How We Met: Susan Tully and Anna Scher

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The Independent Culture
Susan Tully, 26, trained at the Anna Scher Theatre in Islington, north London. She started to work professionally at nine. She appeared in the BBC children's serial Grange Hill, and now plays Michelle Fowler in EastEnders. She lives in north London and has been studying for an Open University degree.

Anna Scher, 49, is principal of the Anna Scher Theatre, which incorporates a training side and a professional agency. She has a 13-year-old son, John. She has been involved in many award-winning television and theatre projects in this country and abroad, and has written several books.

SUSAN TULLY: At eight years old I'd tried Girl Guides, swimming, dancing classes - whatever was on offer after school. One Sunday afternoon, Anna was holding an open-air class in Highbury Fields in north London. Anyone could join in. Anna asked us to talk about the worst thing that had ever happened to us, so I told everyone about the time I cut my head open. When I'd finished, she said, 'You projected that so well, Susan.' It was the first time I'd ever heard the word 'projected'. I hadn't a clue what it meant. When I joined the classes, I heard it all the time. It's one of Anna's famous 'P' words - Professional, Punctual, Purpose, Perseverance, Persistence, Practice and Projection.

Dad saw an ad for the theatre so he took me along, and I liked what I saw. Mark Burdis, who went to my school, was there - later we were both in Grange Hill. I don't think he'd told anyone he went to Anna's. He's one of my oldest friends - my closest friends all come from Anna's. I went on Tuesdays and Thursdays; classes were 10p. Anna Scher became part of my life.

I had my first audition when I was nine. As with projection, I'd no idea what audition meant. Anna always made sure that none of us lost sight of the fact that we were all part of a drama club. Ambition and seeing your name in lights isn't her way. I helped her with workshops and was one of her 'Busy Bees'. I might have been in Grange Hill, but I still had to clear up, paint the loos and sort props. Anna's incredibly well-organised.

She always drummed it into us that this wasn't a stage school - parents weren't under pressure to get a return on their investment. You could always tell kids from Anna's and kids from stage schools apart a mile off, because most of the others wore uniforms and straw boaters. For me, Anna's openmindedness, her definite line on what's right and wrong, made a lasting impression. Her attitude meant that there was no sense of competition between any of us - even if we went up for the same jobs. She made us feel that if you didn't get something, you were glad for the person that did. With Anna it's not a brilliant performance or a bad performance that matters - it's trying that's important.

To me, Anna is completely ageless. She looks exactly the same as she did when I first met her. She's always had a very Sixties hairstyle. About 18 months ago, I had tea with her and asked if I could sit in and watch a class. She introduced me like a proud parent. Watching the kids brought it all back to me and I was in tears. Anna has a way of talking to kids which is absolutely on their level and yet entirely serious. Her only expectation is that everyone reaches their own potential. For kids who maybe don't do well at other things, or come from schools and homes where they don't get much support, Anna is their only source of confidence. Even when I was nine, she asked me for advice. She was genuinely interested in what I had to say and made me feel special. I remember saying to my mum, 'I really love Anna, mum. Is that all right?'

Leaving Anna's agency was the worst thing I've ever had to do. It was horrendous knowing she wasn't going to be part of my life again. For a year I hardly saw her. One day my mum met Anna in Chapel Market in Islington, and said, 'You've got to understand - Sue didn't leave you, she left the Anna Scher Theatre. It was time for her to leave home and flee the nest.' The move was emotional - not professional. It wasn't until I'd left that I really appreciated what Anna is all about. She gives kids freedom of expression. In improvisations, they can say whatever they want. They can take risks and feel safe. Kids talk to her about everything. She's seen every possible combination of family background.

I've never known Anna to take a holiday. She works all the time and has unbelievable energy and exuberance. Just watching and talking to her is enough to recharge your batteries. She doesn't believe in wasting time on negative energy.

She's one of the wisest people I've met and so interested in life. She's very big on poetry and often sends me poems. We talk on the phone for hours, but work is the last thing we discuss. Anna wants to know about mum and dad and my Open University degree, which I've had to put on hold because EastEnders has gone three days a week. Unless someone needs some advice, Anna believes in leaving work at work.

It would have been so easy to slip off the rails and to get a distorted view of myself when I went into TV. There are so many bizarre people out there. It's a world full of insecurities, drugs and alcohol, so it's not difficult to go off your head. With my mum and dad and Anna, I was sorted in myself. I've had the best possible grounding.

ANNA SCHER: Susan Tully and the Anna Scher Theatre are both 26 years old. She started coming to classes in September 1976. From the beginning, in a class of 50 talented children, Sue integrated beautifully, and yet she stood out. There was something wonderfully natural and instinctive about her acting. There still is. Even as a child, she jumped off the page. She had maturity far beyond her years.

It wasn't difficult for her to make the transition from child to adult actress. Not many people can do it. In training, you need what I call my Five As - Application, Attendance, Attitude, Awareness and Appreciation. Sue came up trumps in every one. One of the reasons why she's coped so well is that she's blessed with eminently sensible parents, Mike and Laura.

Before she went into Grange Hill, Sue, at ten years old, was a presenter on Our Show for LWT, but she was never big-headed or in danger of going off the rails. At the theatre, we don't allow anyone to adopt a high and mighty attitude. I don't stand for hubris of any kind. Acting is a job of work, like any other, that's all. When you consider other jobs that people do, it's ludicrous to make a fuss about being on TV. 'Star' and 'fame' are words I won't use. They diminish other children, and if you call someone a 'child star' I think they lose their soul. I can't bear any of it.

A few years ago Sue took me out to lunch to tell me that she was leaving - going to another agent. I was absolutely devastated. I couldn't speak and felt terrible, but I had a class waiting. Nothing has ever stopped me teaching. It wasn't anything to do with the money - I'm the least materialistic person you could meet. I realised that I had turned into this Jewish mother who couldn't bear the fact that her child was leaving home. I was so hurt, but when the pain subsided I understood, of course, that it was the same for Sue. It was part of her growing up and leaving home. Now I welcome her back with open arms. She's very loyal to the theatre and comes to all our festivals and birthdays. I'm a great afternoon tea person and although her BBC schedule is horrendous, she makes time to see me and 'touch base', as she calls it.

It's never easy when people leave but I've learnt to cope, and as long as they do it in the right way, after all the hugs and tears, I don't get upset. All I ask is that people are open and honest.

With Sue, everything seems to have come full circle. Natalie Cassidy, who is ten and comes to the classes, has joined the cast of EastEnders. Sue is keeping an eye on her. There's a real family feeling there and I know that Natalie looks up to Sue. Whenever a new member comes to the classes, we appoint a friend to look after them and make them feel at home. Hospitality is part of the training.

Sue Tully has a lot of backbone. She is independent and has a life beyond acting which she gets on with. As a friend, she is very loyal. Just as Sue made the transition from child actress to adult, so she made the transition from a relationship which was pupil and teacher, to very good friends. I'm inordinately proud of her.-