Storme Toolis is best known for playing the daughter of Nicholas Lyndhurst’s retired policeman Danny Griffin in New Tricks and starring in one of the award-winning Malteasers adverts, the one that was so risqué it had to be shown after the watershed. She is most proud of the theatre production Redefining Juliet, which was also filmed for a BBC documentary. This exploration of what it means to be a woman and how stereotypes of perfection and beauty impact on all of society wowed audiences at The Barbican in 2016, and a new production will return to Barbican’s Pit Theatre in November this year. Mik Scarlett met up with Storme to find out more.
Sat nursing a cup of tea in the gloom of the Cafe in the Crypt at St Martin’s in the Fields in Central London, Storme hits me with shocking news. She has decided to give up her acting career!
“Redefining Juliet is returning but it will not have a Storme Toolis appearing in it, so don’t fall over. In October last year I decided I was quitting acting to be a teacher. Redefining Juliet is the project I’m most passionate about and that I enjoy the most, so I wanted to continue doing it just in more of a Director/ CEO-type role, allowing me to carry on being involved but not appear in it. I plan to use it as a franchise, a movement and a show to take it to the world. All alongside training to be an English teacher.”
What was behind the decision to leave acting?
“Alongside the lack of roles for disabled actors, the struggle to find work and be seen as talented in your own right and the continuous worry about income, the major reason for giving up the stage and acting was I kept being asked to be knowledgeable about things that I knew nothing about. I felt like I was being expected to become an activist.”
“Some people are powerhouses at fighting for disability, but I found it such a huge responsibility to be the spokesperson for all disabled people. I was raised in a mainstream environment, going to a mainstream school, and fell into being an actress. Then I was expected to be a spokesperson, and I was like ‘I didn’t sign up for this’.”
“I love doing press about my work, but I didn’t feel comfortable going on things like Good Morning Britain being asked to talk about accessible public transport or Breaking Bad or whatever. When you make it as a disabled person you are automatically told you must comment on everything, whether you know anything about it or not. It was especially difficult for me as I was still fighting to know myself. If you’re expected to be a role model when you don’t even know who you really are, that’s really difficult. That search for self is what is at the heart of Redefining Juliet”.
Which brings us nicely back to the subject of our interview. So, if someone hasn’t seen ‘Redefining Juliet’, what is it about?
“It is an exploration about what it means to be beautiful in the 21st Century. For anyone who has questioned if they are enough of whatever they might want to be, this show might be able to help you. It’s been created by Shakespeare nerds, so we threw a bit of that in too, but it’s an exploration of desirability, femininity, sexuality, what it means to be in love, how it feels. When you are disabled or different in some way, you don’t feel like you are worthy of love and that kind of thing.”
But this isn’t a show just for women is it?
“Oh heck no. It’s not a girls’ night out. I always wanted to do it as an educational show, a show for young people, especially for schools – but it’s meant to touch everybody. It’s about what it feels like to not be enough and what you can do about it.”
“I think putting us in boxes – saying you have to be a disabled woman, or any kind of woman – means you miss out on what is actually happening. If you give people a label, you instantly think ‘that only happens to disabled people’ or ‘that only happens to trans people’ or whatever, and that means you miss the deeper truth. It makes me really happy to be playing a part in opening people’s eyes to a truth, that isn’t anything to do with the label you’re given. A truth about being human that touches us all.”
How do you approach the process of Redefining Juliet?
“It starts like a massive therapy session. We have a series of questions, or things we chat about. Things like ‘what’s the worst sex you’ve ever had?’, ‘what’s the worst thing a guy have ever said to you?’ or ‘what does it feel like when you get cat called [various things]?’ That descends into a great big bitching session with tea and biscuits, supporting each other to whinge about the things that each cast member wants to say.”
“Each time, everyone cries, laughs and gets stuff out. As actors, you are usually asked to be someone else for a show, but in this show we ask you to be someone else half the time, and the most vulnerable version of yourself you could ever be for the rest – so you can say what you want to say, and that’s really hard.”
“The point of the show, for those appearing in it, is it’s your moment to say what you want to say to the world. It’s a really big thing to be as open as the show demands, and you have to get the point of it before you are in the show. This production has a new director, Alice Knight, with me being the creative director. Every time we do the show it’s a different group of people, telling different stories, in a different way.”
How do you support actors to achieve that?
“You make a really good environment. You let them know that the point of it all is to help them, and the audience… and you give them lots of tea. What’s key is that everyone discovers that every experience that each person thought was individual to them, is actually shared by us all.”
“When I first made Redefining Juliet it was because the actress Storme Toolis really, really, really wanted to play Shakespeare’s Juliet. But the point of the show isn’t about me, it’s about the 15-year-old girl in the wheelchair, or the girl who is a little bit fat, or small or has things said about her. It’s about them seeing themselves on the stage and thinking maybe everything is going to be OK.”
If you think you deserve a treat, a therapy session, a bit of a cry and a good laugh, Redefining Juliet will be on at the Barbican’s Pit Theatre in November as part of their The Art Of Change Season.