Theatre Saved Me From Myself

It sounds like a crazy claim but I honestly believe it to be true and I think, until recently I’d forgotten how I got into theatre in the first place.

I do apologise this started as short blog post and has become something of a lengthy autobiographical account. A lot of it I’ve never really spoken about before and it has brought a lot of emotions back to the surface.

It wasn’t until something was re-ignited in me whilst listening to Jill Bennett’s (Theatre Royal Bath Engage Programme Co-ordinator) speech at our recent Breaking Boundaries Conference on the question “Is Amateur A Dirty Word?”

Jill rightly said that no, amateur isn’t a dirty word and shared stories of her childhood being involved in a theatre family.

I have no idea where my love of theatre came from. No-one else in my immediate family is particularly theatrical and my childhood memories of theatre are slightly traumatic. When I was quite young I was taken to the Merlin Theatre in Frome where we watched a production of the Wind In The Willows. The actor playing Toad had a full character head on. There was one scene where he was sat on a bed feeling sorry for himself and suddenly his head fell off. For a child, seeing a Toad’s head fall off and a panic-stricken man’s face appear and then quickly fumble and replace the head was not only terrifying but completely destroyed the fantasy world that until that point you had believed in. I remember sitting listening to the adults in the audience laughing and feeling deeply upset that something so horrific should be so funny. Suddenly, in that one swift moment the scenery faded away into the darkness and the characters became nothing more than people in silly costumes. From that moment on a sense of the magic was irretrievably lost, as was my interest in theatre. I didn’t want the reality, I wanted to continue believing in the characters that I thought were real.

The only other family ties with theatre I have found include a single photograph of my Nan dressed up as an ugly sister in her families annual Boxing Day performance of Cinderella. My great-great-great grandfather was a Shakespearian actor who toured the country with a group of travelling players and he later went on to marry a dancer. That is all I’ve been able to find out about them so far but perhaps somewhere in the distant past theatre did have a part in my family.

I always used to hate performing in front of people, I used to suffer from full on shaking stage fright to the point I felt physically sick. I think it goes back to being quite introverted but with extrovert tendencies. Once I was onstage I was fine.

It wasn’t until Secondary school that I realised the real benefits of “acting”. If you’ve read any of my previous posts you will know that school was not a happy time for me. I couldn’t handle the change going from a tiny village school to a large secondary school, not helped by the fact I’d fallen out with all of my friends at the time and felt isolated and alone in a completely alien environment. Kids can be mean and because I’d fallen out with my group of friends from the village it made it much harder to make friends with anyone else as you were seen as an outsider.

So I spent a good part of the first year at secondary school alone or hidden in the library out the way to avoid any hassle or the teasing that came with being an oddball. It was a very strange experience and led to me developing a fear of school and I was eventually diagnosed as school phobic. It got to the point where I refused to go and the education welfare services got involved and took me to court and placed me under an education supervision order.

It put my parents, particularly my mum under a lot of strain and stress to the point where she tried to physically drag me to school. On one occasion I ran off and hid in the woods near my house. The police were called and they eventually found me, bundled me into the back of the police car and escorted me up to school. We arrived bang in the middle of lunchtime. The school’s dinner hall had large glass windows which looked out on to the carpark out the front. The police car pulled up right outside the window and I was escorted into the school by the two police officers. Every single head in the dinner hall turned to look at me and I could feel their eyes following me as I did the slow walk of shame to the reception. I was mortified. If it wasn’t bad enough that I hated being in the place I was now paraded on show to the entire school. I was then forced to sit down and tell them why I didn’t want to be there and they figured that I was being bullied. I didn’t see it like that – I just saw it as I’d fallen out with my mates. I was escorted to my English lesson and made to sit there and await the rest of my tutor groups arrival. The class arrived and a lot of them had forgotten who I was but they all had seen me arriving in the police car. There were lots of whispers and gazes and I just sat there, head down, eyes bloodshot and red from crying and wishing the ground would open up and swallow me.

An action plan was put in place and I was eventually given a home tutor who was great and slowly but surely I got the confidence up to actually set foot on the school grounds again. It was a gradual process but there was a time when I couldn’t even step foot on the school grounds without turning into a shivering crying wreck, the fear of just being back in the place that made me so unhappy it was hideous.

Something had changed in this period. People’s attitudes towards me were different. In a strange way, and as traumatic as arriving in the police car had been it seemed to earn the respect of my peers. I was invited to join in things and soon I was in with the “cool” crowd. So I started playing up to the part. I was so desperate to be liked and not go back to the way things were before that I took on the role of this “bad boy” just to fit in. The image and the charade held up and I somehow maintained it for a number of years. Possibly one of my biggest regrets.

In switching sides I became what other people wanted me to be. I changed the way I acted, the way I spoke and the way I behaved just to fit in. I was soon in and out of lots of trouble – suspended several times and had lots of black marks against my name. I’d gone from troubled to just trouble. And still deep down I knew I wasn’t happy. We all started smoking pot heavily at this time as well and that made me even more paranoid and edgy than I was before. It heightened all the wrong emotions but at the time I didn’t see how destructive it was – we just thought we were cool.

On one occasion when I’d been given an after school detention I was taken off privately by one of the teachers who I guess could see through the character I was performing and knew that it wasn’t really me and didn’t want to see me carry on going down the road I was going down. You always get one teacher like that don’t you! He’s still at the school and still brilliant from what I gather. Anyway on this one time we went into the school hall and they were rigging lights for a school production, I believe it was a sixth form show. And I was asked to sit on the little manual lighting desk and push the faders up and down when asked. I started enjoying it. I had finally found something that I enjoyed doing – not as someone else but as me. I don’t know why I was drawn to it but I knew from that moment that I wanted to be involved with theatre.

I used the false confidence that my new character had found to get involved with as much theatre as I could. It was at that time that I auditioned for Bath Light Operatic Group who were staging a production of Oliver! and I joined them as a member of Fagin’s Gang and the Artful Dodger understudy. It was an amazing experience and it did completely change my life. For the first time in a long time I found that I was accepted for just being me and that was good enough for the members of the group. I no longer had to pretend (although I did, ironically want to be an actor). I found real confidence in myself for once and I took this from rehearsals into my school life. I decided that I wanted to take Drama and Music for GCSE (which came as a shock to everyone I think!).

The school was holding auditions for Little Shop of Horrors and I managed to secure the role of Audrey II the Plant. It was all going brilliantly until I went down ill with flu during the first week of rehearsals. The director didn’t want to take a chance on me (as my past record of attendance was far from great) so she cut me from the part and gave it to a supply teacher. Confidence once again back down to zero. This one event completely knocked me back after I had come so far and once again my attendance at school drifted. It wasn’t until one day, during lunch when I saw my science teacher playing with the lights and I went and started asking questions. I became interested again. And he got my out of lessons to help with the lighting of the show. I ended up operating the lighting during the performances of Little Shop of Horrors and my confidence slowly came back. Plus it proved a point to the English teacher director that I could be reliable and turn up for things. More than that though it proved a point to myself. I gave up on following acting, from then on I was only interested in technical theatre.

I applied to join Bath College on their technical BTEC and also at this time directed my first play at the age of 16 with the Bathford Players. Unbeknown to me one of the college lecturers who was on the interview panel was Katie from Bath Light Operatic Group. She had seen me during Oliver and remembered me. I got offered a place. I didn’t however get the grades. I didn’t care about school anymore at all. I knew what I wanted to do. Luckily Katie fought my corner and took a chance on me. They dropped the technical BTEC as only two of us applied to do it so instead I spent two years performing and joining in technical lessons with the second years on top.

The two years at the college transformed my life. The classes gave me confidence and a belief in myself. Sure I was never going to be the best actor there but I put all of my energy into that course and by the end of it I was a completely different person. I understood and learnt more about myself in the two years I was at the college than I had in my whole time at secondary school. Finally I felt it was okay just to be me. And it was the drama training and exploration of myself that the course allowed which enabled me to do that. I completely broke away from the group of friends I had established at school, stopped smoking dope and completely changed who I was or should I say became who I am now. I cannot say thank you enough to my college lecturers for believing in me and taking a chance on me, Katie, Matt, Laura, Paul, Yvonne, Helen and Deirdre – I don’t think you realise how much you actually changed my life – so thank you, thank you, thank you.

Anyone who says that drama should be seen as a “light subject” or that it should be cut is a complete ignorant idiot. The benefits of drama as a tool for self growth and even therapy cannot be understated. It’s more than just meeting up with a group of people and staging a play. It”s more than just acting. It’s about becoming part of a family, sharing experiences and creating deep friendships that last for years. It enables you to think for yourself and discover things about you that no other job can reveal. I can’t think of any other place I’d rather be and I can only imagine how things would have turned out if it hadn’t rescued me when it did.

Theatre did save me from myself and I will forever owe it a huge debt of gratitude.

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