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‘I’ve played meaty roles in the past but writing it and putting it out there feels more vulnerable’: Charlene Boyd on stress of doing it all herself in one-woman show

© Jess HardwickCharlene Boyd.
Charlene Boyd.

Sitting on the porch of the house where June Carter Cash was born, Charlene Boyd looked out to the starlit sky sparkling over the darkness of the Virginian mountains and told herself to drink it all in.

It was 2021, and the Scottish actress had used a 10-day window when lockdown restrictions eased to make a pilgrimage to the United States – in particular, to the places and people that could connect her to the late country music star.

Two years earlier, Charlene had decided to try her hand at writing – the first time she’d done any writing since forging school notes in her mum’s handwriting, she laughed – and June Carter Cash seemed like an obvious choice: Charlene has been in a Johnny Cash band since drama school nearly 15 years ago, performing June’s parts, and she had a copy of June’s autobiography on her bookshelf.

When Covid happened, the project quickly became all-consuming, and before she knew it, she was in the Appalachian Mountains meeting June’s friends, confidantes and even her children.

Charlene Boyd did her research in the US. © Jeremiah Reynolds
Charlene Boyd did her research in the US.

“Sitting on the porch of that little house where Mother Maybelle had given birth to June, I realised I was looking at the same stars and the same mountains that June would have looked out at. I was telling myself, as an actor, to take a moment and pocket all of this,” said Charlene, whose TV work includes The Trial Of Christine Keeler, Mayflies, Control Room, Annika and River City.

Three years on from that magical moment in the States, Charlene has just completed the first week of rehearsals for what has become her debut self-written play, June Carter Cash: The Woman, Her Music And Me. As the title would suggest, the play with songs became more than a biography of the country music legend and has developed into an exploration of Charlene’s life, and their common experiences as performers and working mothers.

The one-woman show with a live band, a co-production between Grid Iron and the National Theatre of Scotland, premieres at the Edinburgh Fringe this month before embarking on a tour around rural communities.

“I wasn’t coming to this as a confident writer. I went to a school in Cumbernauld where if you were clever, you were slagged, so I did a lot of, ‘No sir, I don’t know what that is’. So at every stage I’ve got to with this and the next door opens, I’m surprised,” explained Charlene, who is mum to an 11-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son.

“The purpose and objective of the production is to come away knowing more about June – you’ll see her do her comedy skits and how she would perform with Johnny, and there’s narration from her. But my story is in there – where I found myself in different situations, things I have overcome, where I’ve persevered.

“I never set out to do this – the thought of someone asking me to write a piece inspired by some events in my life, I would have said absolutely not. In fact, I remember saying my worst nightmare would be to try stand-up, and here I am trying to tell a few jokes.”

Charlene Boyd has had to juggle motherhood with her career. © Jess Harwick
Charlene Boyd has had to juggle motherhood with her career.

Charlene also relates to June’s dual role as a performer and mum, and the struggles and conflicted feelings which come with that.

“Being a mother and going on tour, and what the stereotype of a mother is and the guilt of going away,” Charlene continued. “Being the best mum you can be when you’re with them and constantly striving to be better, and then you go off on tour, and because our careers are music or acting it’s seen as a more selfish career.

“Even my own family can’t understand sometimes why I go off on tour. It’s never the same as my brother, who works really long hours in a shop, and they say, yes, but he’s working. So am I! I went to New York last year for three months to do The Strange Undoing Of Prudencia Hart and my family saw that as me leaving the kids and going off. I took the kids with me for two of those months. It’s hard graft but it’s just seen differently.

“Ambitions seem to be different for mothers. What’s so interesting about that is it’s not just the way society thinks about it, but you think it yourself. Sometimes it’s so ingrained that you need to work hard to break through it, and June has helped me with that.

“Also divorce, separations, all these things that knock you as you live your life as a woman. There are so many parallels between me and June that led me to have questions about what her kids felt or what people around her thought, and then I was given the gift of being able to ask these people.

“It’s been an extremely cathartic process, but also terrifying because I really am putting myself out there and I’ve never done that before. I’ve played meaty roles in the past, but there’s something about writing it and putting it out there that makes it feel really vulnerable. Now it’s about gripping on to that strength and using everything I’ve learned along the way and persevering.”

Charlene interviewed June’s two surviving children, John Carter Cash and Carlene Carter, as well as a family friend who toured with the family to look after the kids, the CEOs at the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Association, an elderly couple who knew June, and many more.

“I made all those contacts on my own, just weeks and weeks of knocking on doors. I contacted so many people and it started to pay off. It was an incredible thing and it made me realise, from being in my small flat in Glasgow in the middle of lockdown with two kids, how huge this was and what I’d achieved on my own at that point.

“I hadn’t interviewed anyone before. The more they talked about June, the more it opened in me something I hadn’t disclosed or talked about. It was only when I came home and listened to them that I could hear the growth. When I arrived in Nashville I was in bits, because I hadn’t left my kids in ages, and the world was a scary place, I was wearing a mask and I’d been on four flights. I was so tired.

“But you can track in the interviews the version of me who comes home. I’m hoping the audience will see that throughout the journey of the play, too.”

June Carter Cash with Johnny Cash. © PA Archive/Press Association Ima
June Carter Cash with Johnny Cash.

Directed by award-winning director, writer and performer Cora Bissett, the show launches at Summerhall before visiting Banchory, Dunfermline, Kirkcudbright, Stranraer, Arran, Oban, Ullapool, Forres and Glasgow.

It will be exhausting but there are lots of new memories and special experiences to be made that she can share with her kids, just like last year’s New York experience.

“I remember speaking to them about New York and saying it was up to them, we could turn this job down,” she recalled. “I told them if I wholeheartedly believe I’m supposed to perform in New York, I’ll do it. It’s been a dream since I was a kid. I just love New York. I got married there and it’s the city that sparkles for me, and the kids said, ‘We must do it, mum, we must go’, and they were totally on the journey with me.

“Prudencia Hart is a big job, it’s three and a half hours with the pre-set and she never leaves the stage. I had the kids all day, then did the show at night, then back to the kids. At the end, they came to me and said there were so proud of me because they could see that it was a lot of graft.

“Anytime now that we’re talking about fun memories, it’s all about the little things that happened in New York. It was just a real good moment.”

New show excites Charlene

While Charlene Boyd’s biggest roles have been on the stage in productions like Men Should Weep, The Macbeths and 2:22 A Ghost Story, the Cumbernauld actor is also a familiar face from television.

Having already taken roles in shows such as Mayflies, River City and The Trial Of Christine Keeler, she will next be seen on the highly anticipated Department Q, an adaptation of Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novels.

The action has been transferred from Denmark to Edinburgh for the Netflix series, which comes from The Queen’s Gambit showrunner Scott Franks. Matthew Goode plays the lead role of DCI Carl Morck and Charlene joins a strong Scottish cast that includes Chloe Pirrie, Kelly Macdonald, Mark Bonnar, Shirley Henderson, Jamie Sives and Kate Dickie.

“It’s going to be amazing,” she said. “Although I don’t have a lot of screen time, it’s a pivotal role. If it comes back for another series, there’s hope I’d be in it a bit more. I was working with Matthew Goode, who was in The Crown. He’s incredible.”

Charlene says the rise of streaming services coming to Scotland to film has led to more work, but she also plans to continue writing after working on her first play.

She added: “Maybe this will open doors and I might be asked to write something else. I love writing, so I hope it’s a new journey.”

Charlene Boyd stars in June Carter Cash: The Woman, Her Music And Me, Summerhall Arts Centre, Edinburgh, Aug 2-24 (except Mondays) and then on a Scottish tour