Monday, 9 August 2010

Cor, how do you know her?

When I was 21 I lived in a fantastic University Hall called "College Hall". It was based (and still is) in Mallett Street in WC1. Of course at the time I didn't realize just what a brilliant stroke of luck it was to be living next door to RADA The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in a cosy all girls hall in central London studying some of the finest literature of our time. University College London is a brilliant place to study but I had had my eyes set on Cambridge.

I didn't get into Cambridge.

For my interview at New Hall College (also all girls what is it with the no boys theme?) I had studied the Bronte Sisters because I had been told that I was to be interviewed by the leading expert on the subject. Unfortunately she was on maternity leave for my interview. The smart lady that actually interviewed me was curt and straight to the point. "Don't you know anything other than the Bronte sisters?"

I didn't.

Anyhow I ended up at UCL and lucky for me that I did.

Looking out from my lovely cosy room in the spring of 1993 at the actors practising their sword fighting next door, I wanted to be them. I really really wanted to be doing that not swotting for a six hour Shakespeare exam. With finals looming I knew that I had to have a plan of action for the summer and for the rest of my life. Journalism? Acting? Flipping burgers? I decided to go to the careers office and have a look at some prospectus'. Mmmm. Journalism. Could be great. Creative, involves words, communiacation, maybe travel, fun people.

But acting.

I picked up a prospectus for RADA and next to it was one for Mountview Theatre School. Everyone in it looked smiley and happy and excited. Or 'in the moment'. And to top it all there was a picture of a sweet looking mixed race girl on page two. I took it as a sign that I was to go there and applied that day sending off my £15 for the audition. Non-refundable.

A friend of mine was applying for a summer journalist course and I thought that I should apply for that too. I filled out the form and waited. Within two weeks I had my interview and I dressed smartly and neatly. As I walked into the room I was greeted by a middle-aged white man with greying hair. He looked really shocked to see me. He immediately recovered his composure but his questions about my CV were unorthodox.

"What are your family like?"

And "Are your sisters as clever as you?"

Not really very relevant. It dawned on me like a slow ache that he hadn't expected to see a mixed-race person in his office that day.

Unless they were cleaning his office.

I didn't get the post and I decided from that moment that I wanted people to know what they were getting up front.


Sitting down at a quaint cafe on the edge of the piazza and ordering a coffee I thought about my career. Three years in repertory theatre, five years in and out of West End musicals, more rep and then an odd jump to join the Royal Shakespeare Company for a year and a half performing with world famous actors and touring to Stratford-Uopn-Avon and America, two more musicals and a hiatus of nothing but temping in an office. Ugh. It did nothing for your self esteem I thought to be travelling the world with Patrick Stewart one day and letting a flat to an annoying tenant the next. I remembered after having finished the tour having so little money that I had to start temping immediaetely (actually before the run ended I now recalled) and wanting to shout at people:

"I'm in the Royal Shakespeare Company! I'm not  lettings agent!!"

But that was the point, no-one cared. People just believed what was in front of them. It made me wonder how many other people were not as they seemed. Or perhaps I was exactly as I seemed. I was a lettings agent who occasionally did amazing theatre jobs. What about the waiter bringing my coffee? Was he an actor, a model, an out of work t.v. producer? Who could say. For now he was serving my coffee and asking me if I wanted any milk with it.

I did.

And two sugars since you're asking.

I drank my coffee and pepped up a bit probably because of the artificial stimulants but also because I realised that not everyone could be absolutely at the top of their game all the time and wouldn't it be boring if everyone was. It was more fun probably to have the dream of some fantastic future than if that future actually came to pass. How many times had I wished for this and that only to have it come about and realise that it was not all it was cracked up to be.

For example I would have said that if I could be married, living in my at the time dream location (Islington) with great friends and family and apparently still looking young and healthy that I would be happy! You'd have bloody well thought so wouldn't you! But no, life was still a struggle as an artist in London.

The main difficulty with being an artist in London was money or lack thereof. However hard I worked (and I worked hard) there just did not seem to be enough and I was tired. At my age I mused I should have massive savings and an expense account. Instead I was selling my flat and the proceeds would cover my gigantic debts from spending fifteen years trying to be a successful artist in London with not much to spare left over.

No, I thought.

It was time to throw in the towel.

Give up the ghost.

Put it to bed.

Forget about it I was not going to be famous or even just successful enough not to have to work in an office in between gigs. I mean who on earth was I kidding. Despite my best efforts here I was auditioning for the part of understudying someone's mother and although you could argue that the Young Vic Theatre was a very prestigious place to work  I knew that it would lead to nothing. I had worked in enough prestigious places to know that the eternal temping always loomed on the horizon unless you were very ric, very connected, very very lucky or preferably all three. I was none of the above.

I was not a celebrity. Just a jobbing actor.

Bollocks the caffeine had worn off. The day had moved on and very little had been achieved. I gathered together my belongings and decided to go home and have a think about what I could do with my life. After all 36 was not the end of the line. There were children to be had (hopefully) and possibly a whole new career! I just had to figure out what that was.

Back in my weeny Islington flat that I rented with my husband (right by the tube fabulous) I sat nursing a cup of tea and thought and thought and thought. I had always had a fascination with self help books of all kinds "how to find a husband after 30" "He's into anyone else but you" "The power of not sitting in front of the tv" etc. I had devoured so many of these books over the years that I was absolutely sure that I could write one myself. But what about? My life was not a picture of success.

"How to end up at 36 having done 6 west end shows broke and temping in a lettings office" was not a very good title.

How about "How NOT to end up at 36 having done 6 west end shows broke and temping in a lettings office?

I took a sip of tea and thought about another title. "An actor's life- the unbridled truth". Possible. Hadn't there been lots of actors who had written about their lives? Didn't mean I couldn't  too. I suppose, I thought,  I just have to start at the beginning.

And I did.


IT was a fresh sunny autumn day afteran audition in London's chilly west-end in my 36th year when it finally dawned on me that I was in the wrong career. What took me so long, I hear you ask? Well it's a difficult thing to realise, I mused when you've had a modicum of success in any field. Who's to say that your time is up? There might be that one spectacular job just around the corner or up the road or through the park of whatever that might springboard you to who knows where!

Only I knew absolutely without a doubt that it would not on that sunny afternoon in chilly London town.

Looking back I could be forgiven for thinking that life might have been sweet for me by now after an auspicious start. Not everyone achieved a degree in English literature from a reputable University and an entry into London's West End theatre by the age of 26 (albeit a gentleman's degree and a chorus part). As I reflected on days of glory I recognised that there had been as many days of hopelessness.

London was such a fantastic place I thought as I paced across Waterloo Bridge the strong breeze whipping against my face and stinging my cheeks. It was ao alive, so pulsating, brimming with possibility. There just had to be more to life than existing on going from job to unsatisfying job. the frustrating part was that I always felt life should be this fantastic and glorious experience all the time, otherwise, I thought kicking the autumn leaves in frustration, what on earth was the point?

I came to the edge of the bridge and turned up towards Covent Garden. Nowhere really to go and nothing to do having taken the day off from my ridiculous temp job as a letting agent I was as free as a bird but I felt trapped. I turned into the Piazza and looked at the street theatre. Such passion and enthusiasm! Even in the wind and the rain these performers would be there touting their wares. I felt lost and sad. I knew I no longer felt that way about being a performer if I could not reach the dizzy heights that I had set for myself.

Time had run out. It was autumn alright and when winter came that would be it. Freezing, icy and desolate. Though not too bad if you were lucky enough to have a nice winter coat and some hot soup. I smiled. It was not in my nature to be depressed for too long. It didn't really suit me. But I knew something had to change soon. Or my period needed to arrive. One or the other.