When I started school full time, my mother started performing and helping out in the local drama group. Her father was an English teacher who put on school productions and her mother loved the theatre. So it was no surprise that my mother wanted to spend some of her free time acting.
I remember her best and most distantly back as Mrs Noah, in an open air production at Hampstead which described the relationship between her and Noah, along with their sons on the ark. I can’t remember much more than that but it did touch me. Partly she was acting a mother, a role I knew her well in, but also for the first time I was seeing her as someone else, someone other than my mother. She was in a different role. And that caught my imagination.
She led me in to drama and I willingly followed with my début role being the dormouse in Alice and Wonderland, with one line to say. At the tender age of 6 or 7 I enjoyed the attention and the warmth of belonging.
When we moved abroad my mother and I went to numerous plays of varying quality. Since there was no professional English drama, it was all done by various amateur companies and we started to participate. My mother started looking after the mailing list for one of them and we both joined in the annual pantomime where I joined in with the chorus, not wishing or hoping for a bigger part until the last year where I finally got the courage to audition but never got a call back as I had failed to fill in the relevant piece of paper.
The delights of special effects that are mandatory in a pantomime had got me genuinely interested in how things happened. I was also aware that while the actors were in charge on stage in front of an audience, as soon as they became invisible to the audience the stage crew were in charge, whether in helping them to do a quick change or getting them out of the way for a set change, the actors became chess pieces to be moved about. In a good company of course, all elements of a production appreciate and value each person’s role and for several years with much the same people doing pantomime I had felt that we were a community, that we were all in it together and that we were all component pieces.
It was also the first time someone told me he loved me. He would have been 40,50-something. He was the only native in the company and he used to do the special act before the finale that gave everyone time to change into finale costume. We were dancing at the time. My mother was stood watching us quite happily. We used to talk a lot; there weren’t many of us who spoke fluent French and I think we both felt a little remote from the centre of activity.
I was occasionally asked what I did for a living. My mother never felt the need to point out to anyone that I was only 11 or 12 and I certainly wasn’t going to. I enjoyed it at the time but I look back and wonder what was going through her head.
By the time I first auditioned however I had moved to my third secondary school with its own theatre and had also drifted towards the technical side of things. I think I would have gone there anyway but I wonder what would have happened if my first and last audition hadn’t just got lost. I stage managed my first show, and had my first kiss at a cast party afterwards and realised this was what I wanted to do – the stage management, not the kiss (although that was quite nice…) I was high on the adrenaline and tension, and on the feeling of responsibility, that it was my job to make sure the show went ahead, that problems were resolved. I was also aware that if I did my job perfectly, and everyone else did theirs that I would be invisible.
We then returned to London and I was lucky enough to be able to pick a school which had its own theatre, that was also the same school that my maternal grandmother had been to. I auditioned for the first play, but in a strange place feeling alone I made a mess of it and that was the last time I tried acting.
I developed a wonderful relationship with one of the drama teachers and did productions permanently all through my four years there. We worked very well together and I’m grateful for all the support and encouragement she gave me. I still treasure the ear rings that were a post production present. By the time I was in my last year my peers didn’t feel they knew me well enough to ask me to help with the sixth form play that was an annual event so I was left out which disappointed me but hardly surprised me.
And so I went to college to learn Stage Management and Design. I had liked the informality of the college and had chosen it above several others, but without really discussing the choice with my parents. My father was dead against it although agreed to support me financially on a minimal basis while I went. I’ve talked elsewhere about my college life.
I did find it a bit difficult that many other students had professional practical experience but didn’t really feel that put me too far behind. What I found difficult was that in the two terms I was there we did about one hour of stage management with set design being the main component rather than on the side. I wanted to learn the basic principles of design but most of the time seem to be spent making finnicky models of our set rather than in discussing how to design them in the first place. I was frustrated, especially at the end of the first term when the principal said I would have to redo my model as it wasn’t good enough. Not that I was disagreeing with him; I just wasn’t bothered. The whole course was slapdash and disorganised and the building was a shambles. I learned hardly anything while I was there.
Some of the students augmented their living by being follow spot operators in the West End and the rumours came round that some West End theatres would not employ anyone from the college and by the end of the first term they all had said they wouldn’t. Whether true or not it was difficult to deal with.At the start of the second term I tried to talk to the principal about my concerns so I could hand in my notice if unresolved, not being the first to leave, but he kept postponing and eventually I just left, along with my newly unemployed fiance who had been fired for questioning the state of the college and no doubt for too much drinking.
I went there with an eight year old dream; not only had I found a career and vocation but also something that would show my independence to my parents, that would show them that I could make an independent decision and carry it through successfully. I walked out having lost all my confidence in my ability to do anything in the theatre. Apart from a tour with my partner straight after I did no more work in the theatre, and even abandoned going to see plays for the best part of twenty years after.
It’s only in the last few years that I’ve started going again, mainly because my children are old enough to. At first just walking into a theatre auditorium made me want to cry, bringing back all those unacknowledged feelings of loss, but I still went. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to take a role again though but at least I’m walking through the doors.
My love for the theatre is not something I talk about. I don’t want to have to explain it. My family never mentioned it. My college time has been expunged from my CV as potential employers asked me what that was all about and its lack of relevance to whatever I was applying for. With parental support I might have picked up the pieces and gone to a different college but as it was, shit college and what turned out to be shit husband pretty much did for me.
This post is dedicated to my good friend Themepark who is showing the courage I never had to at least try to follow his dreams.