My first paid job was in a play called Who Knows? with the Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company in 1979. The part came my way as I had been appearing in Not in Norwich at the Royal Court as a founding member of the Young People’s Theatre Scheme under director Gerald Chapman.
That play was a controversial drama, taking the actual experiences of teenage gay people and reconstructing them as fictional vignettes. Each show was followed by an audience discussion with the cast in an open forum. It was very unusual and potentially risky both for the actors and the Royal Court, given that at that time the players were all under the age of consent (then 21).
Much of the play was written by the cast members and the whole thing pulled together into a coherent show by the then writer-in-residence at the Court, David Lan. When the London local press got to hear about it, they screamed. One ludicrous front-page headline was ‘London Children in Sex Play’ (we were not children and there was no sex in the play).
Gay Sweatshop actor, writer and director Philip Timmins subsequently asked some cast members if they would like to work on a new touring show they were devising. My paid stage career was duly launched, playing a nasty piece of work called Colin, the thug of the play.
Having come from a working-class background and with a fascination for the works of Joe Orton and Mike Leigh, I thrived on parts with a rough edge but also subtle humour and wit. I rarely suffered from nerves or stage fright and the only stress I experienced in those early days was the pain of learning lines.
The play toured the country very successfully, until Margaret Thatcher decided that the arts were ripe for cutting down to size and the company lost its Arts Council grant.
I don’t think I would change anything, as I believe in learning from mistakes – but my lessons then and now are: be true to yourself; have confidence in that and a yearning to keep pushing yourself forward. Soak up criticism and thrive on direction. Oh, and don’t mumble – I can’t abide onstage mumbling.
Training: Royal Court Young People’s Theatre Scheme
Theatre includes: Oklahoma!, Oliver!, South Pacific, The Pajama Game (touring productions)
TV includes: The Tube (Channel 4)
Gary James’ autobiography Spangles, Glam, Gaywaves and Tubes is available at bookguild.co.uk. He was talking to John Byrne