Anna Fiorentini School gives BAME and working class children access to professional theatre training

The biggest talking point at the Academy Awards this year wasn’t Leonardo Dicaprio winning Best Actor, but the distinct lack of black actors and actresses nominated for awards.

Without undermining the talent and well-deserved success of those more privileged actors such as Eddie Redmayne and Benedict Cumberbatch, it is hard not to notice the way in which the industry is moving, which is away from an inclusive and culturally diverse theatre.

A large part of the problem is the age-old elitism of many professional drama schools, whose fees tend to attract children of the most affluent and privileged backgrounds. Whilst drama school applicants and working actors are judged on their talent – something which isn’t determined by ethnicity or class – a gift for performing demands refinement and exposure to experience, and without the opportunities that those from more privileged backgrounds receive, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) kids and those from working class backgrounds remain at a distinct disadvantage.

Established in 2001, The Anna Fiorentini Theatre and Film School aims to provide children, including those from less privileged and minority backgrounds, with quality training in singing, dance and acting, delivered by industry professionals.

A key way in which the school aims to achieve its objective of increasing diversity within the arts is through its bi-annual variety show, put on at the celebrated Hackney Empire theatre and attended by celebrities and industry professionals.

On the 1st of October the school will hold its 15th Anniversary showcase. These performances give students from all backgrounds the opportunity to perform in a professional theatre and to have their talent recognised by the numerous casting directors and industry members who attend. Recent performances have results in students being scouted for roles in West End shows such as Matilda and The Lion King.

The Anna Fiorentini School continues to create access to the theatre industry for BAME performers not only through its prestigious showcases, but also by supporting them through the school’s charitable arm, The Fiorentini Foundation.

The Fiorentini Foundation provides scholarships for a number of students each year, and has thus far helped 300 children who would not have otherwise has access to performing arts training gain invaluable skills and experience.

The Foundation is supported by Stage and the City, which offers classes from Acting to Musical Theatre to working adults. However, profits made from these classes only help to support a limited number of students. The school is heavily dependent upon funding and donations from corporate companies and sponsors, and whilst it prides itself on being able to offer affordable training, the lack of investment the school currently receives is making it an increasingly difficult model to sustain.

Since its opening, the school has helped numerous children land fiercely competitive roles across theatre, film and television. One such child is Tahj Miles, who has starred in West End productions as Nipper in Oliver!, Simba in the Lion King  and is currently in the series Class Dismissed for CBBC. Tahj’s mum Marianne says “[attending the school] is something so important to my child and to his life”, whilst Tahj adds “it’s given me much more courage”.

Other BAME students whom the Fiorentini School has helped launch to success include Belinda Owusu, who landed a four-year contract as Libby Fox in Eastenders, Jayden Oshenyi, a scholarship student, who is appearing as Fletcher in The Bodyguard on the West End, and Jermaine Jackman, a former scholarship student and now current ambassador for the school, who went on to win the 2014 series of The Voice.

The Anna Fiorentini School has imbued students with the skills to find success not only in the Performing Arts, but in a variety of careers and projects. Former student Joshua Campbell not only continues to work professionally as an actor, but also runs his own creative workshop company called Complexion Workshops, which finds young people from underprivileged backgrounds work in the theatre and entertainment industry.

“[The Fiorentini School] not only allowed me to receive professional training, but also gave me my first acting opportunities and work within the entertainment industry” says Joshua. “It not only offered me a platform to express my talents, but also offered me a place to meet other amazing young people who I am still friends with today”.

The Anna Fiorentini School is determined to continue its support of young talent, particularly that of children from underprivileged and minority backgrounds, and is constantly seeking ways to contribute to the diversification of the theatre and performing arts industry. However, the school will only be able to remain one of the few platforms which offer affordable training if it receives more investment in the form of sponsorships, donations and funding.

If you are interested in donating to the 15th Anniversary show, please visit https://mydonate.bt.com/events/15thanniversarycampaign/306572. If you would like to know more about the Anna Fiorentini School, please see https://www.annafiorentini.com/, and for adult classes, visit https://www.annafiorentini.com/about-stage-and-the-city.

 

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The Course of Love by Alain de Botton

At parties, I constantly try to explain Alain de Botton’s new novel The Course of Love to people. I’ll describe enthusiastically, with intoxicated gesticulations, how, according to de Botton, monogamy is a flaw of a Romantic fallacy and that marriage is a commitment to a certain kind of misery rather than a promise of joy. This urgency to enlighten the bemused and equally intoxicated listener to de Botton’s theories is down to the fact that everything he discusses is shockingly true, to the point where it feels as though he may understand us and the dark realm of our psyches better than we do ourselves.

The Course of Love examines the relationship of Rabih and Kirsten from their first meeting through parenthood, infidelity, emotional detachment and eventual reconciliation. In a similar vein to the indie film 500 Days of Summer it depicts an unconventional love story, or rather, one that sits unconventionally in our idealized western love narrative. Unlike most love stories, it offers a disconcerting yet reassuring explanation of what we feel and how we behave when we choose to make the bizarre decision to commit to somebody for the rest of our lives.

“[The Course of Love] depicts an unconventional love story, or rather, one that sits unconventionally in our idealized western love narrative.”

De Botton presents the Hollywood clichés of love and marriage, turns them on their head, and forces us to re-align our naive ways of thinking about them. Whilst the novel interweaves anecdotal chapters covering a multiplicity of themes, the narrative progresses towards the conclusion that a successful relationship is a work-in-progress, constantly re-evaluating itself under the unstable factors of time and self-identification. To have any hope of happiness we must abandon all notions of Romanticism, of unconditional and unwavering loyalty, and accept that with love comes the concomitants of sacrifice, compromise, dissatisfaction and a certain amount of unhappiness.

The only aspect of the book I struggled with was its dominant male gaze, which whilst not inherently problematic, does imbue Rabih with a sometimes condescending view of Kirsten (such as when he considers himself clever for finding her unconventional looks attractive). De Botton makes a point of highlighting Rabih’s flaws, but the lack of a real female voice allows him to get away with quite a lot. Whilst many of the internal conflicts and emotions Rabih experiences are universal across genders, I feel that a lot of the story would read very differently were it told from the female perspective…

“De Botton is so well versed in the human condition it feels as though he can see into our souls.”

To conclude, this book is truly brilliant because it achieves what is deemed to be the definitive aim of all literature: to change the way people think about life and the people around them. It is the novel’s fluidity and pedagogical aspect which make such harsh realities digestable, and de Botton’s masterful and eloquent command of language further proves him to be both a poet and philosopher of modern life. Most importantly, de Botton has a way of alleviating the reader of a silent institutionalized pressure. He reassures us that our carnal sexual desires are normal, our temptations to cheat forgivable and the internalization of our problems universal. De Botton in so well versed in the human condition it feels as though he can see into our souls. As the author writes, the best books ‘leave us wondering, with relief and gratitude, how the author could possibly have known so much about our lives’.

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Romeo and Juliet at the Tobacco Factory

Brick Lane isn’t the only place where you’ll find guitar playing twenty-somethings sporting paisley and glitter: Polina Kalinina’s 1960s-set production of Romeo and Juliet juxtaposes the Old World of a Second World War generation with the agitated and zealous youth of a New Age to create a thoroughly rock n’ roll revival of Shakespeare’s tragedy.

It’s a violent and muscular production, charged with erratic kinetic energy. Bodies collide and weapons reverberate metallically through the auditorium. All the while, Romeo (Paapa Essiedu) and Juliet (Daisy Whalley) giggle from within the paper walls of their perfect world and conduct a thoroughly ‘no, you hang up!’ style ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’.

On their first night of wedded bliss, the lovers’ tentative exploration of each other’s bodies has all the exhilarating newness of falling in love, mixed with all the gorgeous excitement. We too want to put on a pair of dungarees and dance around our bedroom as Juliet does, in a touching display of teenage infatuation.

The merry-go-round-come-psychedelic dance floor which dominates the stage stands for a playground of lost youth bulldozed flat by violence and vengeance. It is also, however, a marker of Kalinina’s playful approach to theatre, and the playfulness of falling in love.

The A Word review (epsiode 1)

I was still wriggling and kicking around in my mother’s womb when my three and-a-half year old sister was diagnosed with autism. Whilst I was there in 1995 as an evolving shrimp-like thing, I cannot imagine what it is like to receive the devastating news that your child’s life shall never be ‘normal’. It is this news that Joe’s parents are informed of in the first episode of ‘The A Word’, after family and friends begin to notice abnormalities in their five-year-old son’s behaviour.

The new BBC 1 series introduces the Hughes family, seething with tensions from the start, in their idyllic home of the Lake District. The first episode opens with preparations for Joe’s (Max Vento) fifth birthday party, and whilst the implications of the allusive title mean we are already searching for clues in his behaviour, Joe appears a relatively normal and happy boy. There is nothing particularly strange about his love of The Arctic Monkeys (apart from that he has exceptionally good taste for somebody his age), which he listens to constantly through the headphones glued to his head, and his habit of shutting the door once before entering the house can be considered funny quirk; a habit adopted as part of his normal childhood development.

This is how Joe appears to his doting parents, Alison (Morven Christie) and Paul (Lee Ingleby). These oddities in behaviour surpass their parental radars because to them he is just their little boy, who is in many ways like any other child.

However, Joe’s social and behavioural problems become increasingly evident when he refuses to stop dancing during a game of musical statues, or lies on the carpet uncommunicatively whilst his peers wait impatiently for him to blow out his candles. The suggestions from Alison’s franc and up-front father (Christopher Eccleston) and ostracised sister-in-law (Vinette Daniels) that he may have communication problems are met with defensive denial from his parents. They feel that by continuing to deny the diagnosis they are protecting their child from the inevitable, and are preserving the image they have of him. But we too realise that Joe is more than just quirky and shy.

As the family passes through denial into slowly accepting that their son may well be on the autistic spectrum, the taboo quality of the diagnosis becomes apparent. The allusiveness and illicitness of ‘The A Word’ is realised when Alison forbids the family from using the word, as though it is dirty and wrong. They soon realise that other people aren’t as tolerant of Joe’s challenging behaviours when he isn’t invited to a friend’s football party, despite having invited his whole class to his own. It’s the moment they realise that this shan’t just be a battle amongst themselves, but also against everybody else.

Even when he is invited to join in their game, Joe, unable to process the noises, senses and confusion, runs off. When his dad attempts to coax him back he hits him across the face, and it is evident that this is the first time Joe has displayed violent behaviour towards his parents. The expression on Paul’s face is the encapsulation of all the emotions a parent in that situation goes through: embarrassment as children and disproving parents stare in astonishment, deep upset that your own child has acted so unlovingly and aggressively towards you, and the pang of realisation that there is something intrinsically wrong inside that child.

The Hughes have their own deep-rooted tensions and disputes from the start, and Joe’s diagnosis demonstrates how family life must find away to continue functioning and sorting out their own problems around such catastrophic news. Bowker succeeds in presenting extended family members who are ostracised to the edge of the family circle, yet easy to sympathise with. Joe’s maternal grandfather Maurice, who whilst partially stuck in an old world attitude towards autism and often untactful in his phrasing, has his grandson’s welfare at his heart and makes the family face up to the reality of their situation. Similarly Nicola, who is looked down upon after cheating on Alison’s brother Eddie, just wants to be accepted into the family again and attempts to approach Joe’s parents about his concerning behaviour. The contrasting family constituents and troubled relationships make it interesting and engaging to watch, and show how a diagnosis like this effects every body.

Six-year-old newcomer Max Vento also gives a brilliant and naturalistic performance as Joe. Much of the time the demands of his role are just like those of a normal five-year-old boy, amused by music and cartoons, but he also conveys the introversion and disengagement of a little boy with autism incredibly convincingly – a hard characteristic for even adult actors to adopt.

The A Word isn’t exclusively about autism; it’s about family life and the complications it brings – something we can all relate to. Even then it focuses on one form of autism on the vast and complicated spectrum, and one that isn’t particularly severe. Arguably Bowker, who wanted to aim for “a less dramatized portrayal of the condition”, fails to capture the most strenuous and emotionally draining degrees of autism: lack of speech, complete dependency in daily tasks, inability to read, write, draw. But it is important that a programme about the realities of living with autism is being shown to a public who are still relatively unaware of what the condition means. It also feels particularly appropriate amidst a political culture which undermines the difficulties of bringing up a disabled child, and shall hopefully increase people’s awareness and understanding of the anger those families feel.

Spotlight review

“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one”

Whilst it may not be the most cinematically impressive film of the year, ‘Spotlight’ is by far the most triumphant and important in its intent to bring to light the prolonged abuse of children and its institutional concealment within the Boston Catholic Church. In equal measure, ‘Spotlight’ marvellously exhibits the power and necessity of journalism.

We are submerged into director Tom McCarthy’s world of old-school investigative journalism right from the start; a world which seems alien and quaint to most modern viewers who are far more accustomed to simply Googling the answers to life’s most puzzling questions. The Spotlight team of The Boston Globe newspaper must trawl through infinite clippings, church directories and scrupulously protected documents, which leaves the audience grasping their seats, praying that they’ll triumph in a world where everybody seems to be against them.

‘Spotlight’ achieves its impression of the widespread suffering at the hands of the priests through explicitness of words over images. Heartbreaking interviews with adult men reveal the level of abuse they endured as vulnerable children from broken homes, with Michael Cyril Creighton and Paul Guilfoyle playing such endearing and devastatingly sympathetic characters. There isn’t one scene of actual abuse, and hearing it retrospectively through the victims’ own words is in fact more powerful.

There are instances, however, where journalistic and legislative jargon surpasses the compressibility of even the most informed viewer, and makes the progression of the investigation difficult to follow. This claustrophobic and exclusive environment is reinforced by the predominately office based location of the first part of the film, which although naturalistic becomes unpalatable and disengaging. Once the team take to the streets and embark on their race across the city the film definitely picks up, and despite the technical language there is nothing to stop the audience sharing the intensity and thrill of their mission.

Amongst the rapidity of the investigation the journalists each have moments of personal struggle, particularly Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), who leaves his colleagues stunned with the sound of his infuriated voice ringing throughout the offices. Ruffalo, who conveys the intensely passionate and moral character of Rezendes with tender amicability, reminds us that journalists are human, and like that incredible group of humans which includes doctors, lawyers and councillors, are still susceptible to the physical and emotional hardships of saving lives. However, the journalists’ personal lives rightly remain elusive and suggestive, for whilst they may leave us wanting to know a little bit more, they are not what this film is about.

The film triumphs in its characterisation of the strong female journalist Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams with both determination and warmth. It is irrelevant that Pfeiffer is the only female member of the team, let alone one of the only women in the film; that is an honest reflection of the phallocentric world of journalism. However, Pfieffer never shies away from a challenge and is never overlooked; instead her colleagues listen to her findings and often take her lead. Without detracting from the film’s focus Pfeiffer shows that women’s brains are needed in such a competitive and hard industry.

In the current climate of power abuse within both religion and journalism, ‘Spotlight’ seems all the more relevant. Whilst it brings to light an ongoing scandal it is not anti-Catholic in its import, and reminds a nation with the bitter taste of journalistic corruption still fresh on its lips that it is an industry with the capacity to deliver justice and change lives.

5 favourite books in 50 words in 15 minutes

1. Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966)

Rhys’ novel rescues Bertha Rochester from the attic. A prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Wide Sargasso Sea paints a darkly erotic picture of Coulibri, which parallels the themes of threatening sexuality and femininity at play. It’s a search for identity and belonging in a turbulent period of colonial history.

2. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

A man and his son’s journey through post-apocalyptic America. The cause of the fall of civilization is unknown. All that is known is that they must reach the coast. A terrifying look at a conceivable world where the purpose of survival becomes unclear, told through moments of mesmerising stream-of-consciousness.

3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1958)

“Light of my life, fire of my loins”. Lolita, and the notorious Humbert, throw everything we believe in into question. Nabokov’s ingenious experimentation with phonetics and language, its infinite intertextuality and its beautifully translated ethical problem make it the most important triumph of modern literature.*

4. Tess of the D’Urberville’s by Thomas Hardy (1891)

Censored due to its dangerous criticism of Victorian sexual morals, Tess is one of the most important texts in polemicizing patriarchal double-standards. Violent intrusions are staged through both the female body and Industrialisation, which jar with the enchantingly evoked rural Wessex countryside.

5. Room by Emma Donoghue (2010)

Donoghue evokes with astounding realism, sensitivity and emotion the world and its reality according to 5 year-old Jack, brought up in enclosed captivity with his mother. Here, reality inherits a different meaning. Room is a story of bravery, unconditional love and learning to recreate normality in the most shocking circumstances.

 

* In my opinion.

The “N” word in Hip Hop

I fucking love Hip Hop and I’m not ashamed to say it. But whenever I listen to Childish Gambino, or Kanye, or nearly any modern black artist, I have to censor myself to make sure that in my enthusiasm I don’t accidentally say the one avoided word out loud, which is hard considering its frequency of use, and how damn good the lyrics are.

Even though it is just a component of the lyrics – a mode of reference used in this musical context to indicate one’s friend or fellow person – I still feel very uncomfortable saying the “N” word when repeating the lyrics myself. This is firstly because of its obvious derogatory history, which shall always resonate when spoken by the white mouths which engendered its etymology, but also simply because as someone of inherent white privilege I don’t feel that I have a right to.

It annoys the hell out of me when white/non-black then use the word in their colloquial speech. Not only because they sound and look like twats, but because they are repeating the historiographical trend of colonialism and conquest: they are hijacking something which a minority culture has claimed (or reclaimed) as its own.

The “N” word as used in black music and culture to denote the recognition of a close friend or brother was adopted and given a new signification as a sort of “fuck you” to the racist perpetrators who used it as a method of belittlement; it is a way for the victimized to use the very mode of degradation to take back power for themselves.

For this reason I feel we (i.e non-black people) cannot tell these artists what to and what not to do for reasons of ‘political correctness’ and ‘appropriateness’.

Whilst part of me feels that by keeping this disgusting word in circulation we are normalising and rendering acceptable its usage, I also believe that its new signification, attributed to it by black culture, is distinctly different and evolved from its original connotations. I now hear it on Mare Street shouted between close friends, whereas my parents may have sadly overheard it spat at their friends in the street.

I’m not sure how I feel about non-black people using the “N” word when simply, and most likely innocently repeating song lyrics. I guess the only reason I refrain from doing so is because my consciousness of the politics of the word overpower the Kanye-esque alter-ego I adopt when I’ve got my headphones on.

Ironically, there are far worse cultural representations in Hip Hop (THOSE OF WOMEN AS ‘HOES’) which need to be addressed and appropriated, as they have no legitimacy or agency within any art form of any culture. In the mean time, all it takes is a little bit of common sense and intellect to judge what  type of language is appropriate to be used, and by whom.