We all have to start somewhere.
This is the beauty of The Stage Debut Awards, which last Sunday celebrated another year of extraordinary emerging talent in UK theatre.
Our winners and nominees – at the very beginning of their careers – rubbed shoulders as equals with some of the biggest names in our industry: from our superb host Cush Jumbo to National Theatre artistic director Rufus Norris to writer and performer Mark Gatiss.
But all of them – no matter how successful they are now – went through a period when they were struggling and striving to break through, just as those nominated for The Stage Debut Awards have been more recently.
Theatre can be brutal no matter how talented you are – the drop-out rate is staggeringly high – so everyone in the room understood the challenges the newcomers had faced and the sacrifices they and their families had made to get them there.
It was notable just how many winners thanked their mothers. Best actress in a play Lauren O’Leary described how – after she thought she wouldn’t be able to make an audition because she was on a family holiday – her mum had given her a pep talk (“You have to turn up for what you believe in”) and driven through the night on two hours’ sleep so her daughter could make a flight from Ireland to Wales. She got the part, for which she was now collecting an award.
Other winners talked of even greater challenges. Jamal Ajala, who won the best actor in a play award, and delivered his speech using British Sign Language, said: “Even though I’m speaking in my Scottish accent tonight [his interpreter was Scottish], I would like to say I’m a Deaf, black, Nigerian man and I’ve had to break through some barriers to get here. I hope that young people can see this and realise they can break through those barriers.”
We launched The Stage Debut Awards because we wanted to shine a spotlight on new talent and give it a platform to succeed at a time when support is vital. But it has only worked so well because the people who inspired them on their paths – the established stars – have embraced the spirit of the awards.
Showbusiness can be depicted as shallow and competitive – the ‘luvvie’ image that glitzy awards ceremonies do little to dispel – but if there is one event that reveals theatre at its generous, collaborative and non-hierarchical best, it is The Stage Debut Awards.
It is genuinely inspiring.
Alistair Smith is the editor of The Stage. Read his weekly column at thestage.co.uk/author/alistair-smith