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Interview: Michelle Asante, actor

11 October 2019

‘You can’t rely on talent, because there’s lots of people with talent and training’

I’m currently playing Sister Evangélique in Our Lady of Kibeho by Katori Hall. She’s deputy head nun of Kibeho College in Southern Rwanda. She’s a woman of principles. She believes in the school, and the doors of opportunity that it opens for the girls. She defends her beliefs with all her might. The writing is wonderful, and gives so much insight and yet room to play, to ensure the truth and nuances of her character; so she isn’t some stock, mean authoritarian nun or teacher.

The play is about some girls in a convent from a tiny low-income farming village in southern Rwanda in 1981, before the conflict, starting with one claiming extraordinary experiences. But this village has undercurrents of tension and racial tension, poverty, power, gender. There are lots of questions: who believes who, and why, or why not? Do they think God can’t be interested in them? Or that a girl from a humble tribe wouldn’t merit his attention? Is she just trying to get attention? It’s very much about the people and how we perceive them, what can happen if you dismiss people, and what are the undercurrents that we don’t admit in politics, including our own.

I’m not surprised that the play is being so well received, but I’m very pleased that audiences have seen what I saw when I first read the play: a story of community, youth, and adolescence; of humour, love, and forgiveness. It’s wonderful that it’s based on a true story, skilfully interweaving humour, mystery, life, and love.

Audiences who don’t know much about Rwanda will learn about a country and culture predating the event that we all talk about, and see people dealing with the things that everyone all round the world deals with and can relate to. It’s a conversation about spiritual things, belief — a beautifully-written, funny, gorgeous journey.

I only went to the theatre once in my childhood, on a school trip; but I loved reading, books, and language, and enjoyed voicing the characters instinctively. I loved watching television, even cartoons — knowing that it wasn’t real, but enjoying the characterisations. I’m a people-watcher. I did Munroe for ITV and learned a lot about neurosurgery, which allowed me to discover how you do this extremely technical job with other people’s lives, and then unwind and have a normal life.

When I came out of university, I planned to teach English in Japan, and then to train as a child psychotherapist. I joined a ten-week acting course just as a hobby. At the end, the tutor asked me what my audition speeches were, and was amazed when I said that I wasn’t interested. I’d heard of RADA and LAMDA, where she taught, but I’d resisted my teachers’ encouragement to do drama at GCSE and theatre studies at A level. It hadn’t been what my family wanted me to do.

I did another course with her, and she persuaded me to try for four drama schools — all my budget would allow, because you have to pay for these auditions yourself. I was blessed to get a place and a full scholarship.

Yes, I’ve worked a lot, but there were periods of wilderness, dry seasons. The longest was perhaps six months. I’d worked since I was 16, because I wanted to help pay the bills — my mum’s single, and I’m the eldest child. I always got jobs; so being in an industry where you get multiple “noes” for reasons that aren’t obvious is really hard, and colleges don’t prepare you well enough for that — waking up without a routine and unsure how to make things work for you. So, I very much started to think about businesses: how they run, how to do marketing, write a sales letter, speak to people on the phone. That gave me some power over my career again, and I never just relied on my agent. Then work begets work; so I made more opportunities.

Talent? I’m one kind of package, the work I put in and my body and voice; but other people are just as good, with their different creativity. They might take a bigger risk, may be more interesting, imaginative, or better prepared. You can’t rely on talent, because there’s lots of people with talent and training. What’s the work you’ve put in? How creatively are you telling this story? What chemistry are you adding to this character?

I watched a lot of classic African movies, as well as Nollywood (Nigerian) and Ghanaian movies (that’s my background) — and English, Bollywood, old black-and- white movies, Samurai movies . . . a lot of different types of expression to build my creative pot. I didn’t understand the purpose of voice work, but I got a job at the National Theatre and watched actors doing the same thing every day, producing different things from the same script — comedy, tragedy, period pieces. I could mimic them — people like Michael Gambon — re-enacting it in my head; so, I had a creative pool that I could pull from.

I do love theatre, because there’s a real excitement from performing in front of an audience. I love radio drama. I’m happy wherever I am because I’m grateful for the opportunity and the people I meet. You can sometimes collaborate with the writer, and they love what you bring to it. Sometimes, writers ask you to improvise, and then they continue the writing process; I love that ability to develop a script and a story.

There’s no specific role that I’d like to play. I’m interested more in situations and character occupations. So, for example, I’d like to play the president of a country going through crisis. Leadership is the hardest thing to do in the world, whether you’re the leader of a state, an organisation, pastor in a church — extraordinarily difficult. People are fickle, change their mind, have expectations, can be loving and also quite hateful. I’d like to have a go at seeing what it would be to interpret that situation, leading a nation through natural disaster, a conflict, a scandal.

I believe I’ve had a sense of God intermittently throughout my life. My first real experience was the night I prayed what I later found out was the prayer of salvation, when I asked Jesus to take over my heart and my life.

Fellowship with the Holy Spirit is the most precious gift given to us, and I cherish it. My times of meditation and prayer and worship have built me up and solidified my relationship with God.

I feel comfortable performing, though I’ve heard of established actors vomiting in a bucket before going on. I’ve known that fight-or-flight, sweating thing before a first show or press nights, but I started telling myself: you’ve done this before, and you’ll do it again, and you’re not doing it for people like you. And it’s not necessarily fear: more excitement. I’ll tell this story till the curtain comes down.

I was asked to do a stunt when I was playing Tiger Lily in Wendy and Peter Pan at the RSC, swinging from a rope in the circle. That definitely took courage, although I’m not terrified of heights. It was so technical, and such a big space to cover. I had to speak to myself: you practise and you practise and you practise — take your time with it, and give it 100 per cent. And then they decided it took too long; so they cut it and I just had to run on with a sword instead.

Selfishness and hypocrisy make me angry, although I try not to get angry at anything or with anyone. It doesn’t produce good results.

I love the sound of children laughing hysterically — absolutely love it.

I have hope for the future based on the Word of God. Hope is based on the Word and not my experiences, nor as a response to other people’s fears.

Intercessory prayer is the most important. The Bible says that God has given us all things pertaining to life and godliness; so there’s nothing I need ask for — just intercede for others and minister to the Lord with praise and thanksgiving.

If I was locked in a church, and could have anyone as a companion, I’d choose Dr James Kwegyir Aggrey. He’s most well-known for the saying: “If you educate a man, you educate an individual, but if you educate a woman you educate a family” — sometimes quoted as “a nation”. He was an extraordinary man, ahead of his time in every way; a man with outstanding faith.

Michelle Asante was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. Our Lady of Kibeho is at Theatre Royal Stratford East in London until 2 November.


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