It was a dark time; a time before hair-straighteners, mobile phones, t'internet. I stood before Mrs Galassi, in all of my twenty three years and under a mop of dangerously wild, late 80's/early 90's 'big' hair. "Are you looking at me, dahling? I can't tell." She said. I brushed my curly bangs out of my face and smiled nervously. Mrs Galassi was the drama teacher around these parts, a legend, even in her own time. I had been summonsed to her parlour following the resounding success of The Sound of Music, a show I had directed for our local amateur musical society and she had decided to take me under her wing. Mrs Galassi was, and still is, the epitome of easy confidence. She was dramatic to her fingertips, and she used these dainty ring-clad digits now to categorise the order my young life would henceforth take:
1: I'd study with her and get my teaching diploma. 2: I'd set up my own drama school. 3: I wasn't concentrating anymore, so I can't remember. I was dizzy with excitement that anyone - let alone Mrs G, would consider me worth investing in.
I studied drama and a whole new world opened up to me. The more ancient the Greeks were, the better I liked it. Where was Euripides when I was in school? Wherefore the absence of Sophocles? My mother bit down on her knuckles with glee; her little girl was getting her act together at last. When I first picked up a script and planned the course of direction, I felt like Cinderella slipping her tiny foot into the glass slipper (although there was nothing tiny and cute about me back in those days, I was a tyrant if truth be told. In my defence I got nicer with each subsequent production, and the sure knowledge that all would, in fact, be well.) In those early days, teaching was intended to supplement my career as a theatre director. But some things began to happen: as I grew through drama, so did my students. The joy and pride I felt in them as they overcame personal obstacles took precedence over theatre career plans. I came to see the endeavour as the power behind the person, and creativity as a golden key. Emer Halpenny School of Drama, born in 1990, bred in Stillorgan in the backstage canals of amateur theatre, was doing good work. Mrs Galassi was right to take a chance on me all those years ago.
By 2014, the school had long since become one big happy family. Generations of youth theatre students took over as teachers and I enjoyed the extra time this gave me. However, whilst resting on my laurels, I had overlooked one thing: resting doesn't come easy to me. Teaching is a high energy occupation and a little time away from it seemed enticing after twenty nine years. But rest? Not so much. I threw my rekindled energy into building a business - natural skincare, no less - with my long time pal Caitriona, and that pretty much took me over the hills and far away from the wonderful world of drama for a while. I loved almost everything about business - the challenges, the opportunities to be creative and tell our story, even, to a point, standing in 'dragon's den' type pits - but money has never driven me, and here I would stall; everyone loved me until it came to the numbers, and then, quite simply, I crumbled. Why though? I set and managed budgets several times a year when I ran my school; the numbers meant something to me back then - they manifested into big lovely bums on hard plastic seats. That's the bottom line (if you will) for a theatre practitioner. Growth, in the world of business, it seemed to me, had an insatiable appetite and the dragon could never be satisfied. It would have broken me if the pandemic hadn't gotten there first.
For almost two years I sat locked in my tower, overlooking the Kilmacud Road, reading and re-reading What Color Is Your Rainbow; taking courses to fill in the gaps I had managed to avoid during my fine life in a creative world. The brand of 'me' bounced around LinkedIn like Zebadee until I knew, at least, what it was that I did NOT want: to give you my soul, you insatiable monsters! You want too much, employers! Where is the time to dream? To plan, to create? If I took on what I know I could do, it would destroy me. There it is, in a nutshell.
What the pandemic did do, was lead me back towards the yellow brick road, which I walked up and down for a while, until I remembered that the road leads to silly places. Eventually though, I looked down at my feet, and realised why they had been so sore: I was wearing red glittery stilletoes - totally unsuitable to tramping up and down any kind of road, yellow or otherwise. My first thought was that they'd be darling in a costumes room and so I took them off, banged them together thrice, and ended up back where I started: teaching drama to amazing people.
Thirty two years after I opened my school, I'm back doing what I love and what I'm good at.
I'll be back building confidence in people from September 2022.
In the spirit of never forgetting, I'll go back in time to 2016 and one of my last blog posts for Emer Halpenny School of Drama - I guess this is the reason I'm still here...
One of my students wants to base her character on her crazy aunt; she didn't say it was her own aunt, she said she wanted to play the part of "a crazy aunt who always slips money to you at family occasions and gets emotional after drinking too much wine.It's based on a true story." So I'm wildly guessing that the aunt is a real person. The other girls felt similarly familiar with this kind of character. I made a mental note to be more aware. I have nieces and nephews. I'm no fool. And I drink wine. Slipping money to them, not so much - but getting emotional, well perhaps. Depending on the family occasion and how early in the day dinner starts. Dinner can start at 3pm. It's a difficult one, when everyone else sips a casual beer or two. I'm allergic to wheat and gluten - I cannot be drinking a beer even casually. I can only do wine. Two glasses of Pinot Grigio at 3 in the afternoon and anyone becomes the crazy money wielding aunt.
So I have to come up with a story about a crazy wine drinking emotional but generous woman who babysits her teenage nieces and nephews, and not get embroiled into my own life story. Please imagine a literary pause here, a long one. It is in fact a long tired sigh. I'm tired at myself. Why oh why do I say I'll do these things? I am a victim of my own untiring enthusiasm. And to say that my untiring enthusiasm exhausts me is not a contradiction. At the time, it always seems like a good idea to write a brand new play for my students. I adore creative endeavour. It keeps me breathing steadily.
A creative human is a happy human. Why else do people hum to themselves when they're scribbling in those mindful colouring books? Creative people live longer and get away with murder. (For the most part; I've just thought 'Vincent Van Gogh' but he had other things going on). Do you resent time spent doing something creative? I doubt it. What's more, if you do something creative, do you spend time admiring your work and feeling all warm inside? You know you do. When you're being creative, do you ever think, 'I shouldn't be doing this, I should be hoovering'?
What happens to us when we paint or write, play the piano or arrange flowers? I believe we feel the joy because we are truly alone with ourselves; we go deep down to the purest part of us, with ease. When I'm being creative, it's just me and the page or the keyboard or the music or the flowers or the shape of the thing I've just made. And I have spent a lifetime inspiring creativity (so I should live long and prosper) I love to see my teachers get excited about the term ahead (this is occurring presently, there is a palpable buzz around Frangos in Dundrum Towncentre, hub of our meetings). When I see our students get together and animatedly discuss how they will approach some new challenge, I notice some wonderful things: everyone's face is open and interested; I see the moment a brilliant idea lands in their minds; there's laughter, excitement - one idea leads to another idea. A room full of people with eyes engaged on their vision. There is no room for negativity. Obstacles are just another chance to be creative; opportunities for the group to gather all their notions and sew them together.
I love this part of my life. I love that I can never predict what's going to happen in a class (unless we're rehearsing for a play and lines haven't been learnt - then I can predict with great accuracy that I'm going to get cranky - I'm looking at you, Youth Theatre) Even when there are rules to be followed, we still bring our own unique style to a production.
Personally, being a creative teacher has been a gift - I have had to relinquish control. Once upon a time, my way was the best way, but one day I decided to say "I don't know, what do you think?"And I learned that my way is only one way. There are countless ways and they are all beautiful.
People who think they're not creative? Desist! You go shopping for shoes you're not sure even exist, except in your mind. You crack a joke. When you see a flower in full bloom and time slows down for you. When you allow yourself to be lost in the sound of your child laughing. When you smile because that's your favourite song. Or your mum's favourite song. When you laugh at a joke. When you admire someone's eyebrows (it's a thing). When you read. When you anticipate the next chapter.
Thoughts that are creative make you feel good. And if you feel good, you emit positivity. And you draw others into your state of mind, and so you start a flowing chain of good feeling all around you. You create comradery, positivity, kindness, patience, understanding, tolerance, guidance, appreciation, acceptance and joy. And perhaps a picture or a song.
You create. You Rock.
I closed my drama school and stopped teaching & directing in 2019 after 29 years building confidence in people of all ages through creative endeavour. But a true Drama Queen never forgets so here I am, back teaching again after all this time :)