Challenges of Words


At a Master class organised by Radius (Religious Drama Society) the play ‘A Day in the Death of Joe Egg’ was explored. Sheila and Brian, the married couple with severely disabled daughter Joe, struggle daily to communicate and find the right words to come to terms with their situation.  Unsurprisingly I started by reading the play through and getting an initial picture.  I then read again and made notes about Sheila – what she said about herself and about others, and what others said about her, to build up a personality – what does she feel about herself, Brian and her situation?

We met with the director three times in advance of the Master class.  We chose one scene from the play which we would perform as a work in progress.  I was fully aware that I needed to bring an awareness of the baggage of 1930s to 1960s Britain to the role.  Sheila was born in the early 1930s, grew up through a world war and came out the other end in a much poorer but more stylised (people might say ‘stuck’) era to that of now – her and Brian married in 1956 and having researched the period, I read that 1955 was a year that seemed to push Britain into the much more expressive 1960s.  In 1955 Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ opened the floodgates and 1956 was the year Elvis Presley entered the British Top 20 chart (itself a 50s invention).  They have been married 10 years as the play opens.  I collected photos and slogans of the 1950s era to try and construct Sheila’s world – her background and what would have influenced her in her teenage years and how she felt when she met Brian, and then whilst Joe was growing up – what would have been going on around Sheila – how did people of the time view someone like Joe? – both then and now, known as a spastic.

From the very first read-through, we were encouraged to look at the thought behind the lines – the inner life of the characters.  What is Sheila thinking when she says things?  What memory is she activating?  We each built up an emotional memory of the characters and on the day itself, when people were watching, the director placed us in improvisations with each other, previously unrehearsed and new to us on the day, picking up on scenes not in the play itself – these were to give us imagined situations from the characters’ pasts which we could draw on…the past therefore giving us the reality of the present.  Lines suddenly then carry with them emotional rawness that they didn’t on a first read-through because we now knew the significance of those lines and what they referred to.

an actor playing Sheila

The director had said from the beginning that a good place to start was what does a character believe in?  In fact the more I thought about this, the more I realised that this is how we understand each other in real life – someone’s beliefs form them as a person – beliefs about religion, politics, human life itself.  The next question was what is the character afraid of?  What do they want, desire and need?  What do they really want, desire and need?!  (How many of us in real life say we want one thing but mean something very different?).  What is the obstacle to what the character really wants, desires, needs?  What do they do to remove the obstacle/s? I was therefore armed with these excellent questions from the director to give my Sheila a life outside the play – to look at her and then step into her. What this in-depth examination of character does is to bring the play itself more alive.

In the ‘bigger picture’ of the play, the theme of what it is to be human resonated strongest with me.  Sheila says of Joe, ‘she’s only one kind of cripple.  Everybody’s damaged in some way.’  Whether ‘damage’ is the right word is another question.  There is a lot of pain in the play – thoughts of what could have been and the reality of what is.  The scene we did was the one where Brian takes on the role of the vicar who comes to visit Sheila, which for a Radius audience was particularly relevant, but the play overall is about the human spirit (which is also what Radius is about), its fragility and susceptibility to losing faith in everything, not just God.  Sheila’s great line (not in the scene we did): ‘faith isn’t believing in fairy-tales, it’s being in a receptive state of mind’ sums up Radius well – both actors and audience got much out of Master class and reinforced the message of Radius: exploring faith and/or the human condition through drama; and as always – going well beyond religious faith per se.

About openplatforms

My name is Anna Westerly. I trained as an actor and find the arts more important than ever in making the most of life and understanding others. I find increasingly the stage and screen as a way of seeing life as it really is - there is a lot of honesty in these 'pretend' settings - an interesting paradox which I explore on Open Platforms, my blog, amongst other topics.

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