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A dedication - to Joan Leslie (aka Mrs Lau)

My first drama teacher who became my lifelong friend...

I don't remember the first time I met Joan (I was only 6!) but I have such lovely memories of that first year. Her son was in my class at school and she came in to teach some drama as a parent volunteer, in lieu of listening to us learning to read.

We put on a performance of Hans Christian Andersen stories, and I vividly remember walking around the room with my class auditioning for The Ugly Duckling. I won the role, clearly the most elegant bottom-wiggler and wing-shaker in the class! Someone else played the beautiful Swan, but I didn't even notice. I just remember the joy playing the role in that brief moment at the front of the stage – I felt like a million bucks!

Soon after, Joan started her Dance & Drama classes at St Stephen's church in Glenunga and I was quick to enrol. I walked there after school with my $2 note every week and once I entered that space.... heaven! Joan told me many times about my first lesson – when I wrapped myself in the curtain and refused to come out – but I have no recollection of that. We learnt the grapevine and travel turns (both of which I am teaching my year 2 girls for their end of year performance coincidentally), worked on short scripts and did performances for the parents. No frills, just theatre magic. Joan had a way of looking straight into you, and knowing just what to say to make you feel seen. I would have done anything for her. When I was 10 I played my first lead role, Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and I still can hear the applause as I walked up the stairs to the stage to take my bow, I honestly don't think I'd ever loved myself more.

When I was 15 I invited her to an amateur production I appeared in with Burnside Players and of course she came. I played the maid and had 6 lines – and I was absolutely terrible! But she wrote me a letter afterwards to tell me how proud she was and how happy I had made her to see me on the stage again. In my mid 20s we reconnected properly and we became friends.

Joan was born in England and had been a performer since she was a little girl – as Baby Joan – her first role I believe was Adele in Jane Eyre. As a young woman she became a vaudeville performer, then entertaining troops around the world for the war effort, then spent 10 years playing Snow White in a travelling show for Disney. She lived and breathed the theatre, but also became passionate about the actors with dwarfism she worked with as Snow White and helped create the Little People's Association in Australia, giving a voice and respect when it was severely lacking. She also started teaching, first in Malaysia then in Adelaide when she arrived around 1980. Which brought us together (thankfully!).

Joan encouraged my love of the theatre in her teaching, then convinced me to assist her in her classes at Seymour College in 2007 and shortly after, to take my own students. She named my new company, Actually Acting, in 2008, and she became honorary grandmother to our three children. She also tried to teach me to tap dance but some things just aren't meant to be! Joan truly mentored me my entire life, a gift I am so grateful for, and always wanted someone to carry on her work... loving and respecting children, giving them a voice and helping them learn to love themselves and stay creative.

“Acting is believing” was her motto, passed down from her first drama teacher nearly 85 years ago. Not just the audience believing the performance, but also the actor – believing in themselves.

Unfortunately Joan suffered from Alzheimer's which cruelly took her from us in early 2018, so while she knew I had started Wings2Fly Theatre in 2017, she wasn't well enough to come and see the performances. But she was proud, as ever, and I know she would absolutely love these new ventures I have started – Actually Acting Youth Theatre and The Mature Edition, acting classes for adults. She would have been there with bells on and probably try to make everyone tap dance or sing That's Entertainment!

(Thanks to Di Mason and Katie Quast for the old school photos)

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