Gemma Warren is proud to be prompt

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Our school play's coming up and the head of drama wants to discuss it with me. I'm thrilled. Finally, someone has recognised my dramatic talent. I read my memo again: "Gemma, I'd like you to take an extremely important and highly integral part in this year's play. See me if you're interested."

Extremely important and highly integral, that's me. Will I be graciously welcoming dignitaries to their seats and hosting a special after-show party? Will I be standing in front of the audience, illuminated by a single light, wearing the evening dress I must rush out and buy, saying "on behalf of the drama department I'd like to welcome you to the school play"? Will I finally get to have my encounter with the casting couch? I rush to the meeting full of dramatic intent.

There's something glamorous and exciting about the school play that I haven't lost from my own school days. I wonder how many other teachers live vicarious lives as pupils, now they're the ones in control. It could explain a lot.

For a shy girl like me with thick glasses and a quiet voice, it was the only chance I had for people to see that I was simmering with untapped talent. The fact that I was terrible seemed irrelevant. We always did a nativity when I was at primary school and I was always given the part of a guest in the stable. I had to stand around making polite chit-chat while Mary gave birth to the son of God.

One night someone was ill and I was promoted to being a bottle of oil in the Christmas cake. "You're going to be a very special bottle of oil," said my mum, and sewed "Extra Virgin" in big, black letters on the back of my costume. It took me 10 years to live that one down, and it was five years before I understood why.

At secondary school, my dramatic achievements culminated in a stint as a desk in Daisy Pulls It Off, and a walk-on part as a sparrow in Animal Farm. I know what you're thinking: there is no sparrow in Animal Farm. I only realised that when I started to teach it t Year 9 last year. But I feel I added a certain something that Orwell would have approved of. Whatever I do, the spotlight is always somewhere else when I'm doing it.

So I'm in my meeting. "I'd like you to be our prompt," says the head of drama. Prompt? Prompt is someone who sits in a hole underneath the stage, waiting until someone forgets a line and then giving it to them. My dream is shattered. Never mind, there's still plenty of scope for glory. What if one of the actors has a seizure? I can just see the headline in the school magazine: "Ms Warren Saves Play by Promptness of Prompting. Full interview inside." I cheer up and climb into my hole, which I share with a few spiders and some biology exam papers from 1958. We've moved from drama queen to drama lady-in-waiting, but I can live with that.

For six nights we do the play. No one forgets their lines. I develop chilblains. My hole is next to the kettle-drums and I spend 10 minutes vibrating every time we reach the dramatic finale. When the tap routine starts over my head, I reach for the migraine tablets. By day four I consider bribing the lead to forget something, but it's no go. By day five, I take a bit of marking down with me to do something useful. Day six is our final performance. I crawl into the hole with a decided feeling of Schadenfreude. I mean, I want the kids to do well, but what's in it for me?

(Headline in school magazine: "Prompt isn't Prompt Enough." Followed by: "Dramatic scenes at school play on the final night, when the leading man forgot his lines. All eyes looked down for the prompt, but no help was forthcoming. Later investigations found Ms Warren, propped up on a pile of 1958 biology exam papers, asleep. 'I wondered where those papers had got to,' said head of biology. Full interview on missing exam papers inside.") It seems that the spotlight has yet to search me out.

Gemma Warren teaches at the Latymer School, Edmonton, north London. e-mail:

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