While modernity has brought forth from Britain the stuff of vibrant daydreams—punk rock, Vivienne Westwood, Doctor Who and JK Rowling—postwar Britain was more concerned with extreme stoicism. After the Blitz and covert intelligence missions out the wazoo and tightened belts and tugged-on boot straps, it was all about making nice. Be quiet and do your duty. "Don't embarrass your father and I, darling." Chin up, then. Ta. (Can't you just hear Claire Foy's choked-voice Queen Lillibet in your head?)
This was the world in which actress Lisanne Cole's mother tried to raise her. As an adolescent, Cole was sent to a strict boarding school for proper young British ladies. "For me, it was ghastly," Cole says. "It was very regimented—bow for this, bow for that. We had to wear uniforms, we slept on horsehair mattresses and had to strip them every morning, and we had to kneel in prayer before breakfast." She supposes her uptight parents were trying to make her a good housewife, "but it was rather unsuccessful."
It didn't take long for her to decide she had no patience for domesticity; she always felt that there was "more to life than tea and crumpets," as she says often. As a young adult, a friend told Cole one day that she was going to drive her Mini Cooper to Andorra. "I didn't even know where Andorra was," Cole recalls, "but I said, 'Oh my god, can I come?'"
The time she spent in tiny Pyrenean country was her ticket to a larger life. Now hooked on adventure, Cole solo-backpacked the world, went into "the thee-ahtaah" (as her mother said—and you can hear the curl of Cole's upper lip in her impression of disdain), took a job as a DJ on a cruise ship, and eventually settled in Taos, New Mexico, where she built a straw bale house in 2000 and lived off the grid. It was worlds away from her buttoned-up upbringing … and she loved it.
Cole, now based in Santa Fe, began writing and working with her director and editor Karen Machon, and crafted her life story into a one-woman show. Due to music, impressions of larger-than-life British characters and life events that can only be told enthusiastically out loud, Cole knows her story is better suited to a live and lively performance than a written memoir.
Finally, when I asked what her (long-deceased) mother would think of this performance, Cole exclaims: "Oh, she'd be absolutely horrified!" and bursts into laughter.
Seeing as the universe tends to create really cool synchronicities, the night after Cole's Walking Upright, New Jersey-based actress June Ballinger presents her one-woman show that approaches that same generation of British women, and that same forced stoicism—but with much different origins.
Ballinger's biographical piece is not about herself, but rather her mother Nancy (Ballinger plays the role of Nancy for much of the play). Growing up in the United States, Ballinger knew bits and pieces of her mother's involvement in British intelligence during World War II, but the pieces only came together after her mother's death—and once details of the Colossus became declassified. One of the very first supercomputers, Colossus was built to decrypt Nazi communications between 1943 and 1945. Also remarkable was who ran Colossus: Women. Almost entirely women. And Nancy was one of them.
In 1970, a tell-all book about the secret project was published; in the decades since it's become public knowledge through films, novels and a Netflix series. So while the historical facts of her story solidified, Ballinger always felt there was so much of her mother that she never knew. "I didn't know who she was," Ballinger says of the time she was writing the play. "The British can be so guarded; they don't sit around and talk about their feelings. They're not all open-hearted about everything."
In striving to make the piece both historically accurate but strongly character-driven, Ballinger homed in on a whole emotional life of her mother's that she never knew about. She drew largely from letters and a wartime diary found in her mother's possessions after her death, which helped to shed new light on her mother's deep emotions, beyond just cut-and-dry facts.
Women during the war, Ballinger says, "had this surge of empowerment and vitality and importance. They were working and they were important to the war effort and they were peers to the men. … But then when the war was over, it was back to the kitchen, back to the nursery. It was taken away."
So it went that after marrying and moving to America to raise a family, Nancy, the former badass translator of encrypted Nazi communications, was relegated to domesticity—and not only that, but the work she'd done was a state secret, so she couldn't even use it for leverage.
"She was very vague about it," Ballinger says of her mother's wartime work (it was common for code-breaking women to say it was "clerical"). "And, like all of the good Brits that were very loyal to an oath that they took, she didn't want to be caught saying more than she could." That secrecy impacted Nancy's entire life. "It molds your personality; it created, in a sense, her style in America as a British woman. Creating a dignity, and surrounding herself with that kind of obliqueness."
In telling her mother's story, Ballinger also hopes to inspire a new generation to think about some of the origins of modern feminism. When these wartime professionals were sent back to their tea service, she says, "that contrast is important I think for today's young girls to see what their history is—and whose shoulders they stand on."