Drama School Dream Factory – Act 2

HIGH STAKES DRAMA Thalia Theatre Hamburg’s production of Woyzeck.

A Writer’s first lesson in high stakes.

WHILE reading the paper one morning in a cafe during the summer break, I took-in a story about how the city’s best and brightest theatre professionals were being cut down by AIDS. One of the names was John, my NIDA design classmate.

I knew John sometimes struggled to keep up with the physical work, but I’d seen him only weeks before his death made the news, looking well, to all intents and purposes.

Back at NIDA, nobody seemed willing to talk about his death.

The start of my second year saw me in the most receptive space I was ever in while a student. We had a few weeks with industry designers Tom Lingwood and Kym Carpenter, workshopping designs for inspiring plays like Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck, and the Greek tragedy Oedipus.

I moved-in with other students, got myself a job at a local cafe (check out my day job in A Waiter’s Revenge Tragedy), and wasn’t such a slave to commuting as I’d been the previous year.

As a result of a little stability, my design skills began to flourish, and I found there was space to actually learn, from experts, how effective designs were executed. I felt stretched, challenged, and supported. Overcoming a few ‘mistakes’ was considered part of the learning process.

But design theory is one thing. Executing those designs on a living, breathing production is an entirely different process. The year’s idyllic start took a very different turn when the stakes started to get higher, and designers-in-training had to start proving our mettle.

As a direct result, a sense of competition began to creep its way into our classroom.

There were two schools of thought in our year. The first was heady, resisted limitations, aimed very, very high and was quite self-serving. The second was more rational, understood creative restrictions, was very grounded, but just a little puritanical.

I never saw myself as the champion of either of these energies, just a necessary participant in both. But battle lines had been set, and lasted until we all graduated, which actually we nearly didn’t, since every one of us was threatened with expulsion if we didn’t find a way to work together harmoniously.

Whether NIDA’s production schedule could have continued without an entire year of design students was dubious, but it was a timely real-world reminder to ‘keep the drama onstage’, as they say.

What was less clear (although this incident tells me it should have been startlingly obvious), was that the trainers at NIDA had a sharp eye on second year students in all disciplines, analysing who had the potential (in their view) to make good in a challenging industry, and who didn’t. The knives were out.

In the middle of this, my mother was having tests for some health problems. She laughed off the constant ambiguous results, was booked in for exploratory surgery, and on the afternoon her three children arrived simultaneously for a visit, she told us all she’d had a huge amount of cancer removed, with part of her bowel, one kidney and both ovaries.

GEEK’S TRAGEDY (L-R) Susan Prior, Annie Burbrook & Emily Russell in Rachel Landers’ production of Antigone, NIDA 1990 (Photo by Marco Bok).

The reality of this situation had no place in the ‘dream factory’ of NIDA. I think mum knew that – she was a keen supporter of the place, donating her original 1970s clothing to the wardrobe department for an Alan Ayckbourn play, and assisting me in scenic painting during an open day. She eschewed chemotherapy, and, as her children’s lives progressed in new directions, to all intents and purposes, nobody was sick.

But my attention was permanently split, from exactly half way through my course. When some of my classmates whined about their difficult personal lives, I wanted to shout at them to just get on with things … at least nobody had cancer.

I completed that year at NIDA designing a student director’s production of Antigone, Sophocles’ tale of a daughter for whom life’s stakes got very high indeed.

Hanging out at student parties, trying to find some way to fit in, still deeply closeted in a gay-friendly environment, I became the kind of person who got very angry if  anyone started to ask me the ‘wrong’ kind of questions.

The bad news about my family, and the stark realities about making a career in the theatre, had settled into my consciousness, just slightly beneath the surface.

Life was getting very ‘high stakes’, but the final act was yet to be played …

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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