I'd rather be in church than on stage: Revelations

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I've often been asked what made me want to go into acting but up to now I've thought up lots of reasons that weren't true. Thinking about this interview it suddenly struck me that singing in the church choir was very formative. For some people smelling twisted candy can take them back to childhood, but it is stained glass windows and incense which sends me skimming backwards to six years old again. It is not a comfortable emotion.

I was a terrible tomboy, and I called myself Buzz because I couldn't bear my real name. We lived on a sailing barge, my dad was in the navy and it was the cheapest way we could live in London. Television reception was appalling, and having only a crackly, black and white set, we had to think of other things to do in the evening. My mum was very musical and her family would sing rounds while they did the washing up! I found it excruciatingly embarrassing and never understood why they enjoyed it. I would think: Oh no, it's going to be me in a minute. My mother would look imploringly at me not to let her down.

My brother, who is two years older, had a lovely voice and became a head chorister. Rather than to instil me with godliness, I was sent along so my parents had Sunday and Thursday evenings to themselves! Fortunately, it was the kind of choir where anyone could join - a great leveller. So my lack of natural ability did not matter or perhaps with only chipboard between my bedroom and the sitting room something sunk in each night while my mother played the piano, ten yards from my ear, and my father the flute.

Although St Nicholas was a Protestant church, it was all about ceremony. To start off with I used to be upset by some of the formality - why did everyone bend over when the vicar said: he died and on the third day he rose again?However I liked the sweets we were given and the nice outfits: little blue cassocks with white ruffs and a medallion depending on what status you had, mine was very low. We would walk, in procession, into the church and I suppose as a little child I looked quite sweet holding my candle. Services were always full of incident, we used to play snap in the pews, or marbles, which ended up rolling towards the vicar.

In a church choir, you reach an emotional maturity very early on. We would get two shillings for weddings and funerals, so I had a vested interest in those - I can't say I wasn't mercenary. I remember a wedding where the bride was asked whether she "took this man" and answered: no! There were gasps, she rushed off crying and nobody knew what to do. Finally we were hustled back into the vestry and everybody trooped out of church. Who needs theatre?

One of the reasons I particularly liked the choir was a boy called David Dennyer; where is he now? He was gorgeous: around 16 years old, tall, dark-haired with lovely blue eyes. I really used to love him. He must have given me some chocolate or something - at that age you love somebody because they notice you.

At funerals we would be singing next to the coffin, a very grown-up experience for a child. I was not only part of the salve of singing, but also pushing the triggers which would reduce people to tears. Although we would try to be dispassionate, we were inevitably drawn in because that is what music does. It's amazing that one combination of notes is very moving and another is not. I'd sing wonderful pieces of Bach without even understanding the words, but I'd be aware of the congregation sobbing their hearts out. No wonder, today, I often think of the audience as the congregation.

At such an early age you do not normally experience grief or love as something so great. Yet I discovered the hugeness of the emotions that lived in my heart, brain and stomach. Normally they are tucked away but when they erupted they flooded out of me. The choir also gave me the understanding of how a group of people could be all moved together, uniting in something that is abstracted from them. It makes you feel larger than the size of yourself. Because it happened to me early, perhaps that is why I am constantly trying to re-create it.

I went to Westminster School where I was an OK soprano. Every morning we would sing in the Abbey which was really thrilling. I was one of the few girls, so I could hear my voice echoing back, and people would stare at me. Later I sang with the Chiswick music group where we did the Benjamin Britten Operas. Church was a fantastic theatrical grounding, even if we were only performing to 15 old ladies. We were definitely "on display".

I didn't sing much after leaving RADA. However when I went to auditions, instead of thinking about what I was saying I'd remember the music for "Dear Lord and Father of Mankind", and blub. The words of hymns and carols just break my heart, it is a wonderful asset to have this emotional sponge inside me.

I have performed in a couple of musicals. I was a passable Sally Bowles in Cabaret, but lamentable as Polly Brown in The Boyfriend. The anonymity of the church choir is very different from being under a spotlight, in tap shoes, trying to sing your heart out. I was so execrable they put the spotlight anywhere but on me. Disgraceful.

In my twenties I thought it was naff to be in a choir, almost anoraky, but now I have to confess it is something I hugely miss. I would love to get that high again, it's much better than appearing in the West End.

It feels weird, another life that I don't need anymore - a bit like knowing a language but never going to the country. Sadly, my parents are both dead so music has a particular power to move me. The other day I heard a piano piece my mother used to play and it was like being punched in the stomach. Talking about it, I have an urge to leap into a taxi and go to the nearest church so I can dowse myself in music.

Interview: Andrew G Marshall

Imogen Stubbs is appearing in `Closer' at the Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London