Word of Colour

Interview with Elizabeth Bisola

Elizabeth Bisola is an actress, screenwriter, playwright and producer who gained her law degree at the University of Kent. Bisola trained as a writer under Soho Theatre, Lyric Hammersmith and the London Academy of Film & Television. Most recently, she co-founded Next Up Talent showcase – a diverse talent initiative for actors of colour – and was shortlisted for the BAFTA Rocliffe film competition and Edinburgh International TV Festival’s The Debbies award. She speaks to Heather Marks about the challenge of raising funding and breaking open the historical narrative about black people.

You’ve been a playwright for eight years, but you studied law at the University of Kent. What led you to write?

I’ve always been into acting and writing. I did it at college and I’ve been part of performance groups as a teenager into my adult years. For me, doing law was just to appease the family, but during my studies I did acting projects during the summer and kept trying to write here and there. I’ve always tried to keep my foot in the arts, but I’m so glad I have my law degree because it has helped me a lot in this industry – I’ve been able to support my income with the skills I learned on my degree.

Where did the idea for the Next Up Talent Showcase come from?

It started as an idea from my producing partner Kandace Caine. She was in LA for two years and talked about these showcases held by huge networks to get talented actors of colour and female actors. She explained how these showcases could lead these actors to getting deals and monetary holds so that they are financially supported. When she came back to the UK, we bounced ideas back and forth and said: “We can do this here. We can set up a platform for artists of colour to meet industry professionals.”

We did the first showcase last year in February at the Raindance Studios, self-funded. Our next showcase took place at the National Theatre in November, this time funded by the Arts Council. It has been very successful for the creatives who took part: actors have been invited to audition for theatre productions and Channel 4, writers have been asked to send their scripts to TV companies and many of our actors have been picked up by agents.

The next step for Next Up is collaboration, mentorship and production development. One of our Next Up alumna is doing a showcase in Theatre Peckham and we will be supporting and offering mentorship to her. Also, Next Up is going to present my one-woman show, which I’m working on now. When we do our next showcase, we’re thinking of making it women-only to create more opportunities for women in the industry.

In establishing Next Up you had a mentor and now Next Up is mentoring people who have come through this programme. Is it important to have a mentor as a woman of colour in the arts industry?

Absolutely. If it wasn’t for Yvette Griffith (Executive Director of Jazz Re:freshed) who I’ve known for years and who has guided me for so long, we may not have been able to get the funding we needed for our second showcase. She is someone who is at the top of her career and it is difficult to find a woman of colour like that in this industry. Having her as a mentor helped us to organise, but also helped me immeasurably to pass on those skills to younger artists who are hungry and want to create good work.

Recently, you were shortlisted for the All3Media New Voices Award for a script called The Chronicles of Hydra, a historical thriller set in the 19th century, featuring a multi-ethnic cast. What led you to develop this story?

I’m concerned with black people’s historical footprint outside of the enslaved narrative and the Chronicles of Hydra came about because I stumbled across the Despard Plot [a failed conspiracy led by British revolutionaries in 1802]. I began to do more research and became intrigued by this white Irish officer, Edward Despard, who was establishing a career similar to Lord Nelson but decides to turn his back on all of that to become a liberator. Then there’s his wife, Catherine Despard, an African woman from Belize. She was the main architect of Edward’s liberation when he was in prison, fought for prison reform in the early 19th century and managed to get London’s working class supporting this man. Chronicles of Hydra is based on their relationship and the Despard Plot, so while I have fun with it to make it entertaining, I want to present their story with honesty and integrity.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my one woman show which is called Mami Water. It focuses on the idea of the strong black woman and how this stereotype has made society masculate and de-feminise us. It also goes into conversations about the stigma of black women with disabilities and the stigma of mental health. I’m putting together a Research and Development package for it at the moment, and my hope is to see the show premiere in a theatre, take it on tour and bring it into schools.

In your eight years of acting, what has been a life-changing learning point?

Doing Next Up showed me that I can do whatever I desire to do. It’s not about getting there as quickly as possible, it’s about having the belief, the resources and the people around me to make it happen. For me, the biggest lesson I have learned is that I don’t need to wait for other people’s permission; that I can be unapologetically black in what I am doing and not be afraid.

You can follow Elizabeth Bisola on Twitter: @ElizaAlabi.

Picture credit: ©Michael Wharley