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Calgary, CA
June 25, 2019

Knowing Michael Green

When Michael Green was killed in a car accident last winter, the city lost a One Yellow Rabbit co-founder, arts impresario and tireless collaborator and mentor. But the loss to those who knew Green personally is immeasurable.

Photograph by Trudie Lee

Last February, three vehicles collided on a snow-blown stretch of Saskatchewan’s Highway 6. The collision sheared the side from a Subaru Outback and killed the four artists inside: First Nations elder and filmmaker Narcisse Blood, Saskatchewan artists Michele Sereda and Lacy Morin-Desjarlais and beloved Calgary theatre artist Michael Green.

The following week, almost 1,800 mourners filled Jack Singer Concert Hall for Green’s Celebration of Life. Hundreds more watched a live feed online. Mayor Naheed Nenshi read a prepared speech, something he rarely does. Poet Kirk Miles recited an ode he’d penned for Green. Composer Kenna Burima played a requiem. Members of the First Nation communities offered prayers and songs. Actor Andy Curtis – clad only in boxer shorts, yet still overdressed for the role – performed a G-rated version of Green’s “The Whaler.”

Green’s daughter, Maya, tearfully, bravely, spoke about her father. “He could make anything fun,” Maya said, a revelation that surprised absolutely no one.

I’d seen Michael Green on stage a dozen times performing with One Yellow Rabbit, the theatre ensemble he co-founded with Blake Brooker in 1982, and I’d watched him hold court at post-performance gatherings many times more. For years I’d attended the High Performance Rodeo (HPR), a January festival of performance arts curated by Green that offers a much-needed dose of creative nourishment after weeks of stale Christmas clichs. But I didn’t know Michael Green personally.

And I didn’t feel I knew him any better once the theatre lights came up after his memorial. When a figure as widely known and admired as Michael Green dies, public mourning becomes a distillation of virtue. Fresh sadness breeds hagiography. Post-mortem tributes may be heartfelt and sincere, but they smooth away the edges and reduce men to saints.

I suspected Green was far more complex – and more interesting – than the gilded icon celebrated on stage. I may not have known Michael Green, but I knew I wanted to.

Three months later, I met Brooker at an Inglewood caf to talk about Green. Very few people in Calgary knew Green as well, or for as long, and yet the first thing Brooker said was there was little he could tell me about Green that I didn’t already know. “I am not interested in his CV,” I said. “I want to know what kind of man he was.”

Brooker considered my post-mortem interest in Green morbid. I didn’t disagree. But, when a community loses someone, aren’t we compelled, morbidly or not, to assess all we’ve lost? Isn’t mourning always, in some way, a belated act of taking inventory?

Brooker and I spoke for more than two hours, sometimes about Green, but most of the time not, and he never let me turn on my voice recorder. Everything he said was strictly off the record.

Near the end of our talk, Brooker said that, if we really wanted to get to the heart of his friendship with Green, we would need “six bottles of wine and five days in a mountain cabin.” I thought this sounded like a fine plan, but I knew this was just a way for Brooker to say no. This was Brooker’s way of saying we could not unravel such a complicated and decades-long relationship with coffee-shop chit-chat.

I respected Brooker’s reticence. But I was also glad that others were more forthcoming. Almost everyone I contacted wanted to tell me their stories about Green. In death, as in life, people wanted to be associated with him. Even busy rock stars made time to talk about Green. I reached out to Alejandro Escovedo, the eclectic American musician who the Rabbits brought to Calgary several times over the years. I caught him at a hectic time. He’d just returned after two weeks of touring and was preparing for a week of appearances back home in Austin, Texas. Busy as he was, Escovedo was determined to find a few a moments to talk to me about Green.

Escovedo called between rehearsals and told me how he and Green both had a daughter named Maya. He spoke about the all-night birthday party the Rabbits threw for him after his first HPR show in 2002, and about the time he and Green went to Fluevog and bought the same crazy shoes. “We were shoe competitors,” he said.

Most of all, though, he talked about Green’s passion for music, art and writing. “Mike was one of most creative and beautifully generous and elegant human beings I ever met,” Escovedo said. “He will totally be missed. And I loved him very much.”

Escovedo called Green a “Pied Piper” for his ability to convince other artists to follow him into interesting and weird projects.

The Plaid Tongued Devils front man, Ty Semaka, knew this side of Green well. Back in 2001, Green asked Semaka to gather a dozen musicians for a Frank Zappa tribute act he wanted to assemble. Covering Zappa’s complex music would require top-notch musicians, but Green had no budget to pay anyone. This hardly mattered.

“I asked 12 people and they all said yes because it was Michael,” Semaka said. “And I said yes for the same reason. He’s Michael. If he said let’s do something, you did it.”

Semaka and the other artists Green worked with over the years knew with certainty that Green’s crazed schemes would not only be a blast to work on, but they would actually get done. Green was highly productive. He had the connections, the drive and freakish enthusiasm to make things happen. He also had the community’s trust and support.

Green once said in an interview with Avenue, “I have to be careful I don’t come up with too many grandiose, hare-brained notions, because Calgary will just let me do them.” I consider this the best compliment our city has ever been paid.

But, for Semaka, Green’s death meant more than the loss of an artistic collaborator; Green was a rare and valued friend. When Semaka’s marriage fell apart, Green was one of the few male acquaintances that reached out to him. “He contacted me and said, ‘Let’s go out and let’s talk.'” Semaka told me. “He gave me a book on healing and getting through.”

Semaka considered Green’s willingness to speak deeply and emotionally about women, love and relationships an uncommon gift. Every man needs such a friend. “Michael is one of those people who shouldn’t be gone.” Semaka said. “I sure wish he was still around.”

For others, Green was more carney than confidante. Green came from carnival stock – another revelation that would surprise no one. His father was born into a fairground family in the UK, and his grandmother used to drive the truck that towed the Ferris wheel from town to town. Green embraced this personal mythology in his role as Calgary’s impresario of the performing arts. He did more than show professional interest in the work of his fellow artists, he invested himself in their success.

Poet and musician Kris Demeanor remembers Green showing up to his gigs and sitting alone in the front row with a glass of red wine. Afterwards, Green would offer Demeanor suggestions on how he might reorganize his set list. “Then he’d leave,” Demeanor said. “He’d give you some great insightful feedback and then wander off.”

Demeanor said there is no better compliment than having an established and respected artist show interest in your work, “and not to just offer the typical off-the-cuff, ‘that was great,’ but actually have something meaningful to say.” Green cultivated relationships with Calgary artists by gilding their work with his attention and always rooting for them to improve.

Of course, being the curator of HPR meant having to say no, and Green disappointed many artists who wanted to be included. But he preferred to say yes. His inclusivity occasionally infuriated his colleagues who were tasked with finding time and space for all the artists Green embraced. There was always room for one more under his carnival tent, even when there wasn’t.

Demeanor was one of more than 20 performers, musicians, dancers and poets Green had gathered for his last project, Making Treaty 7 (MT7). The project explored the historical significance of the 1877 land treaty between British settlers and First Nations in what has become southern Alberta.

“I got that sense in the last couple of years that Michael was on to something that transcended art,” Demeanor said. Green began the project in 2012, bringing in Brooker to act as facilitator and director, with Michelle Thrush joining as co-director in 2014. The Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society staged the world premiere in the Chautauqua tent at Heritage Park in 2014.

MT7 ranks as one of the most remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen. The show was heartbreaking, unexpectedly funny and – more than anything else – important. Every Canadian should watch it. Green said on several occasions that MT7 was one of the projects he was most proud of.

Creating MT7 required earning the trust of First Nations elders and the communities they lead – no easy task for “the white guy with the pointy nose and the hat,” as Green called himself. Troy Emery Twigg, another member of the MT7 ensemble, said Green endeared himself to the elders by making himself part of whatever community he visited.

“He slept out on the prairie in a sleeping bag with everyone else,” Twigg told me. “All the elders loved him and took care of him.”

In February 2012, in honour of his work on MT7, elders Tom Heavenfire, Reg Crowshoe and Charles Powderface bestowed a Blackfoot name on Green: Pona Ko’Taksi, or Elk Shadow. “I’d never seen the man in tears before,” Twigg said. After Green’s death, Raymond Manybears performed another ceremony that passed the name to Green’s daughter, Maya. She is Elk Shadow now.

Green may have been Pona Ko’Taksi to his Blackfoot friends, but his fellow Rabbits had a different name for him.

“We called him our magpie,” Denise Clarke said. “Because he would bring home shiny things. Too many shiny things.”

Clarke had been a colleague of Green’s since she joined the Rabbits a few years after Green and Brooker founded the group, and had been a friend from before that time. She’d smiled during Green’s memorial when Nenshi labelled him an “infuriating collaborator.” The description was apt. No matter what project the ensemble was working on, Green always had a shiny idea for another one. There was always something else to do, another place to go, another show to produce.

“He wouldn’t stop,” Clarke said. “He had no off switch.”

In many ways, the 22-year-old nerdy punk rocker that Clarke met back in the early 1980s was indistinguishable from the 58-year-old who died last winter. From the very beginning, Green was a funny and compelling performer. He possessed what Clarke called “stage authority” and “had impeccable rehearsal skills for a true eccentric weirdo geek.”

And he always had an unquenchable appetite for both the arts and the wild life that artists lead. “Michael was never averse to another drink,” Clarke said.

As Clarke and the other Rabbits grew older, they couldn’t party as much as they used to. Their wild days are not yet over, but both Clarke and Brooker spend more quiet time at home with their partners these days. Green, as impish in his 50s as he was in his 20s, never tired of the scene. He relished his role as a wild man in a buttoned-down cowboy town and didn’t need time to himself the way his colleagues did. He wanted to see everything and be everywhere.

“That was his great gift,” Clarke said. “He actually wanted to be out seven days a week. He was a social animal and much of his social behaviour was professional.”

But not everyone basked equally in the warm glow of Green’s attention, and his extraordinary generosity did not always extend to those he left back at home. It was not always easy to be married to a man like Michael Green. He had separated from his wife, Kim, several months before the accident. Their breakup saddened the Rabbits who, Clarke said, adored Kim. “She balanced Mikey very beautifully,” she said. Kim was the calm and quiet counterweight to Green’s rogue madness. They’d split once before and Green fought hard to win her back.

In the midst of the shock and sadness surrounding his passing, Clarke and the other Rabbits caught themselves feeling an irrational anger toward Green. They hadn’t finished mourning Richard McDowell, the One Yellow Rabbit ensemble’s long-time composer and sound designer who died of a heart attack last November, when Green’s death elbowed its way into their sorrow. “I can’t believe we are mad at Mikey for dying on Ricky’s grief card,” Clarke said. “We have to forgive him for that.”

But as the Rabbits clutched each other for comfort, laughter followed their tears. “Mikey was infuriating, and so much fun,” Clarke said, “and we just kept going back to the fact that we’d had so much fun together.”

 

Clarke said she will miss Green’s “physical presence.” She will miss the way he and Andy Curtis carried on like mischievous schoolboys in the dressing room and during rehearsal. She’ll miss his ability to go meet with interesting people and report back – his well-honed scheme for scouting out new ideas.

“And I am going to miss being on stage with him. I’ll miss turning around and clocking him. Our eyes would meet and a million things would be said. I’m going to miss that so much. I’ll never get that again,” said Clarke.

For Clarke, the outpouring of grief that followed Green’s death was as much a tribute to Calgary’s arts community as it was to Green himself. The fact that hundreds of people filled a theatre to mourn a man like Green proved the importance of the arts to the city. And it showed the strength of the arts scene he and his fellow Rabbits helped build. That mass of 1,800 broken-hearted Calgarians in the seats of the Jack Singer honoured Green’s legacy and life’s work better than any song or speech, poem or prayer.

I will never know Michael Green, no matter how many questions I ask or tearful recollections I attend. My and the public’s ledger of loss will remain incomplete. For us, he will be the man on the stage, or the man at the bar, in whose wild orbit we longed to spin. I pity those who knew him even less than I did, those poor Calgarians who never saw him act or sing or wail on stage. They, too, have suffered a loss.

But, even more, we should feel grateful to those who truly knew Michael Green – his family, his friends, his Rabbits – for sharing him in life and now sharing their grief with strangers who hold far less a claim on him. This is, at its heart, a profound generosity.

 

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