The Importance of Place
‘Are you nervous?’ someone asked me last night about bringing my show over from the UK to New York for the first time.
‘No,’ I replied honestly. ‘I don’t tend to get nervous anymore before doing Shurl - just excited to be sharing it with people.’
A couple of hours ago I sat in the tiny black box theatre that is Midtown Festival’s Jewel Box. The technical rehearsal had gone well - efficient; lighting states swiftly sorted; cue-to-cue accomplished without a hitch. Twice. Tony Mann, the techie for the space, is easy to get along with, professional and sensitive to what’s needed to make An Audience With Shurl fly. (He’s even excited about seeing it in a couple of hours.) So there we were with a generous fifty minutes of tech time left over - fifty minutes in which I could do whatever seemed fit. I opted to let Tony go (although he still pottered somewhere out of sight and sound) and have the space to myself, to squeeze in a speed run of as much of the play as I had time for.
‘Lovely to see you here,' I greeted an imaginary audience, ‘but I nearly forgot you were coming. Memory, eh!’ Then on to the bit about everyone supposedly remembering exactly where they were the day JFK was shot. ‘I guess for the youngsters it’ll be the Twin Towers…’ That line stops me dead in my tracks.
Suddenly I'm breathless - the kind of breathlessness that only comes with fighting back tears, suppressing the need to wail, preventing tears of grief from flowing like parallel rivers about to burst their banks. And I have no idea at all where this came from. No idea whatsoever. But in that quiet moment, alone in that tiny theatre space just an arm’s throw from the site of the 9/11 tragedy, a wave of something way beyond myself swept through me, leaving me wondering how I will cope in just a couple of hours when I deliver that line. And what will its mention do to others sharing that space with me for that hour?
So should I change the reference? Should I leave the line out, or find another? I struggle with this for some time but then I find I come down decisively on one side" I really don’t believe I can. I have a feeling that this single line - this poignant reference for every New Yorker and for so many beyond the city’s bounds - I have a feeling it might bring me tonight to an emotional connection I always strive but don't always reach with this piece about loss and search for meaning. And it would be a cop-out not to include it. Theatre can be such a wonderful, intimate space to connect with our feelings past and present and to experience a sense of community now sadly so rare in our lives. No, I think it would be wrong to take out this moment of connection to something beyond ourselves.
So I think again now about that question: am I nervous about tonight? Yes, I am nervous now. In truth, I’m full of nerves. And that’s such a different experience from what I normally feel before performing An Audience With Shurl. But I’m not afraid. And that’s what matters. We must not be afraid of feeling, and we must remember that we are not alone. It makes me think of the lines when Shirley Bassey takes little Shurl’s hands and tells her, ‘Don’t be afraid. Hold my hand. And hold it tight. This path is a fine path to be taking. I’m with you know. Come on, let’s go. We’ve got a journey to make. And we’re going to make it together. I’m here now. For as long as you need me.’
I don’t know who was with me in that space today, but what I do know is that we’re doing this together.
Sue Bevan recently left a long and successful career teaching and lecturing Economics, Politics and International Business, to put her Masters in Theatre to good use as Artist-in-Residence on a small island off the south coast of England. She is now an award-winning playwright and solo performer, as well as the founder of Seren Theatre back in the UK. Mum’s The Word, her 3-hander for women, won the Drama Association of Wales One Act Play Competition, and An Audience With Shurl was nominated for the Outstanding Performance Award at Prague Fringe, receiving 4* reviews at Edinburgh Fringe.
Sue's own real-life story of adoption and extraordinarily dramatic reunion is available now from Amazon: That Picture Of You.