Interview: Stephanie Silver, Actor Awareness

Stephanie Silver is a London-based actor and producer at Actor Awareness, a campaign fighting for equality and diversity within the arts set up by Tom Stocks in 2015. The campaign’s come a long way since then, and the team are now preparing for their second New Writing Festival, a showcase of original work taking place from July 17th-22nd at London’s Barons Court Theatre.

“Actor Awareness is about trying to create a level playing field,” explains Stephanie. “‘All the world’s, a stage and all the men and women players’, right? Well, it doesn’t seem like it in the acting world. We have a long way to come on many levels, but fundamentally Actor Awareness is a campaign to make a fairer industry, so on stage and screen there is a diversity in roles as well as the actual stories being told to audiences.

“As we’re a small campaign with minimal financial resources, we do what we can. We started out with scratch nights – as an actor it’s more important to be the driver behind your career and to create opportunities, a massive ethos here at Actor Awareness, so the scratch nights were a natural step. Our first few scratch nights we got like four submissions and even sometimes had to write the odd play to fill in the spaces! Now we get nearly 100 submissions; we get more and more every call out.

“We’re now sponsored by Spotlight for the scratch nights and we are the only scratch in London that pays – we’re pretty proud of that. The event also adds a credit to any actor’s CV, which helps their Spotlight submission, and it’s also in the heart of the West End, a casting melting pot so an ideal place for agents or CDs to come. We’ve had quite a few people signed from the events, we had producers come down to check out plays and many people have gone on to write more of their show and take it elsewhere. It’s also just a great night to meet like-minded people and have a pint.

“We started film nights at Spotlight, where we choose short films and do a screening. This is a new venture and one we hope to continue. Tom also works extensively behind the scenes doing loads of admin stuff and talking with Equity, Spotlight, Labour MPs and other industry professionals. Now Actor Awareness are the patron of a new drama school, North 8 – a school designed to help people who can’t afford the ‘typical’ three-year £40,000 BAs! So we’re taking steps in the right direction.”

Stephanie got involved with Actor Awareness in 2015 after responding to a request for someone to do a blog. “And then because I’m a busy body I started helping out more as the campaign grew,” she adds. “Tom and I are good friends now, we get on – he’s hilarious and we trust each other. When the campaign grew Tom asked me to take on the scratch nights; new writing is something I have a real passion for so I jumped at the chance and I’ve been doing them for a for a while now!

“I love reading everyone’s submissions. It’s something I really look forward to and it’s helped me grow as a writer myself, constantly reading plays makes you sharpen your own tools, so it’s a win win. I always remember plays too, so sometimes I might message someone if I remember a play and want them to re-submit, or I think it has potential so I’ll email them to ask if they have more. Other times if I have the time I’ll provide some feedback, which they can take or leave, no offence taken. I’m also producing the New Writing Festival in July; I can’t wait. I like to organise, so just call me Tom’s organiser!!”

Stephanie’s passion for the campaign and its goals is clear to see. “I truly believe in it, because it gave me a real sense of purpose and drive to really make something happen, for myself and helping others,” she says. “The message of equality is one that should be shared in every walk of life, not just theatre. I think art is inherently important for growth on a human and social level, therefore no matter what your class or finances you should have access to it. We get a lot of people come to us disheartened and sometimes bitter with the industry, and it’s nice to give people an energy and focus and watch them do something they love and remember, ah yeah, I actually love doing this, finding that spark and passion to go out there and be noticed. We’re giving people confidence in themselves or the knowledge of where to go, who to speak to, what grants to look at or theatre to talk to, and enabling people to make some sort of pathway or step towards their next goal.”

Among many favourite moments, the scratch nights stand out as particular highlights: “To be honest every scratch night just gets better and better, the talent just seems to blow us away every time! There’s a few shows that have really grabbed both me and Tom. There was Injuries of Class by Paul McMahon which was stellar, and I got to show a short play of mine called Our Father, it got a standing ovation which really made my entire life!

“I also enjoyed our workshop in Manchester, that felt really good moving outside of London and reaching people out of the London hub. I’d love to do workshops like that all over the country. We got teams together and people who didn’t even think they could write had short plays by the end of the workshop. That felt very good.”

Next month’s New Writing Festival follows a successful first event last August at Theatre N16 in Balham. “We invited six of our most popular shows that had come through our scratch nights and asked them to write one hour of material to showcase,” Stephanie explains. “They all rose to the challenge and it was a success. One of the plays – The Staffroom by Michelle Payne – is going to Edinburgh this year and is also having a run at Queens Hornchurch Theatre. The new writing weeks are a chance for us to invite back really promising plays to get audience feedback. This year I want to make it bigger and better, so I’ve invented the ‘Press Pass’, a magical pass for any industry professionals, artistic directors, producers and reviewers to have access to all shows all week, to try and get more feedback for our artists.”

And it sounds like there’s plenty for us to look forward to. “Ah we have so much! I’m so excited for everyone. We have a real mix of comedy and drama and real contemporary issues and some proper working class themes. I selected them on their writing merit first and foremost. I chose pieces that I’d seen and knew went down well on the scratch nights – we normally have a pint at the pub after scratch nights and you get a good buzz about what plays really went down a storm. I also, like any night or event I do, try and create a varied programme.

Worsooz is a play that was shortlisted for the Papatango award in 2016, very excited about this one. C’est La Vie won an international open submission in Australia and was produced out there after being one of Actor Awareness’ first ever scratch pieces way back in 2015, so pretty excited about that too. 2022 is a hard hitting contemporary piece about a Muslim ban, this is set to be fab. Submission is a spoken word piece that had Tom welling up at the last scratch, about being gay and Muslim. We have several fab comedies: Come Die with Me, which British Theatre rated 5 stars, and Speciman.

“I’m really excited about Walk of Shame, which is a very brave play about consent. It showcased at our women’s scratch night; I was asked to direct it and I just fell in love with the story and the character. After working on it as a director I got my writing hat twitching and went away and wrote some material which I presented to the original writer of the piece. We then decided to write the play together and I’m stoked to show people what we have hashed together in such a short space of time! We also have The Staffroom returning to perform their Ed fringe preview at the end of the week!”

Looking further ahead, there’s plenty more to come from Actor Awareness: “Firstly we have open submissions for our next scratch night, which is on a political theme – submissions can be sent to stephaniefrancescap@hotmail.com. We also have the Actor Awareness documentary coming out soon! It has many actors – people such as Maxine Peake and Julie Hesmondhalgh – talking about the class ceiling in the acting industry. It’s a real eye opener and something Actor Awareness has been working on for a while.”

Finally, what can the rest of us do to support Actor Awareness in their campaign? “The shows are a great place to mingle and Spotlight members go FREE so it’s a pretty sweet deal,” says Stephanie. “But you can also connect with us via social media. We do a lot of this as it’s a free tool and reaches widely – we’re on Facebook and Twitter (@actorawareness) which is where we post all castings and any upcoming events. We keep it this basic so anyone can join in, hear about us, and no one pays anything either – actors have enough to pay for! We sometimes join up with companies like CCP and do competitions. We’re pretty chilled, you can write to us anytime and we can chat. Tom and I are pretty open, so just holla.”

Find out more about the Actor Awareness New Writing Festival (17th-22nd July) or follow the campaign on Facebook or Twitter for news and updates.

Review: I Know You Of Old at The Hope Theatre

I recently reviewed a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and while the play was excellent, I was reminded, not for the first time, of how much its conclusion bothers me. Hero, who’s just been publicly shamed on her wedding day, cheerfully takes back her fiancé and forgives everyone for doubting her, despite not a word of apology ever being offered. The audience’s attention returns to the more colourful characters of Benedick and Beatrice, and Hero – having served her purpose – is instantly forgotten.

David Fairs of GOLEM! is having none of that. His dark rearrangement of the text of Much Ado places Hero at the centre of the story – in more ways than one. Using only Shakespeare’s text, he’s created an entirely new story in which Hero’s dead and Beatrice (Sarah Lambie), Benedick (David Fairs) and Claudio (Conor O’Kane) meet in the chapel on the night before her funeral. In an attempt to ease his guilt over his treatment of her, Claudio decides to bring the warring Beatrice and Benedick together, with predictably amusing results. But there’s no escaping Hero this time, because her coffin dominates the room – many of the conversations take place quite literally over her dead body, and the shocking circumstances of her untimely death must eventually be dealt with.

Whether you know Much Ado or not doesn’t really matter. I Know You Of Old stands confidently on its own two feet as an original plot that in many ways is even more compelling – and certainly more intriguing – than its source material. Placing these three pivotal characters in Hero’s story into a pressure-cooker situation, where there’s nowhere to hide (though Benedick gives it a try), allows us to examine the dysfunctional relationships between them in a whole new light. And one thing’s for sure; while the play’s conclusion is rather open-ended, it’s far from unsatisfying.

Shakespeare lovers need not fear, though – by taking apart the text, GOLEM! aren’t being disrespectful, but instead demonstrating the astonishing versatility and enduring relevance of the words written so many centuries ago. In keeping with this, director Anna Marsland brings the story bang up to date; this is Shakespeare with iPads, motorcycle helmets, teddy bears and even Cher – suffice to say it isn’t your standard pre-funeral vigil. And yet somehow the 400-year-old text describes perfectly everything we can see, a reminder that while the world around us may change, human behaviour and emotions remain as messed up as they’ve ever been.

The play’s casting could hardly be more perfect. Conor O’Kane is every inch the heartbroken bridegroom, but with an appealing childlike quality that makes it easy to see how he could have been tricked into believing Hero’s guilt. All three actors are skilled comedians, and succeed in getting a laugh out of a single word or the simplest look or gesture; the verbal sparring between Sarah Lambie and David Fairs – who also starred together in Golem!’s previous production, the excellent Macbeths – is a comic delight (the layout of the theatre is such that watching their exchanges begins to feel like being on Centre Court at Wimbledon). But with Beatrice grieving for her cousin, their flirting takes on a darker edge that eventually spills over into something altogether more disturbing.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of Anna Marsland’s production is its extraordinary attention to detail. There are real candles burning, a smell of incense in the air, and sombre music playing as we enter the dark chapel, and the stiflingly hot weather – however uncomfortable – conveniently helps to complete the claustrophobic effect. The use of modern technology isn’t just for show, either; the letter that Benedick reads out can be clearly seen on the iPad screen, as can the incriminating video he later views on his phone.

I Know You Of Old is an astonishing achievement, and a brave choice to take apart a play so many people know so well. David Fairs has succeeded because he’s used the opportunity to tackle some of the unfinished business in Shakespeare’s work – like the appalling, unpunished treatment of Hero, and what makes Beatrice and Benedick behave the way they do. Consequently it’s clear that this is not a gratuitous ripping up of a classic, but rather a fitting and respectful complement to the original, a gripping new tale which can be enjoyed by Shakespeare fans and newbies alike.

I Know You Of Old is at The Hope Theatre until 1st July.

Review: HerStory 4 at Theatre N16

Guest review by Jemima Frankel

What might you expect from a feminist theatre festival at a small fringe theatre in Balham, in June 2017? What issues, events, people, stereotypes – laws, even – might compel feminist theatre makers to, well, make theatre right now? The more cynical amongst us might expect a hipster-infused horde of angry, “snowflake” millenials shouting loudly about the “pale stale male”.  What they would find, however, is a potent and welcome remedy to such limiting cynicism. HerStory, founded by Nastazja Somers, was born out of frustration at the repetitive, singular storyline of female characters in theatre and wider society. She invites feminists to perform work that platforms the untold stories – the real faces of intersectionality – that are so routinely trampled over in the charge for more palatable voices. HerStory does not just demand our attention; it grabs it, with consent, by the pussy.

The second of two nights at HerStory 4 (the big sister of the HerStorys 1, 2 and 3 in preceding years) was a showcase of eight richly varied solo performances. We heard the female voice on topical issues such as abortion, domestic abuse, child rape, LGBTQ issues, sexual harassment, social media, war and… Iranian mothers. What shot through the hurt, the anger, the raw and gutting sadness of several of these stories was the resounding support buzzing from the audience. Huge cheers, belly laughs and tenterhooked-gasps filled the air – testament, of course, to the quality of the performers who took to the stage.

As expected, some of the work made emotional viewing. Dannie-Lu Carr’s Just Another C*nt told the incredibly moving story of a toxic relationship with an alcoholic man who encouraged an abortion. The Twilight Zone by Suzy Gill tackles cultural discrimination and homophobia, as a young woman’s Muslim girlfriend is called away again to fight for the American army in Iraq. In one of Tolu Agbelusi’s powerful spoken word performances she spoke of the rape of a seven-year-old girl at the grabbing, angry hands of two young boys. In Mission Abort, directed by Claire Stone and performed by Therese Ramstedt, the Pro-Life words of Donald Trump – “there must be some form of punishment” – seared through the graphic re-enactment of a painful and intrusive abortion. The audience was left open-mouthed and wide-eyed, shocked into reflective silence before roaring applause acknowledged the bravery and resilience of these women.

Humour rippled in welcome and powerful moments through the evening. Amanda Holiday’s The Art Poems took artworks by diverse female painters as the inspiration for witty words, and the ridicule at the price of a handbag (that she will use as a hat, thank you very much). Social Media Suicide by Clare McCall showed us the behind-the-scenes of a very special, perfectly set up, live streamed 27th birthday party, at which she – for the benefit of you lucky viewers – was going to kill herself after much cam-girl style foreplay. The show goes out, quite literally, with a bang as the likes come rolling in. Shahbanu brilliantly performed by Lydia Bakelmun (and written, directed and produced by Melina Namdar, Anna Jeary and Penny Babakhani) revisits the childhood of a girl raised in London to an overbearing Iranian mother and English father. In the nostalgic tales of Iranian princes and (always – eye roll) beautiful princesses, we unravel the feeling of loss, displacement and desperate need to reconnect to heritage and culture. Roxanne Carney’s I’m the Hero of This Story tickled the audience with Tinder one-liners and the jaw-dropping realisation that these were lifted from real conversations with real men, probably within about five miles of you.

The Museum of Women, the poignant closing poem of Tolu Agbulesi’s set, speaks of the great women “quietly shaping” her. “This body is a monument of many women; I was not built alone,” she speaks; a perfect beacon of support and solidarity that resonated with the diverse mix of men and women in the audience. As the audience left chattering and tweeting, I was reminded once again of the power of performance – if not as a way to change the world, then as a way to get the conversation well and truly started.

Follow @HerstoryFTF for details of upcoming events and performances, as they move to a more central London location.

Review: Kiss Me at Trafalgar Studios

Most single women have at some point bemoaned the lack of decent men. That throwaway line is put into sobering perspective in Richard Bean’s Kiss Me, where it’s quite literally true. It’s 1929, and Stephanie (not her real name) is a 32-year-old widow who wants a baby. Faced with a male population that’s been tragically depleted by World War 1, she finds herself forced to take an unconventional path. Enter Dennis (not his real name), a father-for-hire employed by the mysterious Dr Trollop, who by all accounts is extremely good at his job – as long as he stays within the parameters. That means no kissing on the lips, no real names, no sharing of any personal information, and definitely no second meetings.

Photo credit: Robert Day
Within minutes, we find ourselves drawn into a scenario that has the potential to be both very funny and horribly sad – and Kiss Me delivers on both fronts. This intense two-hander unfolds in Stephanie’s bedroom, with a mirrored back wall that brings the audience right into the heart of the action and makes us privy to every intimate detail of her life and loves. She’s a modern woman who smokes and drives a munitions lorry, and has no qualms about speaking her mind or standing up for her rights. In fact she seems incapable of holding anything back, even when she tries; in a powerful performance, Claire Lams reveals just as much in Stephanie’s pensive, silent moments as she does with all her character’s nervous chatter.

In contrast, Ben Lloyd-Hughes’ Dennis is a stickler for propriety, yet not without passion; he’s a soldier on his own personal mission, driven by an intense guilt over having survived the war when so many others didn’t. We never see him enter the room; the lights go up on each scene and there he is (director Anna Ledwich describes him gleefully in her programme notes as “seemingly summoned like a sex genie”). His speech, unlike Stephanie’s, is slow and considered, and where she resorts often to humour as a means of self-defence, he seems to hardly know what a joke is. They’re total opposites, yet somehow fit together perfectly (in a nice touch, he often finishes her sentences when the right word escapes her), and it’s no surprise when their initial encounter leads to something more, however doomed their relationship may feel from the start.

Photo credit: Robert Day
The chemistry between the two characters is as believable as it is surprising, and the desperate, relatable human desires that drive each of them toward the other make them easy to invest in emotionally; the play’s final revelation drew shocked gasps from more than one audience member. This does come with a side effect, though: because we can so easily relate to the characters, some of the more intimate scenes become quite awkward to watch – Stephanie’s own discomfort during her first meeting with Dennis is infectious, and her later willingness to chat at length about her clitoris equally disconcerting. (For different reasons, it’s also hard not to be taken aback by the use of the term “minger” to describe an unattractive woman – despite the hasty explanation that it’s an old Scottish word.)

The play’s conclusion is unexpectedly intriguing; we’re left with a good deal of unanswered questions about the future and the past for both characters, and still without a complete understanding of their motivations. This hint that the story may not be quite over is rather comforting, despite the frustrating knowledge that we’ll never know for sure what lies ahead.

Funny, poignant and offering a fresh perspective on the horrors of war, Kiss Me features two excellent performances and has an emotional and, to a certain degree, political heart that’s as relevant today as it would have been in 1929 – perhaps even more so.

Kiss Me is at Trafalgar Studio 2 until 8th July.

Interview: Vanessa de Largie, Every Orgasm I Have Is A Show Of Defiance To My Rapist

Vanessa de Largie is an actress, author and journalist from Australia, currently based in London. Much of her work focuses on fierce female sexuality and issues that affect women, and her one-woman-show Every Orgasm I Have Is A Show Of Defiance To My Rapist is an autobiographical piece about rape, trauma and sexuality.

The show began life as a controversial column that Vanessa wrote for The Daily Telegraph in 2016. “The column explored how I healed from rape through sex, and the reaction to it was explosive,” she explains. “I had no intention of turning the column into a piece of theatre, that was the furthest thing from my mind. Then two months ago, I arrived in London and began attending acting classes at The Actors Centre. I did the introductory and advanced ‘solo theatre’ courses with Colin Watkeys, who has a unique way of working. A seedling was born in those workshops and for the last five weeks I’ve been consolidating.”

Vanessa’s aim with the show is to start a new conversation about rape. “There’s a popular view – particularly amongst feminists – that we are never allowed to joke about rape,” she says. “Why not? It’s as necessary to joke about rape as it is to joke about war, disease and death. Humour is what gives humanity ‘light relief’. It enables us to converse with one another about important topics – such as rape – more freely. Political correctness causes rigidness and puts constraints on the conversation. Every rape victim has their own way of dealing with the trauma. And no way is right or wrong. Sex was the right path for me in healing, it may not be the right path for another.

“I want the audience to be confronted. I want the audience to feel uncomfortable. It is only then, we can begin to tear down the walls. I want them to leave the theatre questioning everything they thought they knew about rape, trauma, healing and sexuality.”

Asked why it’s such a taboo to make jokes about rape compared to other serious subjects, Vanessa responds that she believes it comes from a good place: “People don’t want to cause any additional pain or hurt to rape victims, which is understandable. Sadly the majority of commentators who talk about rape haven’t experienced it firsthand. I’m not quite sure why ‘rape’ is supposedly meant to be wrapped in cotton wool as opposed to other subjects. I definitely think it’s driven by the feminist movement and the current vitriol in society and on social media against men.”

So what is an appropriate way to respond if someone we know is affected by rape? “I would suggest that you ask questions,” says Vanessa. “Rape victims often don’t get asked questions by friends and family because people assume it’s too invasive or may cause hurtfulness. You would be amazed at how many victims of rape would like to be asked about their experience.”

The show premiered in April at the Tristan Bates Theatre, and can next be seen for three nights in July as part of the Lambco Fringe Festival at the Lost Theatre. “Audience members at the show’s premiere told me that they found it to be raw, confronting and powerful,” Vanessa says. “I haven’t had any negative feedback as yet but I’m sure it will come. When people reacted viciously to the original article, I fought back with another article. I like to fight art with more art. So depending on what they say — it might be good fodder for another show!?!”

Every Orgasm I Have Is A Show Of Defiance To My Rapist is at the Lost Theatre on 15th, 16th and 18th July.