'Why we need a theatre company for actors from low income backgrounds'


Aaron Douglas and Loussin-Torah Pilikian, rehearsing Interruptions which runs at Jacksons Lane Theatre from November 20 - Credit: Guy Bell

Impoverished actors are nothing new, but Kentish Town director Guy Woolf says a chasm has opened up with the profession only affordable for the middle-classes. He is creative director of represent. a new theatre company for actors from lower socio-economic backgrounds, whose debut season Albatross and Interruptions runs in rep at Jacksons Lane, Highgate from November 22. 

Guy Woolf

Kentish Town director Guy Woolf who is creative director of new theatre company represent. - Credit: Guy Bell

Q Why do we need a theatre company like represent.?

A I got an acting job early in my career that I later discovered somebody had turned down because they couldn’t afford to take the job. I was living with my mum in London, rent free, and able to take the opportunity. It was a great part, but I felt the injustice of that keenly. While there have been long overdue strides in improving diversity, that seemed to stop short when it comes to class. According to Government statistics, 91.8 percent of people in the arts are from a middle-class background. And Sutton Trust research shows despite just 7 percent of British kids attending private schools, 42 percent of British BAFTA winners attended fee-paying schools. It’s no surprise – the job doesn’t pay well, it’s highly competitive, and even auditioning for drama schools costs hundreds of pounds, not to mention the high fees if you get in.


Loussin-Torah Pilikian rehearsing Interruptions - Credit: Guy Bell

Because class is not a protected characteristic in law, it is not given the same attention when representation rears its head. So we see the same faces in the same places and the work on our stages doesn’t reflect our country's diversity. The time was right for a company that works exclusively with actors from lower income backgrounds, pays them properly and commits to a repertory structure which allows the same cast to perform in multiple productions. We also defy the notion of ‘casting type’: your look should not define the kind of roles you can play.

Q: Has the pandemic made the imbalance' worse?

A: Since our rehearsals were cut short in March 2020 an original cast member has pulled out feeling unable to continue due to the financial precarity. I don’t think we’ve seen the full extent of the impact of the pandemic on the arts yet but we can see theatres taking fewer risks. I also fear for the future of some fringe venues – government support came way too late and prioritised more commercial spaces – and the grants for freelancers were poor, particularly for younger people new to their career. Many will see this profession as beyond them, and that is a massive tragedy.


Sarel Madyiza rehearsing Interruptions - Credit: Guy Bell

Q: How do the arts benefit from a greater diversity of participants?

Most Read

A: We live in arguably the most diverse city on earth, and the culture is meant to reflect its people otherwise, what is culture? Or at least, what’s the point of it? For so long now, theatre has had an elitist badge on its lapel that tells people it’s not for them. Work is programmed by, starring and for a cultural few who determine what is valuable and what is not. That makes the work boring and does not do what great art should do: challenge and provoke.

Q: You are performing Albatross by Isley Lynn and Interruptions by Stephen Jeffreys

A: Talk about challenging and provoking! Albatross is set around a tattoo parlour and is about how the choices or mistakes that we make can last forever, like a tattoo. It depicts homelessness, sex work and social inequalities which felt like fertile ground for our company. Interruptions is about leadership and democracy, exploring how we work together as a society when major world events interrupt us. It was originally written for 12 but I asked Annabel Arden (Stephen Jeffrey's wife and co-founder of Complicité), if we could adapt it for 6. Not only did she agree but she supported me. The production has songs and surprises that hit you in the gut and take you on a massive journey.

Q: Interruptions asks questions about whether we need leaders and who should lead us?


Nemide May, Emily Pemberton, Loussin-Torah Pilikian and Aaron Douglas rehearsing Interruptions - Credit: Guy Bell

A: There are seven scenes, each almost a stand-alone short play revolving around politics, work, death, food etc, in which the activity is interrupted - sometimes by something small, sometimes by something big like a military coup. The characters are forced to navigate these interruptions and negotiate how to lead themselves: ultimately asking: what happens if there are no leaders? What is left when social structures are torn away? We have all experienced a major interruption in the last 18 months in which our leaders have failed us and the notion of leadership has been brought into question. Stephen's play has never felt timelier.

Q: How are you funded?

A: The Texel Foundation have been unbelievably supportive: Chairman Andy Lennard, who sits on our board and Katy Beechey, our Executive Director, are the lynchpins of the company, without whom none of this would be possible. Right now we’re a candle, tomorrow a bonfire!

Q: What's next?

A: A period of reflection, then planning season 2! We have lots of ideas and exciting discussions with companies and venues so watch this space. We’re uploading recordings of post-show talkbacks on our YouTube channel which explore the themes in our productions. Our panellists have included Chris Sonnex (Artistic Director of Cardboard Citizens) and at Jackson’s Lane we have Rabbi Laura Janner Klausner, Marcus Davey (Chief Executive of the Roundhouse), Simon Stephens, April de Angelis, and Annabel Arden discussing leadership and the legacy of Stephen Jeffreys.