During my second term at drama school, we had to face Shakespeare. All the students were frantic as agents from the RSC would be in the audience, scouting for new talent. There were tears after rehearsals. The toilets stank with the remnants of our nervous stomachs.
I was cast as Hermione in The Winter’s Tale. Here I am, entertaining my husband’s best friend, who I feel at ease with: he is jovial, whereas my husband is serious. I am pregnant and suddenly my husband gets it into his head that the baby isn’t his, but his friend’s. I’m put on trial.
My lord you are mistaken, I say.
Each time in rehearsals, the director would shout: stop, stop, you’re being too cautious. Be innocent, not defensive!
But I didn’t know what it was to conduct yourself on the conviction of your heart in the face of an accusation. My whole life I’d been pursued by teachers, headmasters, headmistresses – told I wasn’t working hard enough, or that I was being wilfully disruptive. I had no power against these charges. It never crossed my mind, as a ten year old, to say – but this is me, not naughty, not wayward, simply how I am, trying as best I can.
Instead, I nodded, said I was sorry: I would try harder. When the scolding finished, I staggered away, the muscles in my body, tightening to contain whatever was wrong inside me. I didn’t know how to work harder, or concentrate more. All I could do was to stop being myself.
All through rehearsals of The Winter’s Tale, I can’t get it right.
Wait! the director says, her nostrils wide and dark. The friend of your husband is someone you feel comfortable with – relax with him.
I try again.
But don’t flirt! comes the next instruction – you have to simply show great ease and hosting skills.
A deep, historic anger is growing inside me. I begin to hate the director – simply to look at her makes me livid. I want to perform the final show appallingly – even though this is my one chance to act in front of representatives from the RSC.
Guiltless! the director shouts, the skin on the underside of her chin, quivering.
Stop trying! she hisses, and I stare at a drop of spit, which has settled on her lip.
Read the speech again! she says, clicking her fingers and I imagine walking right up to her and slapping her across the face, slapping the world for putting me in a box I didn’t belong for so much of my childhood so that now I’m unable to be who I want.
The other week, I was bending down to get something out of my rucksack when my back went into spasm. This is often the way it is for me – shaking my hair after a shower, lying down on a picnic rug, suddenly feeling a sharp twinge in the lower part of my spine, above my right butt cheek. It’s like a pod of fear.
What’s wrong with me? it wants to know.
It came at university as deadlines loomed and I feared my coursework wouldn’t be good enough. Suddenly the pressure on the base of my spine becomes too much – it is not simply my upper body that I am supporting, but expectations that are beyond me.
The stage was a place I felt free – a source of happiness.
But at drama school this was shattered.
I had to be true if I was to become a great actress, but I was too caught up in the notion of being something I wasn’t – something more. Once again, I was getting it wrong, but the way I had survived in the past, wasn’t working. I had to be myself, but this was a person I hadn’t visited for so long, I didn’t know how to find my way back.
I tried, as if playing a game, fitting shapes into slots, hoping to find something that fit. This great conundrum.
Hard to understand that being ourselves – which should be the most natural thing in the world, simply a case of opening our eyes, breathing, being – is so difficult. What is it that gets in the way?
For me, I’d grown up burdened with expectations – those of my parents, my teachers. They saw something in my future, but they never noticed the girl in front of them. Only I could see that. But I was unable to decipher what I observed.
Each day at drama school, I was followed by an echo. I took a step, delivered a line, followed an instruction, and the echo was the same: am I doing it right?
I became desperate because of my inability to answer the question. It’s only now that I know the echo is not the real me talking, and doesn’t need answering. Maybe one day it will fade entirely. Though, I suspect that to actively strive for that silence is to follow a wrong path – that of struggling, rather than simply allowing. For now, when the question comes, I remind myself words are not important, only the feeling beneath them, which is where my true self lies.
When the day of the performance arrived, I finally became Hermione. I felt the audience – their energy, their thoughts, their emotion. It was all in the atmosphere. And just like guiding a seed-head through the air with your hands, I held their attention in my pauses, my gestures. There was this tiny moment where I felt my fear, because the part was so challenging – and the director’s voice was in my head: no, stop, again! but I felt my impulse to open myself up so that I came from my belly, unimpeded.
I was chosen by the RSC scout to come and audition for them.
My head floated up high above my body in a way I never thought it would – feeling for so long that I had been failing at drama school, that I wasn’t the actress I’d been made to believe I was.
Then I discovered that I had to sing a solo for the audition.
I couldn’t sing and already I knew I wouldn’t be chosen.
When my lower spine went into spasm, I stood up from my rucksack and undressed to my underwear as I was sweating badly. I lay some cushions on my deck outside and tried to relax.
After an hour, I decided to get up, but the pain was so acute I couldn’t even sit. I tried turning onto my side. Fire rushed through my pelvis and I flopped back down, staring at the sky. This bright blue summer we’re having, which has changed the mood of everything. I looked at the branches of the eucalyptus, bowing in the breeze, and I thought to myself: can I really not get up – is it really so painful? For a moment I wasn’t sure who was making the decisions – the real me or the frightened child. Eventually, I began to need the toilet so I tried again. That’s when I knew. Despite really having to get somewhere, I still couldn’t move.
I thought about what I tell my students in my public speaking workshops – all you have to do is breathe. So, that’s what I did. I took deep, long breaths. The pain was there – catastrophic, but I just tried to focus on the breath. I managed to make it onto all fours, but I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stand. I crawled to the bathroom, and at this stage I was fairly desperate. In the last few moments I dragged myself up, onto the seat, and just about managed to slide my pants to the side so I could pee.
Afterwards, my breath came in shudders, in and out – flames at the base of my spine, in my pelvis, my legs shaking – my chest full of emotion, the ache of tears in my cheeks. Still, I asked myself: is it really this painful?
I moved just an inch to try to stand up – but the pain was so bad I made a long sound, wailing.
I tipped back, holding the toilet seat, supporting my upper body weight. I sat there. Staring at myself in the mirror. Several minutes went by. I thought about the hurt that started in my back when I was at drama school, which contained one word.
Why can’t I do this?
Beneath that was a whole life of blame – blame for everyone who hadn’t allowed me to be myself, for everyone who had misunderstood my actions. Who interpreted my love of life, adventure, my need to explore, for wilful disobedience. I was so busy blaming and asking why, I didn’t realise that the only way to be myself is to be myself. Nobody is stopping me, but my own misconception.
As I sit on the toilet, unable to move, staring at myself in the mirror, I remember the song from that audition – how hard I tried to ignore the fear I wasn’t good enough.
With my pelvis as tense as it is, my belly hardly moves. When I try to breathe, my diaphragm only shifts in miniscule increments so that my lungs barely fill. I pant in short bursts. But I sing. The sound comes out weak, quivering, but I don’t hear what’s wrong. All I hear is the truth, which is that I’m in great pain. Singing like this isn’t about being excellent, it’s about expressing something: agony, the edge of tears, home alone, stuck on the toilet.
If I’d gone to that audition and embraced how I truly felt it wouldn’t have mattered how I sang, because they would have seen someone who knew themselves – able to connect to whatever it is inside them, good or bad, perfect or imperfect. Maybe then I would have got the part.
I was so busy trying to get it right that I never gave myself a chance to say: but who am I really?
I was acting like all those teachers had acted my whole life, expecting something, rather than seeing what was actually there – trusting that would be better than anything.
This is all I am, just this.
I am no more than this.