Pride Month: Is drama school your ally?
For the past 15 minutes, I’ve been procrastinating instead of beginning this article – by scrolling through Instagram, usually my favourite mind-numbing pastime. Today, however, I’m confronted with several posts from young gay people who’ve been attacked – in streets, on buses and trains, and in some of the country's most-loved cities, including my own: Liverpool.
The moments they’ve been waiting for – of parading around London town as their truest most beautiful selves – are quickly snatched away by someone who’s eager to inform them that God made “Adam and Eve” and not “Adam and Steve”. Or something along those lines, but less funny and, unfortunately, usually more aggressive.
Like many others l bought a one-way ticket to London Euston when I had just turned 19, ready to face the city’s glory and start my drama school training. Technically I wasn’t “out”. A hand-picked bunch knew about my then double-identity.
Being gay wasn’t necessarily cool, or anything to be proud of, in the small town I grew up in. Before moving to London, I would occasionally go to the Gay Village in Manchester under the cover of darkness, after college on a Friday and with a close friend. It was a strange feeling. I felt in awe of the many fabulous people parading through the cobbles and standing on the bars in rainbow-clad clubs, yet I didn’t at all feel a part of it, though I so desperately wanted to be.
I hoped my debut appearance in London would shift my feelings of being an outsider. So, to kickstart, I introduced myself as a gay woman for the first time publicly on my second day of drama school, in front of my entire year group - to try it on for size. My audience erupted in applause as I informed them that was the first time I’d ever really said the words “I’m gay”. People even congratulated me.
Overall, it was a positive experience. I felt great support and encouragement from my peers to wear my new cloak of honour proudly from here on out. The teachers, as a whole, were also mostly encouraging, talking about relationships (on a personal level) with inclusivity, which I appreciated.
However, when it came to acting, that awareness of the diversity amongst my peers was nowhere to be seen. There were no queer parts for our beloved queer people. In an industry that’s supposed to be reflecting our current society and forging the way for its people, why were we presenting an all-straight, all-cisgender, all-white version of our cohort, when it simply wasn’t true?
It was weirdly uncomfortable. Yet we all trekked through, too scared to step out of line at first, as we’d all worked so hard to get there and nobody wanted to jeopardise their place. I watched my non-binary and my androgynous friends be misgendered, and there was constant kerfuffle from the staff when it came to deciding which parts they could play. A simple solution would’ve been to just ask them.
The acceptance of all LGBTQIA+ people, and the encouragement of them to be unapologetically themselves, must start at the root of the industry – and that’s in training. Young queer people, at the beginning of their careers, should feel motivated by their tutors to be true to themselves and to make work that represents who they are, while not restricting them with typecasting.
Maybe then, so many young actors and creators wouldn’t go out into the industry feeling an immense pressure to be somebody else. Not being too “camp” so that they’re still seen for “straight” roles. Not appearing too “butch” in order to play the romantic lead.
The notion that who-they-really-are might not be taken seriously in the industry starts in how who-they-really-are is treated in their training. If we want to see a change in the industry, young talent needs to be nourished by people who are passionate about the representation of all people through art.
We need same-sex couples as love interests in sitcoms without one of them dying at the end; we need non-binary people playing leads; and we need to completely scrap the idea that only “beautiful” people can be on screen. We don’t need a big deal made out of it. I don’t want to hear the ins and outs of every single gay character’s coming-out story. I just want normal people on screen. People who love like me, without it being extreme, or fetishised.
I don’t want to have to watch The L Word to see two girls kissing on screen (which I haven’t seen, by the way; it’s not an entry requirement for becoming a lesbian). I want kids to see queer people on screen so that our existence is acknowledged. So they don’t grow up feeling unusual or weird. So that their tiny gay feelings are validated and they’re not hiding under their covers and clearing their history.
Changing the industry
So what can acting institutions actually do to create an open and inclusive dialogue with their queer students?
After speaking to some of my queer peers (what brilliant rhyming) it's clear across the board that the one thing they needed to feel supported during their training is communication. More specifically, this means an open dialogue, acknowledging the diversity among the cohorts and actively asking questions, and learning what's best for individuals so that they can feel comfortable – so they can turn up every day being supported and seen.
So here’s a good place to start:
PRONOUNS: Introducing yourself and including your pronouns before asking for other peoples opens a neutral and comforting dialogue about pronouns. It makes students feel comfortable informing you of their own. Make sure to use people's correct pronouns and correct yourself and students if they slip up.
PRESUMPTIONS: Don’t presume anyone’s pronouns or sexuality. It can make things incredibly awkward and leaves people feeling uncomfortable as everyone is on a different journey with their sexuality and pronouns.
VARIETY & INCLUSIVITY: When creating and casting shows, actively look for scripts and pieces that represent your cohort. Give them the opportunity to play queer roles.
LISTEN: Create a safe enough space for queer students to voice concerns. Let them know that they are heard, and reassure them that you will do everything you can to make changes moving forward.
Here I have only highlighted a few ways that institutions can not only validate but uplift their queer students. I’m sure there are many more.
As a white straight-passing woman, I’m fully aware that in comparison to a lot of the LGBTQIA+ community, I’ve had it a lot easier. I can appear in casting rooms and walk down streets without being stereotyped. I can feel safer than a lot of my friends. But it’s our duty as an industry to give everyone in the community a platform to voice their opinions and concerns.
I’m grateful to FlairBox for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts, and I’m looking forward to reading the future articles from LGBTQIA+ writers to see a variety of viewpoints from queer people. It’s this variety that gives me hope for the future of theatre and screen.
There are so many scary incidents taking place within the community at the moment – so be sure to keep safe, reach out to your queer friends and support one another during these awful times. But most importantly, carry on loving ferociously in the face of adversity. And to those yet to come out or unable to be their true selves, silently suffering, you are loved and there is a whole community of people waiting for you with open arms.
Christie Reynolds is a 2021 Acting Graduate. Her first-ever piece of professional writing will be published in Common, a monologue book for actors, later this year. Her second piece of professional writing is this (so be nice). She’s very small, very scouse and her main goal is to play Jodie Comer’s sister in whatever project she does next.