PAL Ottawa met Mitzi Hauser in her Old Ottawa South home in mid-December 2015. We  marveled over the bizarrely warm, and more importantly, utterly snowless winter so far. Mitzi, an active and youthful 70 years old, agreed that the weather was both odd and useful: “This is the first time I can remember using my bike to do all my Christmas shopping!”

“Living life to the fullest”

Like the other six trained members currently on the Supporting Cast team, Mitzi spends several hours each month with clients – senior artists in the community who require assistance in getting through their daily activities. It’s usually errands and chores, though Mitzi once helped a client who needed a hand making the short walk to her exercise class. The biggest need is transportation to and from doctors’ offices and hospitals. (Mitzi has driven Maria Hawkins to several medical appointments in recent months.)

These days, Mitzi focuses her PAL energies on Supporting Cast. But she played a vital role in PAL Ottawa’s founding. It was fellow actor and PAL Ottawa Chair Jim Bradford who first brought Mitzi into the fold in 2010.  As Secretary, Mitzi was one of the original board members who steered PAL Ottawa to its first milestones: incorporation and official charitable status in 2012.  With that accomplishment in the rearview mirror, the ever-adaptable Mitzi felt that her energies would best serve PAL working with Michael Namer for Supporting Cast.

“All of the clients I meet are interesting,” she says. “And they’re so full of energy! They’re all living their lives to the fullest at the moment, bound and determined that they’re going to keep going.” The clients “really want to help themselves,” which in turn makes Mitzi feel more effective and inspired as a volunteer.

The perils of month-to-month living

Like many members and volunteers with PAL Ottawa, Mitzi is deeply connected to the arts world, and so she knows that it’s far too easy for artists, especially aging artists, to find themselves suddenly unable to carry out basic life tasks.

Mitzi explains that many working artists spend the better part of their lives covering their expenses month to month, with little to nothing leftover for emergencies or retirement. “For many artists, you have to either pay the rent or put money into an RRSP.” She notes that in Ottawa, some artists are protected from financial vulnerability because they live in dual income households, sometimes with an income-earner who works outside the arts. But for a single household, the income of a professional artist is often as low as $15,000.

Many artists make their month-to-month lifestyle work by living frugally. But major health events can bring the routine to a crashing halt. Accidents, cataracts and cancers are some of the most common situations that throw artists into a state of helplessness or financial stress. An artist with a fracture might be isolated with no family in town to help them; they may be without transportation to the hospital; they may be unable to get to the grocery store. Supporting Cast exists precisely to help artists in these situations. Not only do volunteers fill the basic needs, but they provide clients with a sense of community through shared interests and knowledge of the arts world. Mitzi gave a ride to a client recently, and it turned out they had friends in common. “[Often] we know the same people… this gives people some kind of feeling of community, which they may not have at the moment.”

Born performer, practical parent

This poverty-level income is something Mitzi herself did not experience first-hand— but not because she avoided the artistic life altogether.

Mitzi grew up surrounded by theatre: her mother, Florence Fancott, acted professionally on the stage in Northampton before emigrating to Canada after World War II. Florence then performed with Ottawa’s Canadian Repertoire Theatre until that company folded in 1955. The end of Florence’s professional career, however, was a gain for Ottawa’s community theatre: Florence would go on to perform in and direct Ottawa Little Theatre productions, while Mitzi’s father, architect Ted Fancott designed sets for these same productions, for 40 years.

We asked Mitzi if her mother counselled her about a life in the arts. The answer is yes: “For God’s sake, Mitzi, don’t go into the theatre!” was Florence’s advice. And Mitzi did follow this advice. At least at first. But, after a period of ten years during which she worked as a statistician, then a computer programmer, and then had children, Mitzi gravitated toward the “family business” after all. Among her acting credits are roles in two landmark Great Canadian Theatre Company works: she performed in Sandinista! in 1982, and Side Effects in 1985, and toured nationally with both productions. Despite these successes, however, Mitzi did not continue down the path of full-time acting. By the mid-1980s, she was separated, raising two children, and she wanted a measure of financial stability not readily available to full time performers.

This led to a secondary career as a contract educator with the Canada Science and Technology Museum. After eight years she was offered a part-time permanent position, at first writing the educational programs, and later working on exhibit development teams. This afforded her a predictable income and benefits plan, and still allowed her to take acting roles periodically. In all, Mitzi worked at the Museum for 28 years.

As “day-jobs” go, her museum position was pretty good: Mitzi used her performer’s instinct to make exhibits more interactive and engaging. Further, she tapped into her theatre network to enrich the Museum’s content, at the same time connecting her arts colleagues to new opportunities. For example, she arranged to have local actors record in the voices of famous scientists; and she commissioned self-contained shows along the Museum’s themes. “I could hire people to do all the voiceovers because I knew the theatre community.  I commissioned a show about microgravity from Rag & Bone Puppet theatre.”

“It’s not so impossible!”

Raising two children, working part-time at the Museum and still taking professional acting roles – this made for a challenging balancing act. Yet, Mitzi knows that her path led to relative stability compared to some of her fellow artists.  For this reason, she is firm in her commitment to support PAL’s efforts through Supporting Cast, especially because retirement plus her own excellent health means she has a lot to give.

And what of the rest of her retirement pursuits? Another twist in Mitzi’s life took place in 2006. An avid folk dancer at the time, Mitzi suffered a drastic knee injury in a car accident—an accident from which she has now recovered in part thanks to the therapeutic benefits of even more dancing. However, she has to watch she doesn’t overdo it. Thankfully, she has found a way to maintain high involvement with the folk dance community. She was inspired to take up an instrument – some would say a daunting task at 60 – when she witnessed another senior-amateur learn basic fiddling in less than a week while at a folk camp.  “On Monday he started to learn the fiddle and on Saturday he gave a performance…. He can play a song after 5 days! Ok, it’s not impossible,” she thought. “So I started to learn the penny whistle.”

Mitzi now plays in Stolen Goods, a contra dance band, and Quite Carried Away, an English Country Dance Band. She delights in this new avenue in which to learn and explore her creativity.

“This is a wonderful new section of my life.”