It takes only 14 minutes for Sam Mullins to relay one of the most, let’s just say, cringe-inducing experiences of his young life.
And the Kalamalka Secondary School graduate is ready to share it with his hometown when the comedian/actor brings his autobiographical storytelling monologue for two performances at his former teenage stomping grounds in Coldstream.
Entitled Tinfoil Dinosaur, the Winnipeg Fringe Festival winning one-man play takes the stage at Kalamalka Secondary’s Apple Box Theatre next week, and Mullins says it chronicles “the worst nine months of my life, but in a comedic way.”
The story’s subhead could read: “How a strapping, young junior hockey player turns to theatre for release, appears on stage in blackface, and ends up living with an anxiety disorder,” or “How the smallest, strangest thing turned it around for him.”
Back in 2004, Mullins did seem to have the world in his palm. He had just returned from Grand Forks, where he played with that city’s junior hockey team, and was finishing off his Grade 12 studies at Kalamalka Secondary. (His family still calls Coldstream home.)
He decided to take a directing and script writing class, taught by Kal’s then and current drama teacher Shon Thomas, where he acted in his first school play, The Village of Idiots.
It was a trip to the annual Shakespeare festival in Summerland that turned Mullins’ head even more towards the theatre.
“It was the first great acting experience in my life,” said Mullins. “I remember my teacher, Mr. Thomas, saying to me then that I could actually go to school for theatre. I didn’t even realize that you could go to school for that.”
Thomas also remembers the encounter well.
“I could see he was getting excited about the theatre. He was this hockey guy, but I could see it was not going to be part of his life, so I told him, ‘if this looks good to you, life in the arts can be very rewarding.’”
Mullins ended up taking his teacher’s advice and applied to the prestigious theatre program at the University of Victoria.
He was accepted, and four years later, he was offered a role in his graduating year that would either make him, or break him.
“Basically I was cast in the worst play of my entire life,” he explained.
A new work by a Quèbec City novelist, which will remain nameless, the out-there play called for a cast to play everything from a midget to a fedora-wearing bodyguard.
Mullins originally read for the part of Jake the Bodyguard, but after doing a table read with the entire cast, the director suggested he play the title character’s best friend.
The problem? The character is African-American.
“It didn’t go well… I told him ‘I’m not black,’ but he told me ‘I’m a great actor’ and that I should be able to pull it off.”
So like Al Jolson before him, and hockey player Raffi Torres after him, Mullins did his best to channel Robert Downey Jr.’s Oscar nominated role as a black-faced, white Australian actor from the satirical action comedy Tropic Thunder.
“I worked harder on that role than anything. I approached it with as much integrity as I could, but sometimes racist things are as they are, racist,” said Mullins.
Ironically, it was only UVic’s student newspaper, The Martlet, out of all the media coverage at the time, that pointed out that the role might be a tad “off-colour,” added Mullins.
“I really didn’t take any flak for the role, but deep inside, I just felt it was wrong.”
The experience sent Mullins to Vancouver humiliated, but ready to start anew.
And as the story goes, he built a new life for himself in the big city, just like he had always dreamed. He ended up waiting tables, living in a high-rise, dating a wonderful girl, and acting –– on camera, no less –– until an anxiety disorder caused him to bottom out.
And that’s where the tinfoil dinosaur comes in, which Mullins describes as a prolific experience he had while he was waiting tables.
It’s also the symbolic gesture of creating something with his bare hands that has developed into an award-winning performance, that started on a small stage in Vancouver and has gone on to capture the Best of the Fest award at this year’s Winnipeg Fringe Festival. It also received numerous accolades when it played at the Vancouver International Fringe Festival.
Mullins, who has since shared his story on a live taping of CBC Radio’s Definitely Not the Opera (you can see the segment on YouTube), now also does stand-up comedy and is in a sketch troupe, The Furious Anger Fun Hour, which performs monthly shows at the Vancouver restaurant where Mullins still works.
With the success of Tinfoil Dinosaur, he plans to take the show to even more Fringe festivals this coming year, including in Toronto, Montreal and Edmonton, and he is also scheduled to perform it at Victoria’s fringe in October.
“I haven’t done the show in Victoria yet. I can’t wait. I hope that at least 100 people who saw me in that play at UVic four years ago come to see this one,” he said.
Mullins is also looking forward to his performance at his alma mater, and so is his former teacher.
“I always keep the door open for grads and alumni to come back here and work with our current crop of students,” said Thomas. “Most say ‘oh yeah,’ but I don’t hear back from them. Sam is the one who has come back and has done some acting coaching with my students. He has comments for them, is active and supportive, and has never written off where he comes from.”
Mullins brings his Tinfoil Dinosaur to Kalamalka Secondary’s Apple Box Theatre on McClounie Road in Coldstream, Wednesday and Thursday, Dec. 14 and 15, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10 at the door.