12+ I fell in love with live theatre when I saw my first London West End play as a newly-arrived backpacker in 1987. Over the next eight years, living in Brighton and Windsor, I attended countless professional and amateur productions. But I didn't think in 1987 that one day I'd be up on stage, too, taking a bow.
Situated across the road from the Indian-inspired Royal Pavilion, the plain exterior of the Theatre Royal Brighton belies its ornate interior, a beautiful venue for staging professional touring plays and musicals. But Brighton also has a vibrant amateur theatre scene. And watching these amateur performances spurred me to sign up for an evening college acting course.
La Môme Piaf
My big break was La Môme Piaf, a homage based on the life of Edith Piaf, at the Arundel Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in August 1991. I had seen plays by Piaf's Director, Roy Grant, and knew him socially through mutual friends, who told Roy I was a budding actor keen to get on the stage.
"Can you sing?" Roy asked me in his theatrical baritone lilt over a gin and tonic at a local pub.
"Um, no, not very well," I answered honestly.
"That's a shame," he replied. "My Piaf is a musical tribute."
"Oh, sorry," I answered, feeling crestfallen, but not for long.
Bless him, Roy found roles for me in his play, fittingly as Robert, an Australian soldier during WWII, and Jacques, Piaf's first husband. And he covered my "not very well" singing voice by burying me deep in the chorus line.
Thirty-plus years since my debut, I only have vague memories of the week-long run of La Môme Piaf. But I vividly recall basking in the standing ovation of the opening night bow. And how one of my fellow (more experienced) actors, seeing my beaming smile backstage, asked, "Was this your first time?"
"Yes!" I gushed, feeling so high and happy from the dopamine hit of the bow and applause that I promised myself it wouldn't be my last.
Brighton Little Theatre
Roy, bless him again, suggested I audition to join the Brighton Little Theatre Company. I'd seen several Little Theatre productions. And though it was an amateur theatre group, I knew many of their actors and directors had been or could have been on stage professionally.
So I was hopeful but realistic at my audition, as noted in my diary in September 1991:
Read for a part in Our Country's Good (by Timberlake Wertenbaker) at the Little Theatre. Saw several of my fellow actors from Piaf. Felt I performed well, but given the talent of others auditioning, won't be surprised if I'm overlooked.
I didn't get a part in Our Country's Good. But my audition was judged good enough to be invited to join the Little Theatre, leading to regular auditions for other plays. Like my writing back then, however, I soon learned actors must steel themselves for rejection.
Little Theatre Debut
Bless him once more, Roy gave me my Little Theatre debut in March 1992 as Tony, The Cop, in his production of Small Craft Warnings by Tennessee Williams. I only had three lines in the second act. But I was back on stage, bowing with the cast at the end of the play and getting my dopamine hit again.
My subsequent roles at the Little Theatre in May 1992 (without Roy's patronage) were more challenging, with more lines. Single Spies by Alan Bennett is a two-act, double-bill depicting members of the Cambridge spy ring.
In the first act, An Englishman Abroad, I played Tolya, the Russian toy boy of Anthony Burgess, at his Moscow flat meeting with the Australian stage and screen actress Coral Browne. And in the second, A Question of Attribution, I was a cockney assistant, Colin, helping Sir Anthony Blunt hang paintings at Buckingham Palace when HMQ unexpectedly enters the room.
I still have my copy of the Single Spies script (Faber and Faber 1989). Inside its yellowing pages are the handwritten notes from the director to aid my cockney rhyming slang for Colin and my scribbles against the Russian dialogue in the script to help me master Tolya.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Although I didn't realise it then, I performed in my last play at the Brighton Little Theatre in November 1992, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard. Bearded in Elizabethan breeches, I juggled three roles as a Tragedian, Courtier and Soldier, juggled three balls and simulated a sex scene (only once and not while juggling!).
During my brief acting stint with the Little Theatre, I often dreamed I was on stage and hadn't learned my lines. "Improvise," a fellow actor hissed at me in my dreams.
I also had these dreams during the rehearsals and run of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. And yet, my parts (including the sex scene) were mime — I had no lines to learn and speak!
I moved from Brighton to Windsor in 1993. And although I still craved the dopamine hit of acting, I couldn't find a theatre group that felt as "welcoming" as the Little Theatre. So I retired from the stage but continued attending professional and amateur plays in Windsor and London and back "home" at the Little Theatre in Brighton.
In 1996, I returned to Australia. I signed up for evening drama courses but returned to the stage only once for a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.
In any case, after my son was born in 2002, I had other priorities. And being a dad provided an alternative source of dopamine hits.
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But writing about my experience as an amateur actor rekindled many happy memories. And I'm glad I kept my diary entries from my time in England and the theatre programs, scripts and cast photos. For one thing, they made the research task for this blog post much easier!
And for another, they reminded me of the thrill I felt all those years ago, strutting about the stage with my fellow actors, soaking up the applause, and taking a bow.
© 2022 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might like to read another blog post about my time in England, Writing Can Be Lonely.
I wrote Taking a Bow in November 2022. Sorting through some papers, I'd uncovered a bundle of old scripts and theatre programs from England. Among them was the program from my 1991 debut performance, La Môme Piaf. And inside this, I found a fax, still legible after all these years, with handwritten well-wishes from my family:
- My Nan wrote, "All the best for your play. I hope your first night is real special."
- My Dad joked, "Hope the play goes well and the prompter doesn't get worn out."
- And my brother quoted Shakespeare, "Remember, nothing will come of nothing. Bring the house down."
While I didn't include the fax in the blog post, along with the scripts, programs and cast photos, they inspired me to dig out my diary entries and draw on my memories to write Taking a Bow.
Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.
Besides writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.