Afridiziak Theatre News spoke with British actress Petra Letang, best known for her roles in BBC soaps EastEnders and Holby City, ahead of her one woman performance in debbie tucker green’s play random. It opens this week at the annual Chichester Festival Theatre.
Can you tell our readers more about the play and your role?
random was first performed at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre in London, back in 2008 and that was when I first saw it and loved it. I immediately thought it was brilliant and the actress, Nadine Marshall [read interview], who played the characters that I am playing now was just amazing. I remember watching her, and not to sound cliché, I was taken on this journey, it was beautiful to watch. The set was minimal and so the audience was really focused on the single person on the stage, I was gripped by Nadine’s performance.
Speaking for myself as part of the audience but I didn’t question that there were not any other actors but this one person because it was played so well by Nadine and the direction by Sacha Wares was excellent. There were no distractions, I never felt bored or confused with the change of characters by this one woman on stage, instead I was completely gripped and focused.
random is a play that you can’t help but be consumed by, it’s all in the language which is catchy and rhythmic.
I knew of debbie’s work as I’d worked with her before on her directorial debut Truth & Reconciliation which was also my first play at the Royal Court. I remember back then thinking that debbie was quiet and unassuming, I had no idea that in years to come she would continue to be such an amazing writer and bring such a different and unique style and energy to the theatre. It has been a great opportunity to be a part of this production of random.
Without giving too much away random is a play about family, community and is a universal story. There are 5 different characters that I play who are all very distinct individuals and I am hoping that in each of these characters the audience will recognise themselves or someone that they know. This is a play that you can’t help but be consumed by, it’s all in the language which is very catchy and rhythmic. debbie’s writing is very specific and melodic you can tell that music is a part of her style when she writes as there is an almost hip-hop or spoken word tone to her writing. So for me as the actor if you are off rhythm in your lines then the lines won’t make sense to yourself or the audience.
How have you prepared for this role?
debbie’s writing is not the type of writing where you can just get the script and turn up to the audition and not have looked at it with some depth, you will fail if you do that. Any actor who approaches her work needs to be prepared.
I read the script several times as there is always some repetition in debbie’s work and within that there is always a word or some element that is repeated for a reason so I needed to take note. I wanted to make myself as familiar with the script as much as possible. Having worked with debbie previously I was more prepared for what she expects from an actor and I know what she will accept and not accept. debbie is particular about the rhythm and punctuation in her writing and not just in the spoken lines but also the unspoken stage directions which are equally important to debbie’s vision for the performance. So I knew I needed to get my head in this script prior to starting rehearsals.
Now we have started rehearsals it is a matter of collaborating with Tinu (Tinuke Craig) our stage director and basically making sure we are on the same page in terms of where the characters are coming from. We have done some great work in gaining knowledge on the different characters and their backgrounds, fashion style, friends, music and speech. This has helped me to visualize who I am when I am playing each character, how I would stand and carry myself and portray unique character traits. I want the audience to come on this journey with me and really believe in the characters and also connect with them on a deeper level. It’s important to me that the audience don’t just see a woman on the stage playing five different characters but to see each character as an individual. When I’m playing the dad I want them to see the dad and be with him on that stage. debbie’s writing makes it easier for this to happen.
As an actress is this the sort of role that you enjoy, is this where you can get your teeth into your characters?
Oh my days yes! YESSSSS! Put that in capital letters! I think maybe a year or two ago I wouldn’t have been as excited as I am now to do this.
I want the audience to come on this journey with me and believe in the characters and also connect with them on a deeper level.
Why what changed?
In terms of my personal life I have matured. When I first saw this play I remember saying to the friends that were with me that I want to be Nadine (Marshall) when I’m older. I knew back then that I wasn’t emotionally mature enough to take on a show like that and I think now I am at a point in my life where I feel so ready to act in this play, this is perfect timing for my career and my life. I’ve been in the business for 20 years this year and I think as you grow in your own life you realise that there are challenges you are happy to accept so a few years ago I would not have been ready for this but now I am so ready and I am so excited.
It’s scary yes but I’m working with that fear and pushing myself. It’s a good feeling to get a script that I am loving and enjoying and I have so much respect for the director and the writer and working with them has been exciting as we try so many new things and understand each other and our methods. Where I am right now in my career is such a good place.
You’ve been in the business for 20 years, wow you must have seen a lot of change. What is your opinion on today’s industry compared to 20 years ago?
Hmmmm I don’t know if I have seen much change which is sad. The change I have seen is not enough. Without wanting to get too political I feel like there are so many black actors and actresses and I feel like we are still so underrepresented across all areas. There is change in terms of the new talent that is constantly emerging, not only with the actors treading the boards but also the people behind the scenes like directors and producers, and also the writers so I love that. However I know a lot of people who are writers and directors but they find that there is an invisible ceiling that seems to only allow us to get to a certain level in the industry. I have a friend who is a scriptwriter and her work is amazing. But when she tells me about what she goes through as an aspiring writer everytime she sends out her scripts it is just frustrating and disappointing. She’ll get responses from production companies who will be excited by her work but then will ask her to add parts or lines to her scripts and the characters to make them more “authentically black” like what does that mean? I’m not sure that this good enough in 2018.
My perspective on life does not change the colour of my skin, the way I speak or carry myself does not change the colour of my skin. So things like that make me feel like nothing has changed. But then I take a step back and look again and see that things have changed as we have John Boyega doing great things on the big screen and becoming a superstar, and we have other actors and actresses making that leap over to the US too and doing brilliant things. But again on the flip side of that you wonder why they have to go to the States to make their careers happen? Why can we not have success here in the UK? Why are we not employable over here? It’s so frustrating because I’m so grateful for my career but I don’t think it’s fair to speak about the industry from my own personal experience as I know a lot of people who have not had the same chances I have had.
How have you done it?
Don’t get me wrong I have had struggles, I had to go and work in a call centre after doing EastEnders and Holby.
I was still getting scripts for someone called ‘the black girl’. Just that. No actual name to this character, she was just ‘the black girl’, so then you realise you’re just ticking a box or will be the token ethnic minority.
Really? But I would have thought being on Eastenders life would have changed? Everyone assumes that your career is going to just go from strength to strength after being on a hit soap? How was it really?
In this industry with every job you feel like life is going up. It’s not even just from a money perspective it’s the building of your portfolio and growing as an actor. Yes the money is good on a show like EastEnders or Holby City but you have to remember that once you leave the show you still have responsibilities. I had a mortgage, bills, and I have a child now, so you have to keep in mind that if an actor has been in a show like EastEnders and a year later hasn’t worked much there is no money left. The money is getting spent. I know people judge and think you have squandered your money but for me I didn’t want to keep dipping into my savings I wanted to get back out to work so it was a necessary decision on my part to get a job in a call centre, and believe me there were other actors in that call centre. I won’t say any names but yes I wasn’t alone.
The other frustrating thing about life after EastEnders is that you feel like, ok, now I’m going to start getting more roles with more substance and drama now that people have seen me and know what I can do. But I’m not gonna lie to you I was still getting scripts for someone called ‘the black girl’. Just that. No actual name to this character, she was just ‘the black girl’, so then you realise you’re just ticking a box or will be the token ethnic minority in the production not an actual fleshed out character. It’s ridiculous. I was on EastEnders for two years and then I had two years on Holby and still I was getting scripts like that. You just think to yourself is this a joke? So then it’s up to me to work on keeping my dignity in tact and only accept scripts where I can feel proud of myself and know that this is worth my while as an actress where I won’t get put in a box. So sadly the industry has not changed much. It’s frustrating and annoying.
How do we tackle this lack of change?
Well we tackle it by having more people of colour and also people from every background who care about diversity and not just as a box ticking exercise. We need more black producers, directors, writers and we need our own channel. I know it’s expensive but we need a UK based channel to showcase our work and talent. As this is not just a problem for actors but across the board for writers, directors, producers and all the other areas that people want to get involved.
Theatre, TV, and film is for everyone and that should be reflected by what is being created.