Life

Shirley Valentine

A hopeless teenage crush, an older actress, and one extremely uninformed college decision.

A woman staring out at auditorium seats and a big stage light, all seen within the silhouette of a young boy.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Greg Kantra/Unsplash, Angel Origgi/Unsplash and Valeriy_G/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The first day I saw Shirley Valentine, she was reclining on a sun-dappled Mediterranean beach in Milwaukee.

It was October 1991. I was a senior in high school, and my mom’s boyfriend, who was on the board of a small local theater company, had gotten me a job as a nonunion stagehand for a production of the play Shirley Valentine. It was the first afternoon of tech week, and Johanna Morrison, the actress playing Shirley, was running through Act 2.

Listen to Dan Kois read “Shirley Valentine,” with a special guest.

The only people in the space were the actress onstage, the director and an assistant in the seats, a small crew in the booth, and me, entering from the bustling lobby to the dark, hushed theater. Shirley Valentine is a one-woman show by Willy Russell, first performed in 1986, about a Liverpool housewife who frees herself from the shackles of boring matrimony for a holiday of sun, sand, and sex in Greece. Johanna, as Shirley, spoke to the empty seats:

He kissed me stretch marks, y’know. He did. He said … he said they were lovely … because they were a part of me … an’ I was lovely. He said … he said, stretch marks weren’t to be hidden away—they were to be displayed … to be proud of. He said my stretch marks showed that I was alive, that I’d survived … that they were marks of life. (Pause.) Aren’t men full of shit?

In the middle of her monologue, the director, sitting up near the booth, called out, “Hold, please, Johanna, we need to work on this cue.” She stopped talking—stopped acting, you could see it happen—walked over to introduce herself, and asked if we were going to be working together.

“I’m Dan,” I said. “Hi. Yes, we will. I’m gonna be a stagehand on the show.”

“Shirley, can we have you back onstage please?” Well, that was it.

I realize now that my mom’s boyfriend was probably trying to demonstrate for me the drudgery of an actual day-to-day commitment—that theater was not glamorous and starry but hard work—but any lesson he might have hoped I’d learn vanished the instant they restarted the rehearsal, when Johanna, in her frumpy one-piece bathing suit, hungry for an audience in the middle of a dull tech-through, shifted her gaze to me. I still remember, nearly 30 years later, the force of that actorly attention, like the moment when the lamp in the Pixar logo turns and looks right at you.

During tech week, rehearsals started at 3, so I got to leave pre-calc early every day. I would fidget in my desk for 10 minutes before collecting my things, and Mr. Young would say, “Oh, I guess Kois has to leave for his play”—giving the words a certain bite that he believed to be belittling but that I found richly rewarding. Of course a buffoon like that wouldn’t understand what was valuable about an experience like this. Mr. Young clearly thought I was an entitled little shit, which I was. Even in subjects I liked, I rarely worked hard, instead thinking about my girlfriend or things I was writing or the bands with which I was obsessed. So in pre-calc I basically did nothing.

I gravitated to teachers who exhibited the willingness, necessary in a successful high school teacher, to look past a teen’s demeanor to see what potential he might have if steered in the right direction. I realize now Mr. Young must have had that with other kids, but he did not have that with me. He met my disdain with antagonism, a response that even then I couldn’t say I didn’t deserve. Indeed, I reveled in the dislike of a math teacher and baseball coach with a blond moustache and short-sleeved button-down shirts. I thought, This is the exact kind of person who should hate me.

I was hyper and hectic. I had a girlfriend and a group of buddies but I was lonely all the time. I was young for my grade and didn’t drink and never went to a single party. I had inarticulate ideas about the world, but that didn’t stop me from loudly articulating them all the time. I was insufferable. I understand now that I was searching for some clue as to the kind of person I might be when I was finally a person. And I dreamed that someone would reach out a hand and touch me and say, “This is who you are.”

I would never have articulated it this way, but I hoped working on this play would help me make sense to myself. I hoped Shirley Valentine would help me figure it all out. And she did.

Each day during tech week, the other stagehand and I perfected the ritual of our pre-show prop placement, the choreography of our midshow scene changes. I liked the work—efficiently and silently moving around the stage in a black T-shirt and black jeans, setting and clearing furniture like ninjas. But much more than that I simply liked being in the theater: hearing the stage manager telling jokes over the intercom system, watching how the addition of a single Fresnel to a light wash changed the way the stage looked, listening to Johanna and the director talk about a certain line, speaking a kind of shorthand to each other. I liked that the drudgery and panic of tech had us all a little bit on edge, our most alive selves. I liked that we were solving problems in the service of making art. And I liked that everyone treated me as a partner in making that art—a junior partner, yes, but a partner. Especially Johanna, who was exceptionally kind.

While the designers and the director fixed endless technical snafus—the show had been mounted first in an outdoor theater in upstate Door County, and transferring it to Milwaukee required some last-minute redesign—I sat in the greenroom upstairs and talked with Johanna Morrison. With Shirley Valentine. Really, they were the same person as far as I was concerned. In the years afterward, as I told and retold this story to friends, I could not remember, for example, whether Johanna Morrison the actress was from England. When she spoke to me, was it in Shirley’s working-class Liverpudlian accent? A plummy Royal Academy of Dramatic Art voice? Or in a flat American tone?

One afternoon in that upstairs lounge, Johanna asked me where I was planning to go to college, and I said I hadn’t decided yet. I wanted to study theater; I was applying to several different schools, but I hadn’t fallen in love yet. Johanna was an acting professor, it turned out, in North Carolina—“Nawth Carolina,” she said, doing the accent perfectly—and she told me I’d love it there.

“Oh, it’s grand—you can act and direct shows from your first year,” she said. Or maybe, “It’s great—they’ll let you act and direct as a freshman.” I don’t know! I know I told her excitedly how much I always wanted to do that, how directing plays that I wrote was my real dream. What I remember clearly is not her exact words but the way she treated me, as someone worth giving advice to—someone with a future worth talking about.

I was invited to the opening night party but didn’t think to bring a change of clothes, so I remember sitting on the stairs in the audience bank in my stagehand blacks. I watched Johanna and her husband, glamorous, surrounded by well-wishers, holding forth like theatrical royalty. Her husband was also a theater teacher, she’d told me. And a director. In my memory he wore an ascot, but I think it’s very unlikely that was actually the case.

Looking at them, I realized that that was what I wanted. Not necessarily her—I mean, I had a big crush on her, but even in the full bloom of 16-year-old lust I knew that was patently absurd. She was old. (Which is to say, younger than I am now.) No, I wanted to go someplace far away and do amazing things so that when I came back to Milwaukee, it would be as the person at the center of the circle, drinking wine, not the kid on the edges drinking a Coke. I wanted a big life.

Shirley Valentine is a two-act play. Act 1 is set in Shirley’s kitchen in Liverpool. In the first scene she makes chips and egg for her husband’s dinner. She really cooked in our production—we had a little gas burner embedded in the fake range. Every night she actually fried a couple of eggs while she talked and told the audience—well, “Wall,” the kitchen wall, the only person she talks to now that her children are gone—about how her friend bought tickets for Greece and she wants to go but doesn’t have the guts to ask her husband, Joe. In the second scene it’s the day of her flight, her bags are packed, but she’s agonizing to Wall over whether to leave. Act 2 is set on the beach in Greece, where a tan and happy Shirley (talking to her new friend, “Rock”) reveals all that’s happened to her since she landed.

Joe isn’t a bad guy, exactly, as Shirley describes him—just absent and inconsiderate and extremely set in his ways. He’s stopped loving Shirley. Stopped seeing her, really. I would sit in that lounge upstairs during every show, halfheartedly doing my homework or trying to read a book, but really I would be listening to Shirley Valentine. I grew to love the show. It was a storehouse of wisdom about how to treat a woman, for one thing. Shirley is very funny on the way that guys never really listen to women, and how they drive conversations where they want them to go:

’Cos y’know most men, really, they’re no good at talkin’ with women. They don’t know how to listen or they feel that they have to take over the conversation. Like … most fellers, if you said somethin’ like … like, “My favorite season is autumn.” Well most fellers’d go, “Is it? My favorite season’s spring. See what I like about spring is that in spring … ” Then y’get 10 minutes of what he likes about spring. An’ you weren’t talkin’ about spring—you were talkin’ about autumn.

I had a lot of time to listen. It was really a very easy stagehand gig, much simpler than other jobs I’d have later in other theaters. We had to set the eggs in the onstage fridge and arrange the other cooking stuff before the show. At intermission we had to help switch out the kitchen set for the Greek beach set. We only had one change to make under time pressure—between scenes in Act 1, we had to clean up the kitchen in the dark, collecting the fried eggs, the pans, and the fake Styrofoam chips, while backstage a dresser quickly changed Shirley into her traveling clothes. We had two minutes and 37 seconds to accomplish this change, the running time of the song that played during the blackout, “When I’m Sixty-Four.” By the third week of performances we had this down, me and the other stagehand, the union guy. I remember us slapping five backstage, done with the change while the song was in the bridge, and we’d look at each other backstage and sing, in unison with McCartney, “Vera, Chuck, and Dave.”

I can’t remember that stagehand’s name. I’ll call him Chuck.

It was nearing showtime sometime that third week of the run, and we had this down to a science, me and Chuck. We did our presets and we told Johanna “Break a leg” and we headed up to the greenroom and I pulled my homework out of my backpack and we heard the audience quiet as the lights went down and through the intercom speakers we heard Shirley say her first lines of the show:

Y’know I like a glass of wine when I’m doin’ the cookin’. Don’t I, Wall? Don’t I like a glass of wine when I’m preparing the evenin’ meal. Chips an’ egg!

And I said, “Oh my god, I forgot to set the eggs.”

I completely panicked. I lost it. I dropped my homework and ran to the greenroom fridge where we kept all the eggs in between shows, and there they were, just sitting there, the four eggs that in just about 15 minutes Shirley was supposed to start cooking onstage, but she couldn’t because I SCREWED IT UP. That was the whole business of Act 1, Scene 1! She was supposed to make fake chips and real eggs but she couldn’t make pretend eggs because what was she supposed to do? MIME THE EGGS? Oh god, oh god, oh god.

And Chuck, who was an adult, calmly ripped a page out of my AP English notebook, found a magic marker, and wrote in big letters:

EGGS
IN
PANTRY

And he said, basically: Dan. Stop it. Stop freaking. Take the eggs and wait backstage, behind the door to the pantry. Stay where the audience won’t see you when she opens the door. And he walked out of the lounge with the sign.

I took the eggs. I carried them carefully down the stairs into the wings. I sort of stumbled for a second and imagined the eggs flying through the air, but I kept it together. I peeked through a curtain hole and saw Chuck, sitting halfway down the aisle in the audience bank, holding the sign down by his feet where audience members couldn’t see it but Johanna, hopefully, could.

And so I crouched in the dark behind the pantry door. I held the eggs and I waited, sweating and terrified, wondering if I ruined the show. Wondering how I’d explain to my mom and my mom’s boyfriend and Mr. Young if I got fired from a job as a nonunion stagehand halfway through the run. Wondering what Johanna was gonna think of me, the dumb kid who screwed up the one job he had.

Would she see the sign? Would she get what Chuck meant by the sign? Would she be able to—but then the door opened and she came through it, in the middle of a line, and I gawped and held out the eggs and she took them and she looked right at me, still talking, and she winked and closed the door.

Winked. As if we were in cahoots or something. As if this were just another lark, a funny story to tell at another opening night party while sipping a glass of wine.

The next morning I went to the guidance office in my high school and used the phone to call the admissions office of the University of North Carolina and asked them to send me an application, please. The lady in the admissions office had the kind of Southern accent you hear in movies. She sounded like an actress.

I got in. I applied to Carolina late but I was a good tester and I got in. It was 1991, not 2020, when a kid with my academic record would need his parents to donate, like, a business school. I think I wrote some dumb essay about how being a stagehand on Shirley Valentine changed my life.

By the time UNC accepted me, I had already done all my college visits, but I somehow talked my dad into driving with me to Chapel Hill during spring break. On the way down, we stopped overnight in—I still remember this—Beaverlick, Kentucky, just off I-75, right down the road from Big Bone Lick State Park. We laughed for like a week about that. When I got to Chapel Hill, I took a tour and saw the outside of the theater building. Students were gone for break and everything was locked up tight. But up by the student union was a billboard for the drama department’s big show for the spring: Crimes of the Heart. I knew that play! The campus was about the most beautiful place I’d ever seen—bear in mind I was comparing it with Syracuse in January.

My parents and friends couldn’t believe I was heading south, farther south than anyone in my family had ever been, farther south than anyone in my high school was going. My girlfriend went to Madison, like maybe 40 percent of my graduating class. She in particular couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to Madison with her.

But that August I said goodbye to her and to my friends and to Wisconsin and drove down to North Carolina again with my parents. We all laughed at Big Bone Lick together. Could that possibly be right? They’d only been divorced three years at that point, and they weren’t on the greatest terms, but they were both at parents’ orientation with me so I guess that is what happened. Memories of that time consist of vivid and sharp moments, with long, detail-free feelings in between them. The moments are things like my parents riding the elevator up to my dorm room with me, or meeting the woman I would eventually marry on a volleyball court the first day of classes, or my mortifying-in-retrospect interview to become a DJ at the super eclectic college radio station even though I only listened to R.E.M. Those were the moments. But the feeling was this sense that the world had indeed opened up. That I was someplace big, far bigger than me, a place that could swallow me whole unless I worked hard to make myself seen. The feeling that something was beginning.

I was going to play it cool with Johanna Morrison. I was both a little embarrassed at my previous crush on her and also deep, deep down thinking Well obviously this was fate, although of course I was very devoted to my high school girlfriend and we were going to make it work. Anyway I didn’t want her to think I was a stalker. I wasn’t! I applied out of semi-infatuation but I was here for myself, not for her.

But … what would she do when she saw me? Of course probably she wouldn’t even recognize me. I was a tiny blip, the second-best stagehand (of two!) on a show she’d done half a year ago, just one show in a whirlwind of acting and teaching and parties and marriage.

But wasn’t it possible that I had meant something to her? That she remembered this kid she’d told about North Carolina all those months ago, and that the fun and excitement of those weeks in Milwaukee would come back to her when she saw me in the halls of the theater department building? “Dan!” she would say, maybe with Shirley’s British accent? “Dan, love, you’re ’ere!” She’d take me under her wing, perhaps. Introduce me around. Tell the story of the eggs. I’d refer to my coolheadedness under pressure, without being braggy, of course. The other faculty would nod, impressed, and give me parts in their shows.

I didn’t understand that there was, in fact, no Johanna Morrison until the first day of classes, when I mentioned her to my Drama 10 professor and he said, “Who?” He didn’t know her. Had never heard of her. “I don’t know, maybe she teaches somewhere else,” he said, “but she doesn’t teach here.” Was she in the communications studies department, or English, or something? I went to the library and found the faculty directory and looked her up. No Johanna Morrison in any department.

Who was she? Where had she gone? Whose life was she living?

I confess that in that pre-internet era, I had not done much due diligence looking into UNC’s theater program before I arrived. The school had a brochure about its various arts programs that didn’t list individual faculty; I’d applied late and rushed my decision and never actually talked to anyone from the drama department. It was a series of idiotic mistakes that I’d like to imagine no one, in 2020, would ever make; a bit of simple Googling would answer the question “Is this amazing actress actually a professor at the school she’s talked me into applying to?” pretty quick.

I checked out a copy of Shirley Valentine from the university library and reread it. I heard every line in her voice, and I thought of her, sitting in the bright lights in her bathing suit, considering her life up to that moment:

What I kept thinkin’ about was how I’d lived such a little life. An’ one way or another even that would be over pretty soon. I thought to meself, my life has been a crime, really—a crime against God, because … I didn’t live it fully. I’d allowed myself to live this little life when inside me there was so much.

Her name isn’t Shirley Valentine, for most of the play. It’s Shirley Bradshaw. Shirley Valentine is her maiden name, who she used to be, but then by the end of the play it’s who she is again. She embraces more. She stays in Greece and gets a job as a waitress. She lives. And I didn’t know where my Shirley Valentine had gone, but I liked to imagine her on that beach, talking to Rock, living the big life she’d taught me was a possibility. The big life I was setting out to live.

I did finally find Johanna Morrison. Twenty-five years later, we met in Hartford, Connecticut, where she still taught theater and acted. When she arrived at a café in town for lunch, she wore a brilliant white pantsuit. “I’m a monochrome person,” she said, in her British accent.

Her face was the same as I remembered, a vivacious actor’s face that worked hard in conversations, responding to nearly every word I said with a raised eyebrow or a wry smile or a twinkle. She had a lifetime of theater piled up in her memories and so her well-worn stories were a cascade of names—names she remembered (directors, characters, fellow performers) and names that were just on the tip of her tongue, just wait a moment, it’ll come to me.

I’d emailed her that as a teenager I had worked on that Milwaukee production of Shirley Valentine and asked to talk with her about the experience. Before our spinach salads arrived, she said, apologetically, “Will you please forgive me for saying that I don’t remember you?” I told her no, of course, there’s no reason she would. As I recounted the disaster of the eggs, she laughed: “Oh, I do think I remember that!” I worried that I’d traumatized her but she said that after the torture of doing the show in Door County, where raccoons nesting in the lighting grid peed upon the stage, nothing we could have done in Milwaukee could have fazed her in the least.

When I told her the story of my college decision, she smiled. And I saw the actor inside her switch on as she gave me a tiny gift. “I’m beginning to remember you a bit more,” she said. “You were very kind and well-mannered. I do remember that. I truly do. And you did have stars in your eyes.” She sipped her tea fondly.

It was a wonderful lunch, during which I learned just how much I’d never known about her and that show. How the nature of memory was such that I didn’t even truly know, anymore, what I remembered wrong, what I’d subconsciously changed all the times I’d retold this story, what I’d never even known in the first place. But I already knew the answer to the most important question, of how it was I ended up at UNC and she wasn’t there at all.

My sophomore year in college, the World Wide Web finally came to Carolina. And at some point, in the computer lab in the basement of the undergraduate library, it came to me that I should search for Johanna Morrison. The internet was still in its infancy, but her name had to come up for some theater company somewhere, right?

So I went to Altavista dot com and typed in her name plus “north carolina” and there she was. A headshot for a show at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival. I clicked on the page, read her bio, and sat back in my chair.

Johanna Morrison teaches acting at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where her husband, Malcolm Morrison, directs the theatre program.

It turned out that, for all those years, Shirley Valentine hadn’t been in Greece. She’d been 75 miles away, in Winston-Salem.

My daughter is applying to colleges soon, and I’ll tell her this story, of course. Because it all worked out fine. I loved school and found friends and a wife and, eventually, the big life I dreamed of. Even though I made my college decision for the absolute stupidest possible reason you can imagine.

But when I think of this story, I don’t think of that lesson. I still think of her. Here’s to you, Shirley Valentine. Thank you for your patience and your kindness. Thank you for that wink, which sent my life spinning in a direction I never could have anticipated. I’m sorry I blew it. I guess I wasn’t listening as carefully as I thought I was, sitting in that greenroom in 1991 with stars in my eyes. You weren’t talking about spring at all. You were talking about autumn.