I was wondering the other evening, how I ever managed to pluck up the courage to play the piano in public. As a child, when mom’s friends came to visit, and she wanted me to perform my simple little pieces for them, I was frozen with fear. She insisted however, and I obliged, but I certainly didn’t enjoy it.
Now acting was a different kettle of fish altogether. My earliest memory of being in a school production of sorts was when I was very young, maybe only eight. Our class put on a short play, in which we all had to dress up as children from different countries. We could choose which country, and as my Mom possessed a beautiful blue silk dressing gown with a silver dragon embroidered all the way down the back, I went as a Chinese person. My hair was tightly braided in a long plait, but being very blonde, I guess I didn’t look very Chinese. The only line I had to say was, “Velly nice party,” which I had practised ad infinitum. Mom, having lived in Hong Kong for a few years, taught me how to say it with a Chinese accent. I was in my element when the parents and teachers applauded at the end.
My real “stage debut” came when in my last year at junior school, we did a production of “Toad of Toad Hall,” a play adapted from A.A. Milne’s “The Wind in the Willows.” I was Toad, the wealthiest character, and owner of Toad Hall. Although good-natured, Toad is impulsive and conceited, and is eventually imprisoned for theft, dangerous driving and impertinence to the rural police. He gets a twenty year jail sentence for stealing a car, and escapes disguised as a washerwoman. I had a quick change in the wings and donned an over-sized flowery dress with a lace cap on top of my toad head. Maybe this is where my love of beautiful cars, and my expertise as a laundry lady and ironer of note, stem from, although I do draw the line at wearing flowery dresses and lace caps.
I can vividly remember my costume for the play. A pair of tights, a blouse, and very large bloomers, all dyed a brilliant emerald-green, in a large saucepan on mom’s hob. The bloomers were stuffed with newspaper, and I had a cushion tucked under my blouse and into the waistband of the tights, which as you can imagine, was extremely uncomfortable. To top this creation, was a huge papier-mâché toad’s head, which fitted non too neatly over mine. It had holes for my eyes and also for my mouth, and was most cumbersome and difficult to keep straight, so I spent most of the play pulling and pushing it into position. The play was presented in the church hall over the main road from the school, and on the day, our teacher got the lollipop stick, and stopped the traffic whilst I waddled across in all my greenery. I bet those motorists had a giggle, but I was well disguised and too intent on not losing my head, to notice. I loved every uncomfortable minute of the performance.
This starring role did whet my appetite for the stage, and at Grammar school, where a production of Gilbert & Sullivan was a yearly event, I was an eager member of the chorus, along with my sister who went on to study singing and ended up in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company. I think we just loved dressing up in those old-fashioned long dresses, and singing our hearts out. It was so much fun, and I especially enjoyed the applause and the curtain calls. Here is an ancient Polaroid photo of me in “Trial by Jury.” I am the 5th from the right in the front.
The next school play I took part in, was when my son was at junior school. The parents put on a 1949 one-act play called “The Crimson Coconut” by Ian Hay. I was a blonde Russian spy and the only line I can remember having to say was, “Eet iss ze crimzon coconut.” The rest of the time, I just had to stand around looking blonde and mysterious. I got shot at the end of the play, and of course had to fall down. Never having been taught how to die painlessly, I would thump down on the wooden stage, always landing on my left hip bone. Thinking back, I’m wondering if that’s why, a year later when I had a genuine fall and landed on the sharp corner of a concrete kerb, my femur snapped. Thankfully it healed with no lasting effects. I think that sometimes participating in school productions can have a profound influence on the rest of your life. For example, I saw when looking at my school site on Google, that one of the guys who sang in the Gilbert & Sullivan with me, went on to become an internationally acclaimed operatic bass singer, and was awarded the CBE. My sister also sang with The D’Oyly Carte Opera and did TV and stage work in England.
I ended up as a school singing teacher, giving several ‘performances’ a day in front of my young captive audience. This also gave me the courage to play piano in public at various venues around Johannesburg, and to play the church organ for many weddings and funerals. You only get one shot at weddings and funerals, so you have to get it right the first time. I’m sure that being encouraged to perform in front of others at school, really helps to build a child’s confidence. What school experiences have influenced your life as an adult?
I hope my stories have given you a few smiles. Wishing you all a great weekend.