We were so inspired by Pri Burford’s wisdoms about Courage at our first Salon event, we wanted to share her words here for all to enjoy. Not only can you read the full script of her speech here, you can also catch her “Questionings” regularly on our blog.
I was 17 before I set foot in a theatre. It wasn’t something our family did. We didn’t have many books at home either-not novels or poetry anyway- mostly, as I remember it- there were my dad’s journals from The British Dental Association and Oral medicine textbooks. They were full of terrifying photographs of pustule-ridden jaws and cracked molars. As an 8 year old, I could tell you about Gingivitis, but not about The Cheshire Cat.
Don’t feel sorry for me though. What my family lacked in literary resources, we made up for with imagination. I was not read bedtime stories as a child, instead my dad made up stories on the hop, sitting beside me on the covers while I, tucked up underneath, was the best crowd ever.
“What do you want it to be about?”
“…of when you were a little boy.”
And there, a love for storytelling, listening and improvisation was born. I drifted off to sleep in the cocoa plantation behind my dad’s childhood home where he used to hide himself to bunk off school; or being chased by angry little monkeys whose mangoes he’d stolen. These things I’d never seen or experienced, but nevertheless I lived out vividly in those moments through those stories. So I should possible correct my opening statement:
As a child I was taken to the theatre every night.
Back to 17 year old me. That night, at the first public theatre I’d ever been in, my heart staged a coup on my rational mind. We were at The National Theatre, watching Hamlet.
I’d never read a Shakespeare play apart from bits of enforced Romeo and Juliet in English at school. Hamlet, as far as I knew, was a brand of mild cigar. Drama was officially labeled ‘A Hobby’. Where I was coming from actors were white, posh and having drunk sex with any random passer-by. Also, I was the stranger at the party that night- this was the A-Level English trip and I was studying Physics, Chemistry and Biology- shaping up to take over my dad’s dental practice, as planned. It was to be a life of regular holidays, regular paychecks just…regularity. Not a bad life, in fact a good life. Just that it was somebody else’s life, not mine.
That night, I found out how far I’d been alienated from my own heart, which was full of questions and curiosities. How diligently I’d been taught and learned to leave apple carts upright; stones unturned. How well I’d learned my lines, taught to me by the prevailing culture here at that time and still being recited by little girls and women everywhere: ”Remember, above all other things, to be pleasing ”.
At the end of 3.5 hours of Ian Charlesdon’s now legendary Hamlet (I had no idea who he was at the time) I was weeping, sitting on the edge of my seat, thinking, “Doing THAT is what the rest of my life has got to be about.”
My heart had come to get me. The courage I found, which is only one type of courage, was the courage to be honest with myself and give my heart some legitimacy and a voice in my life.
Courage. The word, has a Latin root: ‘cor-‘: ‘heart’. An early definition of courage was “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” I told everyone then that I planned to become an actor, and dealt with the series of life explosions that happened- the expectations I dashed, my reputation as a reliable, predictable person smashed: I was saying I’d give up my A-level studies with a year to go in a school which was fiercely academic. My parents have only just got up off the floor-it’s taken about two decades.
When I said I was going to be an actor, it was bad enough, but if I dared to describe myself as an artist, I noticed, the effect was off the scale. That phrase, “I’m an artist” was met with ridicule and embarrassment by so-called normal people – a sort of “oooh, get you!” attitude. It still is, sometimes. But that’s what I am. I create stuff: art, so I guess that makes me an artist (also known as a poncey-lay-about-workshy-fop).
By now, the labels don’t stick. Name-calling is the prime sport of cynics. Don’t listen to cynics, by the way. Cynicism is just fear in a suit with a couple of GCSEs. I remember one sitting me down in the young days of my ambitions and telling me that it didn’t matter how talented I was, English people didn’t want to see people like me on their screens and stages. They wanted Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn (who doesn’t?!).
“They’ll never want you. You’re not their idea of beautiful,” he said, “You can’t make a success of it-”
And then the classic passive-aggressive knockout punch:
“I’m saying this because I don’t want you to make a fool of yourself.”
Well he was partly right. My race has been an issue- but for other people, not me. So here I am and I don’t apologise either for being born female or brown or for being those things and daring to put myself ‘out there’. Those two things are how I was made to be. If either or both of them make somebody uncomfortable, then they need to ask themselves some hard questions. Just don’t ask me to disappear to make you feel better. I’m not going to do that.
That sounded convincing didn’t it? That list of defiances I just trotted out. But those statements don’t slide easily out of me. I’m not just ‘that type of person’- strong, strident whatever you want to call it. I don’t really buy into that- that one person is naturally brave while another will always be timid. I think people are more complex. If I’ve learned anything about character over the last 16 years as an actress, it’s that nobody in the world is just one thing all the time- they are on some level, choosing how to be to deal with the situation they find themselves in. Sometimes, you just have to be brave because a life depends on it, say. But often- you don’t. Courage of the kind I’m talking about isn’t an everyday imperative. You don’t have to listen to your heart. Nobody will make you follow your dreams. You don’t have to try and make the world a better, fairer place. There are others- who are probably getting paid to do it!
Courage, like this takes work; takes time. It’s seeing that there might be a choice and not ignoring that choice. You’re making that choice, not once and for all- but once and for all every day. Those brave, unapologetic statements I made before come out of standing on the brink of things and “yes”, but being very worried that I was doing the wrong thing and about to make my life worse rather than better. They come out of knowing what being laughed at feels like. They come out of being the cynic who’s raising a nasty eyebrow and then hating myself. They come out of experiences like getting taken to pieces by a theatre critic in a National newspaper and then having to get back on the stage the night after and do the whole thing again- without measuring myself by his pronouncements.
There’s that famous quote variously attributed to Mark Twain and Nelson Mandela about courage not being the absence of fear, but making the choice to do something despite the fear. In my experience, that’s true. Any bravery I’ve shown has come out of knowing how it feels to be weak, scared and rejected in the past and doing the thing anyway. The work of being courageous is in taking oneself through that choice: “Come on, Me. Let’s just bloody do this!” Then getting through the stuff that’s on the other side of it: “Well, that was awful. Let’s do it again but better.” Or “-that was amazing! Let’s do it again and better.”
There’s another type of courage. ‘Encouragement’ has the word courage in it quite rightly. Anything brave I’ve done, I’ve done in company. You take your journey, your learning, the confidence you’ve built and you nourish other people with it. I think it would be revolutionary to work places and social spaces if we could find the courage to be kind rather than pointlessly competitive. What if we stopped comparing ourselves with others and sang our own, unique note- out loud, true and free and damn the Haters? Who are these Haters anyway? They’re you and me when we’re weak and frustrated. They’re not them; they’re us. Can we free them and ourselves too? That would be really brave and hopeful.
Courage and Hope: those two great intangibles that, along with Imagination, make humans illogical in such a magnificent way. So here, this is encouragement from me to you: begin!