So – what is it you actually do up there?

This was the question my mother asked when I said I was off once again to North Wales to do crazy stuff with Clwyd Theatr Cymru Theatre for Young People – the community strand of Theatr Clwyd.  “We take over a school for a week,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I haven’t been singing Sondheim in a freezing schoolyard since 8am.”

My first encounter with Theatr Clwyd was when I went to do Beatrice in A View from the Bridge.  I love Miller and could happily spend my entire career in his plays, interspersed with Sondheim musicals.  It was also my first encounter with Tim Baker, the director.  Tim is (and I’ve told him, so it’s not like I’m hustling for another job or anything) the best director I’ve ever worked with.  Not only because he is creative, imaginative and understands texts from the inside out, but because he trusts his actors.  Towards the end of the third week, during that traditional floundering time when actors go ‘what the fuck am I doing?’, Tim cancelled rehearsals and told us to go away for three days. I took my script up Moel Famau, the highest hill in the Clwydian Range (thanks Wiki), and the following Monday came into rehearsal with a fully-formed Beatrice.  I had literally gone up a hill and come down with a character.  I loved it.  I loved that he trusted us to get our arses in gear.  Not everyone loved it but hey.

Fast forward several years and Tim rings me up. “What are you doing for the next six weeks?”  Given a bit more notice than three days, I might have been able to say ‘whatever you want’, but I’d already got work lined up for much of it.  However, for the last two weeks of Tim’s new project, called The Hub, I turned up as a visiting artist and, with the core team of five actors and several other visiting artists, we did indeed take over a school.  Two schools, one for each week.

So what is it then?  To quote Tim’s press release: “The team consisted of a core of five actors and a host of visiting artists that included a street dancer, performance poets, musicians, visual artists and events were created (as much as 40 per day) all over the school – in the corridors, at lunchtimes, at break times, and in the halls and classrooms.  The Hub was always conceived as a creative ‘handshake’ with young people and we consistently challenged students to respond to our interventions with their own creative work, through e-mailing us, through drop-boxes throughout the school, through workshops and other activities.”

All the schools have been secondaries, not always OFSTED (or the Welsh equivalent) 5 starred.  That’s the point.  To go to places that don’t get this sort of stuff, that don’t get a stage fighting workshop, or a bunch of people coming into your classroom, performing an extract from Lord of the Flies or Macbeth and melting away again.

A visitor from ACW (Arts Council of Wales) said: “This reminded me of why i work at the arts council.”  It also reminded me of why I love being an actor.  Tim gave us the freedom to wander round doing pretty much whatever we wanted – ooh look, there’s a classroom just waiting for a bit of To Kill a Mockingbird/a poem/a song/a breakdance/a guitar solo.

I remember walking down one corridor peering into classrooms full of bent-headed students and feeling like Puck, or the Trickster.  We were anarchy, we were challenge and laughter and freedom.  I hated school up until the fourth year – I’d been stuck in a different class to my friends and was miserable and bullied by the cool kids until we joined up for O Levels.  One day, out of nowhere, two actors from the RSC turned up to give us English Lit students a short performance.  And those actors?  Ben Kingsley and Bob Peck.  In our classroom.  Othello and Iago.  To this day I have no idea why they turned up, who had got them there, but I have never forgotten the awe I felt.  And yes, that consolidated the ‘I want to be an actress’ path.  Up until that point I wanted to be an astronaut, but as I could do neither Maths nor Science, it seemed unlikely.

Perhaps it was the same for these kids – actually, I know it was for some, because they told us, they tweeted, emailed, gave us flowers and in Nia’s case, a Valentine’s card.

This last project – as if the schools weren’t ambitious enough – took over a whole town, Connah’s Quay, the largest in Flintshire.  For five weeks, interventions were staged everywhere from a care home to primary schools, in Morrisons, on buses, on roundabouts.  Seven people in blue boiler suits managing to make red and blue umbrellas a must-have fashion accessory.  The blues were the core team, the red boiler suits were the visiting artists.  I’ve never discovered why the boiler suits – we are called Artists@work, maybe that’s why, or maybe it’s because they are unflattering to absolutely everyone – but they are certainly distinctive.  And have a lot of pockets for phones, pens, scraps of paper, the complicated schedule.  Ah the schedule. 8-8.45 – in the corrider, singing to welcome the kids and staff.  Everyone else doing their own thing in and outside. Lesson one performing arts, crossover between lessons, make a cup of tea, no time to drink it, come back and it’s cold, oh look I’m in English next, shall I do a poem or a song, or a workshop, quick sandwich for lunch if you’ve got a spare 15 minutes to eat it….  more classrooms, workshops, singing, poems, tea gone cold again, then we wave them off until the next day.

Each day we handed out cards with themes on them: Friendship, fear, love… and the kids responded with lyrics, poems, monologues, scenes which we then performed back to them.  We got amazing stuff.  One girl had written a science fiction novel – two of the actors did a scene from that at the closing concerts.

Each of the visiting artists gets to do a party piece at the closing concerts. For the two previous Hubs, I’d gone with Worst Pies in London from Sweeney Todd.  My props were a fake pie and lots of rubber cockroaches that I chucked into the audience to much screaming.  This year, always up-to-the-minute, I went with Last Midnight from Into the Woods.  Thanks to my niece Sarah, my prop was the Elder Wand from Harry Potter (she got it for me at a knockdown price when she worked at the Harry Potter Studios).  Gods but that was fun.  I lose track of how many pupils I scared during that song, but it was a fair few.  And quite a few sidled up to me during the week and muttered “You’ve got a great voice, miss” before sidling off again.

There have been so many highlights to this brilliant, insane project, but here’s some from the latest.

1.  Playing the cajon for the first time in public, and jamming with some of the best musicians I’ve ever met.  OK, I’m not the best cajon player in the world, but it was bloody marvellous.

2.  Taking Mark Grist and Mary Oliver poems into classrooms and watching the pupils’ faces go from resignation to genuine pleasure.  It doesn’t always have to be Wordsworth, kids.

3.  Introducing the three (I know, JUST THREE??)  A Level English Lit students to Primo Levi and truly shocking them as we spoke about how the doctor’s pointing finger meant either the gas chambers or sort-of-life.  And then we worked on a stunning poem called Explaining the Declaration. “Ever done any acting?” I asked.  They looked at me with trepidation, but half an hour later, having split the poem into one line each, they performed it as though they were angry drunks at a bar, and loved every second.

4.  Touring the maths classrooms with a song composed by Tim based on a riddle written by one of the teachers.  I still have no idea what it means even after about nine renditions (the median’s the… the mode is the… oh whatever) but apparently I made maths sound sexy.

5.  Singing a love song about a hedgehog (the girl who wrote the poem was in the audience was overjoyed, hands clasped to her face, her friends either side of her nudging her with glee).  Nia, Claire and I LOVED the hedgehog song.  “I’m in love with a hedgehog.  I’ve never felt this way before.  I’m in love with a hedgehog, and every day I love her more and more.”

6.  And of course, triple threat girl (actor, singer, dancer) whose name turned out to be Ellison.  At going home time the afternoon before, this sweet, shy twelve-year old picked up the mic and sang – brilliantly – with the musos.  She was in the audience at the second of our third concerts and I thought ‘she has to sing in the final gig’.  So Tim and I asked her if she fancied joining me on the blues he’d written to lyrics by Reece.  Reece, cerebral palsy, wheelchair, sharp and funny, had loved every second of us being there, following us around, chatting and when he knew we were doing his song, was beside himself.  Anyway.  She got ten minutes of rehearsal and to end the concert, we called her up on stage and she improvised with me like a pro.  We harmonised, we played vocal games, she was phenomenal.   “Thank you so much,” she said afterwards.  “I never thought I’d get a chance to do anything like this.”  Watch out for triple threat girl, she’s’ going to be huge.

Any downsides?  Well, trying to belt out music theatre numbers while you’re still virtually asleep was tricky, but then hey, that’s your job.  It’s incredibly tiring, but I was only up for three days this time and the core team had been non-stop for six weeks.  I genuinely don’t know how they were still standing.  Our green room was like a plague village – circling germs jumped from one to another as everyone coughed and sneezed like the last act of La Boheme.  Seat of the pants at all times as we zoomed from place to place, often making things up as we went along.

But what a great gig, with the loveliest bunch of people – talented, focused, funny and at all times serving the job and not our egos.  “You’ve transformed the school this week ” a teacher told me. “I’ve seen pupils who never join in and never engage dancing, laughing, talking to the artists.”
And we get paid.
See you soon, Team Clwyd x

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I am the Bold Thunder

Our fantastic English Lit teacher, ex-actress Jenny James-Moore, had taken a group of us to an RSC production of Coriolanus at the Aldwych, their London home at that time.  I’d never seen nor heard of the actor playing Caius Marcius Coriolanus (or Cor-aye-o-lanus as they decided to call him) but the moment he was flung up on spears, blood-spattered and leather-clad is as indelibly etched in my memory today as it was then.

There are a variety of ways to say the line “I banish you”, but only the towering, idiosyncratic brilliance of Alan Howard could summon up this version: “Aiiiieeeee banisssshhh yeeeouuuuuuuu,” the words strung out, snarled with utmost sneering contempt.  I was smitten, remained smitten, and when I heard with great grief yesterday about the death of this giant who I had worshipped from that moment on, was instantly transported back to my first sighting of the tall, pale-faced imperious figure dressed in tight red leather (a common Howard costume design, not that I nor my friend Pip were complaining) stalking around the stage withering the senators with one myopic, penetrating glance.

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Alan Howard was 77 when he died, no age at all really.  He has taken with him a major part of my teenage crush years.  Alan Howard made me fall in love with Shakespeare as well as him, although his extraordinary way of verse-speaking wasn’t to everyone’s taste.  He sang the words, tasted the syllables, found ways to deliver a line which you would never consider in a million years.  Sometimes the music of his voice took over the sense – he would rattle off lines so fast you could barely keep up but then he’d stop and cut you to the bone with one single line or word.  “Alone I did it.  Boy.” is another Cor-aye-o-lanus classic.

He worked extensively with Terry Hands and the designer Farrah – their productions were glittering, mesmerising, often with a coldness at their heart that perfectly matched his performance.  He was amazing at the nasties –  Corayeolanus, Richard III, Richard II…

My personal favourite was RII – Big Al in gold lame crying “Down, down I come; like glistering Phaethon… In the base court?  The base court, where kings grow base, To come at traitors’ calls and do them grace.
In the base court? Come down? Down, court!
down, king! For night-owls shriek where mounting larks
should sing.”

No-one I’ve ever heard since has managed to get so many interpretations of the word ‘base’ into that speech.  Nor ‘down’ for that matter.   The first time I worked at my beloved Theatr Clwyd and met Terry Hands, I told him what an impression those productions had made on me, how they’d given me a love of Shakespeare that has never left, the sheer joy of those words and Alan Howard giving them to us (clad in gold lame/red leather/black leather).

But he could also do funny – John O’Keefe’s play Wild Oats was another classic Howard moment – as Jack Rover, declaring “I am the Bold Thunder!” cheers rang out from the auditorium.

The rasp of his voice had a Richard Burton quality to it, possibly due to the chain-smoking.  Big Al (as Pip and I called him) would rarely be seen without a cigarette holder as he wandered around in jeans and a denim jacket.  How did I know this?  Pip was working in the RSC bookshop at the time and managed to get me a part time job.  Those hours were magical, despite the presence of the raving bonkers woman, known as Grim, who also worked there.  Grim was obsessed with Ian McKellen and I do mean obsessed.  In a stalker-type way.  One day in a fit of post-McKellen pique (he’d done something to upset her, probably ran away as she loitered outside his house) she ripped up a picture of Big Al that we kept on the till.

But still, there I was, with a like-minded friend, stacking books, endlessly re-arranging photos of Big Al and best of all, watching to see when he’d walk past the shop on the way to the theatre.  Or on very rare occasions, come inside.

Notoriously shy, with all the small talk of Helen Keller, we could so rarely get a word out of him that we used to make and wear badges with his sayings on them.  “They’re all watching News at 10” came about when we were talking about audience numbers and how they’d dropped off a bit.   When we saw him lope past the door, I was always allowed to get our lunchtime sandwiches from the Aldwych Green Room, so would instantly shoot out, follow him round the corner and stand behind him in the queue.  He always smiled and said hello.  I don’t consider it stalking, not for one moment.  He could barely see me anyway – being incredibly short-sighted he always wore lenses on stage making his gaze even more penetrating.

Pip and I were also at that time creating our ideal cast list for The Lord of the Rings.  Big Al was of course Aragorn – and how lovely that he ended up playing the Voice of the Ring in the films.  We feel that we can take a little credit for that.

The last thing I saw him in was in the frankly awful Oedipus at the National.  He was, however, extraordinary and even when still (especially when still), nobody else existed on that stage.  RIP Big Al.  You were and are unforgettable.  Thank you.

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Time to talk

Today, 5th February, is Time to Talk Day 2015. Time to Talk was started (I believe) by Rethink and the idea is to spend five minutes talking about mental illness – how it affects you, or people around you. It’s about breaking the silence surrounding mental health issues. This will probably take a bit longer than five minutes to write, but hey.

Now you might think that there is no longer silence – mental health issues seem to be constantly in the news; pleas for more funding, need for better care, testimonies from people and their families or friends. The official statistic is that one in four people will be affected by mental health issues every year. That’s a lot of people. And it doesn’t always have to be the biggies – your schizophrenia, your bi-polar disorder, your depression. It can be insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks. It can be bereavement, post-natal depression, work or relationship stress. Mental health issues aren’t fussy, they’ll take anything that’s going. And we all have mental as well as physical health, it’s just harder to talk about the former.

Mental health problems affect the way we feel about ourselves and others, they affect our sleep, attention span and productivity. This in turn will affect our work, so wouldn’t it be better to ‘fess up rather than try to hide it?

There is a history of depression in my family down my father’s side. My mother’s side has given us short-sightedness, thanks for that. I have had quite a few bouts of depression, and I’m not just talking ‘ooh a bit miserable today’. I’m talking dark, exhausted, grey, agoraphobic, can’t move, can’t talk, can’t think depression. I’m talking suicidal thoughts. I have, in my time, wondered what it would be like to… what would be the easiest way to… it would be so much easier if… oh well at least one day I’ll be…

So far, I’ve got through these periods without doctors or prescribed medication. Perhaps one day (if you’re good) I’ll tell you some of the stuff I do that helps. But today is the time-to-talk moment, to actually come out and say: yes, me too.

The first time I got hit by it, or at least knew what it was I’d been hit by, I was in my mid-twenties. I was terrified, because it had (seemingly) come out of nowhere, this cloud of grey that removed taste, smell, joy, desire and left me bewildered and lost. “But what’s wrong?” people were asking. “There must be a reason.” Well actually sometimes there just isn’t. Sometimes there you are. And no-one can hear you banging on the glass – but one person did, a friend who (I then found out) also suffered from depression. “It’s like being in a goldfish bowl. You can see out, but no-one can hear you calling.” Just to hear that, to know she got it and more than got it – was the moment I began to come to the light again.

Many people – even friends – don’t get it. If you haven’t experienced it, don’t understand that it’s not always quantifiable, there isn’t always a reason – often isn’t a reason – watching someone drift away or hide is not an easy experience. “But you’re always so strong, so up, so glass-half-full.” Yes, most of of the time. Except when I’m not. Sometimes I’m not strong, I can’t be strong all the fucking time, I can’t put the face on all the fucking time. And that’s when I talk to the people who really get it, who have either been through it themselves or have the empathy and care to let me be where I am.

One of my closest friends was felled by post-natal depression after her first child. She and I have always laughed at the darkest, most inappropriate things, but when I went to see her in hospital I couldn’t believe the same person was lying in the bed. My friend had gone and someone new and blank had taken her place. She’s one of the people I can talk to and I often cite her particular form of loving bollocking which goes something like this: “I know you. You never say, but if you don’t say how the fuck do I know what’s going on?”

So here we are, Time to Talk day. Mental health is as real as physical health, and as deserving of the same respect, sympathy and treatment. Nobody asks to have a mental health problem any more than they ask to have a physical one. Be kind. To use that oft-quoted tag – the person you meet might be fighting a battle you know nothing about.

http://www.rethink.org/

@TimetoChange