There is Nothing like a Dame Chapter 36

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There is Nothing like a Dame

A novel by Bronwen Welsh


Copyright© 2017 & 2018 Bronwen Welsh

A sequel to 'The Might-Have-Been Girl' and 'All the World's a Stage'

Chapter 36   Working with the youth group and a surprise invitation

The rest of the week flew by. Our performances were rapturously received by our audiences, and we almost always performed to a full house. Many people seemed to think that Richard and I were actually in love and our death scenes not only had the audiences crying, but I shed real tears in those final moments before stabbing myself.

Soo it was Saturday, and the first of the tuition sessions for the new youth group. The head count showed we had lost a few more youngsters who had decided that acting was less about glamour and more about hard work. The theatre auditorium was available, so that is where we held the first session. There were forty-one youngsters seated in the front rows of the stalls, seventeen young men and twenty-four young women, all awaiting our 'pearls of wisdom'.

Dame Emily, Madge and I walked out to centre stage to welcome the group, with Dame Emily speaking first.

“Those who decided not to further pursue their professional acting careers may have made a wise choice. For the next twenty-four Saturdays we will teach you how to act, how to speak, and how to enjoy what you are doing, but I warn you, there will be a lot of hard work. I will now over to Miss Harriet Stow for your introduction to stage acting.”

I thanked Dame Emily, who left the stage and then I addressed our students.

“Acting is making the story real to the audience. Not every play we cover will be by William Shakespeare. In some sessions you will only read a poem, but you must believe in its message and convey that to the audience. That is what acting is all about; you are the conduit from the author of the words to the audience, making them come alive.

“Here is an example; first I will read the lines as it is mostly read in school.”

I started to recite in a 'sing-song' voice, pausing at the end of each line:

'I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the earth's sweet flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in Summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.'

“This of course, is the poem “Trees” by the American Joyce Kilmer. It's quite short, only twelve lines, and when you see it printed, it appears as six rhyming couplets, 'see' and 'tree', 'prest' and 'breast' etc. It's often read as if there was a comma at the end of each line, but in fact the first two and the fourth couplets have no comma after the first line, which means they should be read as one continuous sentence. That makes a big difference.

“Now I will read it as if I was performing it onstage.” This I proceeded to do, and they all applauded me at the end.

“Thank you, but there is no need to applaud me since this is a tuition session. Did you all feel the difference? This is what we as actors must bring to each performance every time, no matter how we feel. Never forget that while we may perform a part many times in a season, the audience will only see one performance, so it is important that we make every performance special. Also, did you all notice the difference between my normal speaking voice and my acting voice? This is because our voices must reach the furthest audience member in the back row of the 'gods', which is what we call the upper circle. In addition, stage acting must be exaggerated, so that expressions are visible to people who are sitting quite a long way from the stage. Acting for television or film must be much more natural.

“Are there any questions? Don't be shy, there are no silly questions. You may be the one who asks the question that other people are too shy to ask.”

There was silence, so I said: “Who would like to come up on stage and perform 'Trees'?”

For a moment, no-one reacted and then a young woman in the front row tentatively put up her hand.

“Excellent! What is your name please? I'll learn them all in time but would everyone please start by stating their name?”

“It's Emma, Miss Stow,” said the girl.

“That's a very good name, Emma. Please come up on the stage.”

I could see that she was very nervous, but I gave her full marks for overcoming it enough to be the first to offer to perform. I had a printed copy of 'Trees' ready for her to read, and showed her where to stand on the stage. She was actually not at all bad. She took my advice about not pausing at the end of every line, and put quite a lot of expression into her performance. I led the applause at the end and she blushed scarlet.

“Well done Emma; that's your first performance on this stage and I hope it won't be the last,” I said. “Now can we get a volunteer from among the young gentlemen?”

As I suspected, they were reluctant but not wishing to be outdone by a girl, one eventually put up his hand. His name was Todd and his performance was quite good too. Finally I invited everyone to come up on the stage to see the auditorium from the actors' point of view.

“Now you are facing the audience, which is 'stage left' and which is 'stage right'?” I asked them. Most got it right. “Yes, it's the stage from our point of view, not the audience's. Now which is the prompt side?”

They were less sure on this, so I told them it was 'stage left', and sometimes referred to a 'PS', while the the other side is called 'opposite prompt' or 'OP'. "However, in America the prompt side is often 'stage right', so be sure to check if you ever work over there."

For the final part of the session, I gave them some homework.

“I want you to learn 'Trees' by heart, and next Saturday I will pick some of you at random to recite it.” There was some nervous laughter at this. Dame Emily, Madge and I had decided that we would not be too demanding of them, at least for the start, but we wouldn't spoonfeed them either. They had to realise that they were here to work.

“Are there any questions?”

One of the other young women raised her hand: “Will we be able to perform onstage with the company?” she asked.

“If you are good enough,” I replied. “The sort of parts you could hope to play at first are non-speaking rôles, such as guests in a ball scene. These may seem inconsequencial, but they are important too, in fact every part is important, never forget that. If someone in the background is performing badly, this may distract the audience.

From non-speaking parts, you may graduate to small speaking parts. That's how most of us started off. Right, I think we've done enough for today. We look forward to seeing you at the same time next Saturday.”

The group trooped down the steps to the auditorium to leave the theatre. When I walked off the stage into the wings, Dame Emily and Madge were waiting for me.

“You handled that very well,” said Dame Emily. “I can see that you're a born teacher.”

We all walked to the café to have a light lunch prior to the matinée performance, and to discuss the following week's tuition. We had already worked out a provisional program, but since this was the first group of aspiring young actors to take part in our course, we knew we might have to adjust it as we went along.

“It will take a few weeks before we decide if any of the young people look like they have star potential,” said Dame Emily.

“Yes indeed. It will be interesting to see how they go at memorising the poem and then reciting it. I do give full marks to the two youngsters who were prepared to come up on the stage and recite the poem. I could tell they were very nervous, probably because they were afraid of making a fool of themselves in front of me and the other students.”

--ooOoo--

The season of 'Romeo and Juliet' was coming to an end. The ticket sales had been so good that it had been extended, but Richard was signed to appear in a film, and it was decided that rather than replace him, the season would close.

We had a small party for the cast and crew after the final performance which was completely sold out. I felt a certain sadness, wondering if this was my final performance as Juliet, but it turned out that I was wrong. Richard, my agent rang me that day and asked me how I felt about another trip to America?

“You know that Americans are huge Shakespeare fans and have a few companies who specialise in his plays, just like the one where you were resident artist. I've been approached by a company who have a Shakespeare Festival which runs for almost the whole year. They perform plays by other authors, but Shakesepare is their number one attraction. Well, you are becoming quite well known in America, and they've just approached me to find out if you might be interested in performing Juliet in their production in a few month's time. The contract they've proposed is quite lucrative. How do you feel about it?”

“Well, I'll have to discuss it with Reggie of course and get back to you. Do you have exact dates yet?” I replied.

“No, but I'll get back to you as soon as I do,” he replied.

--ooOoo--

I was still continuing my singing lessons with Madame Mussorgsky and she assured me that I was making genuine progress. It was the week before the season of 'Romeo and Juliet' ended, and after the usual warm-up singing scales, Madame said: “Harriet, I'd like you to try a new song today. Are you familiar with the musical 'Camelot'?”

“Yes I am and I enjoyed it very much,” I replied.

“Well, I have the music here for one of 'Queen Guenevere's' songs “I Loved You Once in Silence” Shall we try it out?”

She handed me a copy of the score with the music and words and played the introduction on the piano. I started to sing but I found some of the top notes a little high for me.

“I'll transpose it down for you as you're a mezzo-soprano and we'll try it again,” she said.

This time I found it a lot more comfortable, and at the conclusion, Madame clapped me.

“Very good! You put a lot of emotion into it as I knew you would,” she said. “Now I'm going to tell you why I asked you to sing that particular song. One of my other pupils is a member of the Warwick Theatrical Society. They are an amateur group but their productions are always a very high standard. Jenny told me that they are currently preparing to present 'Camelot' but they have a problem. They rehearse for several months because they can only do it part-time, and the actress who was cast as Queen Guenevere is pregnant, although she didn't know it at the time she auditioned. She's having quite a hard time of it and would like to withdraw from the cast on her doctor's advice. She doesn't want to let the company down as it's now only a month until the season starts. If all else fails she will try to keep going, but it's not a good situation. They don't have understudies and they don't have much time to replace her.

“I know that you are thinking of trying your hand at musical theatre, so when Jenny asked me if I knew of anyone who might be capable of stepping in at short notice, I told her I know someone who might help out, without mentioning your name of course. I said that there was one problem; the person I was thinking of is a professional actress so couldn't be expected to perform for free. She told me she would discuss it with the committee and see how they thought the other cast members would react if only one person was getting paid.

“She called me today and said they were in agreement, but there was a limit to what they could pay. That tells me that they are getting quite desperate. I believe that the standard of your singing is sufficiently good to play the part and there is certainly no doubts about your acting ability. There are only twelve performances spread over three weekends, starting in a month's time. I'm not putting pressure on you, but it struck me that this could be an ideal opportunity for you to ease your way into musical theatre.”

When she finished speaking, I was more than a little shocked. How many times was it now that I had been asked to step in to help out a production? Did this happen to every actor or was it just me? Perhaps others had been asked and refused.

I took a deep breath: “Madame, I was thinking of taking a few months off, but what you say certainly makes sense. I'll have to talk to my husband Reggie, and also my agent Richard. This wouldn't be the first time that I have helped out in a situation where I wasn't paid much. I look upon it as an opportunity to gain experience, so my first inclination is to say 'yes', but I will need a day or two before I can say for sure if I can do it. Of course they will probably want me to audition, and I won't be offended if they do. I'll let you know my answer as soon as I can.”

“Before you make a decision, you might like to see the standard of their productions, so I asked Jenny to borrow a video of last year's production of 'The King and I'. Interestingly, 'The King' is played by Martin Benson who is also playing 'King Arthur' in 'Camelot'. I don't have any more lessons today so would you like to watch some of it? I'll put it on for you while I make a cup of tea if you like?”

I agreed that it would be advisable to watch some of it. While not wanting to seem snobbish, I certainly couldn't be associated with a production if it didn't meet a certain standard, so I sat down in Madame's sitting room while she put the television and tape player on.

I was pleasantly surprised by how good the production was. Martin was a very good actor, and I was impressed by the fact that he didn't try to copy Yul Brynner, who, thanks to his playing the rôle in London and Broadway for many years, plus the 1956 film, is the 'King of Siam' in most people's eyes. Interestingly, King Mongkut wasn't bald, and story of him and Anna Leonowens as depicted in the show is light on fact and heavy on fiction, which doesn't mean that it isn't a very entertaining musical. After watching a number of scenes I decided that I would like to take part in the production.

To be continued.

Many thanks once again to Louise Ann and Julia Phillips for spotting my 'typos', thus allowing me to correct them before publishing.



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