At five or six months I was beginning to think about how I was going to get back on my feet as an actress. I was still with my agent and happy to audition for parts. I found a childminder in the area, a recommendation, who was happy to have Number One Son two days a week and possilbly be a bit flexible and a nice actress/Nanny who was happy to babysit for us. I was up for carrying on.
Also, I needed a job. I was on maternity leave. Er, leave from what exactly? I reapplied to my old temping agency and was offered a one day a week job in a school in East London for six months which I took gratefully and was open for other work but I wanted to see whether I could get an acting job again. How would it work? I had no idea.
The phone rang. It was my agent. I was getting on a bus with a buggy in Crouch End.
'Hello?' Phone pressed to my ear, buggy in the other hand..
'Hello sweetie.'. It's Lasaaaaane. I have a casting for you.'
'Great. What is it?'
'It's for Hollyoaks. Tomorrow. Part of.........a mother. Oh and it's in Liverpool'.
'Yes. Buy your own ticket dahling. They will reimburse you with cash when you get there.'
'Right. Okay. Great. Okay.' My voice was flat.
'Is this fine. I mean I know you have a baaaaby and everything......' she tailed off, the thinly veiled disgust evident in her voice that I had dared to (whisper) pro-create.
Great. I looked at my phone clock. It was five-thirty pm and I had to arrange childcare for tomorrow. It was not a designated childcare day. My childminder would be finishing for the day and might not have space for tomorrow. Jonny was working at the drama school he taught at and I had to get to Liverpool, audition, and get back in time to collect Number One Son. Piece of cake.
I phoned our no nonsense Northern childminder of a certain age.
'Liverpool?' She said. 'Okay. What time will you be here?........eight o'clock. What time will you be collecting him? Six o'clock? Better be here then. That's when I finish. On the dot.'.
'Okay. Brilliant! Lovely. Great. See you then. Thank you so much.'
I put the phone down and the MOTHER GUILT kicked in. Hard. I was going to leave my baby boy for ten hours while I galavanted up to Liverpool to audition for a part which would mean my whole family relocating up North but which let's face it I probably wouldn't get anyway.
As I paid for a taxi to take me on to the Hollyoaks set and waited with the other 'mothers of teenage children' I had the feeling I was not going to get the job.
I didn't get the job.
I didn't get any of the jobs I went for in between breast feeding, night waking, buggy walking, baby music and battling post natal depression. Until, a weird thing happened in the summer after Number One Son was born.
I was playing in the park next to our flat when a couple of strange messages flashed up on the email on my phone.
'YOU COULD BE FILMING NOW!' They said. It looked like spam. I deleted it. My phone had been on silent but there was a message from Lasaaaaane.
'Phone me. It is urgent.'
I phoned. It was lunch time. No-one answered. It was a wonderful summer day and I pushed Number One Son along in the park the sun beating down on my back sipping a coffee. It was an idyllic scene in the park. Children playing, people sunbathing, the paddling pool full. I turned the buggy into our garden round the back of the park and spread out a blanket for Number One son to play on.
Two o'clock came. I phoned my agent.
'DIDN'T YOU GET MY MESSAGES???'
'Um...no. I thought....anyway. What is it?'
'You have been offered East Enders. From that audition you did.'
'But I didn't get that one.'
'Yes but now they are asking for you. You need to get to Elstree now.'
'I....Oh. Well okay. Look, I just have to sort out a babysitter. I'll get back to you.'
O-Mi-God. I phoned my Dad.
'Hi. I'm sorry I can't take you call right now but I'll get back to you as soon as I can.'
Oh yes he was teaching singing today.
My sisters were at work.
Okay. Let's see. Jonny was in a play at the King's Head afternoon and evening. My childminder was.....holy smoke ON HOLIDAY THIS WEEK! I started to panic. Who was going to have Number One Son?
With heavy heart I phoned my agent.
I couldn't make it.
I couldn't find the childcare.
At that moment I realised that my life had changed totally and irrevocably. Suddenly I had a reason more important than someone else's whim and I was more important to this person than I would ever be to a casting director who needed a last minute replacement for a bit part.
Onwards and upwards! Always good to be unavailable anyway. Creates an air of mystery. Number One Son burped in happy agreement.
Friday, 28 August 2015
We moved to Crouch End or 'creche end'. Or 'couch end' as they call it due to the disproportionate number of children and therapists in the area. Well, I was in therapy and had a child so I was right in there. Jonny had always said previously that 'crouch end was where actors went to die'. Ah well.. I could think of worse places.
We bought our two bedroom flat for £230,000 after a particularly fierce property related row in the car (an old green Skoda that my husband had bought on ebay) during which the phone rang and an agent said that our offer of five months earlier had finally been accepted. We also had an offer accepted on a house in Walthamstow village in the same weekend. Both places were a wreck and needed complete renovation. We opted for the flat since the area was so fantastic and I had been slightly put off Walthamstow after a murder sign appeared in the church yard on the day of the viewing. London is London and I loved my old Walthamstow flat but somehow this did not see to be an auspicious sign. (Now I could smack myself in the face. It's worth a bloody fortune!)
We had £20,000 to do up the flat and this had to happen fast as we had moved out of Islington and were camping in Jonny's sister's flat in Manor House while she was away. I was in agony and had had to give up work a few months previously due to hideous degenerating fibroids that I had not known about pre-pregnancy.
When people tell you to limit your intake of this and that in pregnancy please think of me and my pethidine, morphine, codeine intake for pain relief and do not stress yourselves unduly about the pate that you ate by mistake.
Number One Son is, however, perfect. All was definitely well that ended well.
And so we trundled back from UCH to our new flat next to the park and thought.....now what?! We were typical older middle aged, middle class parents. Over thinking everything. Analyzing everything. Mmmm he's crying. What should we do? Rock him? Feed him? Burp him? Read him Shakespeare? Quick to the book store. Ah yes. Routine. That's what we need. The author's routine lasted about one page before we realised she was talking a langauage that we did not comprehend. Put it this way. Number One Son is five and we still hold his hand to get him to sleep. He finally (finally) slept through aged four and a half. Years. Not months and oh boy absolutely not weeks. So take heart! We are a well adjusted and happy family. Who just need a bit more sleep.
Arriving in Harrogate in north Yorkshire in January I was freezing cold. The weather was icy. I was staying with a sweet old lady. And her dog. This dog was not really a dog. It was a person. The dog sat with us at dinner. The dog was lavished with presents and chewy toys and bones and goodies. The dog played all day with my land lady and then at night it slept in her bed. Oh yes. The dog slept with my land lady.
So, after a week I decided to move into a flat with a lovely cast member called Amanda. Much better. The show was the raciest thing to have hit middle class northern white Harrogate in a while. We were a company of black actors headed by the inimitable Ray Shell author of the booked ‘Iced’ and flanked by the brilliant Wendy-Mae Brown, Amanda Posner and Simon Bishop. We rehearsed in an arctic space off the town centre. My toes were so cold that I could barely feel them and my fingers felt like they were going to drop off. We wore woolly hats and scarves and two pairs of socks and set about learning the show.
Originally it was a collection of songs written by Fatts Waller with no real story line but a series of comedy songs mixed in with tragic ones like ‘Black and Blue’. The music was exquisite and we were put through our paces dancing wise as well by the choreographer.
I loved that show. Audiences were tentative to begin with but shortly they flocked to see us in their droves and tried to shake off the good ole English reserve by tapping their feet and cheering at famous songs like ‘your feet’s too big’ and ‘honey suckle rose’.
Laughing and talking loudly one day after a show myself, Wendy and Amanda were strutting through the dark, street lamps shining, when a bald Yorkshire man and his mate stopped dead in their tracks outside a fish and chip shop. The bald man turned to his mate.
‘Am I in America?’ He asked brusquely.
His mate laughed a belly laugh. Or should I say his mate laffed a belly laff. Obviously black people only live in America.
Ray Shell is a force to be reckoned with. What a man. He’s the kind of guy who always has a million projects on the go all at once. One day during rehearsals he came and sat with me while I was doing my usual thing of sitting in a coffee shop reading and drinking hot chocolate.
‘So I’m thinking you could be in my film’. He began.
‘Yeah. I’ve kind of got this idea and my nephew and cousin will be in it and you’re going to play the sister in the story.’
‘Ray. What do you mean? We’re in the middle of rehearsing a musical. When were you thinking of doing a film?!’
‘Well, I thought we could shoot it in a week-end.’ He continued oblivious. ‘Maybe next week-end. In Brighton.’
‘But we open on the Monday after that!’ I said incredulously.
‘So? So what. Plenty of time to get there and back and shoot the film.’
You’ve got to hand it to the man. When he means business he means business.
The next day a script appeared that he had sat up all night writing. I was to learn it.
So I did.
On the Friday before we were opening ‘Ain’t Miss Behavin’ ‘ Ray and I and his friend Al the camera man drove to Brighton in a big white van full of equipment. We picked up his nephew on the way- a tall good looking boy of about….wait, he was about fifteen! I couldn’t play his sister surely.
‘How old am I meant to be in this film?’
About nineteen. Right. About nineteen. What the actual......? I was thirty-two in three months!
‘It’ll be fine. You’ll see. Learn your words.’
It’ll be fine. Oh yeah. Easy for him to say. Now I was going to have to wack on the slap. And I was knackered from rehearsing. Concealer city.
It was freezing in Brighton but I had a huge amount of fun. We worked all day extremely hard. There was a lot of waiting around in between stuff. I ate lots of snacks. In the morning after a hearty breakfast of eggs and sausage and toast we got to a flying start filming scenes with my film mum and dad. We filmed in Ray’s family business a gorgeous restaurant near the sea front to start with and graduated to peer front scenes and fairground scenes and car scenes. I kept having to commit my lines to my short term memory as I hardly had time to learn them and was forever putting makeup on, paranoid that I looked twice my brother’s age.
I actually was twice my brother’s age.
Amazingly when I watched the film back a month or so later it wasn’t too bad. The camera man Al needed a medal for his lighting technique….
By the time we all got back to London on Sunday night with the film in the bag, the idea of catching a train to Harrogate on Monday morning and opening the show that we had been rehearsing for weeks made me feel a little bit green about the gills. I stayed with my parents that night in Greenwich as I had let my flat out to a family friend for a couple of months and duly alighted the long train up to sunny Harrogate ready for our dress-rehearsal and first night.
I think the director Hannah could tell that Ray and I were totally knackered and I’m not sure that she was best pleased. I felt a bit shaky and spaced out before the show but once it was underway and my tricky first solo was over (‘I like to tinkle on an ole piana’) I relaxed and I think we were a knock out! Just goes to show that if you want something doing you better ask a busy person. That person is most definitely Ray.
Back in London town after a wonderful couple of months singing for a living I applied for the obligatory temporary jobs. I sent an email answering an advert for a publishing company who were looking for staff to help promote their business magazine. No selling, just calling people up for a business award ceremony scheduled in a couple of months. Sounded okay. I got an interview and it went well I thought. The following day I waited for a reply. Nothing. Or the next day. By Friday I sent them an email thanking them for seeing me and wishing them success with future ventures.
I couldn’t even get a temp job.
The following Monday I received an email. There had been an error. They would love me to start work immediately. Phew. I started work and began my commute to EC1. It was in curtain road. Would the curtain rise again for me or was it, in fact, curtains? The irony of location was not lost on me. I auditioned furiously.
The job the job the job was BORING. What can I say? I was placed in a room with a few other odd balls- actors mainly. Though one guy actually seemed to do this for a living. We sat on the phone all day ringing up clients and promoting the magazine and inviting them to the event at The Dorchester Hotel, a dinner and award ceremony for which there was no doubt a hefty price tag. I plugged away. Meanwhile my agent phoned me about a new show that was coming to the West End called ‘Bat Boy’ in addition to an audition for the part of Carmen in ‘Fame’ which was already in town.
Every night I rushed home to commit yards of script and music to memory. The 'Bat Boy' auditioning process was endless. First round was with the casting director and the musical director. Second round and a choreographer appeared. Third round and some American producers were flown over. Fourth round and I was knackered. The final round was in RADA my old stomping ground of UCL days. Here I was auditioning in the place which had inspired me years ago as a view from my window I sang and acted my little socks off to the scary row of Americans sat in a semi-circle filling up half the studio. It was tricky vocally and pretty high but I had practised it for ever and a day. I knew that by this stage there were only two or three of us to choose from.
Once it was all over I felt sort of deflated and thought that I may as well go back to work and then go home and brood. The waiting to hear game began. 'Fame' was a non-starter as although I was recalled they kept saying things like:
‘Remember when you were a teenager? How would you have said that line?’
I get the hint.
I’m too old.
But with 'Bat Boy' I thought I was in with a chance. Even though I was up against a very successful pro. I was 32. I looked 25. I felt 96.
When the call came one sunny London morning to say that they had ‘gone another way’ with the casting of 'Bat Boy' I was indescribably disappointed. It was June. Money was really really too tight to mention.
Then something funny happened. My sister had finished her degree at Manchester University in the summer of 2004. She wanted to try her luck as an actress also and unbeknown to me had looked up a part time job in the back of the stage. At the same time my boss told me that a new girl was coming to work for him the following day. Then my sister told me she had found a job. And yup she duly turned up fresh as a daisy in my rubbish temp job in the city.
She then proceeded to let my boss know that the job was a bit rubbish (which it was) and proceeded to get the sack.
Before I too left the publishers to their own devices I attended the Award dinner at the Dorchester. One, it was an excuse to get very dressed up and two there was a huge three course meal and as much booze as you could consume. All I had to do was slink about in a red dress guiding the winners from the stage to their seats. Michael Portillo was the guest speaker. He made a bee-line for our table and sat between me and a pretty back actress who also temporarily worked for the company.
‘So!’ He enthused. ‘What do you ladies do?’
‘Well,’ I said ‘I’m probably going to be disappoint you when I say that we are actors hired to help sell the company.’
He did look disappointed. But requested a photo opportunity with him. He wanted us to be either side of him holding up a copy of the magazine. And smile! It’s not every day you get to be a political satellite.
It was at this point that a friend of mine Mary came up with another temp job that I could do which might prove more lucrative-work as a lettings agent in an Islington Estate Agents office. I said ‘yes’ immediately and duly rang the boss to arrange to meet him. I rang and rang and rang and rang and finally we met. This job would involve showing flats to students and young professionals in and around the Islington area but the perk of the job was that audition time was allowed so Mary and I could go off and do our auditions and return to work afterwards and still get paid. Genius.
Happily I received a job offer shortly after beginning the lettings job in Ipswich to play Maid Marion in one of Pete Row’s legendary Rock n’ Roll Pantomimes. I loved Ipswich! Being back in Ipswich for Christmas was really fun. I so loved the big old Victorian house I was staying in which was walking distance from the theatre. I loved the theatre itself, modern but warm and inviting with clean bright dressing rooms, a fantastic green room and great food laid on for the company during technical week since we were in the theatre from ten in the morning ‘til eleven at night. I had the glorious task of learning classics to sing like ‘natural woman’ and Dusty Springfield’s ‘I only wanna be with you!’ Dancing to Sam n’ Dave’s ‘I’m a Soul Man’ with sexy Robin Hood was another highlight. He liked me first……… and then the stage manager. I had an eggy face, although in hind sight I had liked the character he played more than the man.
Back in my flat in February 2005 I contemplated my life. Let’s see: I was 32 years old, turning 33 in April and ready for a change a change a change. I decided that a new agent was in order. I absolutely loved my old agent. He was fruity, fun and got me tons of work but the trouble was I wanted to push forward into television and ‘straight’ theatre as opposed to ‘musical theatre’. I wanted to be in a really classic production at The Royal Court or The National. I reckoned the way in was to try for a bigger agency and I duly wrote off to thirty different agents. I spent hours printing out and reprinting my reviews to send to these agents. Then I put stamps on the envelopes, having selected the agents to target in Contacts the actors hand book, and I waited.
To my surprise and confusion envelopes started to be returned to me and it dawned on me that I had unwittingly not paid enough postage. One by one they thumped back on my doorstep. No-one paid the postage. No-one offered me representation. What a waste of time.
Around this time I had an audition for Sir Trevor Nunn for his workshop of Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’. I was quite excited having never worked for him before. I learned my part thoroughly and dressed up for the occasion. It was only for two weeks work but was a great opportunity as if the rights were granted to Sir Trevor then a full scale production would ensue in the coming year. I sang my best and awarded a recall. Finally I learned that I had been offered one of the smaller parts ‘strawberry woman’ as I wasn’t quite right for the part I originally sang for. Trevor later told me I had been ‘too young and pretty’ for the part. Too fat, too thin, too pretty, too old, too young, too…….what a job. Being regularly advised you are not someone else’s idea of a character that some other person has made up.
Working for Sir Trev was a blast. He has an interesting persona, always wearing denim with holes in it and putting his arm around you firmly and conspiratorially. This is known as having been ‘treved’. The workshop was a triumph. I felt really excited to be part of a company of brilliant black performers again. Heading up the company was Nicola Hughes who I worked with in Blues in the Night at The Birmingham rep. She was playing Bess. We met again in the green room and she said to me in dulcet tones: ‘Ah, look at little Emma Jay all grown up.’ As I remember it I was two years older than her. I think I probably still am……….
We performed our version of the grand opera Porgy and Bess in the Cambridge Theatre to the famed Gershwin society. It was a renowned success and they agreed for Sir Trevor to produce a version for the West End stage. However, when it finally came around I was otherwise engaged.
During Spring/Summer 2005 I had a brain wave. I was out at a friend’s Birthday party at So Sushi when a girl I knew through a friend told me of a new agent she had signed with. I recognised the name of the agent and realised that they represented my friend David who had performed with me in Ragtime. It dawned on me that they would have seen me as Sarah at the Piccadilly Theatre and that if I emailed them they might give me an interview. Back at the work the next day slightly hung over I searched the net for an email address for Barry Burnett of Burnett Grainger. And I found one. I duly emailed Barry, a distinguished and brilliant central London agent and nearly fell off my chair when he replied! He knew who I was! He was pleased to have an interview with me! I was ecstatic.
Barry Burnett and Lyndsay Grainger were in based in a stylish office in Burlington Street WC1. The interview went very well and I waited with baited breath to see if they would take me on to their books. I would be joining the ranks alongside Barbara Windsor and Dame this and Dame that. The following day I had an email. They would be pleased to take me on. Then followed the difficult and upsetting task of telling Adrian that I had moved on. I felt sick as I purchased a huge bunch of sunflowers and travelled somberly to his mansion flat in West Hampstead. It made me feel really sad and I hoped I had made the right decision. Only time would tell.
A few days later I felt a renewed sense of vigour and worked away as a jolly lettings agent anticipating fantastic auditions. Apart from doing another workshop in The Bridewell Theatre called Burlesque not much happened work wise that summer. However, there were always the internet guys to keep me entertained.
Yes, folks. The internet. I had sunk that low. Musical Theatre and other sources had delivered me to a place called no-where so I decided to take matters into my own hands after a friend had success finding her boyfriend (now married with daughter) on Match.com. With great trepidation and excitement I registered my profile. Internet dating was fledgling at this point and many people were under the impression that it was for the sad and desperate.
I was actually sad and desperate.
As it happened I did not gain success this way though many friends of mine did, now with husbands and babies to show for it.
There was a man who informed me on one of our dates that I had ‘a grey hair’ and who insisted on making me pay for petrol and having separate mattresses so one person couldn’t cross over to the other side of the bed. There was the man who on our one (and only) date looked at me quizzically and said ‘I’m not used to my dates speaking English’. Nice.
And best of all there was the banker who rang me as I was on my way and asked me to pick up some condoms. What a gent! Chivalry is so not dead.
At the end of the summer I auditioned successfully for Aladdin at Greenwich Theatre to play Princess So-Shy. I was really looking forward to the job. It was local to my parent’s house and was next to Greenwich Park. It would be a glorious Christmas. The fact that I would have to commute from Walthamstow was a minor setback. I was so pleased to get the job as it was the first with my brand new agent.
Rehearsals were fantastic. I loved getting back into the theatre after a summer of not much and enjoyed learning pantomime songs which are always a real laugh. Before I met the cast, I looked up the people I would be working with on google. (Come on everyone does this! Don’t they?) One member looked promising: Jonathan Kemp. Quite handsome, I thought. He was the last person to introduce himself to me on the first day. I thought he was like Bambi- all sweet with long limbs and bashful. Then later I thought he had a slightly dangerous twinkle in his blue eyes. One day when we were rehearsing my Dad gave me a lift back from having lunch at my family home because it was near the rehearsal rooms. Jonny, as I then discovered his name was, saw me leaving my Dad’s big red car and asked me if that was my boyfriend. Bearing in mind that my father was sixty-two at the time this was a facetious remark. Anyhow this was to blossom into a friendship and then a kiss in the Hampstead tea rooms that marked the beginning of my meeting with my husband.
Greenwich at Christmas was beautiful. Lovely Christmas lights-turned on by myself and Aladdin after being hauled around town in minus degrees in a horse drawn carriage freezing my tits off in my princess costume. Aladdin and I turned on the lights to herald a very merry and fun Christmas full of two show days, much gargling with port (good for the voice) and eating mince pies. It even snowed!
Jonny and I had a romance that involved sneaking off for little coffees and lovely suppers in bar de mussee. We told no-one as we didn’t want the cast gossiping. In the show was a mad eccentric Dame called Liam who had crazy red curly hair and a wicked glint in his eye. He talked about his sexual conquests in loud whispers on stage describing the night, or even the morning before in graphic detail. Charming! This manic depressive Dame enjoyed terrorizing the children in the audience and was once known to stop the show and glare at a poor unsuspecting pre-teen and demand that he stop texting right now as it was really annoying him. Just like a packet of revels you never knew what you were going to get!
I was feeling on top of the world when I received an audition through from my agent.
‘Sweetie! I have an audition for you on January 2nd. It’s for the R.S.C. Anthony and Cleopatra, The Tempest and Julius Caesar. Fourteen months touring. Just turn up at the office and know the texts. Alright sweetie? 2.30. Byee.’
Ooh. I had been asking for a miracle job and here it bloody well was. I told absolutely no-one barring Jonny. The panto finished on the previous Saturday and on the Tuesday night before the audition I could be found in Borders perusing the texts and trying desperately to finish them before my audition on Wednesday. I had started straight back at the lettings agency in Islington and so was busy during the days.
Tuesday night at seven o’clock my phone rings.
‘What you doing?’ My sister Chloe.
‘Um, you know, not much. Just in Borders’.
‘Oh good. You can chat.’ Shit shit shit. No I could not. I was nearly through reading Anthony and Cleopatra and had Julius Caesar to tackle before the morning. Get off the phone!
‘Okaaaay. What’s up?’
‘Weeell. You know when I get married?’
‘Are you getting married?’
‘Someday. I mean, well by the time I’m thirty.’
‘Okay. You’re twenty-three. So technically that’s seven years away. Has Jonny (her boyfriend) asked you?’
‘No. But when I get married do you think I have to invite great auntie Glenda? You know I mean she does have that problem where she gets loud and drunk and starts shouting.’
‘Sure but a) no-one’s asked you to marry them and b) by the time they do aunty Glenda might have a) died b) been to AA or c) I don’t have a c) I just kind of need to get on with stuff. Can I ring you tomorrow?’
‘You have a BIG AUDITION.’
‘Well. No. I just need to chill out and get some sleep after panto-mania.’
Act IV scene 1. Cleopatra: Oh Charmian, I will never go from hence. Charmian: Be comforted dear Madam. Cleopatra: No, I will not: All strange and terrible events are welcome, But comforts we despise…….’ The phone rings. My other sister Antonia.
‘Hi Zem. Whatya doing?’
‘Just not much. Taking it easy. You?’
‘Oh, you know, sorting out drama school applications. Do you think it’s worth applying to loads or just RADA, Guildhall and Bristol. I mean central has a good reputation. I’m just not sure whether it’s better to concentrate on one. What do you think?’
‘Well’ I glanced at my watch. I think. Fuck, shit it’s 7.30. I have a play to finish and one to read and the second biggest audition of my life tomorrow.
‘Are you busy? I can phone you back later.’
‘Yes. No! We’ll speak tomorrow I’m just knackered. Go for as many as possible. I should have. Love you.’ Click.
I was outside on a bench for all of this. Borders would be closing in an hour or so. I would have to buy the plays, go home to my flat in Walthamstow and crack on. It was freezing cold in January 2006 but my blood was on the boil. I was excited and nervous and pleased. Jonny and I were still on and I had a great opportunity.
The following day I took the afternoon off work and dressed in basic black attire, no make-up to speak of and long loose straightened hair. I made my way to the centre of town from angel and sat in Café Nero in Seven Dials. I was early. Or so I thought. I ordered a coffee and sat down feeling calm. Quick look at The Tempest and the music that I was going to sing: Your Daddy’s son, Ragtime and I felt confident and apprehensive at once butterflies dancing in my stomach and caffeine buzzing in my brain. The phone rings. I look at the number. It is my agent. Quickly I pick up.
‘Hi.’ She sounds concerned. ‘Where are you?’
‘What?’ I’m stunned.
‘You’re late for the casting. Greg (Doran) is waiting for you.’
O-MI-GOD. I am late for a casting with the RSC.
‘You said two- thirty!!!!!’ A woman turned to look at me.
‘No. I said two.’
I slammed the cup down and raced up the road pressing the buzzer to the office and panting hard.’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Not to worry. Sit down and take your time.’ Turns out that Greg Doran is one of the nicest men alive.
The audition process for the RSC season that year consisted of three parts: a singing audition, reading Portia to the director of Julius Caesar and meeting with the director of Anthony and Cleopatra for the part of Iras. As I came out relieved and elated it was over I bumped into Allyson Brown the Girl who had played Mimi in the Rent tour that I had not enjoyed. It was really funny how we always seemed to be up against each other. She looks very similar to my sister Antonia. Ah well. I thought. I really liked Allyson and I knew the right person would get the job (let it be me! Let it be me!)
Blow me down with a ten ton weight of feathers but I was me! I rang my Dad.
‘I’ve got a job with the RSC. Fourteen months touring. Stratford-Upon-Avon. Michigan. Newcastle and London’s West-End.’
‘Good Lord. I have to go someone’s phoning me. Chloe?’ Click. Jonny said he knew I would get it. And weirdly two things had pointed towards that being a possibility. One was Greg saying after I read for Iras: ‘Well you could do that standing on your head’, and the other was the casting director saying: ‘See you soon’ when she spotted me running home for the tube.
My offer was as follows: Iras, understudy Octavia and Charmian in Anthony and Cleo with Patrick Stewart as Anthony and Harriet Walter as Cleopatra and Goddess in The Tempest, understudy Miranda. Nothing in Julius Caesar. This meant that I was contracted to do two plays where most people were contracted to perform in three. Time off would abound. I was nervous and hyper excited.
Rehearsals for the Royal Shakespeare Company Season were held at 35 Clapham High Street a two minute walk from Clapham Tube. On the first day I felt as nervous as I did before my driving test when I took beta blockers to calm my nerves. I mean for goodness sake here I was a musical theatre actress with one year of post graduate training at Mountview Theatre School with not a jot of Shakespearean acting experience except for the good ole faithful audition speech ‘I left no ring with her’ from Twelfth Night. However, I thought as I tentatively approached the rehearsal rooms, I do have an English degree and I did sit a six hour Shakespeare exam……..
My contract was as follows: Iras and understudy Charmian and Octavia in Anthony and Cleopatra and Goddess and understudy Miranda in The Tempest. Effectively I would be learning five parts in all. I was sick with nerves, excitement and dread.
On entering the busy common room that morning the first two people I saw were Golde Rosheveul who I knew from Mary in Jesus Christ Superstar fame and Allyson Brown. Fantastic! I thought. We both got the job. These were to be my fellow Goddesses. Two wonderful mixed-race divas with brilliant voices and fantastic acting ability.
The next fourteen months were to be The Complete Works Festival which meant that every known Shakespeare play or sonnet ever written were to be performed in one year. The festival was the first time that all of Shakespeare’s works have been staged at the same event. There were to be twenty-three RSC shows, seventeen international productions and fourteen by UK based visiting companies.
My fellow housemate and actor friend Minnie and I had a huge party one evening at number 33 Waterside opposite the old RST where we lived in Stratford to celebrate the end of all rehearsals. We had actors from all over the world at that party: Cuba, America, India. It was extraordinary. You could hardly move. We got very vey drunk.
So back to my first day where we began with a series of brilliant workshops and read through Anthony and Cleopatra with Greg Doran. The workshops consisted of flamenco dancing, African drumming, voice workshops, sonnet study with the celebrated John Barton, work with voice coach Cicely Berry and on and on. You would have paid good money for those few week. And I was being paid! Soon we moved to a studio up the road to begin rehearsing for real.
We began with Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. I realised pretty quickly that this meant that I had loads of time off as both plays had to be completed by the same date before we went up to Stratford in April. It was only February and my time table looked empty. I had so little rehearsal time that whenever there was a weekly Jon Barton tutorial I was free. I went through my parts with him. I went through my understudy parts with him. I went through my audition speeches. Then I ran out of ideas.
‘Hi John. Me again.’ He laughed with his crinkly eyes and popped another nicorette gum in his mouth.
‘When did you give up smoking?’ I piped up.
‘Oh. Years ago.’ He said.
We became friendly. I was invited to do some of his workshops in Stratford. I felt honoured.
It was a great company. I was nervous that I would not be nearly as good as them so I reverted back to being a goody two shoes out of fear. I bought note books and highlighters and wrote out all my parts determined to commit everything to memory as quickly as possible. It was a security blanket. Everyone appeared super bright but thankfully Greg had had us all read through the play together line by line interpreting every word.
The weather was cold and February like and unbeknown to me I was still dating my husband-to-be. The days were fun. That was going pretty well apart from one minor detail which was that my husband-to be was in fact already somebody else’s husband albeit with an absentee wife who skipped off within two months of the getting spliced the previous year. That was an underlying problem for me. I was never really comfortable with it. A divorce could not be allowed for another year and a half if it was to be a matter of simple separation without recrimination. I wasn’t entirely happy with the state of affairs. (Literally). However, it was all too exciting with rehearsals and Valentine’s day and getting ready to go to Stratford and sorting and digs. Minnie spotted me looking at the notice board and offered me a room in her Waterside Cottage. Immediately I was stunned and happy. The cottages were directly opposite the theatres: The Swan and the old RST. I could get to work in thirty seconds! Of course that meant I was destined to always be late. I could tell she would be a fantastic flat mate. There were only four of us girls, not including Harriet Walter, in the whole production and I felt that solidarity was in order. RSC boys are most definitely a certain breed. Some would say of dog, but that would be unkind or maybe even sour grapes.
Anyway, after eight weeks rehearsing we were ready to go up to Stratford. I was buying a small ancient red Nissan Micra second hand from my Dad’s dodgy garage men Tim and Barry. It would really help with going back and forth from Stratford to London.
Stratford-Upon –Avon is a gorgeous town more like an overgrown village. Our cottage was and still is miniscule but beautiful. Two bedrooms upstairs and a bathroom. A tiny living room downstairs with through kitchen and a door at the back to a patio garden. It was just right for the two of us.
Arriving in Stratford was particularly fantastic as there were celebrations organized for our arrival and the opening of Anthony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar plus celebrations for Shakespeare’s birthday. The 23rd April, two days before one. Walking into the Dirty Duck Pub after the first day of rehearsal in the Swan theatre I had a feeling that I was part of something utterly amazing that just doesn’t happen to many people. I had been to the Dirty Duck pub once before visiting a friend and I never for a million years thought that I would be part of such an amazing company sitting legitimately in the pub that had served so many extraordinary actors over the years.
The Duck, as it was fondly called, was a two minute walk from number 33 Waterside where I lived for six amazing months. The river was opposite our house and endless swans roamed the water day and night, up and down, silent and beautiful, elegant and faithful. I loved sitting by the river bank walk man in hand listening to music, script in front of me, sun blaring down as it turned out to be one of the hottest summers since ’76. It was so hot I got sunburned on my shoulders whilst learning Miranda by the river. They went hot and red to touch. Mind you, I was out there for three hours at midday. Mad dogs and Englishmen and all that…….
The first show to go up was Anthony and Cleopatra but at the same time most of the cast were rehearsing Julius Caesar which I wasn’t in. The Tempest was the third play to go up. This meant that I had copius amounts of hours to drink in my surroundings and most importantly become the proud owner of a bike and cycle along the fabulous pathways out of Stratford along disused railway lines passed a café in an old train run by a lovely couple. It was incredibly romantic to ride along with music blaring in your head in the summer heat and end up in the café supping sweet tea and muttering lines in my head belonging to Miranda, Charmian and Octavia.
Once the main show was up and running to fantastic reviews the second cast was called upon to rehearse the play again but in their understudy roles. Charmian was a similar role to Iras in that she flanked the queen so blocking wise I didn’t have too much to change, however, character wise there was a world of difference. Iras is younger and says very few words whereas Charmian is opinionated and the queen’s right hand woman. Octavia as Caesar’s sister, who married Anthony after he left Cleopatra, is a dour and straight character devoted to a man whose affections we are led to believe lie elsewhere but to whom she bore two children. She finds herself torn between her allegiance to her husband Anthony and her brother Caesar played in our production with a strong incestuous link on behalf of Caesar. Octavia was to be changed into from Charmian and back again in our understudy run so I was certainly very busy. I loved it.
The Tempest was an entirely different experience. I had been chosen by the director principally for my voice as the three Goddesses were required to sing. This I understood. What I was unclear about was the director’s vision for the play. As rehearsals finally got underway once Julius Caesar had also opened it was already June and biting hot. I was raring to go having had more time off than most and itching to know which Goddess I was to play. Juno, Ceres or Iris? A couple of weeks into rehearsals and we still didn’t know! We goddesses were getting a little bit twitchy. Then one day we were called in for a chat.
‘So’ began the director, ‘What are these Goddesses actually saying then?’ Duly the three of us began to explain the text with me referring to my highlighted notes. It was clearly not going to plan.
‘Mmm’ he mused. ‘But I mean really what does it all mean? Do you think the average audience I going to get it?’
Well yes. The average audience who has come all the way to Stratford to watch The Tempest is absolutely going to get it.
‘No, no!’ Says our director. ‘It’s too difficult. I think we should simplify it and that’s why we’re going to come up with our own language. Our Goddesses are going to be inuits.’
And so Lana, Gala, Sala duly followed.
The strange inuit language created by Adam with his eerie atonal music was joyous to sing. In addition I got to learn the lines for Miranda and once we had opened I performed a wonderful show as Miranda in the RST for the visiting companies. Hurrah hurrah for life’s funny twists and turns! I started out in T.I.E and here I was in the R.S.C a with the chance to play a romantic lead.
Sadly or possibly inevitably I chose to end the relationship with husband-to-be. A few weeks later I ended up embroiled in a ridiculous farce like affair with The Rogue from the season who wooed and shooed with the practised ease of an early thirties womaniser. Thankfully it ended almost as soon as it had begun and I spent the rest of the run a sorry singleton though excited about my travels. After Stratford first stop Michigan. Then Newcastle and then a five week break during which Minnie and I flew to my parent’s house in Dominica. It’s a hard life.
The Tempest was a huge success. I adored the beautiful snow-capped set complete with rocks and real snowflakes as we three made ourselves known. Julian Bleach made a phenomenal Ariel and chose to move slowly and deliberately round the stage in stark contrast to flitting and floaty Ariels who have gone before and after. As he said, Ariel was supposed to move like air but whoever said that air moved fast? I looked forward to every performance and was especially pleased when it was announced that The Tempest and Anthony and Cleopatra would both be performing in Michigan in October and that just The Tempest would perform for a week in November when we got back.
Despite my confused and disconcerting love life I was having an amazingly cultured and exotic time of it in my career. It was odd though. Financially I was still finding being an actor tricky as I had to keep paying my mortgage on my London flat and also pay for expenses in Stratford. Lots of people had given up their flats or subleted them if they were renting but I still wanted the London bolt hole at weekends so as not to go stir crazy in Stratford. As a result I was still spending every penny. Still I was looking forward to Michigan immensely and after a fun packed summer with first night parties abounding I was ready come September to move on. Especially since The Rogue suddenly acquired a new girlfriend who was at Bristol Old Vic with my sister Antonia. I needed a week off to recharge before flying to the US of A.