A modest beginning

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They were short of men. Twenty-five years back, down in rural Yorkshire, the amateur dramatic clubs I knew were often desperate for members - male ones mostly. Typically, clubs were top-heavy with young females gung-ho to be Mrs. Worthington's daughter. But a man only had to show willingness and he'd be on stage. Talent, though helpful, was hardly obligatory.

When I decided to join The Players up here in big-city Glasgow, I foresaw few problems. How wrong!

Last autumn I discovered that during the winter The Players were putting on "The Importance of Being Earnest" by Oscar Wilde, followed by Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple."

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Naturally, I thought that - once they had gratefully enrolled me as a member - I would deign to play, perhaps, Algernon Moncrieff's manservant, Lane. Even the smallest parts in "Importance" are good. And Lane's is smaller than a postage stamp - 157 words, many of them "Yes, air." A suitably modest reintroduction to acting, surely, after my long "retirement."

Once I'd wowed full houses with my reinterpreted Lane, I would polish up my Riverside Drive accent for my rendering of Felix Unger in Neil Simon's little study of domestic bliss. I could wait a while longer to be asked to play Lear.... Delusions of grandeur, in amateur-dramatics circles, are par for the course.

But simply joining The Players proved trickier than I imagined.

Reaching Kate McNeill by phone took weeks. She was, I was told, the committee member I must contact. But her phone rang forever, unanswered. Time slipped. "The Importance" would be well under way by now, I thought. But still no Kate to kiss. Or talk to.

I had the club's address. So finally I went in search of it. It stood, evidently deserted, down a dark, puddly drive behind houses. I scribbled a note: "To Whom It May Concern."

Not long after, Kate called. I had been dialing someone else's number.

"Before you can join," Kate said, "there's the audition."

Audition?

"We'll let you know," said Kate.

More delay! And now I was yearning for the smell of the grease paint, the roar of the crowd. "Can't I even watch rehearsals?" I asked.

"Oh, no," she said firmly. "Members only."

The New Year hiatus intervened next, and no call. Halfway through January, I phoned Kate again. "Ah, yes, right, of course" she said. By then it was quite clear that The Players were not in dire need of extra members.

My audition finally took place in a small upstairs room full of cardboard boxes. I was handed "Time and the Conways" by J.B. Priestley and one of Alan Bennett's monologues. I read them "blind." I read the Priestley in a messy imitation of Bertie Wooster. I read the Bennett, I hoped, as a solemn Yorkshire lad. My incompetence hung out like a schoolboy's shirt.

But then, quite suddenly, they said OK, I was a member.

It seemed like a real achievement. But what about Lane, Unger, Lear?

I went downstairs to watch the rehearsal - now that I was allowed to. And there was Algernon Moncrieff addressing his manservant, Lane. "Yes, sir," said Lane, all poker-faced discretion. He was being played with lugubrious competence by a young Scot called Gordon.

Playing my own first role as Rehearsal Watcher, I felt Wilde would have been proud of Gordon, of the whole cast. But this was the final week of rehearsals, and they were now hurting for an audience.

So I did what I could for them. After all, they also act who only sit and laugh.

*A weekly series.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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