Claire Benedict argues that" it's difficult to make change happen in exile - we must support Lenny Henry to get greater representation in theatre, film and TV".
Whilst battling through the traffic I wondered what it would be like to meet Claire, her reputation as a strong outspoken defender of the Classical theatre within the community was something I was aware of and I felt some trepidation and apprehension about meeting her for the first time.
I met Claire in a trendy delicatessen near Manchester, and her presence was felt not just by myself but by many of the other people in the room too - this beautiful, tall, classically statuesque woman walked in with an aura that filled the room with warmth and a smile.
Paul: Claire, where did your acting career begin?
At Norwood Secondary school for Girls. There was a supply teacher who was an actress; she could see my potential but my parents wanted me to go into further education to become a social worker. The teacher managed to convince my very reluctant parents to send me to Kingsway Further Education College on the Grays Inn Road, London, where I was able to continue academic studies but more importantly start the drama course there. After two years there I applied for Drama School and got into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). It was the only school I wanted to go to, it's a great school.
Paul: in the 1970's there weren't that many Afro Caribbeans who wanted to be classical actresses -If that supply teacher had not come to your school, do you think I would be talking to a social worker now?
I am not sure, but without her it would have been really difficult to convince my parents. But after that my father gave me some leather-bound Shakespeare volumes that made me think that he was happy to follow me to see where this journey would end. I felt I was now able to follow my dream and do what I wanted with my life.
Paul: After leaving LAMDA what did you want to do next ?
At that time - if I could have worked for the rest of my life at the RSC, I would have been a very happy bunny!
Paul: when you look back at your career to date, what would you say was the big breakthrough?
my career has been good - but it's been a struggle and that's how it is for anyone who wants to be an actor. However, one of the advantages is that my parents did not have to shoulder a financial burden for an extended period of education with loans.
But during this period there were very few roles for black actors to play white characters. So for many years I did acting with TIE (Theatre in Education) which I loved but I knew I had to move on.
In 1991 I got my first job at the RSC to do three plays, Odyssey, Cleopatra and Tamburlaine. Odyssey was reworked by Derek Walcott who is now a lecturer in the US. That was a wonderful experience with Greg Doran, Greg is now the Artistic Director of the RSC. On Cleopatra I was taken on as an understudy for Clare Higgins when not many people of colour were playing Cleopatra. I was due to play Charmain and at the same time I was understudying Clare Higgins; it transpired that at very short notice I was needed to step in but as we had just opened I had not had time to fully rehearse the role. I had not played a lead at the RSC before, and I now also had the added pressure of playing Cleopatra when there had not been many black Cleopatras in the past.
It culminated with me having a mere three days to read the whole play through and be ready. After getting dressed on the night before the first performance I had a brief moment on my own, I stood held my hands up high and prayed for a miracle. I said at least let me look good when I go on the stage - so I put on a load of make up before I went on!
It was the most wonderful night I had ever had in the theatre because I stepped up to the mark. It was extraordinary because it was the culmination of all I had learnt; I was under extreme pressure and I delivered in front of 1200 people. I also realised that I should have played Cleopatra. This was no reflection on Clare Higgins it was more about me and my confidence to be able the play the big roles.
The response was overwhelming; I got letters from teachers at schools saying it was wonderful to see the way Afro Caribbean children related to me on the stage. The Director came back and said some wonderful things to me about the performance that have stayed with me for most of my career. The session afterwards at the pub was memorable too!
Professor Carol Chillington-Rutter's book "ENTER THE BODY" explores this subject with reference to Claire's performance, where she explores why women of colour have traditionally played Charmain and white women Cleopatra.
In many ways this has been the highlight of my career to date and over the years I have often thought that I would have dearly loved to have played Cleopatra again at the RSC.
Paul: At that time what did that mean to you?
It meant that I knew my worth and I have subsequently managed to successfully negotiate my career in theatre and TV understanding that I was good enough, especially as much of the writing in classical theatre was for men.
Paul: Have you not been bitter?
I have always wanted to be a classical actor and I have been just as successful, if not more successful, than most. I see TV and films as an extension of my talents but in my heart the Classical stage comes first. Most people in this industry struggle - I suppose we all just have to try harder, it does make you stronger.
Paul: When you look at the broader TV and Film industry why do so many people from the Afro Caribbean community go to the US?
For me the low point in the UK was in 1997 when Marianne Jean-Baptiste was snubbed.
Marianne Jean- Baptiste won an Oscar nomination for her role as Hortense Cumberbatch in Secrets and Lies but was excluded from the group of actors, supposedly "Britain's finest", who travelled to Cannes to celebrate the film's 50th anniversary. She has subsequently left to work in the US and has a very successful film and TV career.
This was painful for us and I would say that it was a watershed for many Afro Caribbean actors.
Paul: What do think about Lenny Henry's recent comments on underrepresentation in Film and TV?
In the BritishAfroCaribean.com (BAC) article on 20th March 2014, we reported on Lenny Henry's speech at the annual Bafta television lecture in London earlier that month. Henry said he was speaking on behalf of the 2,000 BAME (Black Asian Minority Ethnic) people who have left the industry over the last three years whilst the industry overall has grown by over 4,000. Henry said the situation has "deteriorated badly" with the number of BAME people working in the UK television industry falling by some 30.9% between 2006 and 2012. Since 2008, I have noticed another worrying trend; our most talented BAME actors are becoming increasingly frustrated and they have to go to America to succeed."
I think Lenny is absolutely right, we need to put pressure on the institutions to give more work to minority communities that reflect our society as a whole. In particular the institutions that are directly taking tax payers money. This money should include everyone. The institutions should not be marginalising communities by non inclusion. What's more important is that we do not marginalise ourselves by giving up and separating the Afro Caribbean community from the mainstream.
Paul: Do you see the attraction of the US for Afro Caribbean actors?
Yes, the Americans have more resources and they recognise talent, and of course black people make up 13% of the population there. However, we have developed some tremendous talent in the UK which is easily transferrable to the US. We have worked really hard in the UK to make the industry more open and it would be a shame to see all of the talent go after being trained in the UK. It's very difficult to be in "exile" to support people like Lenny to make the changes in the UK.
Paul: What about the glass ceiling?
I don't think we need to change any of the tertiary education colleges, rather we need to support BAC's proposal for separate preparatory schools between the ages of 7 -13 years. It is a good way to gain the confidence needed to enter the work environment with a thorough understanding of themselves in order to make the right choices in whatever field they pursue in the future.
Within the industry, we need to encourage Afro Caribbean children to become directors , screenwriters, and producers; this will ensure that those commissioning plays, TV and film understand that there is a richer dynamic to the characters we want to see in the future.
Paul: What next for you then Claire?
Here comes the smile...
I have a number of projects that I am pursuing.
Paul: Do you think you will ever play a black Cleopatra at the RSC?
I am getting on now??!
After leaving Claire, I have this unerring feeling of having met someone very special; another woman who embodies all that is good within the community, a true professional who set her dreams young and has seen tremendous success but most importantly, demonstrated resilience to see her dream through, irrespective of the myriad of obstacles along the way .