Every now and then, I need to reassure someone that I’m comfortable in my skin – I’m happy to take my shirt off for treatment or tattooing if that makes things easier, and no I don’t need the curtain drawn or a female practitioner or any kind of inconvenient awkwardness to preserve my modesty.
Telling relative strangers that I don’t have any modesty sometimes disconcerts them, so over the years I’ve come up with what seems to be a sound tactic. It might even be the actual reason I feel this way. I just tell them I was Raised By Actors.
My earliest memory of my mother’s involvement with the theatre is of being utterly outraged that I wasn’t allowed to go and see her in The Crucible. I think I was about six or seven at the time. I can’t have been much older, however, before I was spending hours hanging out at rehearsals. I could be counted on to read quietly in a corner, and sometimes I was even allowed to prompt. There was always somebody around who had a scene off where they could entertain me for a bit, and theatre people are great with kids.
I was eight, I think, when I appeared on stage for the first time – a tiny cameo in The Visit. I don’t remember much about the play, except an air of grim creepiness and a sound effect of a panther which I might be imagining. I had long braids and a pretty Tyrolean dress, and I had to present Claire with a bunch of flowers. I was taught to curtsey properly for this play, something I can still do.
So I spent about two minutes of every night on stage, and the rest of the time out the back in the dressing room, which was full of Asterix books, and people of both sexes undressing with total matter-of-factness. This made much more sense to me than the segregation of changing for school, which I’d never understood.
By the time Mum was one of the mad murdering sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace, I was a full-fledged member of the greater theatre family. I understood the plays now, I loved the language and the sets and costumes, and the smell of the theatre. Set-wrecking parties were enormous fun. I loved ushering: there’s no greater filing thrill than getting to file people. When I ushered for Richard III, we divided the audience with a central aisle and gave one side white roses and the other red. Some people got fascinatingly upset by this and insisted on wearing the rose of the other side.
At eleven I was Peaseblossom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, setting myself up for a lifetime of being completely unable to understand why people were completely unable to understand Shakespeare. (I was possibly also the least convincing light gymnastic fairy ever to clomp across a stage.) The South Canterbury Drama League did a Shakespeare play every second year all through my teens, and either I was in it, or my mother was in it, or both, and there’d be an ex-boyfriend and a couple of my teachers as well.
The Theatre was a family, and while there were no patches, there was certainly a sense that you looked out for each other. So when I ran into a fellow cast member in The Old Mill nightclub one night we were both on the pull and I knew he was married and he knew I was sixteen, we got by on a nod and a wink and an absolute unspoken expectation that nobody was going to tell anybody anything. The only exception to this I can remember was the time my mother made a point of taking aside me and a Young Man I was striking up a Friendship with, and pointing out to each of us how old the other was. The ‘28’ was a little scary, but I’m pretty sure it was the ‘15’ that put the kibosh on the whole thing.
It was when I played Nerissa in The Merchant of Venice when I was sixteen that I realised something quite important: I wasn’t a very good actor. My mother is so talented she made it all look completely effortless, and I’d been running lines with her since I could read, but I hadn’t inherited her ability and I had no idea how to work at it. I loved it, but I could never excel at it.
In the school production of The Tempest the next year, I was Juno – or, according to one audience member the day Timaru Boys High came to watch, ‘the fairy with the big tits’. The make-up girls had, at the insistence of the director’s husband who was playing Prospero, painted a helpful arrow-shaped leaf above my cleavage. I waitressed a dinner-theatre production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in what was basically a French maid’s outfit.
Then I left for uni, and left Theatre behind me. I resisted an actor-friend’s attempts to get me to audition for a part in The Forsyte Saga - the love-interest, co-incidentally, of the part he was auditioning for. My knowledge of theatre-craft got me some sterling marks in a couple of English essays, but that was about it.
I thought I hardly missed it. But when my mother told me that one of the English teachers I talked about in my last column was in their latest play, and perhaps I should drop in on a rehearsal when I was down next week, it all came flooding back to me. I could smell it again: paint and putty, cold cream and musty fabric, wine and cigarettes. (When I was a child, you could still smoke in the foyer at half-time. I believe that’s why plays have act breaks.) I miss the building itself, from the flies to the uni-sex dressing room. I find myself ridiculously excited about going back.
Also, everything you’ve ever heard about actors is true.