Can you believe I was once a toad?

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.

72 comments on “Can you believe I was once a toad?

  1. The wonderful memories we all have growing up. They are so much fun to share and encourage our thoughts on our own childhood memories. Thanks for sharing yours.


  2. Your post brings back many memories! However, I never got to be a toad…lol. School plays, choirs and glee clubs…but I did end up “hamming it up” in front of elementary students, which, I suppose is a form of performing! 😉 Great post!

  3. Wow! You have been blooming into a natural performer your whole life. No wonder you can so easily sit in front of people and play the piano. I can imagine you as the blonde Chinese saying “velly nice party!” (hilarious!) and I LOVE your other blonde Russian spy line: “Eet iss ze crimzon coconut.” What fun!

  4. I love your story…The Wind in the Willows was one of my favorite books as a child and I remember Toad well. What a riot that you got to play him. 😆

  5. It was nice to read your story… I know you a bit better now. I think that whatever happens to us in early school years shapes us for the future…

  6. What an interesting insight into your passion of piano playing..I definitely do like the act when I stand up in front of my audience when I run workshops..It’s me best thing…I once in all my years got moaned at for projecting my voice loudly in the classroom…She was right…I do have a voice that travels loudly and audibly…those days of speech and drama obviously!!

  7. That is one cool story. You are a very talented person. I bet you captured your audience hearts everytime. I did some acting in school because it was required but I was very shy and I felt like disappearing everytime.

  8. What a lovely glimpse into your past 🙂 I was in numerous school plays and I still remember my lines all these years on (but I can’t remember my PIN number for my bank account!) It’s wonderful looking back to see why we are what we are today. I really enjoyed this slice of your history (more please!) 😀

  9. I just loved your story I could visualise and imagine all the fun you must’ve had doing those plays and concerts. It also brought back memories of my long a go childhood in school plays, the horror of forgetting your lines and freezing….

  10. Oh, I love this story. You are so talented. 🙂

    I never got the chance to do similar things when I was in grade school. The rare times I sang in front of the class, my voice cracked when I tried to reach the high notes and my classmates laughed. It was embarrassing. (I still love to sing these days though, more aware of the range of my voice). In high school, we had a yearly chorale competition and each class participated.

    It was way later, in law school, that I got to be a part of a play. The play was produced by our sorority and our talented sorority sisters were the leading ladies. I got to play a supporting role. I loved it.

  11. a little bit of your history .. and how fascinating… I’ve wondered how you got he courage to play in front of the public.. and surmised that you had to be damn good firstly and have the confidence… and to have the confidence you have to be good… so problem solved… but nice to know a little of your background…

    • I always think of myself as quite a shy person, but looking back, I realise that I was actaully quite brave. My dad was Dutch, so maybe I used my ‘Dutch Courage’. 🙂

  12. My son was in a play at school in Kindergarden. He had to be a chicken. I made him a chicken head out of paper and glue. It turned out cute, but it was hard for him to see out of. He had to hold it strait to see out of it. Your story about the frog head is cute.

  13. When I was maybe 11 I was on some sort of lunch duty which involved going into the caf a bit before lunch to set out milks and such. There was a stage at one end with a microphone stand already in place. This temptation was too much for me and my fellow classmate and we got up on stage, turned on the mic and started singing some popular song of the time. We thought the whole place was empty, but not so. We got caught by a teacher and that as best as I can remember ended my school performing career.

  14. Aww, ‘velly nice stoly’ 🙂

    I was encouraged to learn something more intensive when one of my teachers told me that I was a good memorizer, which, I didn’t realize before.

  15. An interesting and entertaining post Sylvia. I was part of a county youth orchestra when I was a teenager and enjoyed our concerts immensely. As part of the orchestra I was never nervous. I really admire your ability to play piano in front of a large audience, though, because that is something that fills me with dread. I’ve done it a few times under extreme sufferance, certainly not by choice. 🙂

  16. Hi AD, just love those stories, btw Toad sounds as though he must have also been a politician 😀

    • That’s exactly the reason why I never turned anyone away from my school choir, Gilly. I wasn’t looking for perfection, but for enthusiasm, and quite often, the two didn’t go hand in hand. 🙂

  17. What a lovely story you tell. You are so amazingly multi-talented! Being forced to participate in a school play and piano recitals did nothing but terrify me to bits. Still not at all fond of being the focus of attention in most occasions.

  18. In those long ago, far away days I used to sing in choirs, church, school and later in Dr John Pauw’s mixed choir. Acting was not my scene, but I used to prompt and do backstage work.

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