I suppose the first real bit of acting I remember doing, where the audience totally bought into my performance, happened when I was around 14. When I say “audience,” I mean audience of one.
We were living in Swansea, Wales and I was terrorized on a daily basis by the thugs I hung out with. One Friday after school, they informed me that when I showed up to school on Monday, they would soundly beat the shit out of me. I spent the entire weekend curled up in a ball. It’s interesting to note that they threatened me all the time but never actually beat me up. I think they got more out of seeing me react to the thought of getting beat up. It must have been quite the show.
Anyway, Monday morning rolled around and I decided that I would not be going to school. I crammed my jeans into my British school-boy satchel, my books under my bed and headed out for my day… somewhere.
There was a large hill behind our housing complex called Kilvey Hill that over-looked Swansea. (You can look it up on Wikipedia for some images.) I determined that I’d hang out on that hill until the end of the school day, unbeaten, then head home.
Apart from time slowing down so much that I could feel my cells splitting, the entire thing worked like a charm. I headed back into our house with no-one the wiser.
Which naturally led me to do again the next day. Back in our small neck of the woods in 1971, no-one had phones. Well, sure, the school did but we didn’t. So no-one could phone us to let my parents know that I hadn’t shown up.
Which naturally led me to do it again the next day. It was Wednesday and I was entering hump day. I could see me drifting towards taking the entire week off in the hopes that during that week, the threat from the thugs had vanished.
At this point I was getting bored with setting random fires to the long grass up on Kilvey Hill. Plus, I was starving. Each day I had eaten my lunch around 9:30 a.m. so by the time lunchtime rolled around I was ravenous. I took my bus fare and wandered into our neighborhood to the corner convenience store. In this tiny shop, the postal wicket was to your immediate right. When I walked in, I heard my mother before I saw her. She was buying stamps with her back to me.
I shoved my heart back into my ribcage and backed out of the shop. I then ran a 2 ½ minute mile down the street to Chapple’s, the local bakery. Mrs. Chapple was about 900 years old with rosy cheeks from an entire bio-system of burst blood vessels on her cheeks.
I skidded into her shop heaving and panting. When I finally caught my breath I asked Mrs. Chapple for a Mars Bar. Instead of handing over the chocolate, she said, “Gary, why aren’t you in school?”
I was so not ready for this question even though it was the most obviously obvious question to ask at the time. Stanislavsky, the revered acting coach, had written a best-selling book called, ‘An Actor Prepares.’ I’m thinking I must have browsed through his earlier drafts entitled, ‘An Actor is Totally Unprepared.’ And this is where I took my first stab at acting.
I had to come up with a really serious, adult-minded reason as to why I wouldn’t be in school and it had to be something medical.
“My brother has had a stroke,” I said.
“Leighton? Had a stroke?” she asked incredulously.
My brother Leighton was 9 at the time.
Mrs. Chapple stared at me for the longest time digesting this. I had no idea if what I’d said had even made sense. It just sounded really fucking serious.
Finally she said, “I am so sorry to hear that, Gary.”
Yes! She bought it. Now to close the deal.
“And the doctor sent me for chocolate,” I added.
Again with the long stare. Finally, she handed over the Mars Bar. I left the bakery and headed back up to the safety and seclusion of Kilvey Hill. If I’d stayed any longer I would’ve met my mom who had decided to go and buy some bread at Chapple’s about three minutes later.
You can see where this is going. It’s like a badly written play where the audience is miles ahead of the plot.
Mrs. Chapple grabbed my mother and said, “Oh, Valerie! I’m so sorry to hear about Leighton!” My mom was stunned. “What? What’s wrong with Leighton?” my mother asked.
“The stroke!” said Mrs. Chapple, barely holding back the tears.
“A stroke? Leighton’s had a stroke? What are you on about?” my mother demanded.
“Gary was just in here and he told me all about it. He was fetching chocolate for the doctor,” she told my mom. This was a total mind-bender for my mom. Nothing made sense for about two seconds. Then she bolted out of the shop and down to the school.
She ran into the school with her shopping bags, screaming for my brother. People were trying to calm her down as she frantically searched for him in various classrooms.
He wasn’t there.
Seriously. He wasn’t there.
Not the best news for her to hear at the time. Not that he’d had a stroke, mind you. He just… wasn’t there. He was out at the playing fields playing soccer, apparently. My mother grabbed her bags and ran, a woman possessed, out to the fields where she saw him on the soccer field… playing soccer.
Strokeless. Not an ambulance attendant or catheter in sight.
When she began to piece it all together, it was my mother who almost had the stroke. Later that day, when I strolled in from “school,” I was met by my parents looking like the couple in that painting, ‘American Gothic,’ except minus the pitchfork, thank God.
My mom said, “Where were you today?”
Most kids would’ve given it up right then but I was so committed to my leading role as ‘Threatened Schoolboy’ that I stayed in character.
“School,” I said.
“I’ll ask you again. Where were you today?” said my mom.
“I was at school,” I delivered with less conviction but still with the hope that this little play would get held-over.
“WHERE THE HELL WERE YOU TODAY?” my dad raged.
Ask any actor and they’ll tell you that one of the hardest things to do is to cry on cue. It’s extremely difficult except for the most highly trained actors who can access painful parts of their childhood and bring it forward on-stage or in front of the camera.
I accessed a waterfall of tears immediately, coupled with a sobbing, choking explanation of where I’d been and why. After listening carefully to my sad tale, my mother then instructed my dad to take me upstairs and smack me with his slipper. It was painful, humiliating, unfair and I felt that even though I’d poured my heart out, I’d been totally rejected by the very people that I wanted to love me.
Nothing could’ve prepared me any better for a life in theatre.
Thank you, mom and dad!