Some people take longer than others to figure it all out. Take Judith Berlin. Her 40th birthday was firmly in the rear-view mirror before she received her wake-up call.
“I had already earned my teaching certificate in English as a Second Language a few years before when I signed up for this funky New Age course all about getting your life together. After a few days together, I was told by the people in that course that it was obvious I had a brain, but I was not using it,” she says. “I realized they were right, so I took their advice and started using it. I got a full-time job teaching ESL at UBC for that summer.”
Prior to embarking on the search for regular employment, Judith spent years in the theatre pursuing her passions for acting, comedy and music. One of her acting friends proved instrumental in leading her to her first full-time permanent job. “My friend was on his way to getting his teacher’s degree and was teaching a course for troubled youth at King George High School in Vancouver,” says Judith. “I volunteered with him and discovered they were looking for someone to teach Drama and ESL. I got the position and stayed there for 13 years before retiring. I loved being with the people but hated the [paperwork] involved. It was very taxing for me with the way I think.”
There was little wrong with the way Judith thought when she was young. While attending school on Long Island, New York until she was eight, and then back to Los Angeles where she had been born, Judith advanced a grade on two separate occasions, and wound up enrolling at the University of California at Berkley when she had just turned 17. She does not recommend it. “It was difficult being in class with kids who were older.”
A student at Berkley and UCLA during the '60s, Judith's university days were interesting.
“I wanted to go to some kind of musical comedy operatic school,” she says. “My parents wanted me to get an academic education. I couldn’t decide if I should major in English or Psychology, so it took about five years for me to graduate. In the end, I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts (theatre specialization) from UCLA.”
Years later, Judith would come to understand the need for a “real job” but, at the time, she followed her heart when she majored in theatre rather than psychology. Throughout her life, she never strayed far from the stage no matter what turns her path took. From California to Ontario to British Columbia, the bright lights always beckoned.
“I clearly remember the first time I was taken to see the Nutcracker Suite,” says Judith. “I looked down at the Sugar Plum fairies on that magical looking stage with all the lights and colour washing over it and decided this is where I want to be. I could not have been any older than six. When it really sunk in that I was meant to be on the stage is when I was given a comic part in a junior high [school] play and I ‘made a meal of it,’ meaning I got the most out of the part I could. I played a spinster librarian and I had her crunching on carrots. My fellow students took to calling me the character's name at school.”
Even though she graduated from school not very far from Hollywood, her quest for stardom took a decidedly northward turn that Judith never expected. The Vietnam War was raging on and the young man she was dating found a draft notice in his mailbox one day.
“We had met while attending university and were dating,” she recalls. “You could say the draft notice accelerated our relationship. We got married in Los Angeles. My new husband had an acquaintance in Toronto who was willing to sponsor us, so with a rented trailer, a couple of thousand dollars in cash and the chutzpah of youth, we drove up to the Ontario border. We had an amazing interview with some very sympathetic bureaucrats who seemed happy to let us in to Canada. They took me by surprise and I was very grateful.”
That was 1968. Judith and her husband settled in the Yorkville area of Toronto. They applied to become landed immigrants and started working almost at once at various theatre jobs. Judith even started doing some television work, both in national commercials and for a CBC television series when she had to slow down following the arrival of the couple's first child.
In 1970, a friend named Jim Garrard was contracted by Simon Fraser University to do a summer production. He hired Judith to act in the play and her husband to work on set design.
“We drove into town through this valley, and then climbed up this mountain to get to SFU. I looked around in wonder and asked, ‘Why did no one in Toronto ever tell me about this? This place is heaven!’”
Following the summer, Judith and her husband headed back to Toronto to work and save for a move to the west coast. During this time, their second child, a daughter, arrived. Finally, in June 1972, the family left Ontario behind and moved to the Lower Mainland. Soon after their arrival, Judith met Chris Wootton.
At the time, Chris was setting up the new Vancouver East Cultural Centre. He asked Judith and her husband if they would like to move in next door and help get the centre started.
“We moved in and discovered the whole situation was nutty as a fruitcake,” Judith recalls. “Here we were, a young, nuclear family of four living on the main floor of this house with three entrances and four single artists living upstairs who had to travel right through the middle of our living space in order to get to their places. It was very challenging to say the least. I started out as a bookkeeper and taking neighbourhood surveys, while my husband helped create the theatre. Our home had been a halfway house for people with mental problems and it just reeked of smoke.”
Once the theatre was fixed up, Judith performed in it on six occasions over the years, and she continued to find roles and opportunities to get up on stage after separating from her husband.
“I was very fortunate to get in on an LIP grant to help create the first feminist media collective in British Columbia, and possibly all of Canada,” she says. “I suggested the name Reel Feelings. We did a lot of work on video, primarily producing work for film and radio. Prior to this project, I had received a grant on co-operative radio, where I got to be a journalist and do some recording. It was very wide open and a great experience.”
It was following the completion of these grants that Judith realized she needed a real job and pursued teaching. While doing this, however, she kept her hand in the theatre as much as she could. This included improvisational acting for Theatre Sports at the City Stage Theatre on Thurlow before it became professional.
She credits Theatre Sports for helping her turn her writing skills to character creation.
“My first character, Madam Slava, was featured in *Vancouver* magazine. I did guerilla theatre with her, pretending to be a fan of Bill Vander Zalm and handing out little shovels. It got me on the Bill Reiter show on CBC. I also developed Alice Wedgebottom, Aunt Spam. Now I’m working on Dee Dee Bartlett, a tough, pro labour motorcycle grandma, and a character who is half Groucho Marx, half seductive ingenue. I also dressed up and impersonated Queen Elizabeth II and Harpo Marx on select occasions.”
Though she admits to a more colourful history than a focused one, Judith is devoting her energy to a new challenge - trying to get two diverse groups of people to realize what they have in common and how much they can help each other.
“I have joined a seniors centre and realized that I missed being with teenagers,” says Judith. “Both groups are marginalized and are not told how useful they are by society. They are made to be consumers and not much else. I am working to develop an opportunity for both groups to create their own joint forum to have their voices heard.”
Given her propensity for finding opportunities, Judith's future is as bright and colourful as her past.
MARCH 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER AND LOWER MAINLAND
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