(Post by Andrea Grace Burn of East Yorkshire – May 2021)
Noel Coward’s advice to avoid putting your daughter on the stage should have rang alarm bells for me the summer I left school in 1978. With Grade E ‘A’ Levels in English and History, Mom was ecstatic that I had two paper certificates – heedless of the fact that they meant Jack.
Career’s Advice suggested I might try my hand in retail: “You could become a Buyer in Ladies’s Wear by the time you’re thirty-five.”
Thirty-five? I’d be an old woman by then!
Having trod the boards at school, I decided to give acting a serious whirl and enrolled at drama evening classes as I began the round of auditions to study drama full time. My teacher said I “should have been a blonde” because I was so “dizzy”. High praise indeed.
With my new curly perm, a dash of Wild Musk and a lot of bravado, I headed for the ‘Big Smoke’ – London – where my eldest brother David met me at Euston Station and guided me across the city on the underground. I was scared to death!
I auditioned at all of London’s top drama schools as Blanche Dubois from Tennessee Williams’ play, ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’
Her character has a famous monologue, “He was a boy, just a boy. when I was a very young girl…” which I thought I had down pat. Despite an authentic Southern Belle accent, I had the distinction of being turned down by them all. Not before though, witnessing some spectacular feats of self-promotion from other hopefuls – including one guy who auditioned as Hamlet, wearing a gorilla suit.
He got in.
I gave up in London.
As my dad once said to me, “Honey – I’m proud of you. If you’re going to fail – really fail!”
Closer to home, in March 1979, I received an invitation to audition at a drama school in the midlands.
Living up to my ‘dizzy’ moniker, I turned up exactly one calendar month late for my audition and let myself into the office of a Miss Meade, who had been principal of the acting school in the year dot.
Her dark, cramped office in the basement was piled floor to ceiling with dusty old play scripts and seemingly hundreds of cats which peered down at me from a great height. Naturally Miss Meade was not expecting me.
I stared at old black and white photos of great Thespians which lined the high walls and suddenly felt very small – the bravado gone. Should I cough to announce I was here? Suddenly the door swung open and in bustled Miss Meade – an elderly lady with grey hair tied back in a bun, carrying a walking stick. We scared each other.
“Good gracious Ducky! Who are you?”
“I’m Andrea Scarboro. I’ve come to audition.” (I felt like saying, “I’m Dorothy Gale, from Kansas.”)
Miss Meade pored over her diary on her large, cluttered, desk with a lot of tutting.
“Well, well Ducky, wait here and I’ll see what I can do.”
Miss Meade disappeared through a door, leaving me nervously stroking my Blanche Dubois. She finally reappeared with an elderly gentleman in an elegant, faded suit, marvelous set of whiskers and an old fashioned ear trumpet.
“This young lady has turned up for an AUDITION, one month LATE! Heh! Shall we SEE her?”
“WHAT? AUDITION? MOST IRREGULAR! I suppose so – why NOT?” shouted the bewhiskered gentleman.
I was led into a small rehearsal room where a rostrum was hastily arranged in a far corner. Miss Meade pulled up two chairs, where she and the elderly gentleman sat side by side. She tapped her cane on the floor to command my attention.
“What are you going to perform for us Ducky?”
“Ahh, Tennessee Williams. Bold choice Ducky. When you’re ready…”
I got through the piece as Miss Meade and the suited gentleman nodded and whispered to one another.
“I’d like to look at your deportment, Ducky,” signalling to me to mount the rostrum with her cane. She gave me a book to balance on my head.
“Walk around the stage, Ducky, let’s have a good look at you.” She nodded at the old gentleman, who clamped the trumpet tightly of his ear.
“Shall we see her WALK WITH A LIMP?”
“A LIMP? Why NOT?” Miss Meade handed me her cane and told me to walk around the rostrum with it,.
“…as if you’ve broken your left leg Ducky.”
I took the cane from her, trying to remember my left from my right. Propped up on the stick, I began to ‘limp’ around the stage.
“That’s it Ducky – clockwise.”Miss Meade and the old gentleman exchanged approving looks.
Concentrating on limping on the correct foot, I failed to notice the edge of the rostrum and launched off the stage, landing spread-eagle on the floor at Miss Meade’s feet. Trying to maintain some semblance of dignity, I gathered myself up to my full height, dusted down my ruffled hem, picked up the cane and book and hopped back up onto the little stage with the intention of ‘carrying on’. Instead, I got the giggles and turned to Miss Meade and the gentleman.
“Well, that’s torn it! Now, where was I?”
I resumed my limp around the rostrum, on the wrong foot now, but with head held high and book perfectly balanced. (“If you’re going to fail, really fail.”). Miss Meade leaned towards the bewhiskered elderly gent and shouted:
“I like the SPIRIT of the GEL – shall we TAKE her?”
“Take WHAT?” shouted the old chap, leaning into his ear trumpet.
“Take the GEL!” Miss Meade banged her cane emphatically on the floor.
“Do you KNOW – I think we SHALL!” shouted the bewhiskered one, allowing himself a wry smile.
I bowed, jumped off the little platform and shook their hands. Miss Meade offered me a place at her drama school to commence the following September. How thrilling!
However, a place at drama school didn’t cut any ice as far as the Education Authority was concerned; I would have to audition for a grant and they only gave two discretionary grants per year. Over the next three years I auditioned for a little grey man in a grey suit in a stuffy office; we were almost on first name terms. Each year I pulled out my Blanche De Bois and the following conversation ensued
“Thank you Miss Scarboro; an interesting interpretation but you don’t have Maths ‘O’ Level, do you? So you can never teach drama, can you?”
“Oh I’m never going to teach; I’m going to act, so it doesn’t matter, does it?”
“Well, I’m afraid that you can’t have a grant because you live at home, so you won’t need any living expenses.”
You get the gist.
After this third rejection, my mother – now divorced from my dad – took matters into her own hands and arranged an extraordinary meeting with the man in the grey suit, accompanying me to his office.
In a scene reminiscent of ‘Gone With The Wind’ – when Scarlett visits Rhett in jail all dressed up in Miss Ellen’s green velvet drapes, to try and wheedle three hundred dollars out of him to pay the taxes on Tara – Mother looked stunning in a large brimmed, black straw hat with black lace veil, long black gloves and black dress. She leaned seductively across the large desk between her and the little grey man; picking at the fingertips of her gloves with head bowed as she simpered in her languid Southern drawl:
“Oh kind Sir, have pity! I am but a poor divorcée;” (fluttering her eyelashes with the back of her hand across her furrowed brow.) “I cannot support my daughter, livin’ on my own as I do. I beg you to give her this chayance – she is so talented.”
The man in the suit remained unmoved, so with huge regret I had to give up my place at the drama school.
Undeterred, I whipped out Blanche Dubois for a final time – along with my two ‘A’ Level Certificates – when I auditioned at Polytechnic; where I was taught the following invaluable life lesson:
“Men lead from the crotch, women lead from the tits.” (Remember, this was the sexist 1970s)
I also managed to get a full grant and gained a BA Honours Degree in Performing Arts.
Mom purred, “You see honey? There’s more than one way to skin a cat!”
(Copyright: Andrea Burn May 1st 2021)