Making theatre for positive change

Vicky Olusanya

We’re talking to all the brilliant artists we’re working with as part of this year’s Inside Out digital drama workshops project. First up is theatre-maker Vicky Olusanya, who is leading the Saturday morning sessions with our younger (18 to 27-year-old) LGBTQ+ participants.

How did you first get involved in theatre?
I never really did drama at school. But my friend wanted me to come with her to an after-school club at Shakespeare’s Globe. It was a space outside of school and I could be the part of me that I felt I couldn’t be at school. And as part of the course, we had to do a performance on stage at The Globe. Our group did King Lear and I had the opening lines on the balcony and it was the most brilliant experience of my life – I will never forget it. And then the same friend – Comfort, you’re wonderful, my inspiration! – was auditioning for National Youth Theatre (NYT) and she was like, ‘Can you come with me?’ I chose a monologue by one of the male characters from The Importance of Being Earnest. The director said something really positive and I left on cloud nine. That thing of having a real professional from the industry telling me I was good – that spurred me on quite a bit. And I got in straight away. But I had a terrible time. I was 16 and way younger than everybody else. And I was really poor and wearing school PE kit in parts because I didn’t have nice clothes with all these older drama school kids who were 18 to 21 and they did have nice clothes. So that put me off acting for a while.

What made you change your mind?
It was only in my last year of uni doing history and thinking what I would do after my degree that I realised the only thing I could remember that gave me joy was being on stage at The Globe and I went, ‘I should just do that then!’ So I did an acting diploma at Central, where, by the end of it, I did feel like I could be an actor now because the training was so rigorous. After that, I was doing anything on offer at GLYPT, Greenwich and Lewisham Young People’s Theatre, and because I was one of the older people I would support the tutor, which was a really great experience in understanding like the backbones of how you facilitate. And while I was there, we did Mother Courage with Teatro Vivo. I was part of the community chorus but because I was one of the people that were there the whole run I got a bit of money for it so that was my first paid acting gig. And I had a kind of unofficial mentor there, James Traherne, who was a fount of knowledge, who was like, ‘You want to be an actor – this is the stuff you should know.’

How did you start making queer theatre?
I went back to NYT for an R&D with Rikki Beadle-Blair. That was my first queer theatre experience. And it was great because it kickstarted a lot of stuff for me in terms of being able to talk about queerness and being around other queer people and make connections that led on to work further down the line. So even though it was just a week, it was really formative. A lot of my work at the Arcola came through somebody I met through that R&D: I directed The Quest by Robert Holton for the Arcola Queer Collective, and that was very much a baptism of fire, figuring it out and making it work. I had wonderful movement director, Rubyyy Jones, and together we made something that people enjoyed doing and it got really good feedback from audiences. After that, I did the Collaborative Theatre-Making MA at Rose Bruford. That was a big moment because it made me realise I knew a lot of stuff already, which boosted my confidence – and having that name does help career-wise.

How important are queer theatre projects to you?
I figured out I was bisexual a long time ago but recently I’ve found a language for my gender identity being gender fluid and non-binary – and it’s taken a long time to find that language because the only time I really get to be around other queer people is during these sorts of projects and workshops where there are other people like me. So they are a really important way to find people and stay connected.

What attracts you to participation work?
I love participatory or community theatre. It’s somewhere where the rehearsal room process and vibes are valued just as much if not more than the end product. And I think that’s really important, because in ‘professional’ theatre, your aim is to get the show ready and good and a lot of the time it’s not about the process to get there. What I love about doing community theatre is that it allows you to spend time working on what the experience is like for the actors the whole way through. It’s about community-building. I think in the age that we live in, where community has shifted, our lives are much more fast-paced and insular, our families aren’t always the villages around us. Theatre provides an opportunity to make connections, to be vulnerable with each other, in a place that is safe and not alcohol-fuelled, as a group that has a shared goal and an aim to work towards. And there are very few opportunities for that in life. I’m really fortunate enough to work at The Young Vic’s Taking Part department and the work that we do is very much about deep, long term engagement. So really like working with the community, and not just doing stuff that is an easy win, but actually looking at how can we reach groups that haven’t been reached yet and sticking with them long term and giving them – life-changing sounds a bit dramatic! – but actual, meaningful experiences. And that’s not to sacrifice the end-product ¬ the end-products are always really excellent. But it’s about making sure we use theatre for positive change in a holistic way.

Vicky Olusanya in The Pepys Show

What are you working on yourself right now?
Before lockdown, me and my friend Tilly Lunken started working on a one-person show about Samuel Pepys but told by a female actor, The Pepys Show. We felt this connection to someone we felt was quite problematic but we were still enamoured with him, like he’s so interesting. And then over lockdown, I had the idea, ‘Maybe we can use this to explore something else’. Drag has been something I’ve wanted to do for years now but I’ve never had a real impetus to make a character. But then I thought with my gender identity journey, I felt like if I’m going to make a piece of work right now, I think that’s what it would be about. We started to nail down what the story is during an R&D at Artsdepot earlier this year. So I’m playing Francis Pepin, who is an administrator in the 21st century, and they create the character of Pepysing Tom, after an encounter with Samuel Pepys which gives them the licence and power to be who they want to be and always were but never felt confident enough to do it. We’re doing a 20-minute piece of the show at on a scratch night Omnibus Theatre in Clapham on Monday 29 November.

• Inside Out is Inky Cloak’s participation project, delivering weekly digital drama workshops for younger (18–27 years old) and older (55-plus) LGBTQ+ participants with the financial support of Arts Council England.