Hooked on Nigerian elders’ stories from childhood, Joan Iyiola swapped a potential law career for performing. The Mono Box founder tells Tim Bano why her latest role, in The Duchess of Malfi, shows change is happening
What connects the Duchess of Malfi and Black Panther, the comic-book superhero? More than you might have thought, according to actor Joan Iyiola.
Despite an intense morning of rehearsals for John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, in which she is playing the lead role for the Royal Shakespeare Company, when we meet she speaks fluently about gender, race and Marvel’s new blockbuster film.
“It’s so amazing because Black Panther is giving young black boys and girls a vision of superheroes that we never had,” she says, before making the link to matters at hand.
“I don’t think I ever would have imagined that I’d be cast as the Duchess of Malfi, given what I saw. You look at the people who’ve played her, all these dames, fantastic actresses – they’re all white.”
Even after joining that eminent list of dames who have played the role on the RSC stage – from Peggy Ashcroft to Judi Dench – and working with Chiwetel Ejiofor and Daniel Kaluuya  as well as setting up a hugely successful support network for young actors called the Mono Box , she still finds herself being called ‘emerging’.
“There was always this sort of sense that you were emerging, then at some point you were established, and there wasn’t really anything in the middle,” she sighs.
Six years after leaving drama school, Iyiola now has more control about the parts she plays. They are often powerful women, as in Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed  at London’s Gate Theatre in 2015 and the daughter of the queen of the Iceni in Tristan Bernays’ production of Boudica  at Shakespeare’s Globe last year.
But even if she’s already emerged as an actor, it is fair to say she is part of an ‘emerging’ generation of theatre practitioners working relentlessly to change the industry for the better.
What drew Iyiola to acting at first, though, was the simple act of storytelling. Her desire to tell stories is rooted in her childhood, she says. As well as being a voracious reader, clearing the children’s section of the library by the time she was 11, she also credits growing up in a Nigerian family. “The environment was full of fantastic storytellers just by their nature. You could probably speak to many Nigerians and they would sort of say they were an actor on the side.”
She remembers trips to Nigeria where she would sit with an elder for up to five hours while he told stories. “You’d have a numb bum but you’d pick up these wonderful stories, and you’d be hooked the whole time.”
Iyiola spent six summers at the National Youth Theatre , where she started to enjoy “this feeling, this way of expressing myself”. But her parents actively discouraged her from pursuing acting as a career and she ended up studying law at Cambridge University.
As her degree progressed, however, law started to take a backseat until Iyiola decided to apply for drama school in the middle of her final exams at Cambridge. “I thought it would be a good idea,” she laughs. She didn’t get in. But after temping for a bit she applied again and got an offer from Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Q&A: Joan Iyiola
What was your first non-theatre job? Teaching.
What was your first professional theatre job? RSC 2012/13 winter season – A Life of Galileo, Boris Godunov, The Orphan of Zhao.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? To find your inspiration and your tribe, look left and right, as opposed to looking up and trying to reach out for something that was part of a different story or generation.
Who or what is your biggest influence? The Obamas, Viola Davis, Maya Angelou, Angela Davis, my mother: the Nigerian matriarch.
What is your advice for auditions? As long as you’ve done your preparation, if in your own mind you are delivering the best interpretation you can come up with, that is your job done and you’ve given them a gift of something. You’ve given them a bit of yourself. That’s a really positive exchange.
If you hadn’t been an actor what would you have done? I’m an activist at heart so something to do with being with people and effecting change in society.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I’m very superstitious about what goes into my body. If I was tired I used to have a coffee. Now I try another way: meditation, more water. If I’m a little bit tired, maybe there might be something I can find in the performance. I’m also very superstitious about checking in with everyone before the show.
She has thought often about the decision to act, rather than practise law, she says. “I have to remind myself, why did I decide not to become a barrister? My dad had a tear in his eye at my graduation when I told him I wanted to be an actor. But I believe I could have more to say about the world as an actor than as a barrister. I’ve been able to speak about it in a more honest way, a franker way, a more provocative way than I would in the confines of a traditional structure.” She adds: “I really do believe that it can create change.”
And Iyiola certainly has been creating change since graduating. When she left the theatre school, where she was the only black woman in her year, she says she felt a little lost. “This acting thing still felt very mythical and mystical,” she says. So, along with a friend, movement director Polly Bennett, she set up the Mono Box, designed to be “a safe, friendly environment where as an artist you could continue to develop your craft”.
Partly that’s through the group’s extensive play collection, with texts donated by practitioners of all kinds. Anyone donating has to write an inscription inside the cover explaining what the play means to them. The library now includes donations from Caryl Churchill, Dench and Michael Grandage.
Alongside the play collection is a programme of weekly workshops with theatre professionals. “It’s a happy medium of participants who want to work with these directors and facilitators,” Iyiola says, “as well as directors and facilitators who want to find who’s out there to tell these stories.”
Perhaps most significantly, the Mono Box allows Iyiola and Bennett to hear conversations from young practitioners about how theatre should change for the future. And it allows them to link up with others in her generation properly pushing the industry forwards when it comes to gender – “probably the biggest thing of our generation” – race and class.
We talk about Steven Kavuma, who set up the Diversity School  to address the lack of black, Asian and minority ethnic representation, David Mumeni’s Open Door scheme to help people from low-income backgrounds enter drama school, Cherrelle Skeete’s Blacktress UK support network for black actresses and Elizabeth Berrington and Polly Kemp’s Equal Representation for Actresses movement.
These are people not just clamouring for change, but making it happen, and Iyiola says it’s not a moment too soon.
“What you believe about yourself when you leave drama school is indicative of what’s come before. A lot of harrowing stories have to be unpacked in an industry that doesn’t know what it means to unpack them, because they haven’t listened to the conversation. But the voices that are coming through now are very strong.”
The actor believes much of creating change is about asking the gatekeepers to be more open. “If we talk about black actors and actresses, it’s undeniable that there are still people willing to keep that door closed, with superglue if they must,” Iyiola says, “but we’re in a very exciting place where there’s enough force to sort of break through.”
Even in a traditional institution such as the RSC, Iyiola has noticed a shift. It was where she landed her first professional role in 2012, for Michael Boyd’s last season, in Boris Godunov, The Orphan of Zhao  and A Life of Galileo. It’s where she is returning for The Duchess of Malfi, directed by Maria Aberg. Although programmed more than a year ago, it is a prescient look at toxic masculinity.
“Only six years later, the RSC feels different. It feels fresh, it feels really exciting. It’s like a revolution. Erica [Whyman, the RSC’s deputy artistic director] and these other female directors are just flying with imagination. She has an aura of leadership in a way that isn’t imposing, terrifying or distancing.” Iyiola adds, with a chuckle: “I have a massive crush on her.”
Playing the Duchess now, conscious of “all of the generations above who have paved the way for me”, Iyiola feels the weight of great responsibility that comes with the role.
“If a young girl comes to see The Duchess of Malfi now and this is her definitive production, that’s going to be her lasting memory and that’s going to be the conversation that she carries into the world,” she says. “If you have the opportunity, it is about what you can do for the generation coming up behind you.”
CV: Joan Iyiola
Born: London, 1987
Training: Cambridge University; Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
Landmark productions: Life of Galileo, Boris Godunov, Orphan of Zhao, Royal Shakespeare Company (2012/13), A Season in the Congo, Young Vic (2013), The White Devil, RSC (2014), Eclipsed, Gate Theatre, London (2015), They Drink It in the Congo, Almeida, London (2016)
Agent: Deborah Willey at Independent Talent
The Duchess of Malfi runs at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon , until August 3