“Theatre has the power to entertain, educate and question society. It has the power to start conversations that can move society forward. There’s a freedom that comes with losing yourself in a character” – Francesca Amewudah-Rivers.
We caught up with Evening Standard Future Theatre Fund winner Francesca Amewudah-Rivers to discuss her role as Othello on the National Youth Theatre’s REP Company tour. Set against the early 90s rave scene, with electrifying music and movement, the retelling of this cautionary tale is directed by Olivier Award-winning Miranda Cromwell (Death of a Salesman, West End) with Associate Director Mumba Dodwell (2019 NYT REP Bryan Forbes Bursary) and abridged by multi-disciplinary artist and dramatist Dzifa Benson (Creative Producer at The Water Replies for Estuary 2021 Festival.)
The actress begins by explaining that her parents are first generation black british, having grown up in a small village in Sussex. With a family rich with an educational and creative background, Francesca openly admits she did not realise at the time but this was the start of her interest in a creative career.
Journey into Theatre
The actress explains that she had a lot of energy as a kid growing up. Pointing out that her parents encouraged her to attend multiple clubs to keep herself busy. “I loved sports but there was a period in my mid teens where I kept getting injured and I realised I couldn’t sustain high level sport for much longer, so I needed to put my energy into something else”. Having seen an ad in the newspaper for National Youth Theatre, the actress decided to join at the age of 15, and found NYT completely changed her life. For the actress, it taught her that acting can be a serious profession for creatives. Fast forward eight years to today and Francesca is scheduled to open three shows with the NYT REP Company!
“Youth theatre has taught me everything I know. As well as National Youth Theatre, I trained with Almeida Company, TALAWA’s youth programme and Theatre Royal Stratford East”.
The actress highlights that whilst at university she set up a drama society to provide more opportunities for students of colour and I put all of her time and energy into performing. In her humble opinion, you can never stop learning as a performer and explains how she was always looking for the next project or course to get involved with. Referencing a lot of youth theatre programmes were free which was an added bonus for the aspiring actress.
Challenges of Bringing Othello to Life
With Othello such a well known Shakespeare play. In addition to the titular character having been played by so many accomplished actors who the actress admires, she found stepping into their shadow quite intimidating and overwhelming. The character of Othello is complex and layered, Francesca explains. Pointing out that whilst exciting, it was also quite emotionally exhausting. “In our version, Othello is a
woman which has been both the biggest blessing but also the biggest challenge to bring parts of myself as a black woman to the role”. The biggest challenge for the actress was the language, as she had not studied or performed Shakespeare before, so naturally found it quite daunting.
“The best advice I heard about performing Shakespeare is ‘know what you say and love how you say it’ and so once I broke down the text and found the rhythm and poetry within, I grew to love it. I get terrified before every performance but you have got to embrace the nerves and use it to further yourself”.
For the actress, the pandemic has taught her that human connection is essential to our health and wellbeing. Theatre provides a safe space to experience togetherness, in different ways. Whether you’re on stage, backstage, writing the show, or watching, there’s a sense of community.
She explains that she expected to find the process more isolating when she first got involved. “I think it is difficult when people in your family or your immediate circle don’t have any experience in whatever industry you want to go into. My family doesn’t have a background in theatre so I initially thought I wouldn’t have anyone to ask for advice”. Francesca goes onto highlight how the more she pursued the more she found there was support out there for aspiring theatre makers. Referencing Youth theatre programmes/companies including Diversity Squad. In addition to venues such as the Royal Court which are available to support and act as a network hub for a variety of aspiring creatives/artists.
The Art of Collaboration
The actress feels its important to remember that collaboration is at the heart of theatre. To be someone who people want to work with, be generous, be courageous. Take risks in training because you definitely learn the most from making mistakes. Be curious, do your research and work hard. Highlighting that you will get out of it what you put into it.
She goes onto point out that when you go to the theatre or watch a show, you only see the end product. You see actors on stage or screen, however you don’t realise that there is so much work that goes into the show. Francesca recalls being incredibly naive when she started out as an actor about the whole creative process. With this in mind, she recommends aspiring creatives make sure you know all the elements of theatre making, not just your role. To not wait for people to give you opportunities, but create your own!