Monday 30, January 2012
From death's door to stage door
In one of Salford Quays' many faceless apartment blocks, John Tomlinson is hard at work. With a full eight hour shift at a call centre already behind him he now sits in front of his laptop undertaking the admin for his other job - the one he loves... theatre.
The 24-year-old’s tale is not one of just another struggling performer though. The redhead is grateful for every hour in the day.
Suffering with Crohn’s disease, John is often in pain but that is now just a minor symptom compared to when he was a two-year-old fighting for life in hospital and when he asked a nurse to help him die at the age of just 18.
These days John is full of life and enthusiasm about upcoming performances for Strawberry Blonde Curls - a theatre company he runs with two other performers Eddie Fortune and Rosie MacPherson.
John said: “We’re very excited to find out how it goes down, we’re confident with what we’ve got as a piece and really looking forward to that moment on stage when you step on for the first seconds and your heart is beating faster than it ever probably should!”
His love of the stage stems from the confidence it gave him as a teenager struggling with a disease which forced him have a colostomy bag after having his colon removed.
John remembers a difficult time embarrassed at waking up in his girlfriend’s bed in excretion because his bag had leaked.
He is one of the UK’s one in every thousand who suffer with Crohn’s disease, which causes inflammation of the digestive system and the secondary conditions that come with it have the potential to be lethal.
John’s life almost ended at just 18-years-old at Leeds General Infirmary after he had an operation which was to reverse the removal of his colon and free him of the bag but he became very ill as a result.
He recalled the horrific time: “I had lost a lot of blood, I remember thinking I’m actually going to die. I went weeks and weeks without getting any better and then I think that was the most scary moment of my life.
“Its surreal now thinking about it, one evening I had lost so much blood that I felt like it was coming to an end. I remember saying to a nurse ‘just do it, just leave it here, I can’t go on like this, I’m not getting any better I want you to end it here if you can.’ She just said I had to be strong.
“I was so thin and my hair was falling out, I had blurred vision, hallucinations and crazy dreams but I think hope keeps you going. I cant remember anything specific at the time, just little things like who I wanted to see and make sure I saw my parents so I could say sorry for putting them through all this.” Said John, eyes full of tears.
It’s a different world to the drama in John’s life today which at the moment is thankfully all on the stage. His company played performances at Salford Lad’s Club in Autumn last year and they are set to perform outside of Manchester for the first time when they take it to Liverpool in July, John has some reservations about leaving his “comfort zone.”
Picturing the scene John added: “I will not know any people there for three full nights, performing to about 6-700 people over those evenings. So it’s a big test to perform to people who have probably never seen or heard of you before to actually engage them with something you have created would be a huge buzz if we get it right.”
The Salford University graduate is also ‘buzzing’ about his role as an unpaid producer at Contact Theatre’s programming and producing team. His role here is to help develop new 16-25 year old artists, a bracket John is still in.
Despite the Yorkshireman’s bright view on his situation, he is still acutely aware of how difficult life is on the “periphery” of the Theatre industry.
He said: “My life would be easier if I didn’t want to do what I do, if I was just happy with the pay cheque just rolling in at the end of the month and going on holidays, yeah life would be easier if I was someone else.
“Life could be easier if there was more money and if opportunities were given to the right people, I sometimes think that actually talent only takes you so far unfortunately.
“I think one of my main frustrations with theatre is that there is a lot of people on the peripheral, almost successful if you will, but that last step into there is the most difficult and there is a lot of people who have great CVs but they have got there because of who they know, solid talent can only get you so far.”
John is one of those performers “on the periphery,” a comparison can be made to his beloved football, he would be a semi-pro playing in non league hoping for a cup run to showcase his talent.
Playing football could have been exactly what John ended up doing before he found his love of theatre at the start of secondary school.
He remembers: “Everything I did, everything I loved, everything I talked and researched and drew was about football, there was nothing else really until I went to secondary school and realised there is a lot more to learn in life.”
The Spurs fanatic can recall the exact moment when he found his passion for the arts, in a drama class at Vermuyden High School in Goole where he created a character “from nowhere.”
Beaming with pride and nostalgia John said: “I remember the feeling of being scared because I was at a new school and didn’t know anyone but that character people loved and so then people wanted to work with me and suddenly people knew my name.
“I did something different and maybe I was hiding because I was a chubby ginger kid with health problems but drama gave me a lot of confidence at school.” He added.
If his kitchen was his desk at school it would have been told off, the pots and pans scattered around suggest how much John has relied on the support of his parents.
He said: “I miss them and sometimes I do feel guilty for getting a little too caught up in my own world.
More than anything I just want to make them proud of what I am doing so being away from them actually can kind of make that bond with your family even stronger.
“When I do go home I do appreciate what they do and have done for me in the past a lot more because your looking at it from a different kind of perspective I think. If your still living in that close knit environment you would sometimes take things for granted which I think I did do as a 15-16 year old.”
To live away from home John has to support himself and the financial side of that comes from his job at the Royal Bank of Scotland. Here he makes calls to their customers and gets bonuses for selling them extra products.
A frustrated John said: “Everything I do, I take on as a challenge even the monotony of day to day work in a job that you don’t particularly enjoy and you don’t feel fulfilled at but actually there is a challenge in that for yourself.”
As ever though John is optimistic about the role, he adds: “I do actually enjoy speaking to so many people everyday because you speak to a complete range of people and it is quite good to constantly have that because sometimes in life you could go through the whole day without speaking to anyone.
“I think there is something nice about communication and that link between people plus the money is good for the amount of physical work I do.” He added.
Despite John’s upbeat view on life he is also clearly passionate about the problems he sees in the industry, he said: “Acting and theatre performance is a very selfish industry which is something I’ve always struggled with because I’ve been brought up under the impression that if you do help people, if you do the right things and be nice to people then actually you get as far as you want to go.”
John only wants one thing and that is to do what he loves everyday, he said: “What makes me happy all of the time is making theatre, acting or performing but at the moment it’s not there, it’s just a work in progress but I won’t give up on it because I do feel that one day it will happen.”
John’s tale is a remarkable one of courage and strength in the face of adversity, his current struggle to forge a career in the arts pales into insignificance when compared to his past, something that may give him the thick skin he will need in this industry.
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