‘Put yourself in the driving seat rather than waiting for someone to give you a lift’

As a newly appointed drama school president, how does Booker Prize-winning writer Bernardine Evaristo hope to inspire and influence students?

Leading UK drama school Rose Bruford College has welcomed Professor Bernardine Evaristo OBE as its new president.

The famous writer, critic and academic was a joint winner of the 2019 Booker Prize for her eighth novel – Girl, Woman, Other – becoming the first Black woman and the first Black British person to win the award. She is also a professor of creative writing at Brunel University London, a lifetime honorary fellow of St Anne’s College, University of Oxford, lifetime vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature and a longstanding advocate for the inclusion of writers and artists of colour.

Evaristo will hold the ceremonial role at the South London drama school, which provides degree programmes in acting, actor musicianship, theatre arts and various disciplines of stagecraft, for five years. The position was previously held by theatre director Sir Richard Eyre.

 

Congratulations on your appointment! Why did you accept the invitation to become president of Rose Bruford College?

It felt like a perfect marriage. I studied at Rose Bruford’s from 1979–1982, training to be an actor on the Community Theatre Arts course. I had a wonderful time there in a culture where we were encouraged to not only develop our performance skills but to also be critical thinkers and to create our own theatre. I have a lot of affection for the college and love the idea of returning in such a symbolic role.

 

Rose Bruford College is based in Sidcup, South London

 

What are your best memories of studying at the college yourself?

The college was then quite tiny, with about 200 students overall, and about 22 people on my course. We were all treated as individuals and there was a strong feeling of community. Most of our visiting theatre directors were powerful women working in theatre who taught us to be powerful ourselves. There was a lot of debate around important social issues and every term we mounted several productions, some of which were devised and about particular communities, which we went out and researched. It was an exciting course and I was never bored.

I still have great friends from the course and the college is set in a beautiful, quiet park with its own grounds and lake so it was quite sublime in summer when we all sat on the lawn and at dinnertime.

 

The challenge is on to negotiate these realities while keeping everyone’s spirits up and dreams alive

 

Part of your role will be to advocate for the college in issues that affect it – what do you see as the most pressing issues facing performing arts colleges at the moment?

There are always financial challenges and now there is Brexit and uncertainty around the future of Erasmus funding and EU recruits.

We all know that student mental health is an issue that we need to work hard to help ameliorate, as well as the perennial issue of student finances.

There’s also increasing the diversity of the student body, which is doing well with 13.6% of BAME students enrolling this academic year, but the college needs to look at how to recruit more students from traditionally disadvantaged groups and how to further address diversity in its staffing and curriculum.

Covid-19 has been a problem, naturally, throughout the education and arts sectors, so the challenge is on to negotiate these realities while keeping everyone’s spirits up and dreams alive.

 

Rose Bruford’s alumni include actors Gary Oldman and Hayley Squires and I’m A Celebrity 2020 winner Giovanna Fletcher

 

What do you hope to achieve during your tenure as president?

It is a symbolic role but I hope to be a role model for the students as someone who studied at their college and has spent 40 years in the creative arts.

They need to see people like me in these kinds of high-status roles as an example of what can be achieved and also hearing how to achieve against the odds.

I will be visiting the college and talking to the students and hopefully inspiring them in whatever way I can, as well as attending graduation. Obviously, the role is titular, so I won’t be hands-on with the day-to-day running of the college.

 

The Theatre of Black Women (left, then; right, now) was founded by Bernardine after she graduated from Rose Bruford

 

From your perspective as a university professor, what’s the best thing that has happened in higher education during the pandemic?

I’m not a great fan of online learning but it has kept the wheels of university education going, and this has been an incredible achievement.

What will you say to departing students at your first Rose Bruford College graduation ceremony?

To believe that it is possible to enjoy a long and wonderful creative life, as I have, if one sets goals and moves towards them.

They need to be determined, passionate about their chosen career, work their socks off and be prepared to overcome obstacles, which might take a lot of ingenuity and resourcefulness. They need to take the long view and not give up at the first hurdle. Creating their own opportunities, such as setting up their own production companies, no matter how tiny or inexperienced at first, is one way in which they can start to control their own narrative and destiny.

I co-founded Theatre of Black Women as soon as I left drama school and it kept me going for most of my 20s, and laid the foundations for my future career.

Put yourself in the driving seat rather than waiting for someone to give you a lift. Everything is possible. Dream big and work hard.


You might also like: Interview: Graeme Atherton, widening participation champion, head of AccessHE and director of NEON

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