Nice and easy does it;Parting shots;My best teacher;Interview;Ray Shell

27th March 1998 at 00:00
I grew up in New York City. At the time - the late 1950s, early 1960s - a lot of blacks were migrating to the north for a better life, so the value of education was pumped into us. My father was a janitor and he would take me to work with him on Saturdays and say: "If you want to do this for the rest of your life, then don't go to school."

My best teachers initially were my mum and dad. She taught me how to colour and paint, and he was also a Sunday school teacher. He put on plays and I was always in them. We had bible teaching at home every day. It was very dramatic - Moses parting the Red Sea, the children of Israel fighting everybody - and it started me off on history.

I went to a big urban high school. I was usually the only black kid in the class and was beaten up regularly. So I learned to do certain trades: "If you don't beat me up today, I'll help you with your maths homework."

I was always considered strange. Since we were preachers' kids, we weren't allowed to go to parties or encouraged to mix with other kids.

The chemistry teacher, Mr Zawasky, related his subject to something real: Why does water boil and then evaporate? And I remember him taking off his glasses and crying when we heard that President Kennedy had been shot. After that, we had air-raid drills as we were expecting to be bombed by Russia. We had to hide under our tables - as if that was going to save us.

Mary McNelis, my drama coach at high school, was very influential. She told me I should go into theatre. She was butch, but she was cool. Other people were into the classics but she did Harvey and Twelve Angry Men. I got parts I would never have played in the real world.

I knew from an early age that I wanted to act. I was never afraid of being in front of an audience. There was a show on Broadway called The Me Nobody Knows and, when I was 17, I got a part in the national tour. Four of us had union cards before we finished college. I went to Emerson College in Boston. We had a gorgeous mass-communications teacher in my first year. All the guys got up and went to this class at 8am, just to see how short her skirt was.

My mother didn't want me to be an actor, so I did radio-and-television broadcasting for a year, then quietly switched to acting. She wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer.

Jim Spruill was my drama teacher at Emerson, and my first black teacher. He had been a professional actor and he encouraged me to act and study. Jim was a hippy, and he was wild. He used to smoke dope with us on the steps before class. He believed that smoking marijuana opened us up to what he wanted to teach.

He taught us to relax and how you can only become another character when you know what you're about. So we did group massages and other things which were two steps away from orgies - which certainly prepared me for being in Hair.

Then there was an actress and director called Patricia Flynn, who ran the Kraft Experimental Theater in Boston, and she was very inspirational. I was 19, playing this mad black professor with a white man on a leash - and this was directed by a white woman. It was unheard of.

Ray Shell is an actor and writer. He also manages two bands - Damage and E-Male. He has appeared in many musicals, including 'Hair'. He is starring in 'Starlight Express' and working on his second novel, 'Fucking Pop'. The stage version of his first novel, 'Iced', about a crack addict, is on at Birmingham and Bristol.

Ray Shell was talking to Caroline Rees

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