There are many rewards for the role of the teacher, over and above the pleasure – for me at least – of being in the classroom and helping to excite a new generation of young adult minds about the possibilities of literary expression. Sorry! That’s just me, and I hope you haven’t dozed off yet. Rewards… For teachers. That’s what I was on about! How about meeting a student that left us in 1995 – and finding out that the ideas and enthusiasm that we offered her all those years ago are alive, kicking and very much in play today? Result!
Meet Anna – Edgerton as was, back in the day – Boulic. Living in central France, comfortably ensconced with her ‘glorious’ (her word) French husband and two daughters; a composer, singer, musician and theatre voice coach who has trained and worked at some of the most prestigious institutions worldwide. So here are new rewards! We are noisily and energetically reunited over Facetime, and the hugely talented and personable 17 year-old who bid us farewell in 1995 has morphed into a glamorous, confident ‘dirty blues harpist (yes - there is such a thing)’ as full of life as ever, and ready to share the highlights of her journey.
It is a remarkable one, and must speak for itself. In spite of my excited interruptions as memories of her classmates and texts collide with mine, she explains how great a challenge and change it was to leave her native Australia, and the relative backwater of the rural outskirts of Melbourne where she lived with her mother. ‘It was bum-crack nowhere’ she tells me, reminding me of her infectious self-mockery and fearless honesty, ‘There was no culture of any kind’. A kind of serendipitous series of events led her to Hurtwood. A brave video of her song and dance talents earned her a scholarship with us, but required her to leave behind all that she had known, aged 15, for the other side of the world, without family or friends to back up her existence.
‘I was a country girl from nowheresville,’ she tells me. ‘I’d never written an essay or even read a grown-up novel. I hadn’t done O levels and was so, so young.’ The measure of her character - that character that came back to me as we spoke – was that she only questioned herself for making this choice over ‘a couple of weeks.’ What kept her going, I ask. She recalls her very first day at the school, arriving several weeks late and faced with the auditions for the Christmas musical which that year was Cyrano. Competing alongside kids who had been rehearsing a specific piece from the show that she didn’t know, she was told to sing ‘whatever she wanted’. This at least she understood: singing had always been central to her, albeit not something for which she felt particularly valued. Anna fills in some background, that coming from Australia with its sporty culture, she had always felt slightly marginalised and even bullied at school for her love of the arts. She sang ‘Don’t Cry for me Argentina’, and the result is something she will never forget. Everybody applauded her, teachers and peers. ‘It was a really special moment in my life, that I used to think back to all the time. I had found my people.’ All the challenges finally made sense and this feeling sustained her through the trials and tribulations of missing her mum and dad. Without internet or affordable phones, it was faxes and letters that maintained her ties with home, as she took on the challenges of A levels from a standing start.
Cosily on campus at Hurtwood, and nurtured by generous support and constructive encouragement from her housemaster Steve Crowley to ‘do better each week’, she felt safe, and really began to soak up the pleasures of what was offered to her. Not least among these were seeing all the amazing shows in London, including her very first ‘Hamlet’ (a legendry one with Alan Cummings), being in the capital on a Friday night with 5 pounds in her pocket to spend as she wished. The memories tumble out: friendships, performing, being challenged, watching Neighbours with a bunch of girls in the House; these have solidified into halcyon days that she has remembered ever since as the pivoting moments of her life. What she absorbed from her studies has taken her forward ever since: her love of language, particularly in action, in theatre, Shakespeare (she shows me her battered copy of Othello matching my own 30-year-old copy, replete with the annotations from our classes) . She had already given me one of my most treasured compliments, that I taught her Shakespeare ‘with a “I'm not falling asleep voice.”’ Her love affair with language and voice had begun.
So, from Hurtwood, what direction? Her portfolio of A levels included Music Tech, but it was the combo of Theatre Studies and English Literature that drove her next decision. Acting was not her aim. So, rather than drama school, she headed back to the Antipodes. A BA in the Performing Arts at the University of Tasmania swiftly offered another epiphany: in the very first class with her theatre voice coach she made her decision. Here was her role, this is ‘what I wanted to be. I wanted to teach voice. I didn’t know the job existed, and this set me on a straight path.’ Her passion had found its focus. Having graduated she had to fill five years until she qualified for government funding to begin post-graduate study, and in those five years she developed her musical and performance skills, including learning the harp (which apparently had intrigued her since her Hurtwood days) and earning her spurs as an independent performer.
The next stop was NIDA – National Institute of the Dramatic Arts - as favoured by Cate Blanchett, Mel Gibson et al. This highly prestigious institution is Australia’s equivalent of RADA, and it was here that Anna became at last a voice theatre teacher. What followed were 8 extraordinarily fulfilling years teaching at the conservatoire in Victoria, in the main drama school, specialising in – you've guessed it – Shakespeare. Working closely with performers, helping graduates ‘liberate their voices and use them in the best way possible’, and covering texts aplenty. The main challenge? ‘To teach them how to read the actual words and not to let the heightened language intimidate; to show them how character is embedded in the language itself… All that stuff we learned at Hurtwood!’ She admits disbelief that she could be paid to do such amazing work in this ‘wonderful profession.’ She would clearly be there to this day, had love (remember the French connection) not brought her and her growing family to central France where, alas, there is no call for either vocal coaches or Shakespearean experts. This has thrown her rather happily back on her music and performance, alongside the work she does for the French Chamber of Commerce, where she teaches English through theatre, largely to graduates. ‘It’s very visceral and scenario-based and fun,’ she tells me. I can imagine her classes are fabulously enjoyable. A possible PhD is also on the cards, but in the meantime she has been working with a group of musicians, writing her own material and recording an album of ‘dirty blues harp’. Take a listen – she is so talented, so versatile, so clearly passionate in all that she does, and that comes across instantly.
It really is time to get on with the day and let Anna get back to some more teaching, music and family time. It has been such a privilege and pleasure to catch up with her. Frankly, I could spend the rest of lockdown talking Jane Austen, Shakespeare and life in general with this gorgeous multi-talented woman. Her thanks to us all, to the school and Richard in particular for taking a chance on a rural girl from the other side of the world, are heartfelt and sincere. ‘Hurtwood set me up for life,’ she tells me several times, adding, ‘they were the best two years - you guys changed everything.’ The pleasure has been ours, Anna! Please do come back and visit us as promised when this crazy pandemic time is over. You are a reminder of exactly what we work for, and what success is all about. Thank you for spending time with us – now and then.