My road here, from growing up in Alum Rock to becoming a Tamasha Developing Artist, has been a long one. Like many from my area it began with me misbehaving and getting into trouble with the police. The first people to offer me a chance were West Midlands Mediation, a non-profit organisation from Birmingham, they found me and asked ‘what do you want to do?’ They told me that my behaviour was down to the fact that I didn’t know how to express myself. At the time I thought it was arty-farty nonsense, but what they were offering sounded better than prison so I decided to give it a go. Initially I got into music, I was taught to rap and MC and it gave me a full sense of release. That led to me taking part in the E4 School of Performing Arts show, but they didn’t have any music slots left and the only spaces were for actors. I thought that actors were all extroverts and, as someone with serious learning difficulties and social anxieties, it wasn’t a career I’d ever considered, but I just had to go for it.
During that time I got into trouble again. It was serious, with the prospect of a long sentence, but here’s where my story gets interesting. Through working with West Midlands Mediation I had met David Vann, the person who went on to become my guardian angel. David, someone who to me was strange looking with pierced nipples and crossed legs, turned up again at this potentially disastrous point in my life. He said, ‘you carry on down this road and we can see it’s about to lead you to a lifetime inside a square box. You’ve only got one option left, you’re going to come with me and I am going to sort you out. They’re not going to hear from you again and you’re not going to hear from them again.’
I was only 17 and thought that if David wanted to be my Good Samaritan I’d just run with it. It turned out that he was the head of the part-time courses at the Birmingham School of Acting. The first thing he did was put me on a course during the summer holiday, so that I couldn’t get into trouble. He helped me relearn to read, get my GCSEs and GNVQs, he paid for the courses and then when I was 20 he also helped get me into drama school. Once again it was David who filled in the forms and put in a good word for me. When I started at drama school I was a terrible actor, the worst there. Some of the other guys had been doing it their whole lives. So I dedicated my time there to becoming the best. David’s passion had always been Shakespeare and I fell in love with it too. Particular highlights were performing Coriolanus at The Globe as part of the Sam Wanamaker Festival and an adaption of the Tempest at the Matedero in Spain.
The most memorable moment of all though came during my very last show at drama school. I was playing the part of Mack the Knife in The Threepenny Opera at The Crescent Theatre. At the very same time my Uncle had just been released from prison and he came straight to see me perform. As with all my family, he didn’t understand theatre etiquette so when the show finished he stormed up on stage, through the curtain and straight into the back stage area. We were both in bits, I was so pleased to see him and he was so proud of what I’d accomplished. It’s one of my strongest memories as it shows how what I’ve done has affected my whole family.
David died in October 2014 and it tore a massive whole in my heart. Since I was a boy I’ve been used to death, murders, cancers, all of that and it never fazed me at all. But this destroyed me. His passing made me determined to make my own theatre company, Strictly Arts. I remembered everything that David Vann had done for me and thought that I needed to be able to give the same kind of opportunity to other people. I have to be able to do that to honour the man who picked me up from nowhere and changed my whole life. He supported me through this very violent journey that I was taking, until I could finally be free.
Strictly Arts is now a springboard company at the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry and I’m a creative associate there. The Belgrade took us on in 2015 and then in 2016 Tamasha agreed a co-producing partnership with The Belgrade Theatre Coventry for Made In India. As part of the TDA programme, Tamasha seek funding to offer a bursary to an emerging artist to become an Assistant Director for each of their national touring productions. The director Katie Posner and the Tamasha team were looking for an assistant and hadn’t been able to find anyone suitable. I came along, we got on really well and we successfully applied to the Regional Young Directors Scheme’s 3-month placement to become the Assistant Director. It’s another instance where my life in theatre has been a big stroke of luck, everything has just flipped into place, one thing after the other.
Being involved with Made In India has been very good for me. It’s an all-female cast, which isn’t something I’m used to, and that brings a very different dynamic. The characters are very strong and the actors also have strong opinions on the subject matter. My theatre company specialises in physical theatre and we therefore spend a lot of time being very boisterous, throwing each other around and testing our limits, whereas Made In India is much more text based. The read-through’s make for an interesting comparison. I’ve been an assistant a few times before but it can be a difficult role because you never know where you stand. Some directors really want you to be verbal and upfront, whereas others want you to be behind them to reinforce what they’re saying.
Working with Katie has been a great experience, especially seeing how subtle and organic she is as a director. Actors want to do what is right for their character but that doesn’t always fit with the way the director wants things to go. I’ve been in positions as an actor where a director has told me ‘listen, what you’re doing is crap, you’re going to have to change it,’ and that can destroy some people. Katie is very subtle in the way that she works actors round to seeing the process as she wants them to see it and helping them take decisions which suit the play, without ever telling them that’s the decision she wants them to make. She’s also fantastic at networking. Because I have these social anxieties, one of the things I fall down on is networking, and Katie has been talking to me about how to approach people in order to get what I need as both an artistic director and an actor.
One of the main reasons I wanted to be part of Tamasha’s Developing Artists programme was because Strictly Arts is now beginning to commission playwrights to write plays on our behalf and I’d never seen that process before. It was so helpful to be with the Made In India cast and the company, and have the writer Satinder Chohan in the room, discussing things tactfully and coming to such a great conclusion in the end.
As part of my role I’ve been “seeing in” the shows in Edinburgh and Lancaster. It’s all about making sure the actors are comfortable and that the lighting is the way was during the opening run at The Belgrade, and making any necessary changes. Every space is different; some are naturally darker or have newer lights which are just ready to beam as the wattage is flying through them. Because the set uses a lot of screens it’s also about working with the actors on the transitions, helping them because the space has changed. At this point I’m not really interested in giving actors notes because the show is theirs and they’re doing a great job. I’m just making sure that the staging is working and the audience is getting the best possible show.
I’m also helping create a curtain raiser for the CREATE rural tour in April. It will be a 15-minute piece that people will see before the main Made In India show and I’ll be working with young people from the North East. I love working with young actors, especially those, like myself, who haven’t always known that this is the career they want. I didn’t know that this was something I actually wanted to do until I was put in the firing line to do it. One of the things that I try to standby is that I live, I learn, I progress and then I pass it on. I’ve lived, I’ve seen a whole lot of badness, then I learnt (thanks to David), I progressed in life and now it’s time to pass it on. Of course I want to keep learning too, but my whole existence is because of that one opportunity that he gave to me and if I can do the same for anybody else then I will.
It’s great to be able to bring this show to rural places, and parts of the country that wouldn’t normally get to see it. It will be amazing to go and present this show to them and understand what they think or feel about the themes. Made In India is for anybody, woman or man, in particular anyone who has gone through surrogacy, the IVF process or has lost children; it affects people universally. The surrogacy industry in India is very unique, I didn’t know anything about it before, I had no clue that it even existed. It’s a massive industry for India, they’re making ridiculous amounts of money and many poor young women see it as their only lifeline and many are completely put through the mill. I still don’t know where I stand on it, it’s a really tough story.
I owe the RTYDS, Tamasha and The Belgrade a big thank you for all of their support. Not just for awarding the bursary but for seeing the potential in what I do and am trying to achieve. The fact that they have enabled me to work on Made In India means that they’ve seen some level of potential in me and that has given me a big lift. Everyone at Tamasha, especially Satinder and Katie, have given me such an invaluable experience. We need all the support that we can get in this life and I’m so grateful to everyone who has helped me. The biggest thank you, as always, is to David Vann.