DAVID'S DRAMA SCHOOL YEARS  

-Early 1989 was the turning point in my life. Looking back I think I knew what career path I wanted to follow during "The card" -my one and only  school production of the  Hatch & Trent  musical "The card" ,ten years previously. That show gave me  the" bug"-and pretty badly too (You'd have though my life was over on the last night-after only a three night run (if only that dedication and emotion prevailed today!)

 In those days -no one ever went into the theatre as a career -or even had any guidance from  school, one's parents -or (perish the thought) a career adviser! Nowadays  of course-it's quite different-as soon as a young person has a one off on the karaoke-they're on the audition list for the x factor!

A  few months after I'd found my life's path-I overheard a conversation between my family-and the classic line-"well-he's got this fantasy about being an actor"! So-having ear wigged  this observation on my life's hopes and dreams- I did the next best thing-amateur dramatics ! I joined a tatty village hall group in my home village-The Greenwood Theatre Club ! My onstage appearances were limited to Christmas shows and a revue singing "Tit Willow" from "The Mikado"! Other than that-I covered just about every other job backstage -from prompt to sound operator and props ! I had a couple of roles given to me at audition -and then promptly taken away a day or so later when they thought I was "too young"! I even had an old lady  director(I use the word loosely !) aged somewhere between 60 and death- observe "mmm-I don't think your face will take the make-up"! Coming from her it was a bit much  (especially when I think of the tons of dead whale that have adorned my visage in the last thirty or so years!)

I didn't fare any better at Sixth form college. I'd opted for A' level theatre studies-and had the dreariest of two years that would have put Judi Dench off ever setting foot on a stage again. I had a "right on" tutor-who'd obviously never seen a farce or musical comedy in her life-and went under the title of  Miss Sandra Hamilton- Fox (Complete with crew cut and mole-upstage left on her cheek!) The very first lesson-whilst sight-reading aoud- "The National Health" by Peter Nicholls- and full of enthusiasm- I endeavoured to breathe some life into the character of Foster -by doing it as Brummy.The appreciative titters from the class were quelled by an acerbic-" Don't do that-you don't know the character" ! from our double barrelled spinster tutor. So-any wonder I became very withdrawn from acting, for fear of reproach and concentrated on stage management.("Sandra" couldn't touch me there-as none of the other budding Gielgud's or Dench's wanted to have anything to do with that mundane area. )

My on chance to shine was in a group production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Trial by Jury"-cast as the Usher. Hurrah !!-the chance to sing Gilbert's immortal lyrics and Sullivan's glorious music-how could I fail  ? But-indeed I did -when I decided to play the role as an ancient retainer ! Sandra didn't feel this was innovative enough for her land-mark production and promptly removed me from the Dramatis personae.

I did however play "Macbeth"- in our final year practical ; an improvised and convoluted affair called-"This fiend like queen"(!) where we all examined what exactly sent Lady Macbeth Loopy ( If the poor cow had been taught by Sandra Hamilton Fox she'd have been certified long before "she should have died hereafter"!)

I barely  scraped through A levels and went  onto a dead end office training course for a year. I was even  sent to Armitage Shanks-the toilet makers for work experience. (My career was down the pan before It had even started !)

 

Anxious to release some theatrical ambition-I ploughed on with the am dram-even though I'd side stepped into an operatic society -of the variety that took six months to do "The Merry Widow" (for which I'm sure she was very grateful) and where  the Sopranos looked down on Altos (even though there wasn't a true soprano amongst them!)

 

But at least-I did at least make it "on stage". I also found a sort of friend and mentor in one of the male society members(!) who pushed me in the direction of playing "character roles"-at the age of seventeen !

And so it continued for the next six years. the dead end office training job gave way to a "job for life" in the civil service(the DHSS to be precise).This did have the advantage of being able to work flexi time-so one could bunk off at three thirty in order to get to rehearsals twice a week.

In those days in the civil service-there was no "coaching performance", "mentoring" or "staff appraisal" ! It was a verbal  warning, a written warning-and then OUT!!

 

During that grisly  time I had my only other long term relationship-with -of all candidates-another civil servant ! (Not from the same office and of a considerably higher rank than my humble clerical status-which ,as any one who is a devotee of Gilbert and Sullivan" will know - is a recipe for disaster!) Again-the only highlights of that ill fated affair were the numerous trips to the theatre and countless west end shows!

 This relationship obviously had a profound effect on me as when I attended a promotion interview -for the exalted rank of Executive officer.One of the Spanish Inquisition behind the desk asked me- "Do you ever read the national press"?

My reply was -"Yes-- for the theatre reviews"! After further inquisition about my theatre hobbies a superanuated tweedy type tartly asked- "Don't you think you're a bit of a mon-maniac"!

 

After  just about two years-I realised that it was only the thrill of a curtain going up that was keeping us together-so knocked the whole thing  on the head. (I last saw him on the tube one night whilst I was in the West End doing "Round the Horne-revisited" -how ironic!)

 

During that time-I'd spotted an advert for the Birmingham school of speech training and dramatic art (To give it the full title -it's since been abbreviated !) I casually mentioned to my "friend and mentor" in the operatic society that I was considering trying to get into a drama school-and received the reply-"I'd rather be at the top of the amateur tree than at the bottom of the professional one "!So-as part of the rebound I joined another theatre group-a little bit more adventurous in their choice of programme than "La Belle Helene" and "Waltzes from Vienna" .This group's highlights were "West Side Story" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" ! But-at least it was getting me out more-and mixing with a younger peer group! Although of variable  quality-the group was run by a language teacher from my old school-Pauline Brand- who encouraged everyone  and this made for a much happier atmosphere than the operatic  society. -I enjoyed my time with that group immensely-and Pauline even invited  me back to the school to play Guy Masterson in "Guys and Dolls"-the first  musical -or even school play -since  that production of "The Card" in 1977.

 

Over the first  four months of 1989- I was involved in about five productions in on way and another- requiring early departure's from the portals of the DHSS on practically every day.(15.30-and my clocking out card was in that slot!)

-One of my work colleagues-probably the only other "out and proud" in those days-casually said-"why are wasting all this time on this extra curricula stuff -when you could be doing it as a living"? (The verb relating to the business may not have been entirely accurate !)

-Those were some of the most thought provoking and inspiring words I'd ever come across-and my mind was on overtime. I found the prospectus-and thumbed through an old book-"Careers in the theatre"-of which I must now have the only known copy. I found the main accredited drama schools ,made phone calls and had prospectus duly dispatched. It had to be said that the other drama schools had rather more plush and endearing prospectus than BSSTDA had in those days. So-I looked at the options, the training-and more importantly the fees!. I was honestly of the opinion that I would have to pay for them all myself-without any sort of assistance from the local authority. However-I'd saved a little from the civil service incarceration-and figured I'd be no worse off!

So-I duly applied to five  drama schools-Mountview,Central,BSSTDA,Webber Douglas and Bristol old Vic. In those days the administration fee for auditions ranged from £10-15 . (The  total of £70 was money well spent!)

That Easter-after giving my Simon Zealotes in "Jesus Christ Superstar" I buckled down to learn audition speeches. When the most dramatic role I'd played so far was Colonel Pickering in "My Fair Lady"-I was somewhat at a loss to find anything that was going to convince a drama school that I was the next Alec Guiness.However-thanks to one of those wonderful audition speech books(where one doesn't actually have to read the play in order to ascertain the show stopping speech)-I came up with Dysart's speech from "Equs" and Malvolio's speech from "Twelfth Night".(As a spare-I stupidly prepared Terri Dennis from "Privates on parade"-a camp old drag queen and thirty years my senior !)

 -Within a few weeks-audition dates came through for all five drama schools-but how to get the time off at work-at  such short notice-and without arousing suspicion ?  But then (ironically)-my dear parents came to the rescue. They'd obviously seen where my mind was spending most of it's time and that Doctor Theatre was not just a passing phase. After giving them a little reassurance (a case of the blind leading the blind !) that I wasn't about to become a social outcast -they gave me their 100% support-and more importantly told a few white lies-so I could throw a sickie from work !

And so-onto the first drama school audition-Mountview academy of dramatic art!

PART2. THE DRAMA SCHOOL AUDITIONS

 

Yes-of course I had rehearsed as much as possibly could have done-but then of course -in those days-I hadn't the knowledge of stagecraft,timing,inflection,pause,tone-all the things that in due course a training and years in the business would  teach.

-I was also blissfully un-aware of the impediment that had only once been pointed out to me by Simon Green-that afternoon in Stratford. And of course- it was going to seized on by every auditioning committee/panel !

I had arranged to stay with a lovely guy- Alec Bregonzi(who sadly died in ) whom I had met in the Jester in Birmingham a year before-when he  was touring in ''Bittersweet''. As I'd two auditions on Wednesday and Saturday morning -it made sense to stay in London-and maybe catch a couple of shows on the way.

 

I got to Mount view's academy in very good time to change, try and regain a composure and look calm and collected.(Nothing was further from the truth) Looking back I can't have presented a very welcoming persona to my fellow auditonees-making small talk and nervously smiling-but I guess everyone was in the same boat.

And so the grim process began. To make matters worse-we were all auditioning together-presenting our ''pieces'' and doing vocal classes together.

(NB-as I write  this- I've just remembered that one of the first things one of the tutors did was express the precariousness of the business-and shot me a  rapid fire question of ''Do you like good food'' (Silly,naff question really -as of course everyone does!) My predictable reply was parried  with- ''then why are you entering this profession !(charming!!) I suppose it was a way of breaking people down-as was (And maybe still is) the norm with several drama schools-but it was an unnerving start.

And so onto a voice warm up-during which the impediment was seized on with jubilation by a female tutor. '' Oh- I can hear that week ''R'' there '' ,she broadcast! (Quite a common complaint-look at Jonathan Ross and Barbra Windsor !) She spelt it out quite graphically that "the tongue wasn't working properly"-and I suppose my fate was sealed there and then !)

And then onto presenting our pieces to the entire room. One lad presented an excellent piece -well timed, well presented-which put the fear of god into the rest of the room.(Another guy went to the loo before he was due on next!) And then it was me-and in a split second-I ditched Malvolio and Dysart-and opted for Terri Dennis! (Stupid, I know-but I suppose it was a comfort blanket)-looking back I think my card was marked from thereafter.(It was the late 80's after all !)) -As we were coming out of the room the lad who'd gone to loo accidentally let a small brown bottle fall from his pocket-making it evident where his ''Dutch courage'' had come  from. (A novel way of auditioning -sponsored by Rush!)

And onto singing-where I had to succeed(surely).I'd opted for ''My Friends''(The ómage to the razors from Sondheim's ''Sweeney Todd'') -I'd even made a prop razor. AND-I'd never run through it with a pianist-I'd just used my instinct and timing from the recording. It actually worked-and I was  allowed to finish with the final-'at last my arm is complete again'' line at the end. No comment was made !

And onto the  dreaded dancing; Years before I had had a lot of bad criticism from so called friends saying I couldn't dance. Maybe not-but that stuck for a long time-until with time and perseverance I developed what I could do into a ''moves well'' format for my CV. AND-at the movement audition for Mountview I put behind me all the negative comments and told myself that I could do this. I honestly thought it wasn't too bad-but again no comment was made.

At the end of all this- an announcement was made that they wanted certain people to stay behind to see some more material. My name wasn't called -and as positive as I could be- I walked out knowing that the first cab off the rank had been a failure and went off to console myself with an evening performance of 'Chess' at the Prince Edward theatre. Looking back however-I don't remember being that

Over the next couple of days I explored London a bit more to really get to know it better than I did. I also caught productions of ''Hedda Gabbler'' at the National and 'Jubilee'' with Bill Owen at the same.

On the Saturday I had an audition at the long gone academy- LAMDA-and on this occasion I made sure I gave them something a bit more demanding than a camp old queen! I think they saw two pieces-the Shakespeare(Malvolio) and Equs(Dysart)-but again -it was a very polite ''thank you'' as I left to console myself with a matinee of'' Brigadoon'' at the Victoria Palace before returning home.

-I seem to remember I had the standard rejection letter very soon afterwards.

 Over the next few weeks I worked on the next humiliating audition at the Central school of speech and drama. This time they had decreed the pieces they wanted to see-2 Shakespeare-from a set list of options. I duly selected Cassius(Caesar) and Hamlet. .On there criteria was the proviso that one may be called back the following day and should be available. I had arranged to stay with my dear friend Richard Heggett to stay with him-as I usually did whenever I was up in London. On this occasion he secretly guessed my plans.

Central School(with it's A4 red glossy brochure was/is based at Swiss Cottage in the Embassy theatre and buildings. I found it even more daunting then Mountview-but at least we didn't have to present pieces in front of everyone. I ran into the lad who'd been very good at the Mountview auditions who told me he'd already been offered a place there.(I often wonder if he's still in the business) Apart from that--hardly anyone spoke to each other-and it took ages to be seen and even longer to be told the short list of those they wanted to re-interview the next day-of which (inevitably) my name was not included. Even more despondently I went to Swiss Cottage to meet Richard. Normal I would have travelled directly to Upton Park to stay with Richard but on this occasion -a tube strike meant I had no idea(in those days) how to get there.

When I met Richard he kind of knew why I was in the Swiss cottage area--and once home he guessed correctly.(after all, his long standing partner was an established actor-and Richard knew all too well what Swiss cottage represented in the theatre world. He gave me his whole-hearted supported and understood why I had kept the news secret from mutual friends in Birmingham who had told me that they would ''rather be at the top of the amateur tree than at the bottom on the professional one (They know who they are!!)

-It didn't take long for another standard letter arrived to make me re-evaluate the whole process.

-This left three more auditions to go(and considering in those days auditions ranged from £15 to £20 each -it was quite a small fortune for the honour of covering these schools '' administration costs''.

Before the final two auditions(Webber Douglas and Bristol Old Vic) I had the nearest audition in Birmingham at the Birmingham school of speech training and dramatic art. Ironically-this was the one that had first invoked my thoughts of going to drama school-when I'd seen it in a theatre programme and duly ordered their prospectus.(White with purple lettering !)

-The school was set in the heart of Edgbaston, Birmingham-not too far from the city centre and in a very desirable area. It was in fact a beautiful old house-in which the founder-Pamela Chapman had set up a very hands -on and family based training-concentrating on the basics and the fundamentals-but without the fripperies of a lot of the London schools.

 

The audition took the form of the usual two speeches (Shakespeare and modern)-and I duly took along Teri Dennis(Why ?) and a new piece in Romeo's death scene(even though I was nearly 23 at the time -an ageing ''star crossed lover '' with prematurely  receding hair !

The audition was also the most taxing-but also most constructive of all the drama school processes  as if you were successful after the morning auditions-they put you through your paces in singing,dance,improvisation,sight reading and a re-audition in front of the principal at the end of the day. You were marked on a score basis-(which to this day-I would love to read in hindsight. )-but at least it ensured that if you were slightly below average in one area-another strong point would pull you through.

My audition was around 11.am in thee morning and on arrival at the all too familiar facade we were greeted by Carolyn Moore and Michelle McDaid who were runners for the day to ensure everything ran well and also to offer us some good advice throughout the day. they particularly stressed that if we were given critique in the morning and then called back for the afternoon-that it was in our best interests to act on the critique and change our piece accordingly.

In the morning I trotted out Romeo's death scene in front of the vice principal-Miss Christine Shelton-who was quite frankly scary at any time of the day when you first met her. She tore into my staging and demanded to know why I had decided to wander off down stage right, away from the ''body' of the imagined Juliet.

So- I honestly thought that another one had bitten the dust. But at the end of the morning session when the list of those re-called for the afternoon was given out-lo and behold-my name was among them. (there was a glimmer of hope !) During the lunch break-I got talking to a tall guy from Liverpool and he introduced himself to me as Maurice Ord. (It must have been a good omen)

In the afternoon we were put through our paces by the other college staff. I think my first step was sight reading-with one of the college's best directors Larry Rew. Again-I had no experience of sight reading and can't to this day remember what the piece was about-but Larry seemed keen to guide me through the process and explained the importance of sight reading as an audition too for the future.

The next stage was singing and I duly trotted out ''My Friends'' from ''Sweeney Todd''. To Chris Honer who seemed very impressed. There then followed improvisation-as a group and as individual-in the library with John Greenwood(The stage fight teacher)-not altogether a prize performance-but then not horrendously awful.

Dance class followed with dear old Val Elliot-who really was one of the schools characters(and there were many) - I tried my best but I       very much doubt she thought I was going to be next Michael Flatley ! Even Maurice(with whom I was attending the class) asked if I would move to one side to allow him room ! (We since laughed about this incident a great deal)

And then onto-the meeting with the principal-Miss Patricia Yardley and Miss Shelton(again) Miss Shelton seemed far less scary when in the company of her senior -and having duly delivered Teri Dennis and Romeo-to which Miss  Shelton remarked- 'Much better- - we had a very restless Romeo this morning !'' Things

 were looking up-and then bombshell struck again ;

''We don't normally take anyone on with a speech impediment''' ! ,remarked Miss Yardley. She asked if I was taking any lessons to correct it and on a quick instinct I told her that I was going to Louise Payne(A respected local speech and drama teacher) -Miss Yardley seemed satisfied-but I made a mental note that I had better book a lesson with Mrs Payne-just in case enquiries were made.

And so ended my audition with Birmingham school of speech and drama-I remember it was a beautiful day in early May-really lovely-and I left with a lot more hope than Mountview,Lamda or Central had afforded

 

A week later(I think) I had a letter from the school to say I was placed on a reserve list !(Still-it was better than nothing !)

I duly rang Louise Payne and made an appointment to see her in Solihull. It was  in fact her husband Kevin who saw me and listened to some of my audition pieces. He too agreed that there was a weak ''R'' that needed correction-but he said a wonderfully kind remark -'you're an unpolished diamond-at the moment-you don't deserve that place at drama school''-which may sound an inverted compliment-but I knew what he meant-and looking back(22 years ago)-I wholeheartedly agree. As a final good will gesture Kevin didn't charge me a penny for the hour of good advice he had given

(NB It was only last year that I learnt from Louise Paye via face book that her dear husband had passed away-thankyou Kevin-that good advice was the wake up call I needed)

-My final two auditions took place during a very hectic week when I was performing in an amateur production of 'Orpheus in the Underworld'' as a roller skating Mercury (More about those roller skates later)-probably just as well-as my mind was pr-occupied with getting back in time to waste time getting depressed about the auditions. (Sods law-2 in one week !) The first one on the Tuesday was for Bristol Old Vic -near Centre point-nothing extraordinary-and no burning questions-just a curt- ''thakyou''.

The second was for Webber Douglas-and I recognised one of the guys on the panel from the visit to the National I had made with Alec Bregonzi. I think I did a Shakespeare and maybe Equs-but once I'd finished I was asked which part was the most demanding had ever played. I could have kicked myself when I said ''Sky Masterson in ''Guys and Dolls''!(Why oh why didn't I lie and say Tamburlaine or something else suitably classical.

 

--Rejection letters followed for both-and I firmly resigned to put the whole thing behind me for a year.

But-looking back-fate was working overtime -and it decreed that 1989 was to be MY year.

 

-I think it must have been mid-August -on a fine Summers day at my desk of drudgery at the DHSS in Sheldon, Birmingham, At two o'clock my father rang me from home.....

-There had been a phone call from the Birmingham school saying that there was now a place available and ''would I like to take it'' !!

-I think I must have been very flippant in my behaviour that afternoon as I told my supervisor and then went into see the section manager to hand in my resignation there and then! (The secure job was at an end-and with just over a month to go-I wasn't going to waste any more time)

(I can still remember my letter of resignation began with 'Í am pleased to inform the department....''.There was no love lost there !)

-Over the next month I assembled all the necessary equipment,clothing,books,make up-according to the college list that was sent to us all. My dear parents assisted with the cost of a lot of it-they have always been there at important moments in my life) I also discovered that I was eligible for a full student grant from Solihull council-whereas had I moved to Birmingham sooner(as I was planning on doing) I wouldn't have got a grant from Birmingham city council for it's very own drama school. It also turned out to be the last year of full grants-before student loans were crept in. Yet another hand of fate was contriving to make this all happen at the right time.

-I left work 2 weeks before starting college in order to give me a re-focus and get my head around what the next three years would hold in store. The DHSS gave me a good send off-and all parted amicably.

And so -Monday  September 1989 dawned- and ''the first day of the rest of my life''!

 

PART 3. The First year

I can still remember what wore for that first day at the school-and what I did as soon as I arrived. To make matters worse-I was worried about being late because of the buses to the college. I went into studio one and sat on the old window sat and before long- Maurice arrived and we recognised each other from the auditions.

He told me he was from Liverpool and was living in the YWCA nearby.

That first day really involved an introduction to everything-starting with a tour of the college by the very eccentric Mari Palmer and then into the theatre for a preliminary talk by Miss Yardley. I must make it clear at this stage that everyone at the college was on first name terms -apart from Miss Yardley and Miss Shelton. It was definitely the full title as far as they were concerned. so for thee purpose of this blog I will continue to give them their full distinction. Miss Yardley stressed the importance of budgeting our grants and the importance of punctuality and asked us what would we would prefer to be called by at the college. I foolishly opted for ''Dave''-but it took very little time for me to reject this-and although my surname had to change for equity in due course -I have never really liked abbreviated names.

-Sitting in the small Apex theatre I found it difficult to imagine how such a small space could ever pay host to theatrical performance-but it didn't take long to see how versatile this unique space was.

-Most of the morning was spent dividing us up into our two groups for the year-each of which was then further divided to produce a smaller group for ASM' íng and presenting a once a term internal studio performance in the college's regency room.

At lunchtime we repaired to the college's local pub-The Unspoilt by Progress (But when I recently returned to Birmingham-it certainly had-and was now luxury flats and offices !!) and met a lot of the returning students--including Caroline and Michelle from the audition day. I can't honestly remember that much about the lunchtime session-only that the outcome was that we should all meet back later that night.

I must also stress at this juncture that I was commuting from my parents home in Dorridge,near Solihull-and it was a good hour door to door-if not more. I wondered how long I could continue with this routine-the more we got into college life and late nights with shows etc. (as it worked out I lasted just one term at home)

That night I returned to the Unspoilt by progress with the rest of the college for an evening drink and Maurice announced his intention of leaving after only one day. I don't think he really meant it and maybe he needed the reassurance as he had after all left a partner and family in Liverpool. Caroline Moore came to the rescue and persuaded him otherwise (she later re told me that story when I met her during Summer 2014 out of the blue in Mold while I was on a hectic tour for Haven)

The next day the timetable started in earnest. (I wish I had kept all the timetables for reference but I suppose I never thought id be writing in such detail about it all twenty five years later.) The day always started with school assembly -where the entire college pupils met in the Regency room for old fashioned role-call- politely standing up as Miss Yardley Entered the room and ALWAYS answering - "Yes Miss Yardley"-and woe betide anyone who didn't ! I suppose -looking back we were all slightly amused by this ritual-but as years have gone by-I've come to look back on this as a perfect respect for one who came from "Old School" traditions. It certainly didn't do us any harm-and a few students could learn from that respect today.

  I think the first lesson that stuck in my mind was improvisation with Julia Scott Rose (Windsor).I can't say I warmed to her at first-if ever as I always felt she had her favourites and enjoyed being idolised by some of  the boys of the college. She obviously realised she wouldn't, t get that adoration from myself  and maybe that's  why we never hit it off. Her improvisation classes started with what she used to call a quick criss cross-which involved stepping into an improvised setting at random and making a scene progress with whatever the previous actor , in a frozen position was discovered in. I didn't, t grasp the concept at the very first lesson and felt highly embarrassed when I was stuck for words. I 've never fully enjoyed improvisation at auditions or in lessons and always feels its all done for the cheapest comedy effect and only shows who can be as loud and outrageous as possible, Those who want a more truthful subdued effect tend to get trodden on or just go along with the flow for a quiet life.

Later on that term we had a particularly uncalled for lesson which was supposed to break down inhibitions.

It had all come about from a rehearsal with Larry Re for our Regency room production of Shirley by Andrea Dunbar when we weren't, t intimate enough in a drunk scene- even though there was no time to get intimate with a lot of stage business involving glue sniffing!

Julia made the entire class kiss each other in various degrees of intimacy!  All rather pointless as its all down to the performers to trust each other and make it work- not put on a floor show for an entire class. It had the opposite effect on me and made me even more nervous especially when a couple of the " lads" started putting their ore in and showing how its done ! I thought about this banal lesson twenty years later doing Titfield Thunderbolt when we didn't t even need to rehearse to throw our arms around each other in a passionate embrace- WE JUST DID IT  !

 

Talking about the aforementioned Larry Rew. He was probably the best director the college had and his technical direction was brilliant as well-but he could make one feel a little on edge in early rehearsals-not that that's a bad thing with drama students!

Working on Shirley by Andrea Dunbar- a shorter play by the author of Rita sue and bob too' was hard going- probably because no one had pointed out to us that it was a comedy and should have been played somewhat for laughs- a fact we only found out on the actual performance in front of the entire school when the laughs took us by surprise.

(NB It was however with sadness that I spotted Julia s name (WINDSOR)-in the equity memoriam section of the magazine and after a few enquries  by Sara Jane Derrick and Sue Earnshaw- it proved to be the news that Julia had succumbed to breast cancer. The tributes from all the schools past pupils was very moving and showed she was well thought of and respected.)

There was "characterisation" with Ron Williams-a gently spoken  Welshman-who on the first lesson got us running round the garden to experience the feeling of physical exertion. In fact his lessons were very thought-provoking -and there was never a right or wrong decision-as long as the possibility of a characterisation had been thought of. We never saw him lose his composure-he had the calm and understanding of a psychiatrist.

 

There was mime with Jeff Buckley-a ''natural black haired'(!) guy in a velour tracksuit whose lessons taught the basics of moon walking, trajectory and  point of focus. ("It's thurr " was the oft repeated cry in his classes-as we fought to find a fix point in our focus-that made  a hand gesture convey stick manipulation to an easily convinced audience.  He also had a propensity for showing the female members of the class how to move their pelvis in isolation-using the "hands on" approach  ! Looking back-Geoff did teach us the basics of mime-but the only things I picked up over three years was how to mime lifting heavy rocks (for our extract from "Bent" in the final showcase") and static walking-that I put to good use in Arabian Nights" at Midland Arts centre(Circa 1995 !)

-There was dance with dear old Val Elliott-who had the patience of a saint with some of us(myself included) Her classes included everything from ballet to jive-not studied in depth-but enough to get us all moving-even if co-ordination left a lot  to be desired with some of us. She was always ready to encourage and have a laugh-even when the odds of us becoming Nijinsky's must have been n impossible dream.

-Hot on her heels was Shirley who gave us basic tap lessons-with the same degree of hope and fortitude-(It certainly wasn't grace and favour-as at lunchtimes extra class-she often had a cigarette protruding!)

-Television classes were given by Ian Stewart-and with the college's limited black and white cameras-they were limited in their achieve. don't think any of us picked up anything other than how to move to marks, not to blink and to "love ourselves on camera" !

-Fencing classes were taken by John Greenwood-the schools fight director-and even though John is a superb fight director-he never managed to convey the rudiments of fencing to half of us.(self included)

 

His stage combat classes were excellent-as he taught us how to fall, take punches, imitate the nap(the noise of a physical blow) and indeed one of the best stage fights I have ever seen was his staging in our third year production of the Fifteen Streets -with Jon Campling and Richard Opie-to this day I can still recall how frighteningly real it looked-even from the wings.. But-alas-fencing just eluded me-probably because of the uncertainty of it all. I have always preferred staging something rather than the thrill of  the unknown-which is what fencing is all about.(I don't  think John was particularly impressed with my referring to the masks and protective jackets as hats and blouses either!)

-Sight reading and Alexander technique were in the capable hands of Pat Oddy-a delightfully eccentric lady with large eyes, penetrating stare and a keen sense of humour. She very quickly recognised my love of Gilbert and Sullivan patter and  everything that would otherwise have defeated someone with a speech defect-as I knew I had in those days. All the time she encouraged advised about tongue exercises-and advised me to seek advice from Christine Shelton-the formidable vice principal.

I sought an audience with the lady herself after assembly one day  and was granted an audience in the inner-sanctum-in fact the college inner sanctum-The Kitchen!

Chrissie greeted me as a  camel would have welcomed an Englishman and proceeded     to investigate my tongue ! She asked I could perform her party  trick of curling her tongue up at each side -to produce a ridge in the middle(much as a viper might)-I regretfully admitted that I couldn't and I was dismissed that only tongue strengthening exercises would allow me to aspire to her dexterity in the tongue department !

It therefore befell to one of the best directors in the college-Brian Shelton to teach me how to overcome this inherent deformity in my articulation-and his teaching was as simple as falling off a log-and concluded that it wasn't been unable to produce  a correct "R"-but never having been taught to from childhood( or ever being corrected )  He have me the simple exercise of making an American drawl sound with the  syllable- "jrrrr" and told me to be aware of where the tongue curled into the roof of the mouth and to make a mental image of it. Brian then told me to remove the "j" consonant and use the same technique to produce the correct tongue placement. And-it worked! Pure and simple!! He told me I'd have to think about it for the rest of my life-but that with time and practice-it would become second nature and sub conscious-and sure enough it did. Over the years-with just a simple exercise and a mental aid-it cured one of the most common speech defects known to man. So-what's your excuse Jonathan Woss? And let it be a comfort to anyone who has ever had a similar malady-it can always rectified (look at Eliza Doolittle for heavens sake !).

I was lucky as well-that in that first term-Brian had cast most of the boys in our group in one of his third year shows. Brian always directed the period drama-albeit-restoration/Jacobean/ Shakespearean-whatever! All performed in(by his own admission) the same "shitty brown" rag rolled set-consisting of two door either side-and usually sliding doors at the back.

"The imortal Brian Shelton giving his unique style of direction-despite a few wandering attention spans,USR at the Window(May have just been assembley !" 

Brian was a master at direction of the oft neglected pieces-having been artistic director at Pitlochry for many years-and whereas most of us-hadn't a clue about what the plot of these  forgotten classics were-Brian spelt it out perfectly for us- to the extent of giving us the perfect stress on a syllable,intontion and expression-handed to us on a plate-he awoke an understanding in all of us of the forgotten classics.

 

The classic in our case was Middleton and Decker's-"The Roaring Girl" .I was cast as Greenwit-

 - one of the lesser men about town

& One particularly difficult scene involved us all smoking clay pipes 

Having never smoked before- I had a lesson from one of my fellow cast members with the clay pipes and the rather heady herbal tobacco that had been purchased. It tasted revolting-and my pipe was always going out because of my inability to suck and blow in equal measure. (It must be remembered that we were still in the era of  smoking onstage being the norm-and the vast majority of the pupils smoked as a matte of course(Plus some of the tutors/directors in rehearsals )

-We were very lucky in the first and second years at the school, in that we were ASM' íng for the years above us-and often playing smaller parts. As first years0we didn't actually do main house/public performances-but these stage management duties enabled us to get valuable experience in the theatre-very early on. If one wasn't cast-there was still the  jobs of sound/lighting  and props to sort out- all in-valuable to one's appreciation of the business. A stage management  course had recently been formed but it was still in its embryonic stage-meaning that we got our full share of main house acting roles in our first year.

A week of ASM' íng meant that we didn't t attend any other classes and gave our full focus to the show on which we were involved-painting/setting up/ -in fact everything that a repertory company would expect one to do.

They were busy weeks-and long days-but no more than one comes to expect on any professional show-and considering the first job any of us were likely to get was as an asm once we left-it was invaluable training.

 

(I had been involved with a local operatic society before I attended the college and had    written to Miss Yardley to ask if I may complete  a run of  Annie Get your gun"-2 weeks before "Roaring Girl"-my request was granted but I wished I hadn't had to do it-within a couple of weeks- I was firmly in the mode of the professional-the college was like that-you learnt daily and any amateur behaviour was quickly ruled out)

 

-The week of any show at the college was a long and arduous one-with late finishes and all sorts of call times-and I was lucky enough to be able to stay with Martin Harris and his girlfriend Roz for the week of  " The Roaring Girl"-. The second show we Sam's was quite so lucky. I was offered the floor of David Huntingdon-one of the cast members of  "Mary Barnes"-the show on which we were engaged -a hard hitting  piece by David Edgar on the journey through Schizophrenia of the protagonist . Although a very kind offer by David to let  me stay in his Bohemian bed sit-the nightly gathering of the substance imbibers was enough to make me realise that I would have to move nearer the school-and hence my leaving home-as it turned out-for good. And no a bad thing- I'd been trying to get a flat a few years before but given up the idea during a failed relationship. I did however have the furniture amassed to furnish a small flat-when the need arose .

 

Back to Mary Barnes- a remarkable piece-particularly for a 2nd year show and one of the best of the term. It was very heavy on props and stage management -including onstage meals and a particularly nasty scene in which the lead girl appeared -covered in her own excrement. This was accomplished by the clever concoction of ready brek and gravy browning-mixed to the required consistency and colour for the average "Bristol Stool" (Don't ask for the recipe !) -and mixed up nightly by dear Maria Melville (Ria Richardson). The scene was both disturbing, powerful and  a testament to the talent of Vanessa Collick who played the role. The scene received a complete silence from the audience each night-and at the college performance-you could have heard a pin drop.

-Immediately following the scene-Vanessa would rush offstage into the slightly inadequate shower in the girls dressing room-and barely had enough time to remove the offending" make up"-before her next scene. As a result- a lot of the ready brek "motion mixture" was left on the shower floor-and sadly caused the college housekeeper Mrs Cook to jump to the wrong conclusion and have to take a day off through stress at what she wrongly assumed......

 

Our own first year show- performed only to the other college students- was a dreary affair-probably because no one told the rest  us to play it for laughs-and it was in fact a very funny piece. It was probably the one and only time I've ever made copious notes and background info on a character-in order to try and adopt  the Stanislavsky approach. Frankly- it can all be a bit pointless -unless it relates to what is actually happening on stage. As an exercise in characterisation-of course -very valid-but I've always  been of the opinion that with limited time in the case of most productions-it's a case of get it on it's feet  and worry about the incidentals later.