A non-Disney true tale about it never being too late to follow your dreams, for whoever needs to hear it right now...
September marks the 10 year anniversary of starting my BA Hons Acting at Rose Bruford, so in honour of that, here’s much verbosity on not giving up your dreams, to whoever needs to hear it right now. Verbose, but not Disney, so hopefully also realistically reassuring.
I had two distinct dreams from as early as I can remember;
1) own a dog.
2) be an actor.
On 1) the dog.
Something so seemingly mundane to many of my friends, like having a family dog, to me was like landing on Mars. Dad would’ve had one but Mum ruled, and it was a definite “no” from her. So I waited. And I waited. And eventually in my early 30s, I felt secure enough to take on the responsibility of another living being with our family. Dream achieved.
On 2) the acting. Bit more complex :)
I think it started with a combination of things; wonderful TIE visiting my primary school and taking me somewhere I’d never been before (escapism for me in childhood was a lifesaver due to difficulties at home) and being off sick from school a lot meant spending a large portion of early childhood alone and filling my time with listening to audio stories (I practically know the Jungle Book, Swallows & Amazons and most of Beatrix Potter off by heart as these were the only 3 I had!), I was a demon reader at an early age for want of anything else to do, and when I was well enough to get out of bed I’d start making little plays (didn’t realise they were plays then) with supporting roles played by my teddies and cat (when it could be arsed).
But a career in the arts was not encouraged. I was not from a creative family. At all. And as an ordinary scholarship girl attending a highly academic school, I dug my heels in and effectively downed tools in all subjects except English, Drama and sometimes History. I scraped through GCSEs and A-Levels through the sheer coincidence of being present in class and just enough of the curriculum somehow osmosing into my brain! I was single-minded that I wanted to go to drama school, my parents wanted me to get a degree, and this would have made me the first ever Uni graduate in my family. I kicked back.
As an appeasement, they tolerated me doing some drama school auditions. I was only 17 and an absolute fish out of water. I had to fund them myself, as well as the travel there, so I ran out of steam pretty quickly. Though my (very) minor claim to fame was how ArtsEd did call me back, and at the Bristol Old Vic London auditions I’d very nearly accidentally found myself auditioning for Les Mis instead. The Old Vic audition was a disaster, so I probably should have stayed in the Les Mis waiting room.
I first had a place to do drama at Leicester, which I almost immediately dropped out of before taking up. I wanted a practical acting course. I took a year out and went through quite a rigorous application process to Liverpool Uni to do drama & media studies (the media bit was to pacify my parents again.) I quite liked this course because the audition process was very similar to a drama school audition process. I was already living in France by then, and whenever I go back to visit now, I regularly drive past and have a massive soft spot for the telephone box in Cagnes-Sur-Mer I was calling from when Dad read out the acceptance letter saying I had been one of 2000 applicants to be offered one of the limited number of places on the course.
And that’s when I self-sabotaged. As troubled teenagers do.
A year out in France and I had fallen in love with Mr Wrong, who said he wasn’t interested in a long-distance relationship, so I was either there with him and we would be together or forget it. Me of today would have told him to fuck off, but there we go, that’s 18 year olds for you. Instead I did the opposite, I decided to have a baby with him (as you do!) That September, I returned to England to tell my parents I was moving back to France permanently, having a baby with an illegal immigrant (ok, didn’t tell them about the illegal immigrant bit because the fallout was already *pretty* massive) and to drop out of my place at Liverpool. And in doing so, closed the door on my abiding love of theatre and storytelling.
In the intervening years I did practically nothing creative. Maybe wrote a bit. It was like I had turned down the photograph of a lost love I couldn’t get over and couldn’t face looking at. Just as people now say, “have you tried EastEnders?” they used to say, “Why don’t you do AmDram?” I’m not knocking AmDram, there are many amazing theatre companies out there but something deep in me, that I couldn’t properly articulate at the time, knew that I needed training, and without that I would be a very poor version of the actor I could have been. And that I wouldn’t be able to bear stomping about in Spanish Boots being a crap actor in AmDram, and so (counter-intuitive somewhat, I know,) I preferred not to touch it at all. And besides, by now I was a very young single mum and preoccupied by the daily slog of keeping a roof above our heads and food in the cupboards.
Skip forward 18 years. Hardship had made me work hard and I now had a lucrative career in a field I hated. I was married. Nice house. My son nearing the end of school. Then everything fell apart, beginning with my dad dying suddenly, moving on to my then husband being charged with serious fraud in Italy at the same time as the credit crunch and ending with me losing absolutely everything that was familiar, including my marriage, home and everything else you can possibly think of, including my mental health.
I had once asked my husband what he would regret if he died tomorrow. I remember he said, “us not having a daughter, how about you?” I replied with, “not going to drama school.”
So there I was. 2010.
By this time I had been massively over-staying my welcome (not that she ever made me feel like it) in a dear friend’s spare bedroom for 18 months. I’d briefly got a job as Head of Sales for an organisation to which I was wholly unsuited, and having been through everything I had been through in the last few years I was no longer prepared to compromise myself so I walked out. And for a few months I worked as a freelance communication skills trainer. I was still all oh so very corporate.
Still in the throes of our very painful, long and drawn out break-up, my ex threw at me, “why don’t you don’t just apply to drama school? You’ll never have any peace until you do.”
And it was like something clicked in me.
I quite literally had nothing to lose. And principally, I would finally be able to stop dining out on this fucking story about how I had always wanted to study acting. I think I took all of this into the audition room with me. Nothing to lose.
Finances were tight, so I booked 3 auditions through UCAS; Central, Rose Bruford and somewhere else (I forget where, and I never attended the audition). Central felt a little too much like my old school. A bit superior. And even though I threw myself into it 150%, I had a sneaking suspicion that me ‘being the colour yellow’ was more for the panel’s amusement than any particular assessment of my suitability for the course.
The campus at Rose Bruford felt different. More unassuming. More nuturing. More individualistic. A quiet prowess and self-confidence. I had found my home. (Hence not attending 3rd audition, risqué I know.)
Again I was a fish out of water; luckily I’ve always looked much younger than my years, so never physically looked particularly out of place but inwardly I was an ex-corporate (always despised it) woman who hadn’t set foot in an educational establishment or done anything particularly creative in nearly 20 years auditioning alongside hopefuls half my age nervously accompanied by their parents. But…nothing to lose, right?
I chose to do a piece from Educating Rita – the bit where Rita tells Frank why she missed his soirée and ready to quit completely she’d gone back to the pub to join her family and just ‘join in with the singing,’ until her mum turns to her and says, ‘why can’t we have a different song to sing?’ And Rita realises that’s what she’s trying to achieve, a different song to sing.
I just got tearful writing that. It meant so much to me then, and does still now. This entire post is prompted by a recent interview I heard with Willy Russell on Radio 4, amongst others, as part of a piece on women returning to education as adults.
At my recall, explaining my return to education I told the panel, “I am Rita.”
My singing audition was a horror – I hadn’t sung in again…years (lip-syncing at weddings and funerals doesn’t count, I found.) I chose Consider Yourself from Oliver (not even a woman’s part) but I didn’t know any other songs. I started off fine, doing cockney sparrow but the piano accompaniment threw me and I completely forgot the lyrics so I just grabbed my invisible braces under each thumb and strutted around the space singing “dah – da – de – dah” along to the music in a suitably cheeky cockney chappy manner until I could pick up the chorus again. I glanced over at the panel and they were pissing themselves laughing, and as well as wanting to die, I thought, oh well, at least I’d got some comedy out of it. And then I had to sit through all the other recallees doing perfect renditions of the great musicals haha.
Despite all of that, I somehow scraped through to the afternoon session and again tried my hardest, jumping over a chair and doing a cartwheel for the first time since I was…10, maybe? After that stage I wasn’t successful in securing a place.
But the flame had been re-ignited and it wasn’t going out this time.
I tracked down the then Head of Acting, Iain Reekie’s email address and sent him an email thanking him for the opportunity and telling him that Rose Bruford was definitely where I wanted to be, and so I would try again the following year. And then I tried to get on with my life.
A couple of months later I’m standing in Superdrug choosing a shampoo in the Whitgift Centre in Croydon and my phone buzzes. Shampoo in one hand, and my phone in the other I read an email from Rose Bruford admissions saying a place had become available and did I want it?
“Fucking hell!” I exclaim loudly, phone and shampoo still in hand.
“I know, expensive aren’t they?” An old guy standing next to me says, nodding at the Head & Shoulders.
But this is the bit where it’s definitely not a Disney post. Because that wasn’t the end of the journey, in fact, it was only just the beginning.
For fear the college would think me a complete fuck-up and not give me a place, I had never divulged to anybody the enormous trauma I’d been through in the preceding years. The process of working on yourself as an actor is in allowing yourself to develop emotional freedom, to be vulnerable, to be truthful, to ‘invent nothing and to deny nothing’. And I was the opposite. Like bad hair dye, I had built up years and years of protective and defensive layers just to be able to cope, and it didn’t feel like a safe space amongst a class of people with far less life experience than me (as much as I loved them all) to allow myself that vulnerability.
The result was, in first year I was just dire. It’s okay, we can say that, I was. Mix that in with undiagnosed depression, imposter complex and you get awful demonstrating, ham acting with chronic, chronic stage fright. Iain later informed me that I was nearly asked not to come back in 2nd year. Thank god he only told me that after.
The students got used to me being older than them pretty quickly, and I never felt out of the loop. A couple of the tutors didn’t get it and me, and that was obvious. I always felt like they thought I was just someone who’d woken up one day and gone, “I know I’ll be an actor” and that I was wasting a place that could’ve gone to someone more deserving. Maybe I was. And my disastrous 1st year understandably only served to reinforce that impression. Then there were other tutors who were a bit weirded out by having someone of their own age group in the class. Several drinks in, at the summer ball, one tutor said to me, “I feel so exposed when you’re in my class because we’re the same age.”
“Oh do fuck off!” I shouted back over the music and we were brilliant from that moment onwards. And I completely appreciated their honesty.
And as this isn’t a Disney story, I didn’t return to second year and become the next Olivia Colman, Emily Watson, Julie Walters (though I still dream of being) or the greatest actress they had ever had. Far from it. But I did return with a new hair cut, my severe depression finally under control with antidepressants, and something to say to the world.
I have never had a glittering career; the industry isn’t quite sure what to do with (a female, particularly) actor entering at my age and without the extensive CV you would expect. It hasn’t helped that I don’t look my age – too old to play the daughter, too young-looking to play the matriarch, not an obvious type-cast, and I came into the industry with few contacts and no money.
BUT. I’m not giving up because I still have something to say to the world. This is who I am and I am absolutely where I should be at last. I am a million times better actor today than I was 10 years ago, and still a million times away from the one I want to be. I try to keep myself busy with little projects, and I try to stretch myself; I’ve written a two-hander, a solo piece and I’ve performed stand-up comedy. I’m currently researching for a solo piece I’m thinking of writing, bit of an experiment as it would be verbatim theatre, so the words of a relatively significant male from modern history, played by a woman… (Have a look at LATEST NEWS on my website to see what I've been up to during lock down.)
I keep practising emotional freedom, truthfulness and vulnerability every day and interestingly, what was my Achilles heel back then, ‘demonstrating’ rather than ‘being’, has kind of become my strength. But I do just need a casting director or two to see that :)
But as an old Sales Director I used to work for would say, ‘you’ve got to be in it to win it’. So here’s to my 10 year anniversary, to dreams, to following them, and to not having a particularly Disney-like end to the story because that doesn’t matter because it is NEVER too late. (okay, that got a teency bit Disney just at the very end there.)
Hope that helps someone out there xx