THE CAREER THAT GOT AWAY

Do you sometimes wonder about that job you dreamt of, the one you coulda-shoulda-woulda made your life’s work?

Whenever I read interviews with celebs and it says: ‘So X if you weren’t the star of this multi-award-winning movie, what would you be doing now?’ it always gets me thinking back to a different time in my life, the beginning bit when career plans were in their infancy and when taking one path would mean giving up on another.

You see, I should have been an actor. It wasn’t meant to be like this, with me, sitting up in my bedroom writing about being a journalist-when-I-should-have-been-an-actor, 30 years later.

In fact what I should be doing (in that life I was meant to have), is wafting about backstage waiting for someone to ring the two minute to curtain-up bell, accepting gifts from admiring strangers for my latest role. Y’know, just living the life of a jobbing (but highly successful) actor. At the tender age of 21, my not-very-good degree, which I gained from a little-known college of higher education was in dance and drama. But hey, they recognised my talents! I was voted best actress of the college in my second year I’ll have you know!


“The truth of the matter is that I didn’t have the guts to follow it through.”


But something went wrong. I left that college in 1989 and moved straight to London where I thought I’d do ‘something in the arts’ but the truth of the matter is that I didn’t have the guts to follow it through. After leaving uni, the pressure was on to earn a living and whilst I have a few friends who’ve stuck with it and went on to formal theatre training, I didn’t have the confidence to believe I could audition, let alone get into drama school.

And I was always so worried about money – let’s face it, most people in the acting profession have to develop a taste for getting by, rather than a taste for the finer things in life. I liked to blame my parents back then, for their lack of encouragement (they were always really worried about money too) and for not helping me to go for my dreams. But really? That’s too easy an excuse. To have a career in the theatre, you have to be prepared to live on thin air and hope. You have to be ultra-determined, thick-skinned and really good at dusting yourself off and getting on with things, all the time. The truth is, I wasn’t any of those things back then. Some I’ve developed with age and experience but I needed a safer harbour to swim from (as it were).


“Rehearsals in freezing church halls were swapped for photo shoots with pop stars”


So, after a year in London occasionally doing the odd bit of drama, I was fortunate to fall into magazines at a time when they were very, very exciting. Looking back, I like to think the thrill of working in such a vibrant industry (as it then was) replaced the thrill of working in the theatre. Rehearsals in freezing church halls were swapped for photo shoots with pop stars and free lipsticks donated by generous beauty editors (not the worst life I could have had). And yet…

The hankering remained. Last year I was – gulp – 50. An unthinkably great age. I wanted to mark it by doing something for me. I have three wonderful children and a lovely husband but I haven’t had any of that ‘me’ time I’m always reading about. So when a friend told me she was in an amateur theatre group I decided to take the plunge and audition. They were staging Pride and Prejudice in an outdoor theatre space and, terrified as I was, I went to my first audition in about 25 years. It was incredibly daunting, everyone seemed to know each other and I felt like the new girl I was.


“I saw myself slightly differently by the end of the play.”


We were put into small groups to rehearse a scene and then had to perform in front of everyone. Once, this would have been falling off a log territory for me. This time, I was cotton-wool-mouthed and frozen with fear. My body wouldn’t move easily and fluidly, I had stage fright. I did it though, read my scene, then read another one and went home happy – I’d tried something I thought I’d never do again and thoroughly enjoyed it. A week later, I had a phone call from the director, offering me two parts. Two parts! Admittedly, they were both tiny (one was Lady Lucas, the other, the housekeeper at Pemberley, in case you’re wondering) but I was so happy I could hardly speak.

I loved the process of rehearsals as much as the performances themselves, enjoyed meeting a whole new gang of people, across a wide range of ages and saw myself slightly differently by the end of the play. A woman with another side to her, it gave me something new to think about and explore, away from the day-to-day shenanigans of life. Since then I’ve also started teaching a dance class to kids and – this is the latest (and most fun) – started taking Strictly classes twice a week with a pro ballroom dancer. I think that doing one thing differently gave me the confidence to try others.


“Doing one thing differently gave me the confidence to try others.”


So, on reflection, the career that got away…in all honesty probably wasn’t a secure enough option for me. I wanted to have that life but couldn’t really see how it would work and how I could be happy doing it. I think to a greater extent than I realised, I chose the path that would make me happy. But I’m even happier now that I have a bit of drama back in my life.

Ally Oliver is a journalist, award-winning editor and content specialist. @allyoliver100