Call to Adventure
You may look like we do, talk like we do
But you know how it is
You’re not one of us, not one of us
No you’re not one of us (Peter Gabriel)
In the multicultural London of the 1970s, where I grew up, all ‘non-white’ people were called ‘black’ – amongst many other things. The era-defining TV series ‘Roots’ had just landed, as well as a mini-series about the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, so my heroes were mostly from the US Civil Rights movement. My knowledge about India, my own country, and its leaders, came later, particularly in that early eighties period with Attenborough’s film ‘Gandhi’, and ‘The Jewel in the Crown’, which tempered the brutality of British rule with a competing, lingering obsession with the exotic, and a glossing of the colonial class, merely as a comically benign troupe of pompous-ass army officers, ditsy matrons, and spinsters possessed by heathen passions, supposedly unleashed by the heat and dust, yet who could still keep calm and drink (gin, or) tea, while the pesky ‘natives’ revolted.
Around the age of twelve, my father had given me a set of the complete works of Shakespeare. Told me it was something I ‘should’ read, like it would be good for me. Had he known the track that I would eventually take, completely diverging from the pre-destined, traditional-Indian-parent path, he might have regretted the gesture – really only intended to enhance my education – ‘cos I devoured it, and burped approvingly.
My route into theatre was one of those ‘inspirational teachers’ at school that people like to reminisce about. Mine taught English Lit and directed school plays. Squeezed into a tiny classroom, he would squat on his desk like an old Indian man in front of a toddy (palm wine) shop, next to a window, necessarily open, as he would smoke during the lesson, as riveted in telling the stories behind the texts as we were in hearing them. Told with such intensity, that sometimes his cigarette would burn all the way down and remain intact ‘til he finished his story. Only then would he move, collapsing the leaning tower of fag ash.
The sheer luxury of having a theatre space in the school, usually reserved for assemblies or prize giving, meant there were a lot of productions – one a term and an annual Shakespeare play. That teacher would cast me in the roles he thought I’d be good at, rather than to type. I was hooked. Theatre was a sanctuary for me, a gift, and a curse I had to reckon with later. Nevertheless it was a place where I had a voice, away from the bullying and racism outside it. Onstage, no one could touch me – even if only for the time I was on that goddamn stage.
My sights were set on the Royal Shakespeare Company, natch, but I worried that they would see my type. So I wrote to Ian McKellen (as you do) – this was in the early 80’s when he was playing all the big roles. Asked him if he thought I stood a chance of getting into the company, since I was Indian (ergo, brown of face). Thrilled as I was that he wrote back, I wondered if he had perhaps misunderstood me, because he told me to buy the book on Voice by Cicely Berry – the leading expert in vocal training for actors. Think he thought I had an accent or somefing. It’s true I did, but pondered, what exactly did the RSC have against East London accents? Still have that letter…somewhere.
Got a bit of a shock though, when I went to study drama at a college near Manchester. Hardly ever got any parts in actual shows, because they did cast according to type. Had an ear for accents then, including a rather good Irish one – mimicking one of my Dubliner classmates. So I wondered why the student creative team visibly tried and failed to suppress their open-mouthed incredulity and merriment, at me asking to audition for ‘Playboy of the Western World’? Just didn’t get what the problem was, but soon got the measure of things. Well I mean, how was an actor supposed to develop, if they never get to ‘do’ their thing?
What was a revelation though, was the ‘new writing’ I hadn’t really been exposed to down south – Willy Russell, Bleasdale and co – northerners, writing their own narratives of non-RP, working class, lived experiences, but wait, still a dearth of roles for people of colour there too. The power of seeing yourself reflected onstage cannot be underestimated. Then of course there were the magic beans which, once cast aside, find fertile ground, in which to grow your own roles, where none were available – seeds that properly germinated some time later.
While there, I co-wrote a short play about a raggle-taggle bunch of misfits on an ill-fated, first time trip to do a show (where else?) at Edinburgh Fringe. When I could no longer stomach having to sit it out, while watching others rehearse roles that I was more than capable of tackling, I jumped ship and dropped out. Life imitating art, I intended to head north to Edinburgh, having visited once, and instantly smitten by its drop-dead gorgeousness.
A last minute life swerve however, found me landing in the Scottish Borders: Tweedbank, pre-train line, 1986. A bit of a culture shock all round. Worked nearby on a youth theatre project, a forerunner of Borders Youth Theatre. Then started a weekly drama club for kids, who’d only been out of the Borders to visit Edinburgh twice a year for the sales, but knew nothing about the Fringe.
After a brief spell as a DJ, imaginatively billed in the local rag – the Southern Reporter – as ‘the lovely Annie’, churning out party tunes in a Galashiels nightclub complex, in a three-strong tag team of DJs: along with Button-up-Shirt-Farahs-and-Village-Person-‘Tache man, and Skinny-with-Flat-top-Hairdo guy, who brought me up to speed on the current Scottish music scene.
However, an afterhours ambush by a drunken punter, thrown out for threatening me for refusing his persistent requests to play ‘You Give Love a Bad Name’ by Bon Jovi (well wouldn’t you?); followed by a wee small hours encounter with a local, body-builder-type ‘hard man’, who had unilaterally decided that he was going to be my friend, and blithely walked into the bedroom of the house (front doors rarely locked even then) which I shared with my partner (working the taxi graveyard shift that night), and proceeded to threaten things he ‘could’ do to me – luckily, talked down by house guests in the next room – left me thinking there had to be more to life. I packed the decks in soon after…and locked the front door, nights.
Early motherhood and a period of domesticity ensued. Well, what else was there to do in the Borders? After all, I was no ageing hippie living in the Ettrick Hills, unaware that the sixties were over, nor did I throw pots (like on a wheel, not at things), or knit authentically scratchy, woollen knitwear – or work in’t mill, for that matter. Until, one night in 1990, when I caught a televised production from the Traverse Theatre, of ‘Ines de Castro’, a devastatingly powerful play by Jo Clifford, heart-rent and mesmerised by the haunting performance of (frankly) the national acting treasure that is Alison Peebles. And that was it, the call. I had to answer it. Crossing the threshold, I started the adventure, proper.
I finally made it to Edinburgh, and a job as an admin and box office assistant at the now gone, much lamented Theatre Workshop in Stockbridge. You didn’t need all the fingers of one hand to count the number of ethnically diverse actors in Edinburgh then, never mind Scotland. Had no idea what, or however long, it would take to get back into acting. I was on a mission, and just had to keep going…
‘Fragments of Home’, an abridged version of Annie’s solo play ‘Home is Not the Place’, filmed in performance at the Traverse for Shedinburgh Fringe, is currently available to view from their website https://shedinburgh.ticketco.events/uk/en/e/fragments_of_home until Mon 22 March
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