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Stephanie Street: Inspired by a young cast ad-libbing its way out of trouble

Akshay Sharan and Muhammad Khan in the NYT's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Photo: Helen Murray Akshay Sharan and Muhammad Khan in the NYT's The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Photo: Helen Murray
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What the hell am I doing? I have found myself asking that question with increasing regularity. Not that I am literally unaware of the day-to-day goings on of life – things aren’t quite that bad. Yet. It’s more like, why me? Why this? What’s the point? And I should specify that these three questions almost always apply to me in the context of being an actor.

I reckon I first inwardly uttered that silent, rage-laced musing when I was in an ad casting for a popular item of confectionery, trying to pretend like I was an adorable girl next door bouncing on a space hopper (without an actual space hopper) clearly surrounded by professional models and ad execs who couldn’t have given less of a fuck about my training at LAMDA.

Since then, the internal volume on the same questions has just cranked up as I’ve crossed over into the employability desert of female middle age, and the parts have disappeared into thin air like a mirage.

But before I completely alienate you with self-pity, I have to keep reminding myself that when it matters most, when we do our best work, it’s never about just me. Rather, it comes down to the thing that makes theatre the most vital and necessary artistic medium: the collective. And two weeks ago I saw an example of collective heroism that will sustain my purpose in theatre for a long time to come.

On the opening night of a play that I wrote for the National Youth Theatre, an actor made an honest, adrenaline-fuelled mistake and jumped forward four scenes in a single line. It was no one’s fault and I have been onstage during countless versions of the same thing. The net effect was a huge chunk of vital plot, and the central character’s trajectory would have gone for nothing, and the play wot I wrote would have made no sense whatsoever.

Like I say, no one’s fault but I certainly would have preferred for the play not to have disintegrated into a meaningless stream of words and gestures on that particular night…

In reality what happened was this extraordinary company of actors, most at the start of their careers, pulled together to redirect the lead actor (who never left the stage and so couldn’t get involved in any of the reworking) and they figured in the missing scenes by a canny rewind and rewiring of the scene sequence. Somehow.

I wrote it and, honestly, I’m not sure how they did it. And Akshay, who played the central character, listened, responded and went with everything thrown at him, holding his nerve better than most seasoned actors with 10 times his experience.

Those performers served up unimaginable courage. They showed the audience (and the creative team who all had to nurse seriously elevated blood pressure afterwards) how important it is to be a team. They lived the power of storytelling.

I will be inspired by them for a very long time, mainly to stop feeling sorry for myself and start just getting on with stuff.

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