An interview with theatre director Rae Mcken

 “There’s nothing special about theatre” 

Shakespeare’s “As you like it”  - A comic masterpiece  with modern potential

This classic romantic comedy is retold by director Rae Mcken who works with a multiethnic and multicultural cast to bring classical theatre right into the middle of society. Jeanny Gering spoke with Rae Mcken about her motivation to take a multicultural approach to theatre.

Scene from The Malcontent 2012

Scene from The Malcontent 2012

The rehearsal room is light and quiet. Just two young actors sitting at a table, bent over their copies of Shakespeare’s “As you like it”. It’s the middle of their lunch break. Oliver Mott will be playing Orlando and Gershwyn Eustache will be playing the lord, Amiens. The actors talk about how rewarding it is to act in classical plays: “Sometimes you don’t know what the hell is being said, but it’s the beauty of finding out what the words exactly mean. To use your language in that way is really beautiful”, says Gershwyn and Oliver agrees: “You get a real sense of achievement out of it.”

Rebecca Loudon and Olivia Scott-Taylor come strolling in, they are Rosalind and Celia in this production of “As you Like it”. Rebecca has just finished a play at the Birmingham Rep about the pressures at state schools in Britain, and Olivia is straight off the set from “Wild at Heart”, the ITV1 family soap opera. They sit down on the white floor, opposite one another to practice their duologues, and they too talk about their appreciation of Shakespeare: “It’s challenging but that’s good. You can really get your teeth into it”, says Olivia.

Shortly after them Chetan Pathak comes in, with lunch in his hands, greeting everyone with a friendly smile. He’ll be playing both Dukes. He also works as a journalist for BBC’s Asia Network, “to pay the bills but at heart I’m an actor. It’s just not easy to get those parts” he says jokingly, referring to his Asian looks and background. It’s still rare for actors with an ethnic minority background to be cast in lead roles at big theatre companies. Chetan says “it’s because they have to get those backsides in the seats and most of them are white.”

This group of young actors all from different ethnic backgrounds are brought together by the theatre company Custom/Practice and the director Rae Mcken. She believes that plays need to appeal to an audience which is not the usual white, middle class theater goer. To Rae it’s clear that Britain’s social hierarchy is defined along class and race lines and that’s reflected in the theatre industry. As a young director and theatre educator, she wants to open the world of theatre and especially classical plays to a wider and more mixed audience.

Rae knew from an early age that she was to be a theatre director, and remembers declaring that goal to her mother, who replied: “Sure, if that’s what you want to do.” But this attitude towards theatre is rare, Rae says: “Not enough people see theatre as something normal which they can be part of. Teenagers from less well-off backgrounds feel like classical plays are not for them, as if they are somehow out of their reach.” Bringing actors onto the stage who look more like the majority of people in the street, she thinks, will lure those into the theater who otherwise feel excluded from it.

Growing up in white and middle class Guildford, Rae stood out because of her Jamaican looks and struggled to define her identity. “How can I be British when I feel like an outsider here? How could I be Jamaican if I’ve never even been to that country?” Her love for Shakespeare – the quintessentially British, cultural good – helped her to find answers.

Today she says it’s as though Shakespeare’s universality can bridge her identity gap, and “anyone who thinks I’m not British just because I’m half Jamaican has to go away and think about their definition of British again. We’re a multicultural and multiethnic nation. And Shakespeare is part of all the cultures who live here.”

Based in London, Custom/Practice is dedicated to tearing down the imagined walls around theatre, and drawing in young people from poorer and racially mixed backgrounds. It’s all about getting young people excited about classical plays which are part of their cultural heritage living in the UK. That’s why Rae wants to break up stereotypes within the theatre industry by confronting the audience with a 21st Century-representative cast in classical plays.

“I’m in love with Shakespeare” she says, and “I believe that a lot of young people are put off it. It’s too removed from them because they don’t get challenged with it in school.” Partly, Rae’s inspiration comes from personal experiences, which make her all the more determined to give good actors the leading role in a play, no matter what their skin color is and no matter how well spoken they may be. “We all live in our small worlds” she says, “and even when we think that we are open minded we all have our own set of prejudices. The amount of times people have made wrong assumptions about me or put me into a certain box… It made me mad.” Art and culture can be gateways to change perceptions but they need to be accessible to the majority of society to have an effect.

Custom/Practice is not a theatre company for Blacks and Asians though. Actors are not cast because of their skin color. It’s always about the acting first. The best actor gets the part, Rae says: “The difference is we see nothing wrong with a Black or Asian Romeo, for instance. And if he hasn’t been taught how to read classical text then we’ll work on it with him, because anyone with a bit of talent can learn it. You don’t need to go to a posh school to get Shakespeare.”