Supported by funders including Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke, the Open Door scheme is making world-class training accessible for all. John Byrne discovers how the initiative is transforming theatre’s talent pool
The first thing that struck Levi Brown when he moved to London from Halesowen, a small West Midlands town, was the sheer volume of theatrical and creative activity going on in the capital. His second discovery was more sobering: “I found myself having to work seven days most weeks to make ends meet. My dream of going to drama school suddenly felt far away.”
It turned out to be a trip to the barbershop, rather than a theatre, that made the difference. “I mentioned my acting and the barber told me that another regular customer was in the same business.” That other customer turned out to be Gbolahan Obisesan, Jerwood award-winning director, and a tutor on the Open Door initiative.
Launched in 2017, Open Door is a non-profit organisation providing 18-25 year olds from low-income households with financial support as well as a year-long programme of training, mentoring and other resources in preparation for, and in support of, drama school applications. Brown successfully auditioned to join the first cohort of 30 young people. A year later, he is about to start training at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, having also had offers from LAMDA and the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama.
Open Door was founded by actor David Mumeni, whose own credits include work with the Royal Court, the Donmar Warehouse and Cheek by Jowl.
“Despite the recent negative press about drama schools in relation to access and diversity, I don’t think I would be doing the range of acting work I do without the benefits of training,” he says. “Having worked extensively with youth via the National Youth Theatre and elsewhere, I found myself constantly meeting young people who were interested in drama, but didn’t have the information or financial resources they needed to move their goal forward. I wanted to do something to change that.”
Elizabeth Ayodele, aged 21 from south London, considers herself a good example of the kind of actor Mumeni was aiming to reach.
“It’s all very well people telling you that you have acting talent and great potential (I’ve heard this a lot throughout my life) but if you aren’t given the tools and resources to take that forward it is very easy to become discouraged. I first saw an Open Door flier on Twitter and assumed it was a new drama school. When I attended the audition and David explained what the initiative was actually about, it immediately struck me as the thing I had been missing.
“It has been an amazing year, and not just in terms of professional development. Working with the tutors and mentors taught me so much about myself.”
Ayodele’s year culminated with two drama school offers. She will soon start on the musical theatre course at Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, one of six leading drama schools that offer free auditions to Open Door participants.
David Bond is head of acting at another of those schools – the Royal Welsh College. “We had our most exciting audition day for years when the Open Door candidates arrived,” he says. “A group of highly promising candidates we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. This is a glorious example of focused action to actually address an issue that is often only discussed.”
Prominent voices from the wider industry are equally enthusiastic.
“We each need to look to ourselves to see what we can be doing in our sector of the industry to make the future of the arts as inclusive as possible,” says Troika agent Sarah Stephenson. “Open Door is not only doing that with young actors but also reminding drama schools, agents and the wider industry what our responsibility is.”
Amy Ball, head of casting at the Royal Court and an Open Door trustee, feels a similar responsibility: “I work mainly in new writing and this requires me to employ actors from all backgrounds to tell these stories. It’s not helpful to me to see a plethora of similar-looking and sounding people in one year group when I go to a drama school show.”
Her words are echoed by film and TV casting director Shaheen Baig: “I want to go into drama schools and feel like they are representing the country I live in. They should be socially diverse and reflect the country as a whole.”
For Mumeni, an important marker of the first year’s success is in the tangible results: “More than 200 audition recalls and 85 final round auditions. There were 35 offers of places at LAMDA, Central, Drama Centre, RADA, Royal Welsh and Guildhall, the six schools partnering with us, in addition to offers from Royal Scottish, Arts Ed and Mountview.”
The first year of the initiative was funded by Arts Council England, actor Emilia Clarke, Woven Voices and United Agents. New funders have recently come on board including Conway van Gelder Grant and Emptage Hallett, but with the first regional expansion (into the East Midlands) due to start at the end of the year, and London auditions for 30 more participants starting in October, Mumeni is constantly on the lookout to build new relationships both in terms of sponsorship and also expanding the number of venues (such as the Royal Court, Soho Theatre and the Donmar) that support the scheme by providing workshop and rehearsal space.
“This access is another reason I would encourage young actors, who are where I was last year, to apply,” says Open Door participant Brown. “The boost in confidence you get from the workshops and mentoring sessions is valuable in itself, but walking into the Royal Court through the stage door rather than the public entrance, or being backstage at the Old Vic knowing actors like John Boyega have worked in the same spaces, really helps you feel that being part of the industry is within your reach.”
For Donmar Warehouse artistic director Josie Rourke, this feeling of being welcome sums up the success of Open Door’s first year.
“We’re a storytelling industry. Without a range of voices to tell those stories, we become calcified and irrelevant. We’re right to be proud of how well we train actors in this country. Open Door’s dedication to making that training accessible to all is crucial.”