I just opened The Arts Theatre in the West End (my show, Sane New World runs until 13 February). I've toured this show for a few years around the UK but when the press come there's always a sickness in the stomach because you know that, with one swift negative scribble of the plume, it could get very painful and shaming - and yet you still have to show up. Anyway, I love my show and would come see it if I wasn't in it. This is an unusual thing for me to say as I'm not usually very flattering about myself but after about 200 performances, I think I might have nailed it.
When I started doing one woman shows 30 years ago, Alan Rickman directed me. I met him at the Royal Shakespeare Company where the actors on stage threw spit balls of notes at me while I was mid-performance, telling me that I should reconsider being an actress and to maybe think about an alternative career. It wasn't pleasant. Alan told me to write the way I spoke and thought, so I just let it rip on paper with wild abandon. When I handed him my tome covered in food stains he said it was like someone had vomited on him, but he edited it somehow and shaped it into a show. He directed my first piece while we were still in the RSC. We invited Trevor Nunn and all the other actors and directors to watch and suddenly I went from playing houseplants to speaking parts. (I still wasn't any good at acting but I think I was fun to have around.)
The show I wrote back then went to off-Broadway and I cast Americans in the roles. Alan refused to come because he was building his own career but I made several actresses cry and they refused to do my show unless Alan came and directed it. He did. He directed and mentored me on pretty much everything I did all those years ago; television, live shows, comedy scripts, films. I remember, he would give me hell while I was doing my one woman shows, telling me to not be so desperate because it showed in my eyes. He called them hatchet eyes; expressing excess neediness and fear. He told me to play myself and since I didn't know who that was I played a grinning, trying to be funny, loud American. The less people laughed, the louder I got. Alan would often do my lines and make me scream with hysterics, collapsing onto the floor, he was that good at comedy and timing. I often tried to imitate how he'd do it when I performed but it just confused people. During all those shows he'd give me the same note. "Don't try so hard." Finally, now, after many decades, I can be 'not desperate' on stage. It feels like I can let go of trying to please but still be aware there's an audience. I think now he might be proud.
He died last week and it's more heart-breaking than anything I've felt before. I feel like my insides have been gouged out and nothings left. He formed me and saved me. When my father used to come to the UK and bury me in verbal criticism, it was Alan who told him to 'lay off', who told him that I wasn't such a 'sad sack' as he called me but that I was very talented and would make it. My father rolled his eyes. If it wasn't for Alan I would never have thought of writing comedy, I would have had to return to my home, to my parents in the US and I know that would have broken me. I know that by now I'd be either institutionalised, heavily medicated or dead. I have to thank him and can't.
Don't miss out on the last chance to see her Sane New World show - at the Arts Theatre in London until Feb 13 2016.
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