In Conversation with a Fierce, Uncompromising Visionary, Revolutionising Actor Training

2020 marks a big year for Fourth Monkey. Ten years since the London-based drama school and arts organisation was founded, it also marks the BA (Hons) Acting degree receiving formal accreditation in partnership with Falmouth University, with the first intake of actors-in-training studying the innovative and inclusive programme joining the school for the start of the 2020/21 academic year…

 

This major milestone in the school’s journey couldn’t have been reached without the drive and vision of Co-founder and Director of Training, Charleen Qwaye. One of only a small number of female UK drama school founders and the only female founder of a drama school in the UK who is Afro-British, together with Artistic Director Steve Green, she has spent the last decade taking Fourth Monkey from punchy newcomer to accredited, established institution. She has single-handedly built a BA programme which looks through the lens of her own career as a performer to offer the next generation of artists inclusive, diverse and accessible training at degree level.

 

Taking a rare moment to stop and reflect on the last decade of Fourth Monkey and what the next ten years may hold, as well as her own career in theatre, Charleen explains: “My second job after leaving London Studio Centre (where I trained) and the job that made me fall further in love with acting was Chicago, where I was first cover Roxie Hart. This was a huge moment for me. To have a black female actor chosen to be the first cover for such an iconic lead role, set in 1920s, segregated America – it represented true colour-blind casting on the part of Stephen Paling, the Assistant Director and Choreographer, and Annabel Haydn, the Artistic Supervisor, who were jointly responsible for casting me. They gave me a shot based purely on what they thought I was capable of, and I ran with it. This was incredible and it has always stuck with me.”

 

“My starting point for creating the BA programme was my personal, lived experiences as a professional actor and performer who has worked in a variety of different arenas. I had long felt the stigma surrounding musical theatre artists moving into “traditional” acting, to the point where I knew others in the same position would remove musical theatre credits from their CVs and deny their journey in order to get an unprejudiced opportunity. At the same time, it seemed, that alongside these stigmas, there was also a tendency to include Afro-British representation and artists of colour in order to fulfil a quota, be it intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or unconsciously, with only a relatively disproportionate number of people of colour who were able to ‘get through’.”

“These were, and still are, massive problems for me. I am the sum of the journey that got me here. I did not want to deny myself or my background, and I did not want to be bound by other people’s limitations. I had to find a way to navigate people’s perceptions and assumptions of who I was, where I had come from, my experiences and my training. None of these things guarantee your ability to the do a job (or not) and I strongly believed that opportunities should be available to everyone on the basis of their talent.”

“The only antidote for biases which are ingrained, unconscious or assumed is to actively and deliberately afford space and equity to the wide gamut of diversity and human experience in its truest and richest sense – that depth comes from having a variety of different voices present and ensuring they all have space to be heard equally. To me, where there are people, there is difference and where there is difference there is diversity and that is beautiful – it benefits us all and should be celebrated! That is the foundation of the school, the starting point for all our training and is the driving force that continually propels us forward.”

“Fourth Monkey’s training shakes off limiting preconceptions and the uninterrogated standards which have gone before. It is founded on creating a rich learning environment for everyone, celebrating who they are in their entirety and who they could become. I always say to our students, “you have to do you” – “do you” with honesty and integrity in a way that is fearless and playful but also considered, informed and empathetically connected to those around you.”

Charleen’s personal projects beyond her work at Fourth Monkey reflect her desire to shake up what has gone before. Through a series of conversations dating back to 2017, with HR Director Tony Peers at the National Theatre, Charleen has been a key conduit in helping the organisation understand the impact of low-level bullying, othering behaviours, discrimination, micro-aggressions and the potential for damage if these issues are not fully addressed or taken seriously. The result of these conversations has been the implementation of the first widespread compulsory training for the National Theatre and its managers in over twenty years, enforced by the organisation’s Artistic Director Rufus Norris and Executive Director Lisa Burger, with the aim of ensuring reported incidents are met with greater empathy and agency. This has also resulted in an improved understanding of the complexities of these situations, as well as an awareness that addressing and eradicating an “othering” culture in professional situations is a collective responsibility from which no person or organisation can be exempt.

Part of X-BAG, the Experimental Black Actors Guild, named in homage to the original X-BAG which was formed in Chicago in the late 1960s and committed to writing, creating and dramatizing the Black Experience through online readings and discussions, as well as Bookstreamz, a performance environment bringing together new and experienced actors to look at new ways of storytelling whilst championing diversity and inclusivity, other personal projects seek to take the founding principles of Fourth Monkey and the school’s core ethos out into the wider world, by championing and empowering creatives with the aim of fostering an artistic environment where all voices are heard and celebrated.

Looking to the future of Fourth Monkey as they head into their second decade, Charleen says: “the new BA (Hons) Acting training programme is the culmination of everything we have learned and worked towards – it is the evolution of actor training, and I am immensely proud of that. We have interrogated everything and there is still more work to be done – as we start the next ten years of Fourth Monkey, I’m excited to keep pushing forward, keep evolving, and discover how this third evolution continues to take shape, and how it ultimately shapes the industry we all love”.

 

This profile of Charleen Qwaye, Fourth Monkey’s Co-founder and Director of Training was originally featured on
A Younger Theatre, September 2020.