It's always weird finding things you have assumed have long gone. My folks are moving and therefore lots of my old stuff, gathered over years at their house, is seeing the light of day. Two things in particular have emerged from the depths - and heights - of the loft and prompted nostalgic smiles today - and I feel moved to share both of them. Below is a picture of the first - some old theatrical make-up powder and crepe hair given to me by my maternal grandfather many years ago.
He was a keen amateur performer and during his time in the RAF helped to organise and produce lots of plays all over the world, wherever the family were stationed. When I told him that I wanted to be an actor I think he must have sensed my seriousness, for he gave me these precious momentos of his own performances, along with some sticks of 5 and 9, his greasepaints. (There's a brief history of theatrical makeup here, along with a photo of Ludwig Leichner looking both amused and rather dashing.) I'm tempted to try the rose blending powder on Ada Campe - it totally fits within her imaginary world, and seems a shame not to use the product if it's still usable. I love the theatrical accoutrements of disguise and of character... elderly books on how to make up, production photos from the mid twentieth century that show actors dramatically made up, and the possibility of transformation, physical and metaphorical, that the theatre allows.
There are always stories about why or when someone wanted to be a performer - I wrote a moment for Ada Campe for her recent Edinburgh show that was sort of based on one of mine. It happened at a pantomime, I think at the Harlequin Theatre in Redhill although I can't be sure. I don't have the exact details re dates and, unusually for me, do not want to research it - preferring instead the memory, remembered and re-remembered. So let's say I was perhaps 7ish years old...
The pantomime was Cinderella. I remember enjoying the broad comedy, the silliness, the costumes and the sense of excitement. I also remember how beautiful Cinderella looked from my vantage point in the auditorium. When they called for a child volunteer to come on stage for some business my hand shot up and I was chosen. I have a vivid picture of standing on the stage, downstage right, and looking at the performers on my left. Their faces were heavily made up - of course the ugly sisters must have been - but my strongest memory is of the actress playing Cinderella. She wasn't impossibly beautiful - she had strong stage make up on that emphasised her eyes and lips, contoured her face and made her into 'Cinderella'. I was utterly thrilled by being given access to this intimate view - it felt like only I and the other performers knew that she was 'ordinary' and a real person, a performer, but the rest of the audience saw only the flawless 'Cinderella' in all her constructed glory. This made a huge impression on me - the stage was a secret world where one could pretend to be other than oneself, to escape one's own face and story and create a new one in collaboration with everyone else on and back stage - and for and with the audience. I disliked my face and colouring intensely as a child and longed to look different. This experience filled me with a sense of optimism! I wrote to the theatre after the show, asking for a photo of the actress playing Cinderella so I could have it to remember the moment and to have hope that one day I might be able to transform myself. That photo has presumably long gone... although all the boxes from the loft have yet to be thoroughly explored... but it doesn't matter. The memory of the experience and more pertinently of the feelings it prompted remain incredibly clear and very moving. I'm also still a huge fan of pantomimes!
Below is the object at the heart of my second story about wanting to be an actor - and it's also about appearing as something other that what you are not. I had no idea this script was still anywhere in my possessions and am totally chuffed to have found it. It's from a performance at the end of a drama summer school at the Thorndike Theatre, Leatherhead. I used to go every year and loved it... little did I know then that Sybil Thorndike was a member of the Actresses' Franchise League! Guessing at my age for this memory I'm going to go with definitely ten or under. I played the narrator for the final show - something that was scary but felt very special. Here's the first page of the script... and I can still sing the whole song.
The chance to be narrator was great - I had individual sessions with the actors running the drama summer school about how to come on stage, how to stand and how to say the lines. I loved it. My main memory of the experience is of the lines below - written in my own hand so clearly an addition to the script. It was a dig at Margaret Thatcher:
I didn't really understand the 'sent by the lady herself' bit, but was coached in how to say it by the director. I mimicked him exactly - and so clearly remember that during the one performance we gave I got a laugh on that line. It felt fantastic! Like the previous experience at Cinderella, the artifice that had created that laugh thrilled me. I could make people think I was funny, learn to present myself on stage as knowing, and feel an exciting and rather dangerous moment that consisted of totally connecting with the audience and utterly pulling the wool over their eyes at the same time!
In hindsight, I suppose it's sort of sad that both these incredibly important experiences were about escaping the realities of myself by being on stage - but it didn't feel that way at the time. As a professional actor, much of the work I've done has been about being visible as oneself but suggesting transformation or actively inviting the audience to play within imaginative contexts - for my first professional job as an angel in Deborah Warner's The Tower Project for LIFT99 I was only myself and yet not only myself, part of a silent ensemble of angels that meant something different for each member of the audience. Part of growing up as a person and as a performer is recognising what you uniquely have to play with and to offer, and learning to use that to your best advantage. When I understudied for the Vagina Monologues UK tour I had to learn and perform all the parts, many of which are not my 'casting', and find a way to plausibly inhabit those stories and characters so that even though I might have looked 'wrong', the audience could be taken into the heart of the monologue and feel like the character was speaking to them directly. It was a challenge and a total pleasure - and I was lucky enough to make it on for all the roles over the course of the tour.
Now, of course, I make up heavily and dress up as Ada Campe and love taking on that character and allowing her to play with the audience. I couldn't be more delighted that people rarely recognise me after a performance - that feeling of connection and escape and possibility is still incredibly precious.
I'll never find out who they are but I'd love to thank the actors in that panto and the actors who ran those drama summer schools at the Thorndike Theatre for inspiring a very small girl - and my grandfather for his generous and personal gift.
I also found a bottle of champagne in a forgotten suitcase... time to crack that open now I think!
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research