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Reality, frustration of living with MS become key elements in local dramatist's play

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When Winnipeg became Canada's Cultural Capital in 2010, Debbie Patterson was chosen as theatre arts ambassador, meaning she would create a legacy project.

The cultural capital theme was "Arts for All," so the actress/dramatist opted to write a play in collaboration with Winnipeggers who are not typically exposed to cultural activities. The Wolseley resident targeted the Sargent Avenue neighbourhood around Victor Street, interviewing residents, workers, the church pastor, food-bank users and a 15-year-old female gangbanger.

Their words became the hour-long verbatim play Sargent & Victor, a one-woman show celebrating an area that once was a family-friendly centre of the Icelandic community but has deteriorated into a dangerous area where shootings and muggings are all too common. Patterson's relatives had known the 'hood's good times and had first-hand experience with the bad -- her brother's home was broken into three times and he had a nasty misunderstanding with police.

Certain that there was a richer vein in the material to tap into, the 48-year-old turned to prominent Toronto script doctor Iris Turcotte in the summer of 2012. Turcotte's key question was not about anything Patterson had penned, but about her health. As is her habit, she bluntly asked, "What's wrong with you?"

Patterson explained that she had developed multiple sclerosis in 1999 but that in the last four years, the symptoms had become more acute and she required a cane to walk. She had been contemplating a play about MS, but Turcotte suggested she use the disease as a metaphor for the degeneration taking place in the Winnipeg area.

"I discovered what was happening in my body is what was happening in the neighbourhood," says Patterson, who has two children with her partner, fellow actor/director Arne MacPherson. "We are both involved in these unstoppable processes of destruction and we are having to find ways to just live with it."

The script underwent a major overhaul -- the inclusion of Patterson's history with MS prompted the title adjustment to Sargent & Victor & Me, which Theatre Projects Manitoba premières Thursday at University of Winnipeg's Asper Centre for Theatre and Film.

"I saw the parallel because I was already performing the play with my broken body," says Patterson, whose stage creations include the Shakespeare in the Ruins musical Head, several Robert Munsch adaptations for Prairie Theatre Exchange and a handful of fringe productions she performed solo or with her family.

The new version centres around Gillian, a bitter and angry MS sufferer who offers her services to a local food bank. All Patterson's beloved interview subjects were turned into volunteers and clients of the aid agency.

"I don't think I've ever got as dark as Gillian is at the beginning of the play," says Patterson. "But it pisses you off when you can't do stuff."

Walking with a pronounced limp put a crimp in her once busy acting career. She tried to continue writing herself a part of a woman in a wheelchair, but slowly MS was having a greater impact on her lifestyle.

"I would go to film auditions and just suck it up and walk into the room without a limp," she says. "I thought I was doing really well but he (the casting agent) asked me if I was injured and I had to fess up. He hasn't called me for an audition since. It's the harsh reality of this business."

In 2011, the theatre community rallied to help her raise $15,000 to travel to Costa Rica to undergo controversial liberation treatment. It produced immediate improvement, but the symptoms eventually returned, with a few new ones.

"I mourn a lot for what I've lost," she says. "I can't play my flute anymore or stringed instruments like guitar and mandolin. My left hand is really messed up; I have no feeling in it. It's really weak.

"I have nothing to complain about, though; I think I'm really lucky."

MacPherson, who recently appeared in the title role of Ivanov, is directing Patterson and has devised an action plan to get her moving around the stage. Both thought it was important for the audience see what the disease has done to her body.

"We didn't want all the characters having the same Quasimodo walk," she says, with a laugh. "That's how I walk -- I drag one foot."

Putting herself out onstage doesn't faze Patterson.

"Deb is so fearless," says MacPherson. "She tackles things head-on and shares things honestly."

Patterson is optimistic that TPM patrons will identify with Gillian because her struggle is not all that different from others who are aging and dealing with bodies that are starting to betray them. She is upbeat about the future of her health and the Winnipeg neighbourhood, as long as what she calls the dark sides of both are accepted.

"As long as the problems in Winnipeg's West End are blamed on gangs or largely children, nothing will get solved. We need to recognize that gang members are part of the community and they need to be supported so we can all move forward together.

"If I think MS is something outside of myself, something I need to fight, I'm not going to get anywhere. If I'm going to heal, I have to bring my MS with me."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2014 C9

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