Take a Bow – Molly Connelly

“A must-see production”, “Enchanting, feel good musical”, “Stunning performance.” Such phrases are typical of the comments commonly made by critics when reviewing musical theatre productions. These critics are of course, knowledgeable professionals who are much more experienced in the world of show business than I am. But I must say this: the fact that musicals are described in such superficial terms always disappoints me. To talk of a musical in terms of the ‘entertainment’, the ‘charm’, the ‘fun’ is, I feel, to miss the potential power that an onlooker can experience when confronted with a well executed musical. When the final curtain comes down to a roar of applause or a standing ovation, the theatre embodies the spirit of each magical production and makes a subtle impact on all those cheering. This essay is an attempt to convey that now I am sixteen, I appreciate that each stage production I have seen symbolises my level of maturity and provided life messages I unknowingly required at the time.

Whistle Down the Wind taught me about friendship during my youngest years; Beauty and the Beast was a lecture on love as a pre-teen; Les Misérables was there for me when I was ready to learn about justice not to mention providing me with the greatest album a thirteen year old should have. The whole experience of venturing to the theatre, making the climb up the red velvet stairs and excitedly looking for your seat, obviously whilst praying that the tallest person in the theatre isn’t sitting in front me, is one that I look forward to. The excitement isn’t just to witness a story but to walk away and feel empowered, through listening to legendary songs and watching the magical art of storytelling in its finest form.

Singing, dancing, and a rainbow of brightly coloured costumes are things that would fascinate any inquisitive five-year-old. However I was unlike any typical five-year-old. I was painfully shy, I couldn’t even maintain eye contact with my closest family members without my face burning. I was never the kid who put on a show for the applauding family members in the lounge. That would be my brother; I was always the one observing, wishing I could have an ounce of his confidence. Until I discovered musicals. Here was something I could watch and even though my role was that of pure admiration, I still felt included.

My parents separated when I was young and around the time they split my dad took me to my first musical: The Lion King.  As a child I found it even more magical than most. The Lion King offered a place for shy children to witness and be part of a room filled with energy and emotion and for me, I left with a spring in my step and that little bit more courage.

Shortly after my dad opened my eyes to musical theatre he moved to China, and I never saw him again. So you see, The Lion King is a major touchstone to my childhood and in many ways bittersweet; since that day I have seen the production eight times. I was this small timid little girl spending what I know now to be the final moments with my father. I really feel his presence when listening to the Circle of Life and looking up to the profound gold cornices of the Lyceum Theatre.  This marks the beginning of my journey.

Turning thirteen signifies the start of your teenage years, so it was the biggest birthday of my life so far (especially since I have Jewish Heritage). As part of the Jewish faith, the birthday celebrates you becoming a woman. My mother wanted to make this a memorable day for me so we went to New York. Broadway is world famous for being the home of musicals therefore we couldn’t resist the playbills stacked on every corner and the double decker sized billboards promoting the latest musical extravaganza. We soon gave into temptation and followed the bright signs of Broadway until we found ourselves at the half price ticket stall.

I had to choose. Would it be Wicked?  Or Les Mis? Wicked seemed the more fun and happy-go-lucky option but I was (or at least, I thought at the time) almost an adult and so went with my mum’s recommendation Les Misérables– even though it appeared the boring alternative; it’s about the French Revolution which is a bleak moment in time, I couldn’t imagine how it could be translated into a musical.  To my surprise it was without a doubt the best thing I had ever seen, I felt mature and cultured, as I was eliciting emotions to a topic I would have previously yawned about in history class. To this day, I Dreamed a Dream is still my ultimate shower song.

At thirteen I thought the things I would relay to my friends about the trip was that I had made the journey to the top of the Empire State building or jumped on the piano in FAO Schwarz just like they did in the film BIG. As it turned out, the defining moment of the trip was going to watch the performance of Les Mis. Not only did I enjoy the show, I felt a sense of growth and maturity making me realise I had come a long way from that little girl looking up at the gilded ceilings in the Lyceum Theatre.

In place of the obvious gifts for my age such as makeup and clothes, I would receive musical tickets. It became a common gift, meaning mum and I would take a trip down to London a couple of times each year. We would often do some shopping, have ice cream at Harrods, go for afternoon tea and then see a musical. This quickly became a tradition for us. I have always been very close to my mum but sharing some of my favourite things with her on our trips has created such a special bond. She is my best friend, a statement many would be embarrassed to admit but I have grown with confidence over the years and have learned the art of just being me.

Together we have seen a host of stage productions: Blood Brothers, Miss Saigon, Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Jesus Christ Superstar, Rent, Dream Girls, Matilda, the list goes on. We have even started to revisit old favourites. Recently we went down to London with no plans to see anything. We went for a stroll and passed the theatre showing Les Mis, mum casually turned around to me saying: “We should go in.” I was baffled until we went to the box office and sure enough they had tickets reserved for us both; mum had booked them months before. This was a strong reminder as to how much I had grown from that girl in New York: I was now excited to walk through the theatre feeling I was ready and mature enough to enjoy such a deep storyline.  I still enjoy the Disney classics as they take me back to where it all started: recently I went to the opening night of Aladdin. Now I’m sixteen going on seventeen (yes, did I mention I’ve seen the The Sound of Music too), I can see that my first experiences at the theatre that afternoon I saw The Lion King encouraged me to be that little bit more courageous and not worry so much, I still whisper to myself Hakuna Matata if things get a bit tough.

Musicals have helped me mature into the young woman I am today, and each experience I have had at the theatre has truly helped me evolve. When I was younger they gave me confidence, then nostalgia and now I make cherished memories with my mum and I hope they will contribute to my progression into adulthood. The emotional twists and turns of the characters in many musicals in ways remind me of my own journey: I was young and vulnerable with my father leaving me at the age of five.  And the musicals themselves have acted like friends, providing a stable background and scaffold from which I can now look forward beyond my teenage years to my own happily ever after.

Portrait of an Artist – Lewis Patrick

My mum is an artist. Okay, I imagine you are reading this and reaching for a phone and the social services number. I understand your concerns, I really do. But, no, she is not a conceptual artist. She does not paint using elephant dung, or photograph her unmade bed, or wrestle with sharks to encase them in formaldehyde. My mum is a traditional painter. Although you could be forgiven for not being entirely sure what that means anymore. The notorious Turner Prize and the writings of the latest, eminent art critics have rather blurred the lines. Please allow me to remind you. Traditional painting involves the timeless tools of the trade. The artist’s senses are invaded by the feel of hog hair bristles in brushes; the sight of brilliant colour from the tubes of pigment; and the smell of turpentine fumes. Further, the knowledge and understanding of these materials is used to produce representational pieces that do not require a first-class degree in philosophy to enjoy and understand the work.

Mum considers herself to be a ‘Contemporary, Scottish Colourist’. What does that actually mean? You may well ask. Well, it means she has ruthlessly swiped the term ‘Colourist’ from the famous group of artists that included Samuel Peploe and Francis Cadell. The title was purposefully purloined in the vain hope that some of the glory associated with these guys would rub off on her and ultimately lead to tremendous fame and fortune. She is typical of her type. I mean, if you have had the pleasure of being in the company of artists you will know that they present as ethereal creatures. They assume a disinterested stance. Artists outwardly reject any form of financial gain, whilst all the time looking to their next scam. I know this, because, I have been educated at mother’s knee. I have watched, listened, and absorbed the trickery involved in ascending the greasy pole of artistic success.

In her previous life, mum was a teacher. In those days, despite a long commute and a challenging day at the chalk face, we (dad and I) were guaranteed a hot meal and clean attire. I often reminisce about those happy times. Nowadays, there is cause for celebration if there is a morsel of food in the cupboards or clean underwear in the drawers. I’m not talking Bleak House here, but the pendulum has definitely swung. Dad and I have been abandoned for the sake of art. But don’t write us off just yet. We are steadily adjusting to our new reality. He has finally worked out how to put detergent into the washing machine and I can just about ‘heat’ a supermarket pizza. Sometimes I have to squeeze myself into tiny, misshapen woollens and he has to eat inedible, undercooked cuisine, but we shall soldier on. Meanwhile, upstairs in the ‘studio’, our old lounge, the ‘New Scottish Colourist’ strides back and forth, back and forth in front of the easel, unaware, and unencumbered by domestic chores.

The studio, otherwise known as the ‘Sanctuary’, is a sacred place. Here, surrounded by the paraphernalia associated with her craft, stalks the artist. She who must not be disturbed in any circumstances. Once, in dire need of some love I tried to attract her attention by shouting, “fire, fire”, only to hear a muffled retort referring to that tired, old fable concerning boys and wolves. According to her, this level of detachment is crucial to the application of her brand of ‘sorcery’.

My mum considers herself an ‘alchemist’. A long time ago, she happened upon a book focused on the correlation between science and art, and since then has been banging on about the similarities between the scientist and the artist. She says, “It is all about gaining the knowledge and experience of the elements to produce something spectacular”. As a junior scientist, I disagree, but try arguing with her. I accept that she knows her Phthalocyanine Blue from her Indanthrene Blue, but does she know the composition of these paints – I don’t think so. I was once privy to an in-depth conversation with a sales assistant regarding the attributes of Lapis Lazuli paint. She enquired why it was so expensive, and the assistant explained that the manufacturer had travelled to Afghanistan to mine for the pigment. Now, would you risk your life in this manner? I think not. So, whilst being switched on about finance in some ways, artists are also highly susceptible to every peddler and quack who promises the elixir of success.

Success – that elusive goal. In contemporary times, meaning access to the most prestigious galleries and a healthy following on social media (Leonardo would have loved Facebook). Lately, there has been a certain level of progress. Mum, an acknowledged self-publicist has touted her work around the galleries and through gritty determination is now hanging in some decent places. Clarification required here – artist terminology for being included in an exhibition, she is not physically hanging; although, sometimes that would be the desired effect. Apologies, I digress, after a miss-spent childhood (in and around art galleries) I have gained quite a critical eye. In my opinion, there have been incremental improvements in the work. At the risk of sounding obsequious, the Hebridean landscapes have actually evolved aesthetically, and, now, rightly deserve some critical acclaim.

The thorny price of critical acclaim in the art business is the interaction with the galleries. Without labouring the point, gallery owners are a whole different species to the rest of civilisation. They can be pompous, contemptuous, fastidious and vindictive. As a generalisation, this description is pretty accurate. That’s the nice ones. First, getting a foot in the door can prove a Herculean task. They guard their walls and clientele like Cerberus guarding the gates to Hades. To deal with them you need a first-class degree in psychology. If you are too eager, they sniff you out like a pig going after truffles. An insouciant stance is required for this sport. A certain chutzpah. Throw open the door, swagger in, ignore the proprietor and throw down the gauntlet (I mean the paintings). This usually works. Sometimes, a particularly recalcitrant one gets the sunglasses and gum chewing treatment. Mum is good at that one. The teaching years have helped.

I have just described the entry. The exit is far worse. Sometimes, nothing has sold, meaning that mum has to return to the gallery, tail between the legs, eyes lowered, to collect the unsold work. Sunglasses and gum abandoned. Occasionally, there has been a sale – much celebration and then no mula. When the time comes to collect payment, the elusive gallery owner has ‘gone to a funeral of a dear friend’ or is usually skulking through the back. I know you are thinking this kid is prone to mass exaggeration, but, no, this is a reliable, witness account of the seesaw world of the artist. Lots of dirty derriere and less soaring through the sky. It’s a tough old game. But, mum’s a tough old bird.

This portrait might at times appear somewhat unbalanced, leaning more towards the negative, but that is not the full picture. The reality is that mum is doing something she loves, meaning that she is amenable as long as she has had a successful day at the easel. When teaching, she would come home like a bear with a sore head. There are pleasant jaunts around the country to doorstep the aforementioned ‘charming’ gallery owners; and a planned photographic trip to Stornoway in September. She is to be photographed in the pose of her beloved Joan Eardley (the famed Scottish artist) knee deep in the waves in front of her easel. You couldn’t make it up! But best of all, the pursuit of her goal has rendered her oblivious to the swathes of time I spend playing blood-thirsty computer games and eating carry-out – she was always a dreadful cook. So, life with an artist isn’t so bad after all. In fact, at times, it is rather good.

Physically Fit and Mentally Prepared? – Jenna Morton

What is time and distance? What are seconds and centimetres? To many people they represent units of measurement; insignificant and small. To me, however, they represent months of long training, constant practise, and interminable repetition. It can be the difference between first and last, winning and losing, being the victor or being the one who just takes part. In my sport of athletics, time and distance is everything because winning is everything. There are three things that are key to being a winner: mental toughness, physical strength and good coordination. And therein lies my problem.

I was diagnosed with dyspraxia at the age of 8, which means that my coordination is second-rate.  People with dyspraxia generally have poor integration of the two sides of the body, trouble with sports that involve jumping, and hand-to-eye co-ordination.  As a result they tend to have poor visual perception, with little sense of time, speed, distance or weight and a complete lack of rhythm. It is therefore difficult to rationalise how I found myself competing in the Scottish Schools pentathlon event.

I was always fast; tearing around the playground, chasing after boys. I took great pride in beating them. It allowed me to be me and I treasured the attention when I won.  I lacked confidence in everything else I attempted – I couldn’t spell, I apparently never listened, I was rubbish at maths and my inability to read situations didn’t push me to the top of the class popularity poll.

However, with running, I was the best.

Forget the bruises, the cuts on my hands and knees from my multiple falls and the occasional visit to casualty for minor concussion, it was worth it. The athletics’ club was where I felt most comfortable and relaxed. A coach recognised I had talent and pushed me towards multi-eventing. My ego inflated, I naively decided it was worth a shot. Athletics then became more demanding; more about technique than fun; more about using my brain than my limbs.

The effort it took to evolve and adapt to the necessary technical requirements was exhausting even before I had even moved a muscle. As coordination is a problem, some events seem like an impossible task, especially the high jump. Watching it on TV it appears to be merely a run and an awkward jump but for the athlete there is much more happening. The technicalities are hugely demanding: In tempo, swing the arms, control the turn of the hips, hitch the leg, hop up, arch the shoulders over the bar and keep the centre of gravity low and— flop. Each of these movements needs diligence, but being dyspraxic, I can only focus on one of these movements at a time so that what should be a fluid, deliberate motion, dynamic and graceful, often ends up as awkward and clumsy.

June 3rd. The morning of the Scottish Schools’ competition. I lay in bed, muscles like lead and devoid of aspiration. The voice in my head was already telling me to give up – I didn’t stand a chance.

The memories of the drudgery of those long, cold winter nights of training and self-sacrifice were tormenting me. Entering Grangemouth Stadium, I began reciting the mantra: ‘I can do this’.

In as much as I enjoy being the victor, sometimes I don’t mind being beaten. Today was different. “Positive mental attitude”, my coach scolded the whole time I was warming up. However, my inner demon kept insisting ‘you don’t have the strength’, and kept persisting ‘you are not a winner’. I could have easily absconded.

First event – the high jump. Paradoxically, your success is ultimately measured by your failure: Every high jump ends with a miss. Fighting against the label of dyspraxia, I had spent countless hours and energy, determined to conquer this event. My coach had painfully researched how to instruct a dyspraxic person and instructed me to concentrate on only one aspect of the jump. Over-thinking would result in the whole motion collapsing.  Stay up tall. These three words resonated over and over in my head. The high jump was centre field, everyone was watching. A churning sensation evolved within the pit of my stomach. Trying to block out the crowd, I took my first attempt. I cleared it. I couldn’t look back. I was petrified that just one glance would knock off the bar. I was elated. I repeated this several times before my luck eventually ran out. A personal best and the leader board established I was in fifth place.

The technique for the hurdles is simple: you sprint forward as fast as you can and then make some adjustments to clear its height. Having good coordination is a bonus, not one of my strengths, but speed is. Looking down the start lane, initially I was alarmed at the stature of the girls beside me, all tall and sinewy. Then I realised that all of my competitors, without exception were using starting blocks. I had none, they looked every bit professional; I, on the other hand, stood there looking quite amateur.

In the crouch position, I stayed calm. Bang! The starting pistol exploded. Simultaneously eight girls erupted, raising a rainbow of colours as they lifted into the air. I felt like a cheetah. I was blind to those beside me. I was on my own… out in front. The race lasted a little more than 10 seconds. I was shocked at my execution of the race, much better than I’d hoped.

After four events, I was fourth. The final event was the 800 metres. My event.

Approaching the start, I could feel the unnerving stares of my intimidating rivals and their coaches examining me surreptitiously. In the midst, I heard a faint voice plotting: “stick to number 108”. I wore 108. The expectancy of winning and how the race would develop now played on my mind. I waited patiently, each atom charged, for that signal to start running.

I pushed off the start line well and quickly settled into a rhythm; with each stride, the tension increased and the noise of a competitor quick on my heels grew in intensity. Instead of being intimidating, it urged me on, driving me to attack that bit harder. I couldn’t seem to shake her off but her breathing was laboured and wrong.

After competing for years one develops a special intuition, which allows one to identify when competitors are tired: a slight dropping of the head, a subtle shortening of the stride, a distinct quickening of breath. That’s the signal: one last burst. The bell rang for the final lap; it tolled for my main competitor, who collapsed with exhaustion. The strategy to stick to me had cost her a medal.

Approaching the final bend, we were running like a pack, reluctant to spread out though dispersing ever so slightly as we reached the home straight. Staying close, hanging on to each other, not allowing anybody to gain an advantage. All athletes pushing limbs to the limit, oxygen-depleted muscles powered now anaerobically. That last burst of power which flowed to my muscles allowed me to gain a few vital metres. I crossed the line first. I won the race.

Athletics, like most sports, is mentally challenging. ‘Losers’ don’t always lose because they were unfit or they didn’t get the best start. Many other factors come into play. Hence the reason sports psychology is so popular amongst top athletes. The winner takes the glory, because when all other competitors fade, they have that bit extra to give. June 3rd was my day. I came 3rd and exceeded all expectations I had of myself. My dyspraxia may give me obstacles to overcome but it has also gifted me with a determination that few others possess. Although my lane has more hurdles in it, it doesn’t mean I won’t finish the race.

My Family and Other Animals – Patricia Gillen

Despite what Little Red Riding Hood would have you believe, wolves are among the most loyal of creatures, with their pack at the very core of their existence. Marveling at the rough hides of the wolves at the Highland Wildlife Park, I found myself wondering what it’s like to be a member of a wolfpack. What do wolves do when the alpha dies? They adapt and move on with their lives, promoting from within out of an animal need for survival. Which poses the question – what do humans do?

In 2013, the loss of our alpha left our pack bereft and significantly more vulnerable. As with wolves, a fellow member was forced to take over the alpha’s former duties; in our case, my mum had to take over the roles of two parents. This meant juggling her career with duties around the house, feeding and caring for five unruly children. Matters worsened when my sister was diagnosed with severe mental health problems. What do wolves do when a pack member is injured? On this, we differ. Wolves would leave the weakened member so that the rest of the group still have optimal chances of survival; we stood by our sister, despite it at times bringing the pack and its leader to our knees. Clearly, this was too much for my mum to cope with at once, but how to solve it? More colossal bills and mouths to feed ought to do the trick.

My mum has the most peculiar of addictions. It started 12 years ago, with 4 paws and a mouse problem. Putting the school of goldfish, crocodile tears and fishy burial ground which our garden had become over the years to one side, ‘Sam’ was the first real pet my mum had. We acquired him out of necessity: after seeing one too many mice in our rural Aberdonian home, we piled off, in our growing pack of four-and-a-half, in search of a cat, any cat. My mum never looked back; recently, the addiction has spiraled.

My dad often spoke fondly of his childhood rabbits ‘Starsky and Hutch’, which he, alone, religiously cared for in the small patch of grass which passed for his garden. And so, despite the initial shock of opening the car door one day to find on my seat two rabbits and my sister looking truly happy for the first time in months, it made sense that this should mark my dad’s first birthday since his passing. Naturally, my mum was roped into caring for the unwanted rabbits of Glasgow, with my sister taking this as a sign that she would be willing to ‘foster’ rabbits for a charity. Although wholly inexperienced and unprepared for this duty, she came to realise how truly therapeutic caring for these rabbits could be. At a particularly difficult stage in her life, despite everything else falling to pieces, she could take comfort in knowing that these rabbits would gladly run around in circles, never asking for anything more than the occasional bale of hay. This spawned several, indefinite fosterings of rabbits of every colour, variety and size, most recently, huge (as satirically characterised by my younger brother, ‘mutant’) continental rabbits.

Next came a blessing in disguise, in the form of small, hideous rodents. As normal 16-year-olds are wont to do, my sister spent her free time wandering around Pets at Home. In her extensive hours connecting with animals in a bid to avoid interacting with other humans, she grew particularly fond of the degus. Largely unheard of, and for good reason too: it’s not difficult to imagine why no one wanted to look after those little fists of bedraggled fur. This naturally meant that my sister felt she could relate to them and would not rest (or allow any of us to rest) until she owned at least four. Sleeping – or trying to – directly next door to those smelly, ratty creatures, it’s difficult to see how and why they fit into my home. The important thing is that they do, bringing indescribable joy to my sister and so alas, they are here to stay. That is, as long as the cat and I don’t get our claws into them.

Next, a Facebook page detailing Romanian dogs’ mistreatment brought a scrawny, scruffy hound to our doorstep after one month, thousands of miles and hours of bated breath. This large, but by no means formidable, dog fitted seamlessly into our patchwork quilt of a family: damaged goods, but a survivor all the same. Despite her initial trust issues and lingering fears, much like her wolf ancestors, Ania proved to be a pack animal, acting as though she would protect us all by any means despite her placid nature. This is particularly touching in the case of my mum, whom she too is dependent on. In many ways, Ania’s devotion to my mum is much like that of her former spouse, which may be just what she will need once the birds leave her and the nest behind. Ania seemed to be the missing piece of the puzzle that is our family, bringing us closer together through family walks, which became like some kind of ritual and a cure for just about anything. Around then, I had lost a tremendous amount of weight in an unhealthy amount of time. It honestly felt good to take her lead in my gaunt hands and really think. Here, it became apparent how weak I had become. This realisation was very difficult and confirmed my worst fears: that in some ways I was becoming my sister. Often, I felt I could only turn to the dog for comfort as she stood by me, always there for a good cry.

In 2016, we lost the founding member of our family zoo, Sam. Obviously this differs from losing a family member, but there are similarities. There lies a particular solidarity in sorrow; the loss of a beloved pet is more immediate than that of a family member – you realise sooner how different things will be, as the death of a pet is easier to accept. Sam passing away acted somewhat as a key, opening the door to suppressed emotions about the loss of my dad. To an onlooker, it probably seemed ridiculous how upset we all were after his passing, but to us it made sense and I have come to understand its importance. If your pack has your back, then nothing can truly get to you. My mum and I felt a certain emptiness thereafter, with the cat flap a cruel reminder of the hole in our patched up family. Although my sister was terrified that it would feel like we were desperately trying to replace another member of the pack, but again, after seeing one too many a mouse, we needed a cat and fast.

‘This is the last one and I mean it’ said mum. Even if we had wanted to replace our overweight, geriatric cat, we couldn’t have been further from it in all 3 kilos of ‘Cutiepie.’ After one sleepless night in my room, it was clear that she was no ‘Cutiepie’ but rather a comically small cartoon villain, and so she lost this title and her welcome in my bedroom. Within her first five minutes in the big, wide world, ‘Pepper’ had skillfully decapitated the first of many victims in those deceitful yet dainty paws. (Don’t judge a book by its cover eh?) …but honestly, is it any real surprise that my sister’s leaving the nest to become a vet gained our pack a four-legged replacement?

Zoo: an establishment which maintains a collection of wild animals, typically in a park or gardens, for study, conservation, or display to the public. It now seems strange to think that just a few years ago, you could look at my household without this analogy crossing your mind. Yet madness aside, it turns out that not all wolves can huff, puff and blow your house down – no matter how hard they and fate may try.