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MY PLUNGE TO FAME (article first published : 2001-01-17)

One of the most heart-warming and inspirational books on the market at present is My Plunge to Fame by Gaynor Young. In the 1970’s, I often performed with the University of Natal Durban’s Speech and Drama Department when they needed “mature” actresses for productions. Thus I watched this vibrant, talented and hoydenish student grow in stature as her dramatic skills expanded in such shows as Fiddler on the Roof, Andorra and Anne of Green Gables, the latter a part that could have been written for her.

Gaynor’s autobiographical My Plunge to Fame features a story which touched the hearts of thousands of people both in South Africa and abroad. On December 9, 1989, at the age of 28 and on the brink of what promised to be a highly successful career, she had a disastrous and perilously near-fatal accident.

She was working on PACT’s (the now defunct Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal) production of Camelot as a member of the chorus and as understudy to Guinevere (the lead female role played by Kate Normington). With about four hours warning and the minimum of last-minute rehearsal, she had to take over the part of Guinevere at a matinče performance when Kate Normington fell ill. In the first part of the show disaster struck. As described by editor Shirley Johnston in the book’s foreword: during a major scene and costume change Gaynor “exited for a quick change during a blackout, misjudged the position of a moving truck, stepped into a void and plummeted 18 metres down an unguarded lift shaft.”

The once-crushed body has since regained its grace and energy although she still has a spastic right hand and a slight limp. Other major problems to contend with are massive memory loss, 40% eyesight and 2% hearing, the latter proving to be the most difficult adjustment to make. Her acute loss of memory has meant that she has had to rebuild her life through the help of friends, newspaper articles and journals.

My Plunge to Fame deals with Gaynor’s earlier life and the events leading up to the fall that changed her destiny. She describes in her inimitable humorous and self-deprecating style, the long battle to achieve mobility and independence. Writing with honesty of her private feelings, doubts and fears she touches on her loneliness and frustrations as well as her desperate desire to get back on the stage. A poignant section covers her need for a love relationship which takes her on an unaccompanied journey overseas to visit two men with whom she hopes her future may lie.

A prominent figure in the book is the late Jilian Hurst, well-known choreographer from Durban and wife of Professor Pieter Scholtz, former head of the University of Natal Durban’s speech and drama for many years. Gaynor’s tribute to Jilian, whose health was deteriorating while Gaynor’s was improving, is touching and sensitive.

Among Gaynor’s dedications is one to per parents: “To Mum and Dad who raised their daughter twice.” My Plunge to Fame is as much Carrie Young’s book as it is her daughter’s. When she received the prognosis from the doctors that Gaynor would never walk or talk again, Carrie promptly responded “Not my Gaynor!” and set out to prove them wrong. It was to be a difficult and tiring – not to mention devastatingly expensive - task for this strong-minded former nursing sister and her husband Chris. When Gaynor came out of hospital she had partial paralysis, had to wear nappies and couldn’t smile, frown, feed herself or close her eyes.

Gaynor by her own admission is wilful and impetuous and must have caused her parents untold frustration and concern. She talks with love and affection of her sisters and her brother, whose support was ever-present.

Editor Shirley Johnston, who is better-known as an actress, has left Gaynor to tell her story in her own words. Readers will find themselves getting to know her personally as she writes the same way she talks, with much vigour and enthusiasm. These characteristics have stood her well in her new role as a professional inspirational speaker. She has addressed audiences of all ages from primary and high schools to corporate businesses and professional clubs and the response has been both successful and rewarding.

The front cover of the book features a tribute from Athol Fugard. His sentiments must surely echo those of anyone who has read My Plunge to Fame: “I personally could not put this book down … and at the end was both deeply moved by it and grateful for her courage.”

My Plunge to Fame is published by The Spearhead Press and is available at R89,95 at Exclusive Books as well as at branches of Adams Bookshops.




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