After another successful year for The Stage Debut Awards, Noma Dumezweni hails their importance to the industry. Not only do they celebrate emerging talent, they open up a world of diversity and community
The Stage Debut Awards, in association with Access Entertainment, are a welcome to this theatre world we’re all in. I love that they are about new talent, not just young talent, and that’s really important. Young talent is always sought after but it is lovely that this embraces everyone, of whatever age, who has just made their mark. It says: ‘This really can happen. It doesn’t matter how you get there, or how long it took, you’re there. Well done.’
I really enjoyed that the audience was made up of those who remember their beginnings. It is scary in those early times. Starting off we never quite know which way to go, and the Debut Awards are great because they provide some direction. This is an important thing.
When I first started out this world seemed so big, and as I continue it feels so small. At the beginning you’re always asking yourself: “Will I get there? Will I work with those people?” It all feels so far away.
I didn’t go to drama school so it felt even more remote then. How do you get to know what’s needed? The more I’ve worked, the smaller this world has become. I’ve expanded my presence, my awareness and the number of people I meet. And that’s what The Stage Debut Awards offer – people like me saying: “We’re here, we’re around you, don’t worry.”
‘The world is changing and theatre is no different. New talent brings new voices’
It immediately made me think back to my early days of fringe and pub theatre jobs. My first job was a Theatre in Education gig, which was how I got my Equity card. The day it dropped through the letter box was so exciting, I remember thinking: “I am officially an actor.” I was a bit annoyed that they opened it up to everyone about six months later, but there is something about the struggle being lovely, without being masochistic.
There is a lovely innocence to the Debut Awards. They are very different from the Oliviers and others. For those of us who have been around for a while, it is great to recognise those who are arriving, because, in some ways, we are recognising ourselves starting out.
In the industry now there is more support for new talent, and new talent is going out there more often and creating the opportunities themselves.
One of last year’s winners was actor Georgia Frost, who received the Alan Bates Award. She had beaten more than 300 students to the Actors Centre prize, which offers the emerging winner support including free subscriptions to Equity, Spotlight and The Stage. There is so much more support in that sense, because it is clear how difficult it is to start out in this world.
The world is changing and theatre is no different. The new talent brings voices that have not been heard before. It’s part of the zeitgeist. Like with the #MeToo movement and Time’s Up, people are saying: “We’re here, this shift has been happening. And you are not on your own.”
We are getting there. We’ve always had black actors on stage but now we’re being brought to the forefront, with more leading roles, rather than just supporting ones. Voices are getting louder.
Blacktress UK, a group for black women actors of the African diaspora, recently announced a new work-in-progress season. It was set up by Cherrelle Skeete, who played my daughter in the original production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End.
What fabulous work. She came out of drama school feeling disillusioned and misunderstood. But with social media and personal contacts, she, and others, could share their story with colleagues who felt the same. They could create a network. Me and my black female peers starting out 20 years ago felt alone. We were around, but we didn’t know how to connect with each other.
I recently worked with Michaela Coel on Black Earth Rising, currently airing on the BBC and later on Netflix. You look at what she’s done, and what Cherrelle and others from their generation have done – that’s exciting. They are truly creating lives they would like to live.
On Cherrelle’s Instagram is an Audre Lorde quote: “It is not our differences that divide us, it is our inability to recognise, accept and celebrate those differences,” which is absolutely what we are talking about. Celebrating difference is divine. We all have a space in the world.
While big steps may be happening for representation on the stage, elsewhere it is slower. There is movement towards diversity backstage, but it’s at a snail’s pace. It’s largely about education and it needs time. I believe apprenticeships work, but how do you get that happening backstage? Especially as people don’t know you can do backstage work for a job. A lot of people of colour do not know how to get into that world. I am particularly interested in hair and make-up and want to see more women and men of colour in those departments. In creating these spaces and experiences, you see and feel the opportunity and you trust it will arrive, but you need to put things in place to allow that ambition to arrive.
It is an interesting time for the straight white male to be alive. There are so many people in terms of gender, race, culture who are making themselves heard. As an older black woman this is exciting, but I have empathy for the straight white male in facing change. We are looking at them and saying: “You have all the jobs and all the power. But we don’t want to take anything away from you, we just want to meet you, for equity and equality. I just want an experience of what you have.”
There’s enough for everybody and what I like about the younger generation is that bad practice is being called out and people are being challenged. My generation was taught to make people feel comfortable and avoid making them feel threatened. This generation just gets on with it, and asks: “Why should I have to make you feel comfortable to express my creativity?”
And it brings me back to The Stage Debut Awards – the joy of it and seeing the variety that is celebrated. I thought of the talented winners and nominees: “Yes, you should be here. With your creativity.”And above all, for everyone present, the awards say: “There is a world here for you. You’re not alone.”
Noma Dumezweni is an Olivier award-winning actor and an ambassador for The Stage supports – visit supports.thestage.co.uk for more