I have been working on ‘Maid for a Musket’, a new play by Lucia Frangione, commissioned by the St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival. And some stuff for me as well.
Do you plan to come back to Canada any time soon?
I intend to come home in January, do some work, some teaching, some plays. However, that could change on a dime and I am thrilled if it does! I feel so much more relaxed and free about my future now. If something comes my way, great. And something will always come my way. So whatever adventure it is, I look forward to accepting it. Mind you, I would also like to come back to Jordan. I don’t know when, but it is a second home to me now and the community has treated me very generously.
One thing I believe strongly in is that to be an interesting performer, you need to lead an interesting life. I think that when we get too wrapped up in the industry, we lose sight of what we are trying to do, which is tell stories of human lives on planet Earth. So go explore planet Earth! Meet some cool humans and have some earth-shattering experiences, and then you’ll have something unique to bring to the table.