Standing in the wings, dressed as a parlour maid. It’s more important than ever that Ursula doesn’t slip out of character. Most actors prefer to stay in their dressing rooms until the last possible moment, but that would mean charging onstage when her entrance demands the kind of subtlety that can only come from stillness. Shadowed in one of the dark spaces between the wings, surrounded by pulleys and ropes, breathing in sawdust, Ursula should be making her final preparations. Instead she’s distracted.
Tonight – opening night in her home country, on the very stage where her training began. The top balcony, remember that? It was up there that, as a student, Ursula would bribe ushers to unlock the door so she could sneak into rehearsals. If an usher appeared to be having second thoughts, she’d claim she had no idea it wasn’t allowed; she would never ask him to risk his job, but seeing as she was there, could she please just use the Ladies room? Then, the moment the coast was clear, she would pull a hairpin from her chignon and pick the lock. Shortly after her second box-office success, in which she’d played the part of a nun, Ed Sullivan asked Ursula what she would have done if she hadn’t made it as an actress. “I’d have been an excellent thief,” she replied. The studio audience had been in uproar. As if someone who’d played a nun could be anything less than perfect! “No really,” she insisted, “I’m an expert lock-picker.”
In her student days, Ursula loved everything this theatre had to offer. Every undulation of the closed velvet curtain, the sight of scurrying feet. She learned from the best. Diction. The anatomy of a theatre set. How to translate directions. The ballet of moving across a stage. How an understated approach compares with melodrama. But also how to behave. How to react to a director’s criticism (when to look haughty, when to appear humble). How to introduce subtle changes into unpromising dialogue. How to take a curtsey and react to an encore.
Theatre was her first love, but she thought she could have it all.
“You’re telling me that you want to abandon a promising career to work in moving pictures?”
With Ursula’s initial three-film contract came private lessons. Dancing, movement, voice production. “I’m not abandoning anything. I’ll hone my skills, hopefully earn a reputation, then I’ll come back to the stage.”
“That shows how little you understand. It’s one or the other!”
“Perhaps that’s how it was. It’s not how it has to be.”
How did she ever have the nerve? Screen acting, she discovered, was a distant cousin of stage acting. Do I really look like that? She forced herself to watch her own performances. “Can you rewind? There!” Correcting every fault she found with her posture, every flawed inflection. Ursula taught herself how to breathe all over again. How to let her face become a reflection of her co-star’s dialogue; how to speak beyond the camera with her eyes.
Who would she have become if she’d stuck with theatre? War would have put a hold on any ambitions for the West End or Broadway. Hers would have been a life spent touring provincial venues, criss-crossing the country by train; a night here, a night there. Ursula’s hand strays to her stomach. There might have been compensations. Privacy, perhaps. But without Hollywood, she reminds herself, she would never have met Mack. Mack, who has come to mean everything.
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