Read Horse Submission 7: Three Act Play

From Issue 7. Topics were Silence, Obsession and Daytime TV. 

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Three Act Play

February 16th, 1994.

My heart is thumping.

I can hear the blood singing in my ears.

I take a deep breath. My mouth silently frames the words that I can hear onstage. I time it. Three, two, one- and then I take that first step- and the lights flood me warmly, temporarily blinding after the darkness of the wings.

And then that’s it. I’m in. The greatest high is not in the shouting, but the silence. Not in the physical back-and-forth of fight scenes or dances, but the stillness. The feeling like you have the whole audience hanging on your ragged breath, every single one in the moment with your character. The audience are yours, gasping at a gunshot, thrilling at a kiss. Out there in the hushed velveteen darkness.

From my first school play I was hooked. I wondered how anyone could ever want to do anything else. The intensity of being in a cast. The feeling of complete and utter elation taking a bow, sweaty hand clasped in my co-lead’s sweaty hand, applause rippling through the school hall. Then University, and avant-garde student productions playing to five people. But the moving sight of five people giving a standing ovation. Drama School and the nail-biting terror of playing to an audience who know every word of Shakespeare, and have seen it umpteen times before- bringing a truth, a freshness, a life into the role.

I live, breathe, sleep it. The theatre is a magical world. The Narnia-like experience of going through the Stage Door, into damp Green Rooms and threadbare dressing rooms fills me with delight. The Ghosts of productions past, the legends, the bitching and the artfully self-applied pancake make-up. The drinks in the bar afterwards, realising that a packet of sweating salted peanuts is pretty much all you’ve eaten today. Feeling young. Filling your pockets with triangular sandwiches at buffets. Piles of well-thumbed books on your bedside- An Actor Prepares, Voice and The Actor.

Twelve glorious weeks. Twelve weeks of this- not the hugest part, and not the greatest production of what’s rarely considered the playwright’s best work- but I’m in it! Every night! I’m living, breathing, swimming in it, and the magic hasn’t worn off. Just when I start to feel exhausted, dizzy, spent, I go onstage and it renews me- fills me to the marrow with that special kind of energy you can only get from doing what you love.

June 12th, 1999

The phone sits in its cradle. I stare. There is no pain as acute of the pain of what is missing.

I stare at it. I curse myself and pull myself away, to do something, anything. Washing up.  A crossword. My worst habit is imagining the future. As soon as I meet a partner I start to do it. It starts off small. I see us in Paris, in some candle-softened cellar bar where wine glows in our glasses. Then I see us with family all gathered around a huge table, laughing and joking. I see a wedding. I re-play, re-frame, add details- a firework display here, a spray of flowers there. Sometimes I re-shoot the scene entirely- it’s a village square in Tuscany, and then it’s a cliff-top overlooking a Cornish bay. And when we split up, with the loss of the relationship goes not just the reality, but the imaginings too. All of it- the beautiful holidays we never went on, the wedding we never even talked about- it all seems to disappear.

I do it at auditions as well. Every time it goes well I tell myself the same thing: don’t get your hopes up! Don’t start to believe! But I can’t seem to help it. I do. I see myself playing the part. I see the curtain rising and the lights hitting. I see me storming tempestuously, smouldering, pouting, emoting, shivering, sighing, seducing, crying, breaking down… whatever the role requires. And I see me bowing, and I see the blurred faces of the audience on their feet, smashing their hands together and weeping. I see the reviews. I see the photographs outside the box office- the taglines, the 5 stars. I try to black it out, to stop myself, but I can’t.

And then the disappointment is that much keener. It feels like I lost the best thing I ever had.

Five hours of torturous silence later and the phone finally rings. It seems to scream through the bedsit.

“Hello?” I say, transparently desperate in my breathlessness.

“It’s Frances. Just heard from the Theatre Royal.”

I can already hear what’s coming next, but I shut my eyes tight, bracing myself.

“They really liked you. They’d definitely like you to read for them again next time. But they didn’t feel you were quite right for Nora.”

I nod, furiously.

“Are you alright? Did you hear me? They loved you, but you weren’t what they were looking for.”

I’m silent.

She sighs.

“Anyway, never mind. Better keep trying eh? I’ve not got anything at the moment but I’ll be in touch, ok?”

I put the phone back in its receiver. Then I sit on the floor, cradling myself, and make two dark, wet patches on the knees of my jeans.

October 28th, 2002


The casting director, Mel, has stuck her head out of the door.

“Do you want to come through?”

I follow dutifully and sit on a canvas director’s chair. The director himself does not even look up, sheafing through his notes.

“So we’ve had a chat… erm.” Mel pauses to pour herself a glass of water from the jug in front of her. She takes her time. I squirm.

“We’ve seen quite a few people for that part today. Erm… what we’d quiiiite liiiiiike,” she looks down at my headshots and CV, tapping her fingers on the desk (dikkity-dik-dik-dik), “is for you to read for a different part. So this is similar to the battered wife, in a way- I mean, well- the character’s quiiiite…”

“submissive”, the director sighs, his eyes still on his papers.

“Yeah… she’s caring for her husband, who’s wheelchair bound. We’ve had a storyline before where the carer was actually being quite abusive, but we’re gonna…”

Mel makes a circular motion with her hands.

“Turn that issue around. So the guy in the wheelchair is actually a bit of a bully, a bit controlling. And this all kind of, comes out in the open, when they visit the surgery”.

They both look at me. I nod, silent.

“Okay, great. Can we get…” Mel looks down at her notes. “…Stephen… in?”

Summoned, Stephen appears. Oh god, it’s him. His face breaks into recognition when he sees me, and he smiles warmly.

We read through the scene. The script is awful. Clunky exposition into cringeworthy cliché, ending with some naked didacticism. Afterwards he looks at me rather sheepishly, like we’ve just had bad sex.

“Great guys. Thanks.” Mel says, before ushering us out and glibly delivering that old favourite: “We’ll be in touch”.

Stephen and I get in the lift.

“Wow”, he laughs, “Yeah.”

I am staring at the number pad, trying to remember which floor was street level.

He leans across and presses 1.

“Was it one? Not G?”

He looks at me and then raises his fist.

“Don’t talk back, you stupid woman!”

A joke. He’s being the abusive wheelchair-bound husband again. I smile weakly.

“Have you done any more of those corporate training days?”

I shake my head.

“Sadly not”.

“Guess what my agent offered me the other day?”

 I look at him.

“Go on, guess”.

He’s one of those people. That actually make you guess, whether you are interested or not.

“Halloween Murder Mystery Party?” I venture.

“Close” he says, impressed. “London Dungeons.”

There is an awkward silence.

The thing is that I have no real reason to hate him. Those few drinks after the Health and Safety in the Workplace Role-Play and Discussion Session… that fumbled, gropey snog on the station platform… that’s nothing to do with it. I know he thinks it’s that. He thinks I’m being cold as I’m embarrassed to have kissed him. He’s wrong. It’s so much more than that. It’s a cold, deep well of shame and fear. He is a living, breathing reminder of everything I hate about my life. He’s like a magnifying mirror, reflecting me in horrifying close-up. The pantos. The corporate training events. The in-school drugs education plays. The office Christmas party murder mysteries. The bad daytime TV soaps. He makes me feel like I do when I look at my CV. Sick and inside-out.

The doors open and a woman’s voice breaks the silence.

“Floor One”, she says. “Doors closing”. 

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