• Joanna Swan

Let's talk about BBC Class Act

Towards the end of last summer a friend sent me a link to a press release from the BBC. They were creating an opportunity for 30 actors with disabilities to win places on a 3 day TV acting workshop in London, to take place at the beginning of October 2017. The aim, to create opportunities for disabled actors to enter/continue the business by recognising that we are often overlooked and giving us a platform as well as some training and advice. The event would be called BBC Class Act. It would culminate in the filming of a showcase performance for each of us, which would be made available to producers and casting directors, making us difficult to ignore! There would also be panel discussions and networking opportunities, so that we could discuss the wider issues and obstacles we face. To apply, we were asked to submit 2-minute self tapes, and choose our piece from a selection of actual TV script excerpts provided.

For my own tape, I selected an extract from the hit show, Happy Valley, starring Sarah Lancashire as Catherine. The extract was one of Catherine's longer speeches, an emotionally-charged confessional confiding her darkest worries to a teacher at her grandson's primary school. I was apprehensive about my choice, mainly because although it's not impossible to be a 41-year-old grandmother (I was 41 and looked younger), it is unlikely. On the other hand, among the pieces on offer, this was the only one I felt a strong and immediate connection to. It was the one I felt I could deliver from the heart, and that is why I committed to it. This decision paid off, although not immediately. At first, I did not make the cut. "Oh, well", I thought "It was a very long shot, there would have been thousands of applicants." However, a week or so later I received an email saying that a place had opened up and could I make it? I assumed someone had perhaps dropped out but have learned since that the initial cohort of 30 was increased to 32, so maybe someone in the judging panel was fighting hard for me somewhere along the line? We may never know. I cleared my diary and girded my loins for the trip.

Due, I suspect, to the last-minute nature of my booking, there were a couple of bits of information I didn't receive, which were that I could take an assistant with me and their travel and accommodation would also be looked after, and that the showcase pieces we'd be working from would come from the same collection we'd originally been sent for our self-tapes (unless we chose to provide our own). Therefore, I arrived in The Big Smoke alone and with no idea what I was actually going to be doing for the next 3 days. Happily, I have a London-dwelling friend who was able to meet me at Liverpool Street Station, take me to my hotel and spend the evening with me. We had an amazing dinner at a South Indian buffet.

On the first day of the Class Act workshop after a quiet night in my nearby hotel, I arrived at the New Diorama Theatre bang on 8.30am, the time given on the agenda, for the hour of registration and tea/coffee before we would gather for the official induction. I sat at the edge of the room watching groups of people with a wide range of different disabilities, some very visible, some, like mine, more hidden, naturally form and strike up relationships. I wondered if people thought I was odd for remaining by myself, but I just didn't feel like I could make words come out of my mouth this early in the morning. I wished my partner was there to break the ice for me. I constantly reminded myself that this had been created as a space specifically where I could wear my disability on my sleeve and if I wanted to be autistic and sit alone, I could jolly well be autistic and sit alone. But I still envied the chatters. I was relieved when we were finally asked to draw up our chairs for the introductions.

We were to be split into three groups, each working with a different director. I didn't know the criteria for the split but it clearly wasn't to do with type of disability. The group I was in, directed by Paulette Randall, was very diverse in that respect. I thought perhaps the criteria was random. It was only much later that I found out that it was something like: Beginners, Intermediate, and Experienced, and that I was in the Experienced group. Although, this was in terms of overall acting experience rather than TV alone - as far as TV is concerned I still do consider myself very much a beginner! Anyway, Paulette clearly had complete confidence in our group's ability to act in front of a camera: after we had all shared our stories (my own told with shaking hands and voice), she rolled up her sleeves and we dived straight into the pieces we would be preparing for the showcase. It was at that point I realised I was missing some information, namely that this wasn't to be new stuff but something we had chosen from either the original audition pieces or for ourselves. Fortunately, Paulette was very sympathetic, and gave me time to consider what I would do. I could see that there could possibly be merit to selecting a scene where I would bounce off another character rather than a monologue, and I did consider it, but Catherine was still calling to me very strongly, and if there is one thing I have learned the hard way, it is not to ignore your gut instinct. So Catherine it would be. I very much wanted to see how my delivery would change under Paulette's guidance as opposed to my self-direction.

My main job for the remainder of the three days was to work on my piece and attend my slots with Paulette to present my progress, receive feedback and work on her directions. So I did end up working alone for a large part of the three days, whereas I had imagined more group work, and maybe some structured lessons in technique. I gather the beginner and intermediate groups did get some lessons and in a way I envy them, as I was a bit lonely at times. However, I did manage to form a number of friendships within my group and as the days progressed I felt more and more at ease chatting with my new chums during the times we were together. It was such a relief to be able to talk candidly about the challenges of our disabilities and the struggles we had, instead of feeling we had to hide our difficulties away in order not to feel like we would be thought "a problem". Even when, in the outside world, I do talk about my Aspergers, I feel like I need to minimise it because I don't want colleagues thinking I'm too weird or that I will be too difficult to work with. To actually have some colleagues to whom I can say openly "this is a problem, I find x hard" and not fear reprisals is a wonderful thing and that is something special that I have taken away from the Class Act experience that I hadn't anticipated.

The hardest thing for me personally about Class Act was the networking side of things. Each evening around 4pm we would gather in front of a panel of industry professionals, to hear them speak and to ask questions and discuss issues. Then the panel would break up and we would be encouraged to approach the professionals and talk to them. On the first evening, this part of the process was disastrous for me. We went into a side room where there was a continual hum from an air conditioning unit. The lights were fluorescent, and the floor was covered in strange metal tiles with vertical stripes in them. The ceiling had sort of cages covering the lights - more stripes and criss-cross effects. I struggled to hear the panel over the roar of the air conditioning and the stripes in every corner of my vision started to jangle my nerves. By the time the informal networking began, I was exhausted. I tried waiting in line to talk to one of the casting directors and as I waited I rehearsed what I would say. I would just keep it very short and sweet. I would remark on something I'd heard him say, tell him it was nice to meet him, respond to anything he said back to me, then go. But as I waited, someone jostled into my back and that was it. Sensory overload. I couldn't be in that room any longer. I rushed out, sat down on a sofa and started weeping. I could not do it. We had been told networking was essential and so very important and it was the one thing, as a person on the spectrum, I could not do. Why did I have to TELL people about my acting talent? I wanted to SHOW people my acting talent. A couple of my new friends found me and hugged me. I wasn't the only person struggling. A kind lady reminded me that we were making a showcase DVD and this would show people my talents. Utterly exhausted, but grateful to be understood by other people with disabilities, even though they weren't the same as my own, I went back to the hotel.

On the second day, I felt a bit braver come panel time and I was pleased that we had been moved to a room with fewer sensory challenges. Someone must have fed back on similar problems to those I had encountered. I decided to sit nearer the front, and although I still didn't ask any questions myself, I found it a lot easier to concentrate on what was being said. Julia Crampsie, the head of drama casting at the BBC was there and she said that she wanted to arrange a follow up event in which we would all be given a chance to do a general audition. This was great news and I left the second day on a high, joining a group of my new friends at the hotel for dinner.

On the third day, I filmed my showcase. Paulette had said that because it was such an darkly emotional piece she didn't want to keep me waiting all day to perform it as that would mean carrying Caroline's emotions around for a long time. So I was first on Paulette's list and went in early. There was a bit of a wait while some technical issues were resolved but once in the room, it all went incredibly quickly. I did one rehearsal take, then the take itself, and that was all that was needed! Paulette had a huge smile for me. We watched some of the footage back and she said how good my eyes look on camera. She hugged me and said she'd love to work with me again some day, and then I was free for the rest of the morning. I took myself off to the Wellcome Collection, a free museum just down the road, and had a peaceful mooch. I thought I'd thrown off the anxiety and all the dark mood of Catherine but I don't think I had, quite.

I returned for what was shown on the agenda as a networking lunch, but I think that was a mistake. As far as I could make out, there weren't any industry professionals present to network with, (assuming I would have had any more confidence than on the first two days), so I'm not sure what had happened there. I was suddenly overwhelmed with exhaustion and sat at the edge of an actor group, not really joining in. One of the other people with Aspergers decided to end his own Class Act experience at this point: personally I completely understood why he had had enough. Those of us on the spectrum have a limit as to how much new stuff and socialising we can take before we stop functioning effectively. I myself went back to the museum in lowered spirits.

I came back for the final panel, but by then, I just wanted to get home to my partner, really. Like my colleague who left at lunch time, I had reached my limit. I didn't join in the group photo because I was convinced I would not be able to raise a smile. I know some people didn't understand this, but I felt now was not the time to try and explain. It would take too long, and I wanted to let them enjoy their last moments at the event.

After I came home, I realised that I had to get my anxiety and depression under control, because it had in part contributed to the comedown on the second half of that last day at Class Act just as much as Aspergers itself had, and was stopping me enjoying every other aspect of my life too. Towards the end of November I started a course of antidepressants. I am so glad that I did, because when Julia Crampsie's follow up event came around on 24th January this year, my experience was very different. I had a massive smile on my face as I walked up to Broadcasting House in the driving rain, humming the theme tune to "WIA" (also the theme tune to Animal Magic with Johnnie Morris, by the way) under my breath and reassured by the presence of my partner, who by this time I had established WAS allowed to come with me to Class Act events as my assitant. I had big hugs for the friends I'd made last time and went straight to them to chat and catch up.

When I had my audition with Julia, I wasn't shaking the way I had on that first morning sharing my story with Paulette and the rest of my group. I felt confident and positive. I was reading an extract from the drama "Our Girl" and this time it was a two-hander, with Julia reading the other part. The excitement of being in Broadcasting House had taken away from my usually pin-sharp focus a little bit so I forgot a few words, but this was not an ordinary audition and Julia was happy to take the time to give me advice and let me go again. I did not take it as a disaster but as a chance to show her I can listen to and take direction. She pronounced the second take "very good" and said she could really feel the connection.

The biggest personal achievement of the day for me is that I stuck around for the networking and made a go of it. Admittedly I was slow to start and took a few breaks returning to my partner for hugs every now and again - the room was incredibly bright, noisy, and crowded - but I kept trying and I met two casting directors I liked very much and also spoke to the TV and film director Rick Platt who had been leading the "beginners" group at the original event. Most tellingly I posed with a big grin on my face for the group photo at the end, with my friend Karl's hand on my shoulder. The following day I wrote a number of follow up emails to the people I had spoken with and to Julia Crampsie, and everyone I emailed had replied to me by the end of the week which I think is really great.

Class Act is not a guarantee of future work, and if it goes forward into future years I do think some of the access needs for people with sensory issues and autism spectrum disorders do need to be considered more (I can't speak for all of us but in terms of networking think generally we thrive better in smaller groups with a structured conversation facilitated by a third party than a big, party-style free for all), but it IS a sincere effort by the BBC to recognise and celebrate the talents of disabled artists and encourage casting directors and producers not to shuffle us to the back of the pack, but to actually pay attention. All the industry professionals who were at the follow up event were given a booklet with our CVs in, and a DVD with our showcase performances on and I know the most conscientious of them will have given them a look. My showcase as Catherine from Happy Valley, directed by Paulette Randall, and of which I am very proud, can be viewed here:

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