How Mr Shakespeare taught me to speak!

Monday 9 April 2012

I’m not sure that we ever spoke about it, so I can’t tell you exactly when it was that my parents realized that ‘something was wrong with Nancy’!

Now the ruder ones amongst my friends-who-read-this-Blog will suggest that my parents should have been quicker on the uptake…that it must have been ferociously obvious that there was ‘something wrong’!  I shall ignore them and plough on with this story for my polite readers!

The fact is that I came out head-first like most of the more fortunate babies, but then nothing much seemed to happen! I was unceremoniously slapped on the bum and made to cry…and that was it!  Silence!


Well, was it?  I’m heavily influenced by what I read…and scholarly and medical opinions seem to favour the idea that there is Sound and its opposite is Silence!  But is it?  I am not the one to judge because I am not the one who has any real idea what Sound is…so I’ll tell my story and as usual, let you be the Judge!

My earliest recollection of concern on my parents’ faces (I guess I was about 2) was when they started to bang saucepans with a wooden spoon right at the side of my head!  They seemed to think I didn’t know they were doing it…how weird…how could I not feel the vibration running through my body like an electric shock?  And then the penny dropped!  Of course!  They wanted me to acknowledge that they were doing something very clever. So I nodded and smiled approvingly at them and computed that when they hit a saucepan with a stick I was to let them know I caught their genius.

And thus it was…my realization that when I saw someone doing something, I could feel it. I tested out my theory in multifarious ways.  Like these:

1.      Pulling the cat’s tail. This experiment ended when he turned around, opened his mouth to its fullest extent and clawed me…but I did get to understand that when he opened his mouth like that he was explaining to me he was very angry.
2.     Putting my ear to the old Peppercorn tree.  This I did after noticing lots of little critters running up and down its bark. To my delight, fifty different sensations coursed through my body…and after repeating this action of ‘ear to bark’ countless times, I began to distinguish between the different vibrations each different life-form made.
3.     Learning the architecture of the moving mouth.  It didn’t take very long for me to connect that when my parents, brother, sister or those in my as-yet-very-small-world opened their mouths, they were telling me something, asking me something, growling at me or approving of me according to the way their mouths jiggled and their body-language jived.

What my parents divined was that I was ‘deaf’…or to be more politically correct … ‘born with profound hearing loss’.  And they searched for help even as they enrolled me in the little Mallee School that welcomed students into its Halls of Learning at Age 3.

By Age 3, I was having a marvellous time experimenting with the reproduction of what I saw others doing… by moving my mouth, lungs and diaphragm all at the same time, blowing out hard and seeing what the effect was!

My parents called it… ‘Nancy’s trying to talk’!  And they sought help more desperately.

It was at this time that a great big stick came down on my enthusiasm!

In the early 40s you were not allowed to be a left-hander! Instant 2nd Class Citizenship for those so afflicted.  And so it was…if I grasped my crayon with that blighted hand…Whack!

Enter Stage Left, a rather odd character called ‘Stutter’ and my parents were moved to try an experiment!

Their ‘experiment’ manifested herself as a rather remarkable woman called Marjorie McLeod…founder of the local National Theatre that became a sister to its namesake in Melbourne.  Playwright, poet and Speech Elocutionist Marjorie McLeod WAS…Speech Therapist she was not!

However, Marjorie cheerfully set off to the little school to observe me in the playground.  She came back to my parents with the rather startling observation that I was ‘a little show-off and she’d like to put me on the stage!’ Having seen me turn my Nanna’s nose red with suppressed amusement at my kitchen table-top rendition of ‘Salomé’, Mum and Dad quickly agreed and before you could say ‘Precociously adept in Unseemly Behaviour’ I was into rehearsals of Shakespeare’s Richard 11.

Well, I wasn’t cast in the role of Richard…(it might have been construed as offensive, given that I was a little girl…but I felt VERY IMPORTANT INDEED as the Page-who-carried-the-Crown!

I even had a line to say…and I can tell you that the Town Hall patrons on Opening Night were filled with fear for my parents (my Dad was the local dentist and consequently pretty well-known!)  As well they might have been afraid!  All any of them had ever heard from me was a series of stuttered attempts to say… ‘Wh..w…ww…wha…what?

But Marjorie had A Plan!

Each day she filled my little heart with the thrill of the Theatre…she cooked the smell of the grease-paint into my nostrils and painted the roar of the crowd into my ears.  I was hooked!   And I learnt to say ‘Thy Crown Sire’!

The only problem was that the more excited I became, the more I stuttered!

Picture this: a country Town Hall filled to capacity to see the legendary Marjorie McLeod’s production of Richard 11…with the off-Broadway sideshow of a little stuttering upstart making her stage debut age 3.

I could tell, standing in the wings on Opening Night that the place was crowded…the raucous chatter translated into a myriad vibrations that chased each other up and down my legs until I was sure I would disgrace myself by wetting my pants in excitement.  I didn’t!  I could smell the stage make-up and I thought…this is what I want to do for the rest of my life!

What a phenomenal child psychologist Marjorie would have made had she so chosen…just 3 seconds before my entrance she cupped my face in her hands and mouthed: ‘get this right and the stage will be yours forever!’

I stepped out onto those old floorboards with that Crown on its cushion as though I were carrying a boxful of happiness and delivered the line…perfectly!

The Town Hall patrons...rather like their Elizabethan counterparts of olde rose to their feet and cheered and a new actor was inflicted on the world!

Marjorie McLeod had tapped into one of the great truisms of life: (s)he who is doing what (s)he loves will have a calm and loving heart!

I did not stutter from that moment on.  I did go on to play Puck and Ariel and Rosalind and Juliet (albeit with my brother as Romeo, huh!) and eventually began a professional acting career in the late 50s.

That’s probably a future Blog!


  1. Wonderful Nancy Bravo! On my feet applauding with every single person in that Town Hall and everyone since then and forever after. I The title of your autobiography could well be "My Fiortunate Life"
    By the way I know I would have liked Marjorie alot.
    Debbie Green

    1. I so wish you could have met her, Debbie. You are right, you would have liked her a lot. I think she broke the back of one of the secrets of stuttering!

  2. This blogging thing might just catch on!!!

    Your sicko friend,

    Tom in Oz

    1. Oh I do hope so Tom. I'm loving the discipline of writing each day. Thank you so much for taking the time to make a comment.

  3. That little story was such a pivotal moment for you- I love the way you have told it- and felt as though I was there. What a wonderful woman Marjorie was to recognise and nurture your gift Nancy!

  4. She was indeed a 'wonderful woman' Masna and I thank you most sincerely for leaving your comment. I think what she recognised was the importance of the freedom to do what one is born to do. All too often, career-directions are influenced by parental desire for off-spring to earn well rather than achieve personal happiness.

  5. What an amazing story, so beautifully written and so touching. I've known you Nancy, albeit virtually, for some time now and although we have never met in person, your friendship is one I cherish.

    Love your blog, too. Rock on..... :)