By Meira Bienstock, Staff Writer, All About Solo
Beverley Elliott is a writer, producer, and performer. She recently returned from New York, where her original play “SINK OR SWIM” won Best Musical at the United Solo Theatre Festival. This is her second one‑woman show, which she has been touring around Canada and the USA. Both of her one‑woman shows, “…didn’t see that coming,” and “SINK OR SWIM” won Pick of the Fringe at the Vancouver Fringe Festival and have toured Canada. Beverley Elliott has over 100 film and TV credits. She is well‑known around the world for her recurring role as “Granny” on ABC’s hit series, Once Upon a Time. Recently, she worked on the indie “Never Steady, Never Still” and a string of Hallmark and Lifetime movies. Other film credits include Clint Eastwood’s Academy Award‑winning “Unforgiven,” (Clint personally thanked her in front of billions of people!), “Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants,” “Santa Claus 2,” “Bye Bye Blues” and “Who’s Harry Crumb.” Beverley has also been a TV series regular in “Harper’s Island,” “Hope Island,” “Kingdom Hospital,” and “Bordertown.” In addition to her film and TV work, Beverley is a successful singer and songwriter. She describes her music as earthy, inspiring, funny and uplifting. She has released five CDs: “Sunday Morning,” “Yellow Dress,” “The Sweetest Day” (with her group, August) and two children’s CDs — “Dream Child” and “Magic Carpet Ride.” Her children’s CDs have been used at children’s health care facilities, including the Ronald McDonald House and Canuck Place. All About Solo caught up with Beverley to learn about her solo show, “Sink or Swim,” and the importance of childhood memories.
Meira Bienstock: Why do you think it is important to reflect on your childhood memories?
Beverley Elliott: I think that we can learn a lot from who we were. Childhood is universal. Everyone was a child at one time, and therefore, when we share our childhood stories, memories and experiences often overlap. I had received several emails from audience members telling me how my stories triggered a memory that helped them understand something about themselves.
How do you think our childhood memories shape us into the adults we become?
Childhood is the first testing ground of human interactions for whom we will become. Some of these first memories can impact us for life. In “Sink or Swim,” I explore the loss of wide‑eyed innocence when meeting classroom bullies and a strict teacher; the generosity of a kind bus driver who has my back; breaking something valuable and being forgiven; the realization that time makes you forget pain; and surrendering to the possibility of almost drowning. We can relive pivotal experiences and relationships over and over again in our lives. (Perhaps not the almost drowning.) At a dinner party, you may sit down at the table and think, “There’s the bully, there’s the person who has my back, there’s the person with whom I align on forgiveness,” etc.
Why did you choose the five‑year‑old you, instead of the teenage you? Do you feel that who you were at age five shaped you more than who you were later in life?
I didn’t mean to “choose” the five year‑old. These are the stories that came out of me when I sat down and put pen to paper. For some reason, I have crystal‑clear memories from ages five to six. Being at home with my mom on the family farm, just the two of us doing laundry and household chores together. The first six months of school in the one‑room school house. When I went from being quiet with Mom to a room full of thirty‑five farm kids—grades one through eight—and an overbearing teacher, my world was shaken and enlivened. I studied the other students. Everyone was a mystery to me. I remember clothing, hairstyles, smells, conversations, shared looks and expressions in detail. A Pandora’s box of life opened up to me. After the big yellow bus came and took us to the new public school, my memories start to fade. I have a few sketches from ages seven to thirteen, but not many. I don’t know why, but that transformation from the farm to the school, to the great big world, felt as though I was in a living film. I can watch it again and again. I have memories of my teenage years, but they don’t interest me as much. It is a different kind of joy and a different kind of pain. These memories offered a playful show with much humor and constant revelations. I like living in the world of this little girl.
Where did you get the inspiration for the title of your show?
The title of the show came from writing down the theme, and just playing with the words. We had several other “working titles” but they didn’t fly. In each story that I tell, the hero is presented with a challenge, and she either masters it or fails, sinks or swims. When I looked at the drowning story, the phrase “sink or swim” came to me, and I knew instantly that was the title. I like a familiar phrase that can be mined for its value.
Where did you get the inspiration for your show?
I joined a writing group about eight years ago, The Wet Ink Collective. This is a group run by women, for women. Ridiculously few—something like only five percent—of the plays produced are written by women, and many of these plays are about women! The Collective was formed to encourage women theatre writers to write and get their plays out there. When I joined the group, these stories started pouring out of me. They were always in me, but I needed to get them down on paper. I had no idea they would resonate. In fact, when it was my turn to share my work, I often trembled and choked on my words, thinking, “This is crap.” But upon reading my work aloud, I heard the laughter, saw the tears, and heard the voices of women I respected, saying how much they loved it, and that I must put the stories together in a show. It really was about being given permission. Support and accountability are very valuable when writing.
In what way do you feel your show is relatable and universal to your audience?
Everyone was a child once. Everyone has a story. We all fall down. Most of us experience some kind of bullying or exclusion. Most of us take risks, and most of us find someone who believes in us.
What was your favorite part of rehearsing “Sink or Swim”?
Our rehearsals were magical. I loved my team. My director, Lynna Goldhar Smith, worked in such a way that we were always in a creative flow. She kept encouraging me to stay in authenticity, to trust and just paint the pictures. My musical director, Bill Costin, underscored most of the stories while I was on my feet, saying the words. The three of us in the room together would scream with laughter and melt into tears when Bill would hit the perfect sound or chord. We all knew when it was right. That creative bubble is the absolute best. It is magic. When the muse is the leader, and we are all listening and chasing it. Also, when I first performed my show at the Vancouver Fringe Festival, and the audience jumped to their feet at the end. I kinda loved that.
In what moment(s) of “Sink or Swim” did you become so immersed in your story, it was as though you were reliving your childhood? And why?
The almost‑drowning story is pretty intense for me. I have to “go to that place” every night in the show for the story to work. I can go there, too, which is so wild. I was only five years old, but I remember the exact moment when I gave up the struggle and surrendered to dying. I saw the bright light, and I went under. I felt my dad pounding my back and thought, “Why is he hitting me?” I felt the coughing, the choking, the coming back, and then the sweet peace of life. Cuddling with my mom on the blanket, I wasn’t scared anymore. I was calm, safe, hopeful. I leaned over to my father and asked, “Can I take swimming lessons?” I decided to swim.
“Sink or Swim”
Written and Performed by Beverley Elliott
Photo by: Tim Matheson
Author: Meira Bienstock, Staff Writer, All About Solo
MEIRA BIENSTOCK has worked for Time Inc., and prior, interned at ELLE Magazine. Her work has appeared in The HuffPost, The Jerusalem Post, 34th Parallel Magazine, New York Dreaming Literary Magazine, The Herald Bulletin, and more. She has acted in an Off‑Broadway show as well as indie films, and her background is in sketch comedy.