Theatre – Week 19 of the 52 week short story challenge

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I may have a long standing reputation as a drama queen.

As a child I was rather good at flouncing; at throwing up when cross or crossed, and at storming out of classrooms when peeved by a teacher. My second and third years at primary school were spent sitting on the swings in the playground, singing to myself.

My big brother called me Sarah Bernhardt. I went to my Mother for an explanation. She said it was a compliment and to be grateful that he didn’t call me Sarah Heartburn. It took a few years and many books before I understood that insult.

In my fourth year I met my match. Mr Williams was a legend. He was stern; he used an old plimsoll on naughty boys, he reduced naughty girls to tears, he loved music, drama, poetry and he was determined to sort me out.

I think I threw one wobbler in that year and it was very quickly nipped in the bud by Mr Williams steely glare.

He cast me as the Artful Dodger in Oliver. I had a top hat and built my part up until it almost eclipsed Oliver himself (cast because he was a sweet looking waif with blonde locks but couldn’t sing for toffee).

I was a hit; Mr Williams was over the moon, the caretaker told my Father that I was ‘a card’ (I had to get a parental explanation for that one too but I felt that it was complimentary).

Our next production was a dance drama about Hell – guess who played the devil! There were hosts of tormented souls writhing rhythmically in leotards and me – clad in pink cord jeans, a black shirt and a fetching pink cord cap with devil’s horns (made by my Mum). It was received so well that we were invited to perform it at a competition held at the local teacher training college – run by nuns and attended by naive young ladies from the Channel Islands. Some of the mothers were a little unsure about how the nuns would take it.

We were supposed to be on first due to our tender years – everyone else was eighteen years and over – but there was a mix up with the time our coach was supposed to arrive and we got there in time to be the last – and apparently most classy – act.

It was my primary school swansong. Mr Williams went off to be a deputy head teacher at another school. I nagged my parents into letting me attend a private school with two of my friends.

It was not a success. The long bus journeys made me throw up on arrival at school every day. At my previous school I had been considered ‘snobby’ because my Mum would not let us speak in the idiom of the estate – ‘I goes to ‘im and ‘e goes to me’. Glottal stops abounded at our school. At my new school however, I was considered to be ‘common’ because I lived on a council estate and wasn’t driven to school by my parents or the au pair – the what?

Half a term later and an interview with the school head, who told my mother that I spent most of my school days crying, being sick and drawing pictures.

Private education was not for me and I returned to the safety of the local education system but to a different primary school as it was felt that returning to my old school without Mr Williams to guide me, would be a bad idea.

Not quite as bad an idea as attending a school where the headmistress and I took an instant dislike to each other. Where Mr Williams had brought out the best in me – she brought out the worst. I came very close to being expelled for my insolence and lack of respect. My Mum hadn’t helped by insisting to all her children that respect had to be earned.

A change in family circumstances meant that we relocated to other side of town and I started at a senior school – for girls. No boys at all. Just girls.

Due to a mix up in education records, I was put in the remedial class in Green or bottom band; Green, Turquoise, Emerald and Emerald (R)emedial. For three days I had a lovely time drawing pictures for my classmates and helping them colour in. Boredom set it then and I complained to my Mum.

Another head teacher’s office interview and the sneering, balloon-like head teacher who said that ‘all mummies think their gals have been put in the wrong class’. A quick call to my previous school and I was promoted to the Red band – not just the top band but the top class of the top band. Colouring became a thing of the past. I maintained my hatred for the head teacher however, and had fantasies about jumping up onto the stage during assembly and pushing her off – just to see if she really would bounce down the aisle. I controlled the impulse however, but did have a book running on which of the usual suspects would faint or throw up during assembly.

Established drama went out the window during my senior school days, and with it a possible career in singing after the miserable music mistress told me that I shouldn’t bother auditioning for the choir.

I concentrated on being a rebel without a reason and a dead loss at games – except for hockey where I was a whizz at the bully-off. My school uniform had reached total anarchy level by the time I was fifteen.

In my final year the games mistress suggested that I should take the opportunity to attend drama lessons at the local Tech College. This meant no more games, no more black nylon leotards and faded red wraparound gym skirts. No more inept tennis, netball or rounders lessons. No more miserable trudging round the 440 yard running track. Thursday lunchtime saw me on a bus to town and a brave new world.

Andrea Morris saved me. She saw something in me that Mr Williams had seen. Andrea encouraged me and instilled a lifelong love of the theatre and of Shakespeare. I lived for my Thursday afternoons and the more adult atmosphere of the Tech College, where I got to rub shoulders with gas fitters, bricklayers and very worldly ‘A’ level students.

Needless to say, the plans for me to attend Girls Grammar College to take my ‘A’ levels were abandoned and I became a full-time (ish) student at the Tech the following September. Signed up to study Drama and Theatre Studies (‘O’ and ‘A’ level), and English Literature and Sociology ‘A’ levels.

Sociology got bumped in favour of Art  ‘A’ level which also prevented me doing any more ‘games’ as Art was considered to be aesthetic rather than academic and took place from 1300 hours to 1800 hours on Wednesday afternoons – when we were supposed to be doing circuit training in the college gym.

I went on to drama school  after the Tech – to Andrea’s old drama school in Birmingham – and the drama queen became an assistant stage manager on every production I could wheedle my way into. I loved doing the lights, building sets, making props and finding things from obscure sources. I did a bit of acting too and some spectacularly bad dancing.

The unemployment rate for female assistant stage managers who couldn’t drive, didn’t have a family connection and weren’t prepared to have sex with an ‘important’ person to get a job and an Equity card, were about 98% at the time I left drama school.

So I worked behind a bar and when that ended catastrophically, I became a social worker.

“All the world’s a stage”

BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

(from As You Like It, spoken by Jaques)

All the world’s a stage, 
And all the men and women merely players; 
They have their exits and their entrances; 
And one man in his time plays many parts, 
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant, 
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms; 
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel 
And shining morning face, creeping like snail 
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion;
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

18-3

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Performance – The Cradle Song 1977 – Week 15 of the 52 week short story challenge

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The scene is set.

An elegant Regency-style room with huge shuttered windows that looks out onto terraced lawns and rhododendron bushes.

A group of first-year drama students, mainly female, seated in incongruously modern plastic chairs in a semi-circle clutching small books with soft blue paper covers. The door opens  and all heads turn to see the vision that is their director. In turn, he peers at them over his half-moon spectacles, adjusts his cravat and perches on the edge of the table placed in front of the group.

‘Well,’ he says, his eagle-like glare sweeping the room. ‘ You seem like a pretty mixed bunch. I see that you all have a copy of the play you are going to perform at the end of term. Your performance will take place in this room in front of the rest of the students and the other directors. We don’t let you loose in the theatre yet unless we are desperate for extras in our crowd scenes. I have a list of your names here and as I know nothing else about you, I would like you to read some of the script as indicated. For those who may not have come across this obscure little play by an equally obscure little Spanish author, it has not been chosen for its merit but because the majority of parts are female, we have a good stock of habits in wardrobe and I personally prefer it to ‘The House of Bernarda Alba’ by Lorca which is the other old warhorse that gets trotted out periodically when we have a glut of female students.’

He pauses for effect and scans his audience. Blank faces. A tough crowd. He sighs and fans his face with a copy of the script.

‘In  a nutshell; a baby girl gets dumped at a convent and is adopted by the local doctor and brought up by the nuns. Sister Joanna forms an unhealthy attachment for the girl now named Teresa. Not surprisingly, Teresa grows up with a desire to leave the convent and is swept off her feet by the charming Antonio. We jump over the years to the day that she turns 18 and goes off to be married. There are four male parts so one of you boys will be the stage manager. I am not looking for impeccable diction or RSC-level acting at this stage. If you have a  regional or cultural accent  do please try to overcome it so that I can understand you.  We will start at this end.’

The read through begins.

THE CRADLE SONG

GREGORIO MARTINEZ SIERRA

 CHARACTERS

Sister Joanna of the Cross, 18 years of age.

Teresa, aged 18.

The Prioress, aged 40.

The Vicaress, aged 40.

The Mistress of Novices, aged 36.

Sister Marcella, aged 19.

Sister Maria Jesus, aged 19.

Sister Sagrario, aged 18.

Sister Inez, aged 50.

Sister Tornera, aged 30.

The Doctor, aged 60.

Antonio, aged 25.

The Poet.

A Countryman.

Also a Lay Sister, Two Monitors and several other Nuns, as desired.

 Most of the students have already checked the cast list and skim-read the script to see which parts are the best. With one eye on the passage they have been asked to read and the other on their director, their progress is interrupted regularly by the director telling them to skip certain parts and pass on to a designated page with more interesting dialogue. The director’s pen scribbles next to the names on his list and the students try to work out from his reaction, whether they have done well or badly.

Some people are asked to read another section and those who aren’t feel unsure as to whether this is because of their poor performance or because the person being asked to read again has messed up the first time.

The director’s expressions are impossible to analyse; not because he is inscrutable but because his face contorts through the whole range of manufactured emotions as he scribbles on his list.

At last the torture is at an end. The director gets up and walks round the table in order to sit behind it on the rather grand carved wooden throne already placed there. He steeples his fingers, elbows leaning on the table and his list in front of him, peering over his spectacles as his eyes move from one end of the semi-circle to the other. He is a master at drawing out the suspense.

‘Boys! Stand up and sit down once you are cast. You – tall lad with blond hair – you have an unfortunate glottal stop so you will be the stage manager. Small Scottish person – your accent is virtually unintelligible so you can be the Countryman; he doesn’t have much to say and none of it is important anyway. Pretty boy in the blue shirt – you will be our Antonio but you will have to be a bit more butch dear, an 18 year girl needs to fall in love with you. Older chap with the designer stubble – grow a beard and you will be a passable Doctor if we grey you up a bit and add some lines. Last man standing – you will be our Poet and you have some lovely lines to deliver so let’s see if we can do something to iron out your Brummie accent.’

The last of the boys sits down. The female students stand up.

‘Okay girls. I am glad to see that you are not all innocent 18 year olds. Take no notice of the ages of the characters on the cast list, the only one who has to look young is Teresa. She ages from a baby to a teenager. Don’t worry, we have a swaddled baby doll for the start of the play. We don’t let students play with real babies. Now, you with the short brown hair. You look about 12 so you will be Teresa. Try to stay looking sweet and innocent dear however many debauched parties you attend. Older woman at the end – you are my Prioress. Girl with the gold-rimmed specs – you look as if you could be a bit severe so you are the Vicaress – keep the specs on. Chubby girl from Yorkshire – Mistress of Novices. Girl next to you with the dramatically crossed legs – Sister Joanna – I have a feeling that you can rise to the challenge of emoting to order. Those left standing – there are five sisters with strange Spanish names left and Senor Sierra gives us some latitude to add nuns and lay sisters as desired so all seven of you will wear a habit and have very little to say. Everybody happy? Probably not but I am not in the business of making students happy. It doesn’t happen in the real theatre so you’d better start learning how to cope with disappointment now. Class over, I need a lie down. Go out in the garden and start learning your lines.’

He sweeps out of the room as swiftly as he had swept in.

The students who have sizeable roles try not to look too smug. The seven sisters and the stage manager do their best not to look too upset.

As the performance date approaches; lines are learned, those who had slushy diction are given extra speech exercises and stage make-up classes focus on the unsubtle art of aging. The director in charge of the wardrobe department kits the students out in their white habits and wimples, with suitably rustic outfits for the Doctor, Antonio and the Countryman. The Poet preens in his dinner suit and dicky bow.

Rehearsals are an education. The Prioress has no problem with being serenely in charge, the Mistress of Novices clucks her way around the spare nuns and Sister Joanna over-acts to her heart’s content, often leaving poor Teresa bruised from her enthusiastic embraces. The girl in the gold-rimmed spectacles delivers the lines of the Vicaress sternly –  as directed.

The director asks Joanna to rein it in a bit.

He stands in front of the Vicaress as she delivers her closing speech. He frowns.

‘TOO unemotional dearie. Could you manage to squeeze out the teeniest tear for me during that last speech? You could borrow some from Joanna, she has them in spades.’

‘I’ll do it for the performance.’ says the girl with the gold-rimmed spectacles.

The director looks dubious.

‘I’ve heard that before and I’ve witnessed many a failure. I’ll believe it when I see it but the whole play hinges on that tear.’

No pressure then.

On the day of the performance the Regency Room is packed.

Watching from the room next door, the students try to quell their butterflies. Joanna delivers very audible deep-breathing and speech exercises that make everyone else feel a bit inadequate.  The girl in the gold-rimmed glasses wishes that she could have done her part without spectacles so that she didn’t have to see the audience.

It doesn’t go too badly in the end. Everyone plays their part and Joanna emotes and acts everyone else off the stage until the closing moments.

[All make ready to go out sadly. The Vicaress sensing the situation, to her mind demoralizing, feels it to be her duty to provide a remedy. She, too, is greatly moved, but making a supreme effort to control herself’.]

VICARESS. One moment. I have observed of late . . . that some … in the prayer . . . have not been marking sufficiently the pauses in the middle of the lines, while on the other hand, they drag out the last words interminably. Be careful of this, for your Reverences know that the beauty of the office lies in rightly marking the pauses, and in avoiding undue emphasis on the end of the phrase. Let us go there.

[The Nuns file out slowly. Sister Joanna of the Cross unnoticed, remains alone. With a cry, she falls upon her knees beside an empty chair.]

 The girl in the gold-rimmed spectacles pulls it off. She delivers her last speech, stony-faced with one single tear rolling slowly down her cheek. Controlled emotion in no way diminished by the fact that Joanna is having hysterics over the empty chair vacated by Teresa.

Make-up and habits are left in the dressing rooms as the cast return to have coffee and biscuits with their audience. Joanna remains in the dressing room trying to control her emotions and cover up her red-rimmed eyes. When no one comes looking for her she sidles into the room and picks up a cup of cold coffee. One of the directors tells her that she looked like a bent banana and that she needs to learn more self-control in future.

The director of the play gives a brief but approving pat to the shoulder of the girl with the gold-rimmed spectacles.  Another director, who is also the deputy principal of the college, smiles at the girl and congratulates her.

‘I’ve seen that play so many times over the years but no one else managed to produce that tear so effectively. You did well.’

It is a lesson learned.

Don’t be deterred by people who tell you that you can’t achieve something when you believe that you can.

MNY32121

That London – Week 5 of the 52 week short story challenge

 

 

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When my parents split up, there were just over six weeks before the end of the summer term. During that time I was catching two buses to get from one side of the town to the other. This came to an end when I got run over by a green station wagon at a busy crossroads in the middle of the main shopping area. It wasn’t a terrible accident. The car was slowing down at traffic lights, I sustained a grazed knee, cut my ankle and found myself sitting in a daze on a traffic warden’s gabardine mac, holding up traffic while an ambulance was called. I can still remember the smell of the coat and the confusion of crossing the road one moment and being flung up and out into the middle of the crossroads.  I would probably have been patched up at A&E and sent over to my mother – who was working on the hospital switchboard – but the kindly traffic warden insisted on picking me up and putting me in the ambulance. He bumped my head on the roof and concussion was added to my hitherto minor injuries.

It was enough to make my mother move me to a junior school closer to my Auntie Dee’s  and although I had the sporadic protection of my three male cousins, it was hard trying to make friends, especially as the accident had left me so frightened of crossing roads that I didn’t play out much. The other problem I encountered was that my fellow pupils had trouble getting to grips with my name: Cheryl, Shirley, Cherie were just a few of the variations. In desperation I announced that my name was Fred, and it stuck, much to my mother’s horror.

‘Why Fred?’ She said. ‘Any name would have done, but Fred!’ I shrugged, thinking that people would forget it by the time I moved up to secondary school in September. They didn’t. It stuck. It probably endured because in an all-girl school, our little clique consisted of Lee, Jo, George and me, Fred. Even the teachers – the more civilised teachers – called me Fred. The sub-human teachers – especially the hag who pretended to teach geography – treated me with the disdain reserved for anyone out of the ordinary.

Fred was not the good little girl I had been at junior school. Fred was an embryo rebel who lived in a bedsit with her mother and who had waved goodbye to a normal family life. She drank barley wine and hung around the student union bar on Friday nights when most of her peers were at youth clubs.

Within our group, it was George that was my best friend. She lived in the ground floor of an elegant detached house split into two flats. Her dad – also called Fred – was an aging hippy married to a much younger woman. George and her two older brothers treated their bewildered stepmother with a rudeness that the poor woman had done nothing to deserve. Their own mother had done a flit many years before, so she wasn’t to blame for the splitting up of their ‘happy’ home.

From all accounts George’s mother had been at the centre of the London party scene when George’s father met and married her. She knew rock stars and actors and after reluctantly bearing three children, had returned to her roots leaving confusion in her wake. George and I were thirteen when we went to stay with her in London for a very long weekend. We were so excited.  ‘That London’ was a place of magic and mystery; a place you went to on heavily supervised school trips to see exhibitions at the V&A, or the much vaunted Tutankhamun exhibition. I went to that one, I queued for hours, I brought home a paper carrier with King Tut’s death mask on it and not much else. I was older and more cynical by that time.

Our trip to London started well. We were met at Waterloo station by George’s mum. She presented us with make-up boxes from Harrods and took us out to dinner at a chic Italian restaurant round the corner from the three-storey Chelsea mews that she was looking after for friends. Until that moment, spaghetti bolognaise was something that Crosse & Blackwell did and it came in a small or a large tin. I may have turned my uneducated nose up a bit at the authentic Italian version. Okay I did but so did George. Her mum plied us both with red wine and thought it amusing when we got a bit squiffy. She was not quite so amused when we both threw up later that night. We had to clear it up ourselves though. She was far too gone and shut herself into her bedroom to avoid  the heavings and the smell.

She took us to Biba the next day and I spent 75 pence on a black scoop necked tee-shirt with yellow and black striped sleeves. The only Biba item I ever owned and I kept for years afterwards  even though it made me look like a bumble bee. That afternoon we went to the Odeon cinema in Leicester Square, saw ‘What’s Up Doc’ and gorged ourselves silly and hyper on unsuitable snacks. More upchucking ensued after a bumpy taxi ride home.

By Sunday we had spent nearly all of George’s mum’s limited funds and relations were rather frosty when we failed to show sufficient appreciation at being taken to the jousting at the Tower of London before being put on the train to come home. I was in disgrace because I had wanted to wear my favorite purple needlecord jean jacket. She said it was common  so I had to swelter in my shiny black PVC mac – with stick on cherries. Parting was not sweet sorrow. We were ungrateful brats and hell would freeze over before she ever invited her daughter – and her daughter’s equally obnoxious friend – to stay.

I think that our joint upchucking and hangovers after all the red wine had set the seal on our stay. George’s mother didn’t have a maternal bone in her body and we stopped being amusing when we started making a mess. We stood in the corridor of the train and sang King Crimson songs all the way home. Our fellow passengers weren’t exactly enthralled by two scrawny teenagers warbling ‘21st Century Schizoid Man’ and scowling at anyone who came out of the carriage to use the toilet.

Being only 40 minutes away by train, London was accessible to us, and became even more so as I moved into my mid-teens. I nearly had a very exciting meeting with a famous person. I was doing a project on Edward Gordon Craig – actor, director and scenic designer – as part of my ‘A’ level drama and theatre arts. I came across an advert in The Stage regarding research into the actress Ellen Terry – Craig’s mother. I wrote off to the box number and was delighted – not only to get a reply but an invitation to meet up at the V & A.  My mother had visions of me being kidnapped, raped or worse by some wicked theatrical type and so I wasn’t allowed to take up the invitation. Poor Nigel Hawthorne – I think I would have been safe with him somehow.

I became more blase about going up to London; shopping trips to Oxford Street, live music at the Hammersmith Odeon, the occasional matinee. It was a place to pass through en route to somewhere else when I was at college in Birmingham but never a place to actually live.

When our youngest was four we planned a mega trip to that London; he and his brother thought we were just going to visit Daddy’s airport and were gobsmacked when we climbed aboard a Luton-bound Easyjet. A train to central London, the underground and a sight-seeing trip on a double decker bus. The boys loved it – especially when we arrived at the Science Museum. We were going to take a trip on the Thames but time ran away from us.

I had always been quite chilled on my previous visits to the capital, but with two small and inquisitive boys in tow, my maternal instincts had me seeing perils round every corner. A fear of pickpockets and muggers outshone that wonderful Tube station scent that I knew so well. We survived it though and my baby boy announced that it was his best birthday ever.

Our most recent trip to that London was in the year of the Olympics. We were given free tickets to go on the London Eye and as we were spending a week down South to see family, we took the opportunity to travel up by train.  Our eldest son was away at Uni but being the intrepid train traveller that he is, he planned our journey and acquired the tickets for the trip.

I was less fearful on this trip. I like being on trains and so does my husband. My six foot baby boy was less enamoured – especially with the people who used their phones on the quiet carriages. The London Eye was wonderful and the boat trip that was part of the package enabled us to catch up on the experience we had missed out on years before. My baby boy liked London – but only if there weren’t any people in it. They spoiled.

That was my London. I’ve no desire to go back. Liverpool and Manchester are sufficient for me now.