I've been contemplating dispensing with the Shakespearean references out of fear they make me appear pretentious...seems I couldn't quite do it! Alas - though, as a theatre student, I guess I can use my degree as my defence. Nevertheless, however much I love him, today's post shall take issue with the second line of this well-known speech; for we are not merely players. On the contrary - the human ability to act is one of the greatest tools we possess. Not in a poncy Stanislavski/Strasberg/Meisner-related way (though, again, as a theatre student I acknowledge the debt we owe to the first two and, if it were possible to marry a theory, I'd marry Meisner's!) but a more quotidian one.
My Mama once said that I've been acting all my life. I didn't understand what she meant, at first, but I've gradually begun to realise that she was right. The only time I feel truly safe is when I'm performing. I know a lot of people say that and that, aside from anything else, it seems paradoxical, but it's true. Each of the roles I take on is like a mask, a cover, behind which the shyest of the Jessis may disappear for a while. Acting, particularly in the theatre, necessarily requires a suspension of disbelief on the behalf of the audience; a soothing balm to the (well-hidden) wounds of someone in whose life this emotion is paramount - for others, that is, not for myself.
It's a coping mechanism. In the early years, it meant that I had a place away from the kids (and adults!) who appeared to be terribly fond of either asking what was wrong, pitying, consoling, or all three. Then I found a way to talk to social workers without the mortification of crying in front of them - I just don't do public tears. That child reduced to figures on a form - well, she just wasn't me. As a young teenager, the spine on the xray belonged to someone else entirely. Don't get me wrong - I was well aware of the 'reality' (if such an ephemeral jumble of perceptions can be so called) but for those few appointments I needed to be coherent and detached and the only way that was an option in those highly-charged days was if I retreated a little.
A perfect example is my lycra suit. It's basically a modern-corset-type-affair, but the idea is that it straightens things out as opposed to squashing my organs. The one I have now is really easy to slip on (though admittedly it's still quite difficult to breathe sometimes!) but the first few were complete torture. So, when Mama was (unsuccessfully) trying to contort me enough to squeeze me into it one day, she told me: 'Imagine you're in a period drama - what would Keira Knightley do?' This became a thing (we have lots of idiosyncratic family 'things') and over the years I shortened it to 'WWKKD?'. I actually read in a very recent interview that, growing up, Keira had a similar strategy involving Emma Thompson...coincidence, much?
Anyway, it was thanks to this acronym that I began to get better. Whenever I had an overwhelmingly spasmy day, I would simply sit and say to myself, over and over, that if Keira needed to work on something physical in order to give her best to a part, she'd bloody well go and do it. I think part of the reason that my identification with her was (and is) so strong is due to her dyslexia. My Mama (whose background is pre-primary and primary teaching) has always maintained that learning to walk is like learning to read - you do both one step and one letter at a time. If you have even the slightest difficulty with either, it takes longer to trace that one letter, longer to take that one step; and some time for the letter to become a word, the step to become a stride.
I learnt to read fairly early, to find an imaginary substitute for the world I could not physically traverse. I imagine she was as desperate to read as I was (am) to walk, though of course I would not presume to know. It's just you grow up feeling that you'll always have something to prove, if you don't do it; that no matter how much (in my case) you throw yourself into academics, because that's what you can do, you'll always have to work harder.
Thanks to Keira, who learnt to read and can now handle a script brilliantly, I'm slowly discovering that that's not the case. That I only have to prove things to my harshest critic - myself. It's odd, and almost as paradoxical as the safety I find in the complete exposure of acting, but now that I know (and almost believe) I can be happy as I am, I am able to prepare for the first steps that I've dreamt of for so very long. The whining schoolboy is growing into the sturdy soldier.
Finally, she played herself in a sketch for last year's Comic Relief, where all sorts of notable people were trying to decide who should go to Africa to film the advert. Of course it's satirical, let alone scripted, but she says: 'To know I've helped just one child, somewhere in the world, makes it worthwhile.' I hope she'll realise somehow not only that she did help one child, but that that child is now a young woman who has taken her life back into her own hands, to stand literally on her own two feet, forever grateful for the push out of the hole.
Thank you, yet again, for all that you've done for me - not just you, but your whole family, Sharman and Will and Caleb, too. It's truly more than I could ever repay.