When you buy a ticket for Melanie Jones’s play, you get a race bib. You should also bring a water bottle because this play runs long. About five kilometres long. The audience follows her through parks and down paths as she delves into the emotions, memories and angst that trails virtually every runner. It’s all there, if you are willing to lace up for Endure: A Run Woman Show, an unconventional 75-minute jog-u-dramedy about the inner world of marathon runners.
While Endure had sold-out success in New York in July and her hometown of Calgary in August, Jones is really excited to take it to Ravenscourt Park in London during the Olympics and then the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, thanks to grants from the province of Alberta and the city of Calgary.
The play begins with a warm-up walk with the audience—usually about 20 people—wearing iPods that play a narrative along with original music. “Think about your own story,” Jones’s voice says as she begins to stretch in front of you. “What brought you here? What brought you through it all, and you’re here? The finish line might be hard to get to, but the start line is the thing.” The audience walks and runs behind Jones in short bursts at an easy “race pace,” she assures. It’s a play she describes as “raw, life-affirming. And there are pee jokes.”
When Mark Hopkins saw Endure in Calgary, “it was the most running I’d done all year,” says the co-founder of Swallow-a-Bicycle Theatre, whose workout routine is an occasional jog to catch a bus. Even though the show is about running, non-runners relate to it too because it’s also about “a woman who is going through an emotional journey confronting some really tough times in her life.”
What brought Jones, 35, to write and perform Endure was a lot of pain, and not just grinding joints and cramping muscles. There’s been depression. Crushing self-doubt. There’s a line in the play about how running staves off “that thing, waiting around the corner, ready to pounce if I stop.”
“I don’t want to say I’ve been struggling with depression. I’ve been working with it since I was a teenager,” she says. “And it reached what I would call a major depressive episode when I was 23.” When she started getting serious about running, she realized the stronger she felt physically, the stronger she felt mentally. “I tested that theory to its maximum with Ironman,” she says. “I wondered, ‘How far can I take this?’ Turns out I can take it 140.6 self-propelled miles.” She has also run triathlons and qualified twice for the Boston marathon.
After graduating from the University of Calgary with a degree in dance, Jones slogged it out for years as a freelancer, writing for local papers and magazines before she decided to “follow her bliss” and move to New York to try to make it as a performing artist. Her temporary visa describes her as an “alien of extraordinary ability.” “It’s so hilarious,” Jones laughs, “I got business cards made.”
Another performance of Endure is scheduled for June in New York. “I arrived at the age of 33 when I’m supposed to be all settled down and mature,” she says, “kind of like a storybook thing that you forget about when you are growing up.”
When Calgary was named “Canada’s Cultural Capital” for the year by the federal government, a non-profit organization called Calgary 2012 got $3.5 million in municipal, federal and private funds to showcase its culture at home and abroad. And Calgary 2012 curator and creative producer Michael Green saw a chance to help Jones take her play to London. “Calgary is very proud of its Olympic heritage. So the fact that she is taking this from one Olympic city to another Olympic city really spoke to us.”
Even with $32,000 in grants and donations, Jones is still $6,000 to $8,000 short of what she needs to take the show to the U.K. She’s trying to raise the rest on Indiegogo, an Internet crowdfunding campaign site. This is Jones’s mile 20, so to speak. But she’s confident she’ll make it to the Olympics. Because writing and performing is her latest endurance test.