Although there was a lot of music and drama at my school, I decided at about 12 to join an amateur company called Derby Shakespeare Society, who took over Derby playhouse for two weeks every year. I worked backstage and played spear-carriers, until I was 15 and they cast me as Juliet. I was so excited; I'd never acted in a real theatre before. My dressing- room had a mirror with lights around it. Flowers on the first night. My dream come true.
Unfortunately I wasn't very good. The words became a barrier between me and the role. You can't speak them as normal speech; they don't work if you ignore the poetry, because the text describes the feelings. What's most important is that you have to have the emotion within yourself. Although as a 15-year-old adolescent I could identify with Juliet, I'd not yet been in love in the way she had.
I'll never forget the first night, knowing that it was going fine but that there was a level I was missing. After Juliet weds Romeo in secret, there is a scene where her father demands that she marries Paris and she begs her mother and father not to make her go through with it. Something happened on stage at that moment; I suddenly found the emotional truth within the play. I learnt it, in a sense, from the audience. For the first time ever, I recognised a completely different quality of audience listening. The whole theatre was held; it was wonderful. I knew I had achieved that silence, and what I was doing was working. I understood the possibility of the power of being an actor.
I don't know why that scene unlocked the truth. Perhaps it was a child pleading with her father - not something I'd ever had to do with my own father, but I could understand that sense of desperation. During those strange, hormonal times of puberty and extreme emotions, one does understand utter desperation. I was desperate to become an actress. Further into the run, I could find that truth in other scenes. I suppose I had recognised it from watching other actors achieve it on stage. Having this experience from the other side of the coin with the audience absolutely motionless was crucial to my decision to become an actress. I knew I had potential and therefore had to further the journey. It happened for such a very short space of time that sometimes I wonder if I imagined it, but it was such a precise, Damascene moment that I know it must have happened. My father's reaction to the play was that I was good in bits of it: "an honourable failure". My parents were very supportive but always honest.
Becoming well known was never an ambition; it was always about the work itself. I hadn't really explored my motivation for becoming an actor until I started thinking about doing this revelation. Until that moment on stage I'd never tapped into my feelings before. Shakespeare is all about epic passions - so large they need the poetry to support them, otherwise they almost become indescribable and lose their reality. Grand emotions can be rather frightening, destructive and not acceptably expressible in real life; by acting them they're safely pocketed. It surprised me that I could find the range of feelings that Juliet required. It was quite primitive, there is nothing middle class and held in about her raw love. Discovering my own depth and the dangerous edge of my emotions was very exciting. It was a good way to get rid of the teenage frustrations that were banging around my body - and it was all approved by my parents!
I'm still very passionate about Shakespeare. I'm cross that this summer I haven't had a chance to see a production at the Globe. Although I always intended to go straight to the RSC from university and stay there for my whole life, the irony is that I've never acted for them. In my year out I applied to Stratford and was offered a backstage job, but they would only keep me if I could do the whole season. I needed to start my studying in the October. I was heartbroken, so I became an usherette and was allowed in to watch rehearsals. They were fantastic. Instead of Shakespeare I've done much more modern work than I expected - perhaps that's my talent. I don't feel it is.
I've auditioned for the RSC only twice in my whole career, and yet I've done several plays at the National. I have begged my agent on countless occasions, written letters and bent many ears, wanting to join them. I don't know what it is; I just haven't captured their imagination. Success in something like Casualty isn't a barrier any more - Jane Gurnett, who played one of the nurses, has done a season. So it's not that they won't employ me because I'm too known as Baz Hayes. However, my career isn't over yet - perhaps I'm planning to give my Queen Margaret when I'm very old.
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