Visiting my teacher.
After a six hour ride from my south coast home to Pembroke, Wales I have boarded the ferry to Rosslare, Ireland, and now sit in the kitczh comfort of its café lounge.
I didn’t have the time or foresight to buy a gift to take.
The most honest thing I can think of now to do as an offering of gratitude to my first acting teacher and mentor, Tony Fegan, as I cross the Irish sea, on my way to visit him, to see him for the first time in thirty years, is to amend what now feels like the thoughtless omission in my bio, as written in the various places that demand it, of my debt of gratitude to him in enabling me to do what I do and to live as I live today.
Although I will, often verbally recount my experience of this extraordinary man who beckoned and then lovingly cajoled this then shy fourteen year old ‘musician’, waiting outside the drama room for his mate, who’s very last thought was to participate (despite – or maybe because of -an upbringing in the theatre and as an early child actor) to step into the workshop he was holding for the current school play, which would eventually be called Regarding The Label: Displaced Person, my experience of him is so much part of me that I haven’t before thought to write of it. To me it is as obvious as breathing.
Tony is no ordinary man and the play was no ordinary production. It sewed into my DNA what a true ensemble collaborative and freeing devising process could be like. It had structure, rigour and form whilst also being creative, nurturing, honest, loving and safe.
And so we worked under his loving care and made a show.
After years of what felt like the torture of isolation as a freak, I had found belonging with kindred spirits and someone who mentored me with such care and faith, who saw more in my potential than I ever possibly could have. So gently that I didn’t even know that’s what he was doing at the time.
And, Tony took Regarding The Label: to The Cockpit, then to The National. He seemed to take it all in his stride, brightly and happily. And, as we trusted him completely, we did too.
And then to Edinburgh.
These days it’s not too uncommon for a school to take its show to the fringe (although in strangled, risk-assessed form). But, at the time, it was an act of sheer exuberant audacity. Even now, I find it hard to take it all in- all of its significance. It was hardcore and wonderful and liberating. It was a little minivan we had to rock backwards-and forwards in unison in to get up the hills of the A1 on our way up north from West London, full to the brim with cast,crew set, props, costumes and instruments. It was the archetypical fringe company digs: a shared flat, every inch of floor occupied in a sea of sleeping bags at night. It was, of course, flyering the royal mile. And it was a flatbed lorry that had us playing and singing-out from it in the festival parade. And it was a TV appearance that had us being interviewed and playing and performing on air (taking a company of schoolkids to the fringe to perform was rare enough to be newsworthy in itself – notwithstanding that our show was also bloody good). And it was creating sketches and music in an afternoon to perform in scratch at a smoke-filled, boozy and packed Assembly Rooms. And my mentor seemed to take it all in his stride, brightly and happily. And we trusted him completely, so we did too.
And so it went. And I lived for the shows which became the only reason for going to school. And when the head of sixth form, troubled human being I now understand him to be, showed me the door out of my education for being “arrogant”, “disliked by [my] teachers” and “selfish”, and I spun down life’s toilet into a hell of feeling once again lost, isolated, unworthy and a freak, Tony kept faith in me when I had none, even after I had been marched-out of education- way beyond his job description. And, as firmly and gently as ever, so that I really didn’t know what he was doing, he got in touch and said “why don’t we meet for a chat over a drink at [name now forgotten – cocktail bar, I think] on Westbourne Grove”.
Linda Oakley, who taught english, his dearest friend, and who was a key person and enabler in the Holland Park School drama tribe was to be there, too. Another wonderful human being with a huge heart. I felt like such a monstrosity of a human being. Totally unworthy of their company. Despite wanting to bail, I went. And we chatted and it felt good, and I could feel myself begin to heal, to remember who I was. So much love.
And, at one point in the conversation Tony said “you must apply for drama school. Apply to Drama Centre. That’s the right one for you. I think you’ll really like it there”. I applied to ‘Prospero’s Isle’, as it described itself in its prospectus at the time, and to nowhere else. And got in. Following Drama Centre (I chose to leave after the first year- probably because I was arrogant but the nervous breakdown didn’t help either) Tony continued to nurture, support and mentor me, now in his role of Artistic Director at Batteresea Arts centre, giving me opportunities to be cast in productions and guiding me firmly, gently and with faith.
And today I consider my life a success. I am able to do what I love, to do what I feel is worthwhile and has meaning. And I would not be here now, doing what I do, but for Tony Fegan. My teacher.
The ferry is pulling-in to Rosslare harbour now and I need to go below decks to unstrap my motorbike to be ready to disembark and to continue my journey.
To meet my teacher.
And, I suppose, this is now part of my gift to him also.