In the school hall, I sit with an imaginary cardboard box balanced precariously on my thighs. I feel the weight slowly shift, its contents gradually re-distributing itself. An itsy bitsy ruckus in a space only a bit bigger than a shoebox.
I know exactly what is inside.
The other things I know are that the herringbone wooden floor is actually covered in autumn leaves, the still school air is dancing through the imaginary trees making them rustle and the plastic chair I am sat on is actually only one half of a bigger seat.
I’m on a park bench. And in a few minutes the person next to me, who is wearing an imaginary bowler hat, will get up and leave. In their place, another person will join me and bring with them something new.
This is a Park Bench. And it is the first improv exercise I did… possibly. There must have been others but this is all my mind has left me with now. This joyful snippet from my childhood dabble in drama.
I have a small collection of vivid memories from junior school: wearing a finger sling to class when my nail had fallen off and all the other kids found it gross; colliding with a kid running the wrong way through the canteen and getting spaghetti bolognese stains all down my shirt; being told off for sticking drawing pins to the bottoms of my shoes to tap dance…
And I remember so clearly sitting on that park bench.
During that time, a retired actor came in to our school and taught us improvisation. I wish now I could remember more of what we did. But being in that drama club got me a part as Princess Brenda in the school production of Queen Beryl and the Romans. And this I remember most.
I remember waiting in the wings to go on, I remember Caesar forgetting his lines and one of his centurions sticking a sword up his toga to try to remind him (I’m not sure how that was going to help), I remember walking through the audience at the end having just married Paul Wheeldon, and I remember standing at the front of the stage on my own, being seen, while I delivered the line:
“I want some peas and if I don’t get any peas, I’ll scream and scream and scream until I’m sick.”
I’m not sure why Princess Brenda wanted peas so much. Seems likely nobody asked. But I do know what being seen was like. Exhilarating. Powerful. Complicated. I wasn’t the kind of kid who normally screamed for peas.
For the next four years one of the teachers in the school – a big tall beardy fellow – called me Queen Beryl. And every single time he did, I corrected him that I had played Princess Brenda. And he laughed and ignored me.
I wasn’t Queen Beryl.
Queen Beryl was a flaming red-head with gorgeous big hair like something out of Brave. And she was brave because she played Queen Beryl, whereas I only played Princess Brenda. I don’t know what her name was but she was my drama friend. And then she left the school and I never saw her again. I would only remember being about to go on stage with her and feeling nervous but not really sure if I did feel nervous. I thought I should feel nervous so I gave myself a talking to, to feel nervous.
I dreamt a lot about being an actress when I was little. I guess a lot of kids do. I don’t know how much talent I had then. I do remember at high school a teacher trying to persuade me to take GCSE drama. I just thought he wanted me in his class because I was a well-behaving kid. It didn’t occur to me I might be any good at it. And I’ll never really know if I was back then, any good, because all I wanted to do was hide so I took Art instead.
Life was difficult enough without people seeing me.
My mission in high school was quite a simple one really: to never, ever ever, ever, under any circumstances, find myself in a spotlight. I kept my head down. I avoided eye contact.
But the problem was, there was a little person still in me who didn’t much like that strategy. She played up in Graphic Design doing sketch comedy in an early improvised duo with a wild child called Emma. Our material mainly paraphrased things I’d heard on the radio, which my father listened to religiously. We entertained the mean girls who seemed to enjoy the show, until they remembered who I was to them – someone they hated for some reason.
It wouldn’t do.
So I put that little person who wanted to be seen into a dark creepy space inside of me for twenty years and forgot about her.
Thankfully, she did not forget about me.
And nor did she forget about that park bench or what was in that imaginary cardboard box.
It was a tortoise.
Fitting. Ever so frigging slowly I’d save that little girl from that creepy dark place and she’d save me. Because obviously as soon as she was out she knew exactly what she wanted to do.