Natalie Thomas | Starting From Scratch

By February 26, 2019News

When Vic and I were just out of university we started a theatre company. It bombed horribly and we both have a few scars, but it was a brilliant thing we did and I’m sure part of the reason we’re working so well together now.

A name we, briefly, liked for the company was Tabula Rasa. As pretentious as that was (what can I say, we were young) I’ve been mulling over that phrase for some weeks now, as we shape Pretty Penny for Engine Room. Tabula Rasa, aside from being (according to wiki) a very dense philosophy that I cannot possibly understand while writing this blog, is Latin for ‘blank slate’. Neither of us knew Latin, by the way, we must have googled it; which in the early 2000s would have meant Asking Jeeves in the computer room.

Blank slate.

When I thought about making Pretty Penny, I thought I would be starting from a blank slate and it terrified me. I’d been a straight-up actress for ten years. Pass me my character, hand me the lines and the call times. Tell me what you want.

Looking at it now, it seems silly that I was surprised to discover, while working on Pretty Penny, that I had, in fact, spent ten years trying to be a blank slate. Holding the centre line to appear appealing; a kind of everywoman. Trying to look a certain way, speak a certain way; hoping to get the jobs that my agent thought I was right for.

Your creative life is a mirror of your life life. I was saying, repeatedly, pass me my personality, hand me the appropriate language to use to make you feel comfortable. Tell me my direction. Let me please you.

Give me a shape.

Well, I already have a shape. A small, white, slightly crumpled, 36-year-old shape. When creating from scratch, it may feel like you’re going into an empty room with nothing but a blank piece of paper, but you have yourself. You may also have a collaborator. You may even have an idea. And then you have a whole, delicious, empowering bubble of autonomy. Do what you like. Make what you like.

If I’d have understood autonomy earlier, I can’t help but think my creative life (and my life life) would look a little different.

I moved to the commuter-belt when I was pregnant with my son. At the time I had a relatively successful stage career, a seemingly stable long-term relationship and, as a couple, we had money. I thought I had it all sorted.

Fast forward 6 years and it’s all change. I am a creative freelancer, yes, but that is brand-spanking new. I’m also an ex-actress, a part-time Teaching Assistant and a full-time single mother. It’s been tough. I am not financially independent because of a myriad of reasons, some of which were/are in my control and many more of which were/are not; but I am, finally, autonomous.

For a rehearsal, I leave my son at breakfast club in the morning and head out to the rush hour train. I meet Vic at London Bridge because she hasn’t done the tube with her 7-month-old baby yet and would like my support. Besides, we can start work as soon as we’re together, discussing and planning as we walk and huff buggy and guitar and bags up and down escalators and through barriers.

The rehearsal day is buoyant. The subject matter makes it easier to juggle all the other things we have to be attentive to: I doubt Vic’s baby would be as sanguine if we were working on Chekhov. Despite Stanislavski’s opinion, phones and laptops are central to our rehearsal space, they must be: I worry that my son might need me and I’m 40 miles and almost two hours away and that worry would distract me from my work. Seeing the silent phone on the desk quiets my mind and helps me to focus.

We dance around, physically and metaphorically, handling the production side, the technical side and the creation of the piece itself. Dipping in and out of outside responsibilities (such as other – paid – work) if they need our attention. It is the ultimate flexible work-space and I, with my mate, have created it.

But my autonomy isn’t free. A rush hour train costs £44 return (I know. Horrendous. We’ve now changed our call-time so I can come in later). Breakfast club is £15 a week. Phones and laptops cost money. I am lucky that I am supported financially where I need it. I am angry that I need luck and good will in order to be autonomous. That doesn’t quite feel like autonomy. That’s why we’re making the show. Power, even power over your own life, costs money and women get less money. No wonder we feel like we have less power.


Natalie Thomas is performing Pretty Penny as part of ENGINE ROOM on Tuesday 26 Feb – get your tickets HERE→

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