The day I learnt to just say no

REVELATIONS The time: August 1996 The place: Surrey The woman: Ruthie Henshall, star of Chicago
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I can remember the moment I finally changed. Somebody wanted me to do a press conference on a Sunday and told me it was really important. I had just one day off. My gut was saying, I don't want to go all the way into London and feel stressed. So I said nicely: "No, I'm not going to do that. I will do it any other day, but not this Sunday. My time is my own." I felt fantastic and wanted to phone everybody with the news!

I had worked continually for 10 years because I was frightened to turn anything down. I didn't know how to say no professionally. I certainly didn't know how to say no in my private life. If someone would ask: "Could I borrow that really lovely designer dress of yours?" I would say yes, but I'd be thinking: "I don't want somebody else to sweat in my favourite dress and I certainly don't want canapes down it." I was making myself powerless.

I had a wonderful fiance, the actor John Gordon Sinclair, and the dreams I'd followed since I was a little girl had all come true. I was doing new shows, playing leads and had choice in my life. Yet I didn't like the way I felt. I was disappointed with myself because I didn't feel I was living my life for me. I'm normally a very happy person but there was an aching in my soul. I was down because when I wasn't performing and being appreciated by the audience, I felt useless.

So, when I finished my stint on Oliver! I decided to take some time out. I told myself that I had found love and that was more important to me than work. Men hadn't been very important to me, but when I met Gordie I just knew he was the man I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I remember clearly the moment that I actually fell in love. It was a Sunday.

We had been away from each other for just one day, we'd been rehearsing all week for a musical we were in together. He phoned up and left a message on my answering machine. I was devastated about missing him and I thought, why am I feeling like this about somebody who I'm just working with? The next day, he turned to me and said: "I miss you on Sundays, what's going on here?"

I confessed that I didn't know but that I felt the same. We had a good cuddle, held each other and talked terribly honestly about everything. It was amazing because normally when you're really attracted to someone you can't be yourself because you're monitoring everything you say and worrying what they will think! It might sound very unexciting, and I don't mean it like that, but suddenly I felt like I had got a pair of old shoes on. It's really bizarre but it just felt so comfortable. It developed slowly and our relationship is just wonderful.

Anyway, I promised myself that after Oliver! the next job I took would be something I wanted so desperately that I bit their hand off. Really, I didn't know what I wanted to do next.

We got on Gordie's Harley and went on a bit of a biking trip. Then I pottered about our home in Surrey and became house proud for the first time. For nine months I did my own thing and I have to admit that I was very, very down.

I needed to learn to be happy with my own company, which is something I wasn't comfortable with and I'm still learning. I had to discover my qualities other than what I do on stage. I did an art course, beginners painting and drawing, at the local Adult Education classes. It was two hours every week when I did something for me. The scope of the people was incredible - solicitors, microbiologists, store detectives. There was one very spiritual lady and once when I was standing by the sink, washing my palette, I said, "I hate washing up so much." She replied wisely, "I don't. I use it for time to think. Often you can't change what you have to do but you can change your attitude."

Sometimes you don't understand why you're going through a period of being stuck and it's not until afterwards that you realise why you needed that time. I had to find out that although work is really important, what is equally vital is that I'm happy off stage and that I give myself time. For 10 years, I did everything for everybody else but hardly anything for myself. I've tried to get into meditation, I manage it occasionally but I'm still bad at finding time each day when I don't think I should be up to something else. However, I do take a couple of hours a week and feel no guilt about escaping with a couple of books. I've learnt that if you find yourself saying "I ought" or "I should" you're listening to the wrong voices in your head. I've found extra time because I've learnt to say no.

Gordie is very much his own person. I've watched him doing what he wants to do in life and nobody hates him for it - they actually respect him. You know where you stand with him. I'm now finding the same skill and I'm much happier because I'm doing what I want to do rather than what other people expect.

Saying no also means that you're free when something you really want to do comes along. If I had gone with a particular job I was offered I would have missed out on my solo singing tour and Chicago - which is a life-changing part for me. I'd always played the ingenue or tragedy but comedy is something I have loved for years. Now I've found the right comic role, and there's also great dancing. I can show people a different side so I'm not pigeon-holed. I play a woman who has got her name in the papers and she might finally get what she's always wanted - her own act. OK, she had to shoot somebody to do it but, you know what, she's making the best of the situation. She's a bit like me.

Gordie has loved watching the show develop. He's my hardest critic and won't let me off the hook. He told me on the opening night how proud he was of me. I can't tell you how that made me feel. I didn't cry but I wanted to; when you're growing up you want your parents' approval and now I really want Gordie's approval because I admire him so much.

Before my nine months in Surrey I couldn't be true to myself. Now I have a clearer, broader vision of everything. I want to go travelling, get on the Harley Davison and go across America. I want to live there for a while, too. I would love children, although it doesn't seem likely in the next few years. I do feel, however, that now I would make a good mother. Previously, I would have had children to love me rather than being ready to nurture them. I've realised there's more to life than work. No man and no job can make you happy. You have to make yourself happy. I was too busy putting on a front and being Ruthie the performer to notice how sad I was. I was using all these things in my life as a distraction. My ultimate goal now is to feel contented, I don't know if I ever will. I love what I do with a passion. I love Gordie and my family deeply, but they can't single-handedly make me happy - that's up to me.

Interview by Andrew G Marshall

`Chicago' is at the Adelphi Theatre, London WC2 (box-office 0171-344 0055).

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