All the World's a Stage
A novel by Bronwen Welsh
Chapter 12 The world of education and a new arrival
Reggie's Economics course at York University was due to start in late September, and it was now mid-August. He had already applied for accommodation at Derwent College, I think partly because a friend of his was already studying at York and had his room at Derwent, so at least there was one friendly face. It was also not far from the Department of Economics. I was keeping a brave face about this 'life-changing' move and wondered how if at all it would change our own relationship. At the back of my mind was the thought that Reggie would be mixing with many young people, and a handsome guy like him would obviously be the centre of attraction for the many young women there. I tried to suppress my jealous feelings but it wasn't easy.
The rehearsals were going well, and I decided I would enjoy playing comedy. The main problem of course was comic timing without an audience. Chris told us that we had to wait for laughter to subside but not completely die – that way we would keep up the momentum while still allowing the audience to hear the next line. He tried to help us by calling out 'laughter' at the appropriate moments so that we would make that pause. One thing that was going to help was that as 'Twelfth Night' was going to be on the schools' GCSE the following year, the Company had decided to hold a week long series of afternoon preview performances for local schools before the season proper started. Playing to an audience should help us all to fine-tune our performances.
Writing about schools reminds me – I was called up to the Executive Director's office one morning. I wondered what I'd done this time, but it was his secretary Miss Lane who spoke to me.
“Part of the work we do with local schools is to take part in their career advice programmes which are being held about now. Mr Morgan thought that as a young woman, not much older than some of the students, it might be a good idea if you went to some of the local schools and spoke about what you do. How do you feel about that?” she said.
“Is this about dampening the enthusiasm of some of the more starry-eyed ones who want to follow a career on the stage?” I asked with a smile.
“Something like that,” she admitted, returning my smile. “Or at least tell them to have another occupation to fall back on if times get tough.”
That cause me cause to think about my own situation. I didn't really have anything to fall back on if the work stopped. I had somehow assumed it would keep coming in, but of course that might not happen. There are plenty of would-be actors and only so many roles for them to play.
“Alright,” I said. “I'll give it a go, but please give me feedback and tell me if they approve of what I tell the students.”
Over the next few weeks I visited a number of schools, so what I said at each of them becomes a bit jumbled up in my head, even with my memory, but it was something similar to what follows:
The teacher would take me into the class and introduced me to the students as “This is Miss Harriet Stow. She is an actor currently performing with the Imperial Shakespeare Company here in Stratford, and today she will be talking to you about a career in the Performing Arts.”
I looked down at a group of between twenty and thirty students, aged about sixteen or seventeen. Some looked interested and some sat there with their arms folded and a look of disdain on their faces. I would have to try and win them over.
“Good morning ladies and gentlemen,” I began. “I'm sure some of you are thinking, what's an actress doing here? Shouldn't we be listening to a surgeon, a scientist, a computer programmer or an engineer? I hope you do get an opportunity to hear from all those occupations but I'm not here to apologise for what I do. In my opinion, the arts are just as important as the sciences in a well-balanced society.
“That's not just my opinion. If any of you are fortunate enough to visit ancient sites in places like Greece, very often you will see that one of the biggest constructions in their settlements was an open-air theatre, and this was over two thousand years ago. People love to be entertained, but they also like to be challenged as they do so. Watching a good play on a stage, or on the screen, we see ourselves 'writ large' as the saying goes. A play is often described as 'life without the boring bits'. A drama is successful if it brings matters to a conclusion, since every story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, preferably in that order. (This usually produced a laugh, even if it wasn't original.)
“It's nearly four hundred years since Shakespeare died, but his plays are still being performed today. Despite the fact that many are performed in medieval costume, the challenges his characters face are very similar to the ones we face today. In the next play that I am to perform in here in Stratford, 'Twelfth Night', my character is a young woman Viola who is shipwrecked on an island where she knows no-one. Feeling that it is unsafe to appear in a strange country as a young woman on her own, she disguises herself as a young man, calls herself Cesario, and enters the court of a local duke. He believes himself to be in love with a local noble woman Olivia, and sends the 'young man' to try and turn around her rejection of him. Of course Olivia falls in love with the 'young man', and to further complicate things Viola has already fallen in love with the Duke.
“Now I'm sure you have friends who are really keen on another person who hardly notices they are there, while they themselves either find that someone they don't find attractive is keen on them and they don't know how to diplomatically discourage them, or they don't notice someone else who is really nice. but is too shy to tell them how they feel. So you see, things haven't changed much in four hundred years or even longer.”
At this point I could pretty much guarantee that some of the students would be exchanging glances.
“I won't tell you how ‘Twelfth Night’ ends, since, if you are doing GCSE next year, I hope you will be coming to the theatre to see us perform the play, and I don't want to be a 'spoiler'. What I will say is that seeing a play performed live is so much better than just reading the text in a book. That's where I and the other actors come in. It is our job to bring the play to life for you.
“If you watch awards shows and see all those beautiful women on the red carpet in their fabulous gowns - which hasn't happened to me yet, by the way (cue for more laughter) - you might think that acting is a very glamorous profession, and that's true to a degree, but only sometimes. Bear in mind that for every rôle being offered there are probably at least a hundred actors who want it, and only one who can be successful. Also, unless you land a part in a long-running 'soap', you probably have to audition, which effectively is having a job interview, several times a year. You won't get all those jobs so there will be times when you are 'resting' as the saying goes. That's a polite way of saying you are out of work, which is why it's a very good idea to have another source of income.”
“Do you have another job to go to, Miss Stow?” asked one of the girls.
“To be honest, I don't really,” I replied. “I've worked as a medical receptionist and also as an assistant stage manager prior to becoming a professional actor, and I can assure you I am very well aware of the difficulties I might face if the rôles dry up. For that reason I intend to take every part that doesn't compromise my artistic integrity, and if things get desperate, I might even have to rethink that, and I wouldn't be the first to do so.” The class laughed.
“To sum up, acting is a wonderful profession, but it can be insecure. There are many amateur groups throughout the country, and my advice is to try one of those first and see if in the end you prefer the theatre to be a wonderfully rewarding hobby, not a precarious profession.”
The class always applauded me, and I hope they took on board what I had to say. When the teacher asked if they had any questions, it was usually along the lines of 'Is it well-paid?' My answer to that was that it was reasonably well paid while I was working, but I tried not to live up to the image that some people have of an actress, because I felt the need to put money by for lean times. “We have to pay taxes too like everyone else. Almost everyone has an agent and we have to pay them ten percent of our earnings, but they are essential to a professional performer in finding us work, and often handling the financial side of things like negotiating contracts.”
The other question usually was 'Had I met any famous actors and actresses?' This was much easier to answer. I was able to tell them about working with Dame Emily, David and Sir John and how nice they were and wonderful rôle-models.
Quite frankly, after one of those sessions I felt more exhausted than if I had just performed a three act play!
Three weeks later, with the first performances rapidly approaching, I received a phone call at eight o'clock on Monday morning.
“It's Mum, darling, you are officially an auntie!” She was bubbling over with excitement.
“That's wonderful Mum, how is Emma, what did she have?”
“She had a little girl, darling. Well, when I say little, she was nine pounds in weight, and born at four o'clock this morning.”
“And they're both well?”
“All three of them are, David included, and Penny is thrilled to have a little sister.”
“Mum, it's my last free weekend before we start 'Twelfth Night', so I was thinking of ringing you and coming up by train on Friday evening. Reggie is moving to York to start his Economics course and I was going to drive him up but I can't now because of my arm, so we might come up together on the train. His parents will want to see him I'm sure. Tell Emma she couldn't have timed it better.”
When I phoned Reggie, he agreed to my suggestion, and on Friday evening, I met him at Stratford Station and we journeyed up to Bridchester together. I was expecting to take a taxi to Mum's house and was pleasantly surprised when Reggie's parents met us at the station. I wasn't really sure if they expected to see me there, although Reggie assured me that it was fine. I had always wondered how they felt about their son having a 'special' girlfriend like me, as there had been times when they could have met up with my family, but there always seemed to be some reason why it didn't happen. Now of course my over-active brain began to wonder if they thought that when Reggie went to York University, he would meet up with plenty of 'real' girls and would quickly consign his teenage romance with me to the 'life experience' locker.
I must admit that I couldn't fault their behaviour towards me. They politely asked how my career was progressing and seemed impressed that I had won a second rôle at Stratford, and in no time we arrived at Mum's front gate where they dropped me off. A goodbye kiss from Reggie was not practical of course, so I had to content myself with saying I'd be in touch and hoped he settled in well at York. I really couldn't let it prey on my mind, and anyway, there was Mum waiting for me at the front door, smiling with pleasure.
“Was that the Stauntons?” she asked, after giving me a hug and a kiss.
“Yes, they picked us up at the station, wasn't that kind?”
Mum looked at me. I might be an actress, but she could always see through to the real me.
“Darling, they might never really accept you, and you'll have to live with it.”
I had to stop myself from crying. “It's not just that Mum, Reggie's going off to university – there'll be all those young women hanging around him, what chance have I got?”
“Now, now, it's not the Stow way to give up without a fight, and surely he's worth fighting for?”
“Of course he is Mum, but I can't help feeling that I start with a big disadvantage. Anyway,” I said, trying to pull myself together, “When can I see my niece?”
We can go right away if you like, as soon as you take your suitcase inside,” said Mum, so that's what we did.
Emma met us at the door, carrying the baby wrapped in a woollen blanket. She looked tired but very happy.
“Emma! Congratulations to you both,” I said kissing her on the cheek.
She led the way into the living room where it was warmer and unwrapped my niece for me to see. She looked so small, tiny wisps of fair hair, pink cheeks and rosebud lips, just five days old.
“Oh, she's beautiful!” I exclaimed.
“Would you like to hold her?” Emma asked. I was sitting beside her on the couch and she carefully transferred the new arrival into my arms. I must admit that at first I held her like cut glass, afraid she might break, but I gradually started to relax.
“Does she have a name yet?”
“Yes, she's to be Elizabeth Marjory Soames, named after both her grandmothers.”
“That's a lovely name,” I said. After a while I handed her back, and produced a small parcel from my bag. Elizabeth was handed over to our Mum while Emma unwrapped it. A white rabbit with pink ears was revealed and pronounced the perfect gift for a newborn.
“And how is David coping?” I asked.
Emma laughed “As well as can be expected. That's the standard answer isn't it? Well of course he's had previous experience, so he's managing very well, and really looking after us both, as well as Penny of course.”
“And what does she think of Elizabeth?”
“Oh, she's thrilled. I couldn't be happier, Harriet, the baby arriving has made us seem like a complete family.”
Not long after, Penny arrived home from school, and there was no doubting her enthusiasm for her sister. It seems unnecessarily pedantic to call her a half-sister, and I'm sure Penny didn't see her that way.
Then David arrived and received a congratulatory kiss from me.
“Are you losing much sleep too?” I asked.
“Well it comes with the territory,” he replied. “It was the same with Penny, and in both cases they were so worth it.”
He looked curiously at my strangely painted cast. “What have they done to you?” he asked.
“They've made my cast look medieval,” I replied. “I was a bit worried that it was going to stop me playing the part, but Chris said that people broke arms in those days too, and they were treated in much the same way as they are now, so provided it didn't look modern, that was alright. After all, Viola had been in a shipwreck, so that could explain it.”
David laughed. “Well that's one way of looking at it.”
All too soon, it was time for me to head back to Stratford. This time Mum dropped me off at the station, and as I tended to do, I slept most of the way back.
The pre-season week started, when we were going to play five matinees for local schools. It was certainly good practise, and I have to say that the students were very well behaved and seemed to laugh in all the right places. Everyone was performing well and I could tell that we were all enjoying ourselves.
I shared a dressing room with Mary, and also our two understudies. Euphemia Gibb, thankfully known as 'Effie' was mine, and Jane Masefield was Mary's. It made things a little cramped, but of course the understudies didn't have to dress or get made up, so it least we didn't have to squeeze onto the make-up tables in front of the mirrors.
Effie and Jane were allowed to play one of the matinees, and Mary and I acted as their understudies. Instead of waiting in the dressing room, Mary and I walked down to the back of the stalls after the performance had started to see how they performed. Both were competent actresses and I felt reassured that if we ever had to miss a performance, the play was in good hands.
I was no longer in the least worried that Effie and Jane would realise that I wasn't a genetic girl. By now my breasts had developed to about 'B' cup size, and since I made a point of not walking around without clothes on, as far as they were concerned I was just 'one of the girls'.
The following Saturday was the first official performance of 'Twelfth Night' and it was a sell-out. To my surprise, before the curtain rose there was an announcement made.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen and welcome to this performance of 'Twelfth Night' by William Shakespeare. You will notice that Miss Harriet Stow who plays the parts of Viola and Cesario has her arm in a sling. While the real reason is more prosaic, we have chosen say that this was due to injuries received in the shipwreck that Viola suffers prior to her first appearance in Act One Scene Two.”
There was a murmur of amusement from the audience, and then it was on with the show. One more thing, when I did appear on stage I was surprised to receive a round of applause, and I thought it appropriate to acknowledge it by curtsying to the audience, since at that stage I was still in a woman's dress.
When I came off stage, Chris was standing there.
“That was a brilliant idea, giving the reason for my arm in a sling,” I said.
“Well, I didn't want the audience wondering what had happened rather than listening to the play. By the way, the curtsy was a brilliant improvisation. I want you to do that at every performance.”
To be continued.
I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Louise Anne in proofreading the text and giving me a great deal of useful advice about modern-day Britain to incorporate in the story.
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