After spending most of the summer on a different kind of “stage”- as a waitress and bar person at the Wight Mouse Inn – aspiring Isle of Wight actress Mary Harding is about to head back to New York for the second year of her training with the illustrious American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Jackie McCarrick caught up with the 20 year-old former Ryde School pupil, before she flew back to her showbiz-centred life in Manhattan.
Until she was 16, Mary Harding was pretty certain that she wanted to work with animals. The horse-mad teenager, who successfully competed for the South of England in dressage riding events and spent most of her spare time around the stables, had no interest in academic subjects, and thought she might become a vet.
At least, that was until the dramatic turning point that occurred when she got to play the part of Mary Sunshine in a Ryde School summer production of Chicago.
“I’d appeared in school plays before” she says, “but something about that one was different: I got to sing and dance as well as act, and I loved the experience so much that it was as if I’d got the first taste of a drug. From then on, I never really wanted not to be on the stage!”
In fact, so determined was she to realise her dream of a life on stage that at the age of just 18, and when many of her contemporaries were heading off for conventional University courses, a detemined Mary took the radical step of moving to London “to get closer to the acting world”.
She admits it gave her parents “a bit of a heart attack” when she announced her plan. “I think they were worried I was going to end up jobless and homeless all my life!” she jokes.
Once in London, where she lived with friends of her family, Mary survived on income from waitressing work, whilst constantly doing auditions for drama schools and going to the theatre as much as her budget would allow.
The experience certainly tested her resolve, and she admits that at times, she found life in the Capital tough and demanding, compared to the more laid-back beach and countryside-based lifestyle she’d grown up with on the Island.
In particular, before heading off to London, she had had to make the agonising decision to sell her horse, Boy.
Mad about the Boy
“He was my absolute love” she says. “We grew up together and my life had been dedicated to horse riding – but I knew that I wanted to go to London and that I wouldn’t be able to give him the future he deserved, so reluctantly I decided to sell him.
“It was a horrible choice and was a big shock for my family and friends, but I found him a great new owner on the Island so he can still go on the beach and hack out”.
Of course once in London, she also missed her family and friends – but sheer pluck and determination drove Mary to attend a constant round of auditions, and she also joined a community theatre group based in a railway arch at Waterloo Station.
Ultimately, that gave her her first professional stage role in 5/11, a play about the infamous ‘gunpowder plot’ of Guy Fawkes.
And the opening night of that play was to prove fateful in more ways than one – for it was also the date that she discovered she was being invited for a two-year scholarship in America, on the strength of an earlier audition she’d done at the Prince of Wales Theatre.
“I had a bit of a meltdown when I got the email inviting me to the New York campus” she admits.
“It was partly a relief because I finally felt that the dark patch I’d gone through after leaving home, working as a waitress and living in a place I didn’t much like, had actually been worth it all.
“But I was also a bit over-awed at the idea of going to America on my own, so when I rang my mum and dad and my brother, I was in tears.”
Not surprisingly, her family – mum and dad Cathy and Brian, and older brother Graham – were hugely proud of her, although it was naturally a big wrench for them all when she left to begin her American adventure this time last year.
Living in shared student accommodation next door to the Academy, and just a few blocks away from the Empire State Building, is about as far removed as you could get from Mary’s peaceful cliffside family home at Chale, but it’s one she has quickly learned to adapt to.
“It was pretty terrifying at first and living with 11 other girls certainly has its stresses, but now it feels really good to be building a life for myself out there.
“It’s an international school but there are quite a few Brits over there and my best friend is Welsh.”
Work-wise, she describes her first year as having been “crazy, both emotionally and physically”.
She explains that rather than rushing straight into performing, the first year involves learning to open up emotionally, to inhabit a range of characters – and to take criticism.
“There have been lots of ups and downs and lots of tears, but it’s all building a good foundation for our work next year, when we’ll start doing more little scenes and working with partners.”
Towards April next year, the students will be working on a Shakespeare play and a contemporary American drama, to which agents and family members are invited.
Mary also hopes to audition for a third year of study at the Academy. To get through, she would need to be selected as one of just 20 students from 130 to be taken forward and work exclusively on staging productions for a year. As she puts it, that would undoubtedly be an invaluable ‘shove’ into a highly competitive industry.
For one so young, she’s remarkably grounded and philosophical about the future – not at all the starry-eyed ingenue: “It’s notoriously hard to plan a career in acting” she says, “but I’d like to spend an extra year in the States and find my feet in the industry in the US. I might look at going to LA for a bit – we’ll have to see”.
Ultimately though, Mary’s aim is to end up back in London – and top of her acting wish-list is to appear in a BBC period drama and do some Shakespeare with a touring company.
She’s especially fond of strong female roles, and loves the move towards what she calls ‘gender fluidity’ in Shakespeare productions – as in casting women in traditional male roles.
One of her bigger ambitions is to play Hamlet or even King Lear: “I saw a great production of The Tempest in New York with an all-female cast, and that really inspired me” she says.
Hardly surprisingly, her strong female idols of stage anfd screen include the legendary Dame Judi Dench, Ruth Wilson who played Jane Eyre in the 2006 BBC production, and Carey Mulligan whose film debut in 2005 was as Kitty Bennett in Pride and Prejudice.
Mary explains that the appeal of acting is “using my experiences to bring another character to life”.
“I love that experience – it just makes everything else melt away” she says.
And she credits her supportive teachers at Ryde School for giving her the confidence to go for her dream.
“Their support and belief in me were what made me realise that you don’t have to go for the kind of jobs society says you have to go for. It’s not all about income or status – and as I’d never been the academic kind, I was never going to follow that kind of path.”
Being back on the Island this summer has been bitter-sweet for Mary: “It’s lovely to come home and be in the fresh air again, walk on the beach and cook in my mum’s lovely big kitchen with everything you can think of right there in the cupboard, unlike our shared student one… but after being in New York, it’s difficult now to be back in a place where there isn’t a lot to do”.
Not that she’s been idly sitting around. The bar and restaurant shifts at the Wight Mouse have given her an alternative ‘stage’ on which to perform – as she points out, there’s a huge link between hospitality and acting.
“It’s great for observing characters, and noticing people’s little mannerisms, too” she says.
“To be a good actor, you really have to be surrounded by people”.
And that’s what will drive her back this month to Manhattan, and the world-famous Academy that has propelled the careers of such luminaries as Grace Kelly, Robert Redford, Danny de Vito and Anne Hathaway.
There, her outdoor space won’t have a familiar view of The Needles – but when she needs a break from people and the frantic pace of life, she says she can make the most of a favourite park off Madison Square and head off to a quiet corner there with a book.
“It does get a bit intense sometimes” she says, “but when it all gets a bit much, I can just go and sit in the park and imagine I’m sitting looking at the cliffs from home on the Island.
“I was 10 years old when my family moved to the Isle of Wight from Southampton, but to me it will always be home, because it was where I became who I am”.