This time last week I was prancing about dressed as Anne Boleyn. Today I’ve just got off a coach after an eight-hour journey down from Yorkshire. It’s been a surreal week, drifting around in a creative mist, avoiding the daily grind of Real Life.
After the manic pace of the past month, leading up to the performance of Thursday’s Child, I decided a little break was in order, so headed up north to stay with my family over Easter. Several days of studying for a journalism exam and working on audition material with the lambs bleating outside my window and the snow-dappled fields beyond was a perfect time-out. Of course, I was still studying, but I don’t really do proper time-outs.
The show went so, so well. We only did two performances, the Monday and Tuesday evening, so it feels like it went by in a flash, leaving me a bit disorientated as I went into work the next day, only to set off up north on a coach the day after. The return to reality tomorrow will be interesting.
As we’ve gone through rehearsals, I’ve gradually grasped more and more of who my character Anne is, of what it feels like to be her. Ever a perfectionist, I didn’t feel I truly had her, was truly living as her on stage, until the first performance. Sitting backstage, listening nervously to the sounds of the audience settling into their seats, a sudden calm came over me. I looked at the flamboyant Anne Boleyn dress draped over the chair and felt, somehow, just right. There’s no other way of explaining it – I just felt like I was preparing to do what I was meant to do, that this was as it should be.
Waiting behind the curtain, dress fastened precariously with Velcro, ruff and headdress on, it certainly helped that Anne’s state at this stage is one of nervousness, as I switched my nervous tics for those I had developed for her. These were adaptations of my own, given a little tweak here and there; nothing too drastic so that I could absorb it into my playing of the character rather than it sitting awkwardly on top.
The magic of an audience
Once on stage the energy started to flow. The acting space was no larger than 12 by 10 feet, with audience facing each other on two sides. Both nights were pretty much sold out, so there were about a hundred people each night, 50 on each side. In my previous blog entry, I said we needed an audience, and I was right. As soon as I marched out there in full Anne Boleyn costume, wide-eyed and blinking at a hundred attentive faces looking back, I felt the energy of their presence, and fed off it. It was reciprocal – I threw a line at a man in the front row and he nodded back in sympathy, I cast a confused look over at a lady in the middle and she laughed. We fed off each other’s energy. The feeling in the room was energising, magical. As an actor you always aim to make a connection with your audience, and I had achieved just that.
The second scene was where I truly let go, the ultimate goal but one that I have fought a steady battle with since I started acting: to feel rather than just to think. I tend to intellectualise a part, to look at the reasoning behind it, to try to understand how the character thinks and why. This all creates a perfect foundation upon which to build, but unless you give yourself up to the role and actually be the character, you’re just reciting words, somebody else’s words. You have to make them your words.
For those of you who didn’t see the play, it centres on Anne, a woman in her late twenties who is trying to get her life back on track after an abusive relationship. Back at her parents’ house, her possessions in three bin liners, she takes on some hours at a nursing home where she meets the lovely Lilian, and volunteers through a ‘friend’ scheme for the elderly, where every Thursday she visits Mr Jameson, who seems to take great pleasure in trying to break her down. In scene two he’s being particularly nasty, and as I stood there as Anne, each snide remark he threw at me sinking in deep, I felt all of a sudden as if a trap door beneath me had opened. I hovered precariously over it for a moment, then felt a sense of immense release as a weight dropped through it. That weight was me – my spirit, my character, my soul. In its place Anne moved in. I finally felt the room inside me to let her in, to let her take over. It was a magical feeling.
What followed was the best performance I’ve ever done. I literally broke down in front of Mr J and his insults. My chest heaving with sobs, I lived and breathed as Anne. Patric (Mr Jameson) was magnificent as always, and became truly menacing, giving me more and more to work off. I only stepped out of the scene in my mind at one point, to realise I really should have stuffed more tissues in my pocket! Trying to stop the snot from coursing down your cheek on stage isn’t particularly attractive.
After the show, people came up to me and wanted to shake my hand. It felt a little strange at first – did I really deserve all this? But the audience’s enjoyment of the performance, coupled with the breakthrough feeling of the performance itself, left me with an immense feeling of satisfaction. I’d finally nailed it.
Not ready to say goodbye
Now I’m back in Portsmouth I feel as if we should be picking up where we left off – Sue picking me up en route to rehearsals, Lilian’s props and a travel mug of coffee in the back, Pat hunching in ski jacket and scarf in the cold rehearsal room. I’m going to miss working with this lovely bunch. I’m going to miss the camaraderie, the director Steve’s rehearsal exercises or subtle notes, the atmosphere he crated that allowed you to explore, that gave you room to breathe, all the while under his guidance. I’m going to miss Sue and her colour-coordinated socks and tops, Pat and his one-liners, and the playwright Clare and her family excitedly popping in with another piece of costume to try on.
I feel like two performances was just the beginning. With people being turned away at the door on the second night after we’d sold out, we should be able to get an audience again. My fingers are crossed. I’m not ready to say goodbye to Anne just yet.