Sheila Atim interview: ‘The government could do with empowering people to get in the driving seat, particularly those who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance.’
In April, Olivier Award winning Actor Sheila Atim said that she wanted to see more women ‘who look like her’ winning Olivier awards. Atim also warned that the industry should not “get complacent” about diversity, saying there is “always work to do”.
Atim is positive about developments but also direct about the pressing importance of diversity on and off stage. “I’m seeing a lot more of friends getting great roles and I’m seeing a lot more of my non-white friends in stronger positions to create work,” says Atim, 27.
We talk about representation, in all its forms, on and off stage. “Representation is the perfect word,” she agrees. “It is not just the representation on stage. The reality is until you get to the top level you are the last person – as the actor – to come on board a project. In terms of how the shots are called and before we get to the casting process, we need to look at shifting the culture of that group,” Atim says.
“There is definitely a momentum building to take control of our own careers, you can look at it as progress,” she says. “Ultimately, I think it is important that those people are in that space and are aware of the disparities. They have a responsibility to create a channel and have a position where they can genuinely call some shots. If I reach that point, I’m not going to sit there by myself. I will try and do that to make sure I facilitate others – you can’t just talk about it – every forward motion has equal and opposite reaction.”
In 2017 Atim starred as Marianne in Conor McPherson’s stunning Bob Dylan musical Girl From The North Country, taking Dylan’s music and giving it a new spin. This year she took home the best actress in a supporting role in a musical Olivier Award for her exquisite performance.
She brightens when I ask what that whirlwind was like. I tell her that she owes me an apology for breaking my heart. “I can’t overstate how special that job was and to be able to share it with the people that we shared it with,” she says, cheerfully. “It was like a weird dream that was happening to us all. It felt like one of those moments where I’d say – everything about this is right –everyone gets it – this is it. That is why when people tell me they enjoyed it so much, I still feel moved,” she adds.
We discuss patronage; those privileged few in positions of power who control appointments and decisions. She says: ‘We have to allow people to stand on their own two feet and make sure that everyone’s voices are being heard – this is a larger conversation to do with allyship; you have to allow us to take the steering wheel – otherwise we will remain in a position where we are at someone else’s mercy.”
Now she is starring in an independent film – as shipwrecked twins Viola and Sebastian in a modern screen adaptation of William Shakespeare’s comedy Twelfth Night by Shanty Productions – an independent film production company, co-founded by Rakie Ayola and Adam Smethurst. The play has been adapted for the screen to reflect multicultural Britain today.
Does she see the 400-year-old play as a comedy? “It is a comedy but when I was filming my sections – I was not experiencing comedy,” she exclaims.
“There is humour in the conceit of Viola and Sebastian being twins and people thinking that they’re dead, however, the distress they are feeling is very real: Viola thinks her brother is dead and assumes an image of her brother and is worried about her currency of being a woman – that is a really sad story! She has someone who has fallen in love with her but is trying to facilitate a relationship – similarly for Sebastian. It was interesting playing both those characters and seeing the film and being reminded that it is a funny film – it was a great experience. Truly. Around the time we filmed it there had been a lot in the media around the refugee crisis – which this does give nods to. Even now, it feels timely.”
Atim is no stranger to Shakespeare – in 2016 she performed in Phyllida Lloyd‘s acclaimed all-female Shakespeare trilogy at the Donmar. Recently she starred in Othello as Emilia, alongside Mark Rylance, at Shakespeare’s Globe. Does she see herself doing more of the Bard’s work in the future? “I do want to do more,” she says. “However, I feel interspersing Shakespeare with other stuff is great because then it gives me a chance to not get cynical and get back to it,”.
“If I stayed in that classical world for too long, though, I wouldn’t be able to marry the good things that come with dealing a piece of work that is 400 years old,” says Atim.
“I don’t believe in loading every production with a concept. I do believe that when you go into a project you have to be very clear about what it is your trying to explore. I think for it to really be worth it – otherwise there is no point in putting on these plays –when I want to be in a Shakespeare play I’m trying to provoke something.”
Atim has been particularly vocal about the importance of a creative curriculum in our state schools. She highlighted this recently when she visited her old school, The Coopers’ Company and Coborn School to speak about the importance of Drama. When I ask her thoughts on new research published that found almost a third of children did not realise that Shakespeare was a playwright and half of secondary pupils have not been to the theatre with school, she says: “I’ll tell you why I find that alarming – not because I think everyone should know who Shakespeare is for any ideological reason. What confuses me about those figures are that Shakespeare is everywhere. There are modern adaptations, films, revivals and we have two fantastic theatres that are dedicated to his work: The RSC and The Globe,”.
“I understand the strain that schools are under – my own school was nearly forced to cut it’s A level drama and music courses because of funding cuts. The message from our current government is one that feels that the arts are a luxury. But art is all around us –the design of a book cover, galleries, music -you can’t escape it. You can try and dress it up and make it for a certain group of people but that is not the case. I find that really worrying because the cultural experience opens up so much for people,” says Atim.
I ask Sheila if there’s anything she’d like to add? “Oh, that’s a good question.”
She thinks for a moment.
“I know that Brexit is coming up but the arts could do with more money, more investment” she says frankly. “The government could do with empowering people to get in the driving seat, particularly those who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance– they can be there and they deserve to be there – charity is great – but we need to allow people to build their own agency. It cannot be forever the case that the arts are waiting for handouts.”
Twelfth Night by Shanty Productions is available to download and watch now on Amazon