It was the end of Summer 2008. I’d had a bit of a year. A lengthy period of ill health had kept me off work for four months. My wonderful father in law had passed away. I had returned to work, eased back by performing a new less challenging role to protect my fragile state of mind. My confidence was low. The ability to enjoy life had become a challenge. My family and friends had suffered great concern for me. I struggled to cope with guilt for the worry I had caused them. But, by the end of the Summer I was starting to emerge. Slowly regaining the characteristics which made me the person people knew. I’d taken the tablets, talked things through, put ‘stuff’ in order. I was beginning to live again.
It was during this period of optimism that we joined friends on a sunny, Sunday afternoon for drinks and food in a beautiful garden. I was with a group of people I felt at ease with. Some of these friends knew how bad I had been. Others simply knew I hadn’t been right. But in the warmth of that garden all seemed well. My world that day did appear to be rose tinted.
As the afternoon wore on with the usual village tittle tattle, the stories and laughter, someone mentioned the latest edition of the Village Gazette. Had we seen the article by the Village Players for new members to take part in their next production the following March? This was an annual appeal which had always stirred something in me. Could I, should I ? However, in the past I had never quite got round to doing anything. Too many excuses. That afternoon though, fuelled by wine and summer sun, I announced that I would indeed be auditioning for a part. A few other sozzled souls expressed similar intentions – none of which were ever fulfilled. My wife gave me that knowing look as much to say “are you sure?”. The more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me. What better way to finally emerge from my darkness. I would be committed to something I would have to complete. Imagine the confidence I would gain from the achievement. An opportunity to prove to myself that I was still a capable person.
Between this sunny afternoon and the date for the auditions, my recovery continued with a few blips here and there. For some reason though, the thought of the play filled me with a determination to go forward. It felt like something to aim for. Something to grasp.
Into the Autumn and on a grey, windy Sunday, I attended the village hall for the audition. I entered the hall to see all these familiar people whom I had watched performing over the years. There were only a couple of other, new faces like me. Although I knew all these people – it’s like that where I live – it struck me I was entering their world. Should I be here? What would they think of me? Do they really want the likes of me gate crashing their cosy little group? The doubts set in, the confidence plunged. But, I was there now. I couldn’t just turn round and walk out. I made myself join the circle and sat down. I was welcomed. People seemed genuinely pleased to see me, sort of excited to have a fresh face to join them. I was handed a script and as the afternoon wore on I was asked to read various parts. It wasn’t so bad after all. At the end I left my contact details with the director and headed straight to the pub. My first pint that day tasted so good. All I had to do now was wait.
A few days later an e-mail arrived from the director titled ‘Cast List’. I clicked it open and scanned quickly through the list. I was sure I could see my name more than once. Had there been an error, a computer glitch, or had the director lost his mind? No, my name was definitely next to three different characters. From never having acted, I was now to play three parts in one play. And that’s when it hit me. What had I done? I was recovering so well. Why had I pushed myself into doing this? The director knew nothing of my troubles so he had not sought to protect me. He assumed I wanted to be properly involved, was impressed with my reading, glad of fresh blood. He hadn’t taken the easy option of picking people he knew would perform solidly for him. He had chosen me to be a big part of his production. He had seen something in me which I didn’t know was there. Sadly, I’ve never been able to tell him how important that was to me at that particular time in my life. Maybe he will see this.
The next 3 months, through Christmas and into early Spring were full of rehearsals, learning lines and costume fittings. At least twice a week I entered this new world, where I felt good. It was a scary world but the challenge spurred me on. It filtered through to my normal life. People began to notice how much better I seemed. Only one person, my wife, knew how hard I was working and how important this challenge was for me. Despite the impact on our own precious time together, she, I think, sensed that this was helping to mend me. She quietly encouraged me, soothed my anxiety. Without her, I don’t know where I would have gone. Certainly none of my fellow actors were aware of my difficulties. But that was the beauty of it. At work, since my illness, people had tried to protect me, wrap me up like a baby. It could be suffocating.
Maybe it was because for the time I was acting, I wasn’t me. I was 3 other people, not me on show with all my ‘stuff’ getting in the way. It was the best medicine and therapy all rolled into one.
I will never forget the emotions I felt as we took our bow at the end of the first performance, the sheer joy of knowing what I had achieved. To have gone from where I was the year before to this was almost incomprehensible. I will also never forget the fear before each performance and the absolute relief and exhaustion once it was all over.
This tale explains why I am now working on my 3rd production. This small village group played such a huge part in my recovery. I have to keep doing it. I still have my problems but this annual challenge, this chance to be someone else; it just helps me so much.
When I question what I am doing, the pressure of learning the lines, giving up afternoons and evenings I could be spending with my wife, I just look back at that first time.
And that is The Call of The Stage.