As promised in the previous post, here’s Victoria Feistner’s behind-the-scenes look at “Melanie in the Underworld”:
:Too often we regard myths as stories and experiences that happened to other people, long ago. But to cultures like the Ancient Greeks, their time was no less real and magical than ours.
When I first had the seed that would grow into Melanie in the Underworld–a modern retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice–I toyed with the idea of setting it in a thinly-veiled version of Toronto’s Greektown on the Danforth. That notion moved on, but the idea of setting it in Toronto remained. Not as a never-named city with landmarks only recognizable to those in the know, but as itself.
To make that work, I needed to find my entrance to the Underworld.
From the first, the Underworld was in the subway system. It was fixed in my mind. I enlisted the help of a fellow transit nerd, and Patrick and I planned to spend a day investigating possible entrance locations.
We started at Lower Bay Station, which is famous among Toronto’s transit aficionados for its closed second-level platform, often used as a backdrop for television shoots. But it didn’t feel right. It was too well-known, for one thing; too well-lit. Too obvious. So we branched out, working our way downtown in a meander of coffee-shops and vague notions. We had sensible footwear.
We poked around Queen’s Park, and the green commons of the University of Toronto. We investigated Union Station in the hopes of sneaking into a side tunnel (note to transit authorities: we would never do such a thing. Never ever. That wasn’t us).
I realized after the first few locations that what I wanted was not just an entry to the subway–that was a bare minimum–but a secret. A place no one knew was a doorway, tucked away, ignored by all but the odd TTC worker.
We found a small parkette: a couple of benches, a sad tree in a concrete box. The access point to the underground was a locked steel grill between two glossy financial towers on Richmond. It was, frankly, pathetic. But it ticked the boxes. We took a break to eat and rest aching feet. I felt discouraged. This is what I had said I wanted, this concrete corner; but it was lacking. I wanted Melanie to find magic in the downtown, a place out of synch with the rest of the city.
Patrick had the idea. It came to him while we debated giving up.
Along University Avenue, there are meridians dividing the north and south lanes. Large enough to be proper islands, they’re planted with trees, shrubs, flower gardens. They have statuary and benches, and in nice weather are full of office-workers with packed lunches.
One of the smaller islands is between Queen West and Richmond. We stood at its northern tip, looking at the statue of Adam Beck. Beck was a bit of a bigwig in Ontario at the start of the 20th century. He was very socially minded, Patrick told me, but less well-known than his electrical stations all over the province were his transit plans.
I started to get excited.
Behind the statue was a rectangle of hedge, a living fence around a large steel grate. To the south were two rows of ginkgo trees, and a fountain.
We had found it: a grotto, all the classic elements, in the middle of a six-lane thoroughfare, right downtown! I squeezed through the hedge and tried to open the grate. Heavy, but manageable. A rusty ladder, flaked with green paint, led into the gloom. Every few minutes we could feel the rumble of the University line, passing under our feet.
The sun was setting. We sat behind the statue, out of the breeze, Patrick having a well-earned smoke while he talked about the aborted plans for a Queen relief subway in the late 40s. I finished my coffee, bubbling over with ideas for scenes and snatches of dialogue, and listened to the drifting sounds of the neighbourhood, underpinned by the rumble of the University line. Cars flowed by on either side, but we were in a pocket of tranquility.
I had started that day with a checklist, but no specific place. Secretly I had been hoping to stumble on someplace magical and surprising, and to my joy, I had. When the ancients walked their own roads, they knew that the gods surrounded them, in the guise of the ordinary. Sometimes, sitting by the statue, listening to the fountain, and the rustling of ginkgo leaves, with a rumble under your feet, you can catch a glimpse of that belief, and live it for a moment yourself.”