When roles for the primary school nativity play are being dished out, many little girls long to star as angel Gabriel. Helen Stanley was no exception. No matter what other role was offered, Stanley stuck it out as a lower-ranking angel until she finally achieved her ambition.
Stanley, now 51-years-old and artistic director for Lewisham Youth Theatre (LYT), says her default role these days is an old lady. “All actors have a different character they like playing,” she explains. “I don’t mind making myself look foolish on stage. I think that’s the joy of it.”
At LYT Helen works with young people aged three to 25, 60 per cent of whom are deemed “at risk”, creating high quality theatre projects. At the theatre, which is free to attend, drama is used as a tool for creative and social development and there seems to be a strong sense of pride in Stanley’s voice as she describes their work.
To put it simply, Stanley likes young people. In the past Stanley was both a playwright and a youth worker in between acting jobs. Then, 15 years ago following a funding bid and the submission of a business plan to the mayor of Lewisham, the youth theatre took up residency at the Broadway Theatre in Catford. “It was about meeting people who were as passionate as I was,” she says. Her job takes up most of her time and although she also sings in a choir she declares: “I don’t really have a life outside theatre!”
This could very easily have not been the case given her school’s career advice was: “Why don’t you work in a library?” Nevertheless Stanley benefited from an excellent drama teacher during her A-Levels and went on to study performing arts at university. Her parents were supportive throughout and indeed questioned why she wasn’t in Coronation Street or Eastenders. Stanley laughs as she says she had to explain to them that it wasn’t that easy.
When Stanley tells a story, the actress in her shines through: she enthusiastically performs different voices for every person with actions to match, pausing for emphasis at moments of high tension. She chuckles heartily as she relates an anecdote from her 15 years of acting when she starred as a hump-backed old lady in Two by Jim Cartwright. As she emerged into the auditorium, the usher mistook her for a member of the audience and asked her for her ticket. Later on, whilst playing a smoking drunkard, the cigarette shot straight out of Stanley’s hand and into someone’s drink.
Her dream theatre role would be the mother in Sheila Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, although she mournfully admits she’s too old for it now. The mother is “a bit of a tart and so judgmental”, Stanley explains as she launches into a description of the story.
Describing the intricacies of a plot is something at which Stanley excels and this becomes increasingly clear as she discusses her all-time hero Bertolt Brecht, the German playwright and poet, and his play The Caucasian Chalk Circle. “It’s one of my all-time favourite plays,” she says. You cannot help but be swept along as Stanley becomes breathless, animatedly narrating the twists and turns of the plot.
Completely at home in her chosen career, Stanley has perhaps illustrated that school career advice is not always worth listening to.