BOXES IN THE ATTIC: Number 12

By Sallie Lloyd-Jones

I have taken part in several amateur dramatic performances over the years, beginning at age four.

Having been expelled from my nursery school, founded in our living room to keep me out of trouble, so I was sent to the kindergarten of the big school in Hamilton, Bermuda, that my sisters attended. Every morning I was put on the ferry which docked just below our house, with a book of tickets, one of which would be torn off each day by a ferryman. On arrival across the water my sisters, who had cycled round the island, would pick me up and walk me the rest of the way to school.

My first year in kindergarten, the form above me was to perform a pageant. Each child would step onto the stage wearing the national costume of some country, and holding the best known product to come from that country. They would make a small speech declaring which country they represented and naming the product their country was known for. The child representing Bermuda carried only a bunch of lilies, and was to say that no useful product was exported from Bermuda, but we did grow these lovely Bermuda lilies. The chosen child went down with chicken pox or measles – anyway, one of the usual childhood diseases, so the teachers looked for a replacement in the form below.

They happened on me. So I learnt my lines, rehearsed when required, for once consented to wear the dress considered suitable to represent Bermuda, and was, probably, looking forward to my moment of glory.

The child originally intended to be Bermuda returned, recovered, on the day of the pageant. This posed a bit of a dilemma for the teachers. I had learnt my lines and attended rehearsals and it would obviously be disappointing for me to be deprived of my part, but the other little girl had also learnt her lines and had returned from her sick-bed expecting to play the part she had been given. In the end the teachers thought it best that we should both represent Bermuda. We struggled on together, each trying to wrest the bunch of lilies from the grasp of the other, and reciting our lines at an ever-rising pitch aimed to drown out the rival, ending in an aggressive roar.

I remember nothing more of this incident, whether there were tears afterwards, whether I was congratulated or smacked, or if a tactful veil was drawn over the whole episode, which would have been just as well. But it seems to have given me a taste for drama.

Over the following years I appeared at intervals in many amateur productions. However, I thought those days were well behind me now. But I was wrong!

In 2017 I received an email from Scottish Opera, whose performances I have been enjoying for more than forty years. It was sent to all Patrons, Friends, and other supporters of Scottish Opera, inviting us to volunteer for a walk-on part in an upcoming production of Richard Strauss's 'Ariadne auf Naxos' in the following spring. There was a list of rehearsal and performance dates that must all be attended, and the proviso that all volunteers must be able to walk across the stage unaided, carrying an instrument case. It turned out that the director wished to have the members of the stage orchestra walk across the stage, pick up their music from the composer who, in the plot, had been commissioned to write this opera within the opera, during the overture. Of course, the real orchestra would be busy playing the overture, so it was decided to offer this opportunity to supporters of Scottish Opera, of whom there are a great many. I knew that I was too old, at 79, to look much like someone who would still be employed in an orchestra, and that there would be hundreds of people more suitable, but I put my name down anyway, and forgot about it. My mind was further taken off it by Robin's horrific accident, which he survived, and which required him to be nursed at home for some months after he left hospital.

Just at the point when he could begin doing things for himself, I received an email stating that the company manager was looking forward to meeting me at the first gathering of the volunteers. I still presumed that there would be hundreds of people there, from whom would be chosen the most suitable. So I went, with some interest but little expectation. What I hadn't realised was that, of all the hundreds of possibles, any in full-time employment would be ruled out by the rehearsal times, many of them during the day, and all of them long. Of the remainder, retired members, many would be walking with a stick or a zimmer, and many of those that weren't had already booked cruises or holidays abroad. So of the required 12 - 20, there were only  9 volunteers, plus two people co-opted from the board of directors, and one from among the administration staff.

It was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. On the first day of rehearsal we were asked to wait behind after our 12-second stint walking across the stage, to hear the director's notes - that is, any comments or alterations he wished to make. Once we were all gathered - cast, orchestra, backstage team - we were ushered into a reception room with champagne and cake - to celebrate with Eleanor Bron, her eightieth birthday at a surprise party! She was as beautiful and funny as ever, for those who remember her as a young comic actress, and it was a privilege to stand on the same stage as her!

We were treated wonderfully by everyone, and as if we were valued professional members of the cast.

As we made our way to our dressing rooms, through the rabbit warren that is backstage at The Theatre Royal, we passed all the other dressing rooms, from which were issuing amazing voices warming up by singing arias from other operas - an unexpected bonus.

On the first night of the performances in Glasgow and Edinburgh,  we were required to make a  curtain call. As people appear for this in ascending order of importance, the twelve of us were on first, and bowing with everyone that came on after us. I couldn't help giggling as I thought of our 12 second 'performance' in contrast to the lengthy curtain call. And there was something magical about being on the other side of the curtain that I had, on more than a hundred occasions, waited with breathless anticipation to see rise. Strangest of all was the knowledge that, at one of the performances, daughter Kally, a frequent choreographer with Scottish Opera, was sitting in the auditorium, looking at me, whereas, on many previous occasions, I was sitting there looking at her!