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From Tiverton to Africa - the dramatic journey of adventurous Shirley

By This is Exeter  |  Posted: September 03, 2009

  • Tiverton film, TV and stage actress Shirley Beth Newbery, top, starred as Dana Scully's couisin in the cult 1990s science fiction show The X-Files, left, and counts screen legend Sidney Poitier, right, among her biggest inspirations

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MANY would envy Shirley Beth Newbery's life.

She has spent years travelling the world, dipping in and out of the limelight on a variety of film sets, television studios and theatre stages at home and abroad.

She has racked up an overwhelming amount of experience directing, producing, acting and playwriting, often brushing shoulders with the influential and the famous. But, despite her contact with Hollywood stars and immersion in the bright lights of the stage, she is refreshingly down to earth.

And although her lifestyle today is still, literally, dramatic, she now walks the dusty paths of African villages as well as the boards of theatreland.

Shirley, 44, from Tiverton, has poured most of her energy, heart and soul leading theatre arts initiatives in Africa.

She still finds time to dart between theatre studios and film sets, but she is committed to grassroots theatre projects which — in addition to her passion for Africa — is the focus for her company Infusion Arts.

"Drama was the only thing I could do at school," she admits.

"I left home at 15 with one GCSE, in drama, and moved to London for a couple of years before returning to East Devon College to complete my drama A-level. I always knew I wanted to act but it wasn't easy because neither my school or my parents supported my ambition. I returned to London where I started running drama workshops for people with special needs before deciding to fulfil my dream to act.

"I returned to Devon again and joined the Cygnet Training Theatre in Exeter for three years."

Shirley's ambition then took her to the bright lights of the USA to train at the New York Studio. For two years she ping-ponged between New York, Los Angeles and Vancouver.

"I had nothing lined up in New York, I just went out there," she explained.

"At that time I was completely in awe of the African American actor Sidney Poitier and I just knew I was going to meet him — and I did! I'd sent him a letter and one day, out of the blue he invited me to LA. Sidney was such an icon and has definitely been one of the most inspirational people in my life. After a while, I moved to Vancouver to take an advanced course in television and film acting and was picked up by an agent.

"I got my first job in TV as Scully's cousin in the X-Files series. It was then that I had my most embarrassing experience to date. I was wearing some horrid pink slippers and fell into a muddy pot hole in front of the star, David Duchovny — who just laughed!"

After two years, Shirley returned to London where she embarked on more theatre, film and television roles. She quizzed a string of celebrities for a children's summer TV show called T-Spot, starred in the play Boxed alongside Eastenders actor Mark Homer and landed a small part in the hit wartime movie The Land Girls.

She even got to direct her own short film — dubbed My Way — after completing a course in directing for the big and small screens.

And whenever Shirley had a spare moment she took the opportunity to travel to Africa and for several years she has personally sponsored Tanzanian children to go to school and for people to have life-changing medical operations.

It was in 2007, while embarking on a masters degree in theatre practice, that she was invited, because of her previous work with young people, to attend Global Africa, where she met Bono, activist and lead singer of U2.

She said: "My link with Africa is very important to me. I made a documentary entitled A Journey With The Massai for my masters. I spent considerable time among their community and doing a lot of cultural awareness-based theatre with them. My documentary has been shown at various colleges and I lead presentations and discussions on ritual aspects of theatre. My company, Infusion Arts, is part-charity, part-community based theatre arts. Combining my professional experience with my work with young people is great.

"We will be based at St James School in Exeter and the film and performance schools start in September, offering people the chance to make short films and have mixed media training. We provide many workshops for schools and our anti-bullying and anti-social behaviour theatre-in-education project has proved particularly successful.

"We will also offer people from the South West the opportunity to go to Tanzania and take part in local projects in the community — and also give Tanzanian people the opportunity to get involved in theatre."

Shirley is currently writing and directing a play called I Wait Til Dusk, which will be showcasing at the Plough Theatre in Torrington on November 6. And with many more ideas up her sleeve, her commitment to theatre projects in Devon and in Africa is unwavering.

Throughout all of her endeavours, Shirley has enjoyed the support of her partner, former Mid Devon Gazette interviewee Greg Wellman.

She said: "In addition to my PHD, one of my many future goals is to develop Infusion Arts and to raise enough money to build a school in Kigoma, Tanzania, where many young people end up on drugs or sex trafficking and the infrastructure is very poor.

"Greg and I are supportive to each other. Our work often takes us away from our home in Tiverton but I think that to be able to cope with a relationship that takes you away from your partner a lot, you have to be honest with one another and allow each other to be who you are."

Any parents interested in their children attending Infusion Arts film and performance school, or schools wanting to find out more about educational workshop programmes, should call Shirley on 01884 233585, or visit the website www.infusionarts.org.

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