We've had some really terrific, accomplished guest bloggers lately, I'm sure you'd agree. To hear from those who have achieved so much in their chosen profession - their failures, their triumphs, and everything they learned along the way - is truly a gift.
Today, we go in a different direction. Like many who have graced these pages before, Simon Berry decided to follow a dream he had since childhood - at thirty-five.
This is a story about passion, sacrifice, and self-belief. After you read it, you just might be inspired to do some creating this weekend.
Thanks for bearing with the weird title...
Recently I have been on several interviews for jobs, 'proper' jobs, some of them highly paid, with real responsibility. They went well, I have been called in for second interviews....
The thing is - I don't want any of them! Really, I couldn't imagine anything less appealing, I know what I really want to do and it's not that!
My journey into the world of the entertainment industry has been short if you look at it from the point of me trying to market myself as an Actor, Singer and Voice-artist. (One year and five months to be precise). However, if we're talking about the point of inspiration, that's an entirely different story. I remember standing on a stool, balanced on the sofa (wayddago me, health and safety was not high on my priority list when I was four!) so I could see myself in the mirror singing, probably incredibly poorly, along to Billy Joel's My Life on the radio. I recall thinking, this guy is clearly very cool, sounds great, and I loved the message he put into the song. I thought about how he must have felt when writing it and how relatable a huge number of people must have found it. I knew two things right there: I wanted to entertain people and I would love to be admired for it. I didn't really have a concept of 'fame' then, not that it's really the same nowadays, anyway.
Many years flew by, school came and went. Then, a number of meaningless jobs, a large amount of wasted time. Suddenly it was November 2011, I was thirty five and felt rotten to the core. The only worthwhile thing I I had done was attaining an expert rank in Jeet Kune Do (Bruce Lee's formless form of Kung-fu), something I had admired since I first saw Enter the Dragon one Christmas. I knew I had to do something! But what did I really want to do? I had always loved singing and I had imagined myself in films from a very young age. Initially I dismissed both of these things as 'ridiculous' and 'beyond unlikely' and started looking at career change plans instead, figuring it was my job (which I hated passionately) that was getting me down and thinking/hoping I would feel fulfilled in a different workplace environment. But every move I contemplated, a little voice in my head piped up: 'Erm, singing? Acting?........Hello?' The penny dropped, over a decade later than would have been ideal, but nonetheless it had dropped.
That evening I decided to look into drama schools and singing lessons. I discovered that what was once freely available to me when I was at school would now cost me a small fortune. And I didn't have a small fortune. That's when the thought of amateur dramatics came to mind. I checked to see if any groups near me were taking on new members. That led me to 'HAODS' (Horsham, West Sussex). They had an upcoming production. Rehearsals were already underway but they still had a few chorus roles available.
I decided to go for it. Friends and family were expressly concerned that I would be setting myself up for an epic failure. I forged on.
Through an amazingly friendly chap named Howard, I arranged to attend the next rehearsal for the show The Mikado. When I got there, I looked on with great interest at the passion of the people involved in the production. I could feel dormant areas of my soul begin to reawaken, and whilst musically it was miles from being 'my style', I still decided to join to try to get some experience of being on stage, to practice singing and to get a little feedback and validation. After the rehearsal was over I was introduced to the Musical Director and was asked to sing a few lines of a song of my choice. I chose Moondance and only got the first line out before being stopped, which I was relieved to be told was for the positive reason of 'Okay, clearly you can sing-now, how deep is your voice?' I uttered a guttural tone that would have made any passing whales want to stop and chat. This earned me a look of absolute astonishment. I was then asked to sing scales upward. Again, good feedback. I could be in the production. I was delighted, but kept it in check. They didn't know it, but they had made my day.
A month or so later, I went to London to meet two independent film makers to audition for the lead role of a psychopath/killer in a horror short which they intended to go to Cannes in 2013. I read for the role in an aggressive east-end accent - they liked it but revealed that the character is actually mild mannered most of the time (this information having been withheld until then). So I had to adjust on my feet . I took a minute to compose myself and delivered it coolly, with a few tiny edges to key words and a flash of a smirk, which they noticed and liked very much, they said they were keen and would let me know in due course.
In April I travelled to London to audition for the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. I performed two contrasting monologues: A scene from Shane by Kellie Powell, and John Hannah's funeral speech from Four Weddings and a Funeral. The response was positive. During a quick Q&A, the gentleman leading the audition was astonished to hear I had only been at it for five months with no formal training. Thousands were applying for the available scholarships, however, so it would be months before I would know if the performance was good enough.
The Mikado had its run shortly thereafter. It was a successful show, but I yearned for more.
The next HAODS production was to be Guys and Dolls, which I could remember watching on TV many years ago with Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando playing the male leads. I rather fancied myself able to sing in a Sinatra-esque fashion, so applied for the role of Nathan Detroit. My chorus audition was abysmal and I feared I would not be allowed in the show, but much to my relief they still let me audition for the principal part I wanted. I sang Sue Me for them. I nailed it. I'm good with accents and New York is an easy one, so the dialogue they got me to read went smoothly. I convinced myself I had a shot at the part and waited for the result. I was called in again and asked to sing a section of Luck be a Lady, which also went well. Half an hour later I was called in along with a guy named Jonathan. The Director quickly revealed Jonathan would be playing Nathan, I would be playing Sky. I was disappointed at first. I was so focused on the Nathan part, I hadn't even explored this possibility. But it passed. I agreed to throw myself at, it heart and soul.
I worked hard at every rehearsal and never once thought of it as an amateur production. I wanted my take on the character to be unique. I wrote my own backstory for the character which the director liked so much he asked me to read it, in character, in first-person to the whole cast, which was daunting for me as I hadn't read anything aloud since school, let alone something I had written and as someone else. Oddly, it came out easily. When I had finished the Director asked everyone to write a backstory for their characters too, to help understand where they had come from, their motivations and therefore why and how they would react in the situations they ended up in on stage.
Quite early in "Guys and Dolls" rehearsal period I got a call from the independent film makers saying they had seen nearly a hundred and seventy actors, but I was the one they kept coming back to. I had the gig! Filming was to take place in July and they expected it to take two to three days. I arranged three days off work and made the trip. Filming was terrific. Apparently, I was so convincing a psychopath, my "victims" were afraid to speak to me, even when the cameras weren't rolling!
"Guys and Dolls" was a very well received, got great reviews, which was fantastic, both for the company (all of whom did an excellent job) and for me. It was however the audience reactions that moved me most. Considering it was my first speaking part on stage, I would have been happy to have had a few people say it was a great show and perhaps that I was 'good' in my role, but the actual reactions were unbelievably positive. I was asked by several people which town we were traveling to next, as they wanted to come again. They were shocked to hear we weren't touring, that we're just an amateur company. The experience changed my self-perception irrevocably.
I received an email from the NYCDA informing me that I had been accepted in to their program for 2013, and what was more, that I had been awarded the talent-based Meisner Scholarship. I was elated.
I celebrated rather too soon as it happened. As I read the attachments to the email, I was met with, for me devastating consequences. The scholarship was partial, only 10%, and when I looked into the conversion to see what the cost would be after this was deducted from the cost of a full years tuition, I was horrified to see it was over lb33,000. I tried to gain sponsorship from some large corporations, asked about the possibility of getting some kind of work on-campus - Yes I could, but that wouldn't quite cover a third of the cost. I even offered to teach Kung-Fu in the evenings as well, but they didn't go for that either, so the door was open, but I didn't have the dough to walk through it. This, I'm ashamed to admit, I allowed to fester in me for more than a week, despite fantastic support from my then girlfriend (now fianc'ee) Neeqs. Eventually I started to look on the bright side, I had done well-beaten savage odds to get the scholarship and needed to remove my head from my ass post-haste.
I decided to attend an acting course with F.A.C.T. (tuition side of FilmCoolio, based near Sevenoaks), which was incredibly informative and intensive. The video clip (in the 'Reels' section of my profile) was shot immediately after the course and they asked if they could use my footage in their promotional material, which was an honor.
I recently lost my 'day-job', having been laid-off due to cutbacks. I am hoping that either I will get another job very soon or that fate has something else in store for me. Maybe I'm being told to pursue harder, to sacrifice more.
I have upped my profile on Stage 32 - what a gift for any creative - and, in doing so, have made contacts that have led not only to great information to help me further learning my craft, but also to possible work. The support here has been inspiring and constant. It helps me to keep forging ahead.
The moral of this long (longer than I intended, sorry!) story is three-fold: 1) Do something you love 2) Setbacks are inevitable - Take them on the chin and try not to cry or whine (like I did) and 3) Never underestimate the value of support from loved ones, at the end of every day they are there for you-as you should be for them.
Good Luck on your journeys and thank you for taking the time to read about mine.
Simon is available for questions and remarks in the Comments section below.