Sunday, 21 September 2014

Punk Rocked.


Would you believe it, once upon a time I was a wannabe actor with stars in my eyes and a lump in my throat... I studied A Level Drama, at Sussex Downs Park College in Eastbourne, two trains away from my sacred sweet little hometown, in unknown territory that I would wake up at 5:35am to get to each day. I studied English Literature, French, Drama and Sociology. I desperately wanted to do Photography, but had already allowed myself one frivolous fun subject of study – Drama – so a second was out of the question. I just lived vicariously through my friends who were brave enough to take arty A Levels and not back them up with a safe academic discipline.
Drama was my outlet – eventually. I wouldn't have known it on my first day. I was running late, lost in a tiny three-storey building, and as far as I knew the entrance to the black box theatre was through the double doors on the Learning Centre ground floor. I ran politely and timidly up to the doors before gently pushing them open; a ring of sixteen year-olds wearing jeans and hoodies sitting on the shiny black floor turned to stare at me as I dithered awkwardly in the doorway. A woman with a sleek dark bob – one off-blonde highlight streak near the front – wearing a massive skirt and stripy shirt plus some decidedly retro beaded jewellery looked up from a heavy folder lying at her knees, fire in her eyes, and spat at me: 'You're late, and the entrance is round the side door. Move.'
I burst into tears as I ran, somewhere between the Law classroom and the Photography corridor, and my many bracelets and bangles (which went all the way up to my elbows and inspired a blog URL) jingled and made me sound like a sniffling reindeer – ludicrous, as reindeer live in the North Pole, so surely they've adapted and never catch a cold. I slid into the circle of students on the floor – literally, my jeans burned my butt as I puffed and panted and hoped nobody had noticed me. I'd adopted a new personality at college in the past week: invisible commuter chick with average grades. A new stance: head down, hands in pockets, lips tight. It was working – I was on top of my homework, I had no needless dramatics, no worries, and... No new friends. It wasn't an ideal personality or stance to be present in a black box theatre twice a week, but oh well.
We left the room an hour or so later, bewildered by yet ready for the year ahead. I walked to my French class in the Tyler building, following an armoured boy who I was vaguely aware had sat near me earlier on in the theatre. He became my best friend. He'd pass me notes in French, not in the language just as a distraction from learning the language in class, and partner up with me eagerly in Drama lessons. I was honoured he even looked my way, as he was one of the best actors in class and the coolest guys in the group who hung out in the conservatory. He even had a motorbike, for goodness' sake. He'd actually ask me for girl-related advice quite a lot – nowadays of course, he's swanning about London dating regulation hotties left right and centre, and he hardly ever requires advice, just a shoulder to cry on and an ear to rant at when they turn out to be demented cuckoo birds wearing too much eyeliner. Bless him.
That snappy Drama teacher, sarky Essex girl-turned Royal Holloway graduate dating a genius playwright who refused to buy any clothes from mainstream high street stores, opting instead for pre-owned charity shop bundles, and had a teensy generic star tattoo on her upper arm, the epitome of underage rebellion... She became my idol. I worshipped her; I kissed the ground she walked on, I ordered the coffee she brewed and I read the plays she'd mentioned, even in casual passing, even in utter disdain. I just wanted to be her. I wanted to hang out with her outside lessons – once or twice I even accompanied her round the back of the building when she needed a 'sneaky fucking fag break'. I just stood there and let the smoke waft up my nostrils, coughing subtly over my shoulder and then sucking in the fresh air before turning to face her again as she imparted her infinite wisdom about the world between drags. After my English Lit exam retake I walked into the theatre, into the midst of everyone getting prepped for a performance exam, in a complete daze as I was brimming with certainty that I'd failed Lit again. Nicola locked eyes with me, raised her eyebrows when she saw my panic, and I told her I was sure I'd fucked up. She dropped her many folders and ring binders and pulled me in for a hug, stroking my hair and saying over and over that I couldn't possibly have fucked up – we'd had a few hugs by the end of the year, and they were always just the best possible medicine. I'd never realised that I'd always needed a teacher like her.

My sister started college recently, the same college I went to way back when, and she has had trouble with the adjustment transition nonsense – understandably! It's hard moving to a new place, two trains away, to study things that you want to pursue and get experience, get to grips, especially when the kids who are studying with you have all lived in that place for their whole lives and know each other from primary school at the latest. All I could think was: she needs a Nicola, and a Pugwash.

To the point! After expressing my sisterly concerns and indulging in many nostalgic revelries...
Tonight I found out (via Twitter, my source for all news, TMI moments and general hilarious quips) that my uni's esteemed performing arts society are putting on three shows this year; a musical, a play and a devised performance. The play is Simon Stephens' 'Punk Rock'.
I performed in this play at the end of my AS year at college. I read the script in the weeks when my teacher was busy casting us all in three plays (all Simon Stephens, all mind-blowing). Much as I'd love to tell people I would be starring in 'Pornography', I wanted to be a smarmy school kid in 'Punk Rock'. So badly. With every fibre of my being. I figured I'd get passed over, though. I'd be the grandma in 'Port', or the poor chick who gets shot through a pillow in 'Motortown'. 'Punk Rock' was too hardcore for me.
I was cast as Cissy Franks, girlfriend of the closet-gay school bully Bennett Francis and a prissy bitchy queen bee. Outspoken and outrageous, trodden down by her boyfriend but putting up a sassy front for her classmates. I was instantly out of my depth.
'Cissy. Cissy? CISSY, though? Are you kidding?'
'I think it'll push you.'
As always, she was right. Partly because I was so stupidly worried that my Drama peers, specifically the others in the 'Punk Rock' cast, all of whom were magnificent actors and so good-looking, would see me as the 'weak one', the crap cast member who dragged down the production, someone who'd been given a part as a shameful handout... All of that. Little did I know these cast members would become important friends soon enough. One was already on my side – my new found bestie. He played Chadwick Meade, the school punching bag, the 'absurdly clever puppy' who knew how many galaxies there were in the universe (about a hundred billion) and was a little too quiet at times. I remember the evening I was poring over my script in my bedroom at 8pm, cutting the parts our teacher had deemed unnecessary (it could only be fifty minutes long, sadly), when I came across the page on which a lot of bullying is taking place, Chadwick is being made to wear a classmate's lipstick and is relentlessly teased by my character's boyfriend, then I saw I'd have my very first onstage kiss* with this poor boy. I called him and we laughed about it over the phone.

*not that shocking, as my only onstage experiences before this were high school Christmas pantomimes in which I played dancing apples and surfer chicks.

I was having one of those bullshit 'student review' appointments with my idol/teacher in her office, while my cast mates rehearsed next door in the dance studio. The magical lady told me I had infinite potential and needed to let myself dream; she also said I just needed to put a rocket up my arse before the final performance. Having taken inspiration from this, I marched back into the studio, threw my script dramatically on the floor and as the pages scattered all over the place because I hadn't stapled them together yet, I rehearsed the dreaded kiss scene for the first time. Big moment. One of the things I took from this, was that it's very hard to kiss someone who can't kiss you back. And on the night, the most important thing to me was that I didn't slip and fall in my rolled-up pleated skirt as I strode confidently across the entire breadth of the stage. Also, more importantly perhaps, I realised what I could do and the kind of person I could be. I didn't need to be consistently invisible, put myself in a box and just get my grades; I could let myself go and always reach a little higher. Although I ditched the dream of becoming a full-time actor and writing alongside as soon as I walked into my first Drama lecture at uni, deciding instead to stick with my guns and write forever while acting occasionally for a giggle, I still wouldn't change the experience for the world. Any dream, even a dream that fizzles out eventually, mustn't be ignored.
Something I've learned recently, too – it's okay to revisit pleasant memories, and to dwell, just for a little while. I can also always inject a shamelessly cheesy moral at the end when telling stories.

Dear Performing Arts Winchester, please do right by that excellent play, and make it a rich and beautiful experience for the cast – maybe they'll come away with some awesome stories, unlikely friends and enlightened perspectives just like I did.


I leave you with my favourite line of Cissy's.
'Teachers shouldn't have sex. They're too old. I find it really unnerving. The idea of it. All that old skin... Wobbling about.'

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