Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Ursula

I don't know what it is about this year and deaths, but I discovered late last night that Ursula Wright, my old drama teacher (and form tutor) died on Saturday morning.

I don't know how she died. We were Facebook friends and, around Christmas, she'd been in and out of hospital. Her posts suggested she was waiting for an operation which was cancelled and rescheduled several times. Perhaps there were complications? Perhaps it's best not to dwell on these things?

She was, however, a live-wire, and possibly more responsible than anyone else for my decision to choose the performing arts as a career.

She arrived at the Ferrers school at the start of my third year there. She'd been a linguist and a deputy head teacher at another school before re-training as a drama specialist. Drama at Ferrers before her day was always a bit shambolic. People piled into the school hall and did pointless improvisations with English teachers who wished they weren't there!

Ursula arrived like a firebird and immediately set about remedying the fact that the school didn't have a specialist drama studio, finding an old, disused garage behind the art block, which she carpeted and turned into a fully-functioning "making space." Her brainchild survived for a decade, before the school was awarded performing arts academy status, and she was finally given the beautiful purpose-built theatre which she'd always dreamed of having.

She never put up with shit from me and saw me through countless silly seasons, always seeming to understand the best way of dealing with me without pouring oil on the dramatic waters which surrounded me as much then as they do now. When she told us we were doing a production of Oh What A Lovely War, I went to see her, grandly and angrily, to say I didn't know why I, a pacifist, could ever be expected to perform a play about war. She suggested very subtly that I give the show a chance before adding, rather shrewdly, "and, of course, no one's forcing you to be in it..."

I gave the show a chance, and it opened up an obsession with the First World War which has lasted a lifetime. Without Ursula, it's possible that Brass wouldn't have happened.

Ursula also introduced her students to the crazy world of 1960s surrealism and experimental theatre. In 1987, the drama club performed "Interview" by Jean-Claude Van Itallie, which became the first show I directed myself as a student at York University, and, in fact, the last production I directed as a student, by then at Mountview School. It was at this production that I met my mentor Arnold Wesker, who subsequently met the writer Jean-Claude Van Italie and asked him to sign a copy of the script for me. Full circle. I have Ursula to thank for that.

Ursula was a great supporter of the under dog and refused to write anyone off. In fact, there were a number of kids in my year who tanked every GCSE except drama. That was Ursula's special ability: She cut through the Northamptonshire malaise and made kids believe that they could achieve more than they'd ever imagined. 

Her husband was the screen writer, Brian Wright, and they seemed almost impossibly glamorous to a young lad like me. I suppose that was one of the most important things that she offered to us. Namely the ability to look out of the county. Suddenly a career as a creative person in London wasn't perhaps as far away as this Midlands comp lad had assumed.

Ursula's work continued long after she'd retired and left the Ferrers School. She ran the Masque theatre in Northampton and continued to inspire young and old people alike. She kept in touch with me, and would always be the first to congratulate, commiserate, or offer a few choice wise words. Part of me wishes I could claim to have had a special relationship with her, but the truth is, she made everyone feel special. Messages are flooding into Facebook from people saying similar things. She was greatly loved and respected by all. A true one-off.

I think I was maybe feeling a little wistful and spiritual as I sat writing in the cafe this morning, thinking about Ursula and the idea that she might meet Arnold in heaven somewhere. I over-heard a conversation between two young lads with thick London accents who were siting next to me. Something one of them said sounded so wonderfully, and surprisingly spiritual, that I instantly tuned into his conversation: "you see" he said, "the earth's connected!" "How lovely" I thought, before realising that he was a blinkin' electrician!!

The air was rich with the smell of flowers when we left the house this evening. I don't know where the smell was coming from, but it was breathtaking. There's something about the air on hot evenings in May which is always over-powering. Perhaps it's jasmine?

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