I managed to get the chance to speak with Allyson Brown a few weeks before the opening of, In Bed at the London Theatre Workshop, to find out her thoughts on the production, her journey and a little more behind the scenes.
You feature in the new play, In Bed written and directed by Adebayo Bolaji (who is also Allyson’s co-star) as Nina. Tell us a little more about her and her part within the piece?
Well, Nina and Sean (Bolaji) are friends and co-stars in the play that they are rehearsing together.Nina is… I love her because she is just a mix of so many different things. I was quite surprised that it came from the pen of a guy, because she is confident, but at the same time has these moments of self-doubt, she’s bubbly and full of life. I like to say she’s a lion and a kitten, because there are times where she is so strong, mighty and powerful, 100% in her convictions and can back up her arguments, then there are times when she shrinks to a kitten, where she is really unsure of herself and quite fearful of what people think, or might say, but she wears her heart of her sleeve. She’s completely honest – what you see is what you get at the time. You’ll always know where you stand with her, but she’s just aware and so passionate. She has a real story and is so full of life.
From how you’ve described her, she sounds like a lot of females…
Yes, yes! She reminds me of myself… her story and her journey, remind me of conversations I’ve had with my friends… it’s all very familiar territory.
The play takes a look at sexual objectification and assumption – is it still a relevant topic to be discussed?
I’d say more so than ever! Every day, we have to deal with it in some way. You can’t go on Facebook without there being some kind of discussion or something, especially with regards to women. I was on the train the other day and a young girl got off, she was a wearing a lovely dress and I heard these older women commenting on how she looked really lovely, then they went on to say, “wouldn’t you hate to be a young girl in this day and age, because there’s so much pressure…” and I completely agreed with them. I feel there’s more pressure than ever to be a certain way, and those images are changing. They appear to be stronger, but the message is weaker. I think it is so relevant at the moment.
I remember working at a company a couple of years ago, it was very male dominated. I was one of three women in the company. It was the first time I’d been spoken to differently, just because I was a woman, a young black woman. I was very aware of sexism and misogyny, but I had not encountered it in that degree before, where you were of, less value. I definitely felt like it was different for guys there, than it was for the women, especially as the three of us were black women, so that was another thing.
Do you think the difference between generations in regards to sexual objectification is partially down to social media?
Absolutely! Now you’ve got Instagram. You have apps where you can airbrush your own pictures, so you can put out images of yourself that look exactly like a magazine image! I’m so glad that I missed out on the whole ‘selfie’ thing, I just don’t get it [laughs]. You can’t even look like yourself in a picture. As a 15-year-old girl, I wouldn’t want to be the one that’s looking normal, while all the rest of my friends are looking airbrushed in a picture. I don’t think at that age I’d be taking a stand, so I’d probably get swept along with the wave. You get so used to seeing yourself in that way and then you look in the mirror and you definitely don’t look like that every day; your eyes are telling you this is wrong; it’s not OK to be you! There’s only one idea of what beauty is and one idea of what’s right and everyone else has to deal with it.
It’s not like it didn’t exist when I was in my teens, it just wasn’t as prominent. I feel pressure as a woman in my 30’s. I mean to gain weight, it’s like the end of the world, going out without make-up – ooh I better walk fast so I’m not seen. When I was at performing arts school, we had to wear leotards and I remember the guys being quite venomous about girls’ bodies and their thighs, and that had a profound effect on me.
In regards to the topic and your character Nina, was this one of the reasons you decided to audition for this part?
Well, I got the part because Ade saw me in a two-hander a couple of years ago. We’d been looking for a project to work together on, and I’d seen In Bed when it was on at another theatre, I think in 2008. I thought it was great, I loved the characters and the honesty of it. So when it came up this time around I remember meeting him for coffee and just being like, ‘this is so great, because I’ve just come from meeting my girlfriends and all of this that was in the play was there at the coffee table!’ I was very excited to be on board.
What changes do you believe need to be made in regards to female representation within the industry?
I know every generation has what’s shocking to them, but can it get any more shocking? I think maybe a change where writers are revered again and women are celebrated more often in content of their character, what they are actually doing and producing, rather than just what they look like. I worry about my nieces, because we’re living in a world where we’re telling them that if they look a certain way, then they are going to be OK. I want them to read Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes and Zadie Smith, people who have something to say. That’s not to say that the people in the spotlight at the moment aren’t worthy. Some aren’t, but there are a lot that are more than worthy, but I think we need to highlight other gifts.
As you had seen the play before, once you had read the script yourself, what were your initial thoughts of In Bed?
Just that I knew I would never get bored! There was so much echoed from my life, especially with the relationship between Nina and Seun. They spend the night rehearsing together, but their relationship changes as the night goes on and the mixed messages… Men and women speak such different languages and it really is Venus versus Mars sometimes. Then you throw into the mix that every man has a different thought process, same as every woman has a different thought process, so you really can’t assume anything. The dialogue between men and women constantly being confused, constantly being mixed up. I’ve seen it happen so much in my life and I’ve discussed it with friends. How someone might be completely honest ,or then they might not be and how that translates on the page and then on stage. That appealed to me the most! The way Ade has written it, is so colloquial; it’s exactly the way we’d speak, so it’s been easier to remember because it just rolls off the tongue.
With the play being a two-piece cast what if any are the challenges that come with that?
The biggest challenge has been learning lines. There are so many words and there is only another person that shares them. You don’t have any scenes off. That has been the biggest challenge – learning the lines and the order. Are we in this scene yet? What page are we at? The biggest joy is that we have had all the time in the world to just play, discuss it together, get under the skin of the characters and just try every different variation we can until we find something that we’re completely comfortable with.
How did you get into acting?
I started taking dance lessons when I was about 3. When I was around 11, I started auditioning for local productions. Then I went to theatre school from Year 9 secondary school. That was great, because you are surrounded by people you have common ground with, even though that’s the only thing you have in common. [We] were surrounded by music, language and great writing, so it was a really great place to start off. From there I got an agent and started working in theatre, then television and different kinds of things.
What advice would you give to those wanting to get into the industry?
I’d say get involved in everything you can. I almost feel jealous of this generation, because there is so much out there that wasn’t there when I was young. When I was young, it was very middle class and white. Now there’s so much for young people; introducing them to great writers such as Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, but at the same time getting them to hold on to and cultivate their own thing, which is amazing! I’m always the biggest, loudest voice cheering them on, because creating something really new and important – like Lenny Henry campaigning to get more diversity on television.
Unless you live in a really provincial town in the middle of nowhere, most people are used to a multicultural society. Especially in London, most television that we’re watching today is London based and London made, so why are we not showing that? The generation coming up now are creating and building that and they are good! So I would just say find your nearest thing doing that, get involved and don’t be afraid of knock-backs because there are going to be so many. There will be more no’s then yeses, I can’t express that enough. You’re told it at drama school and you think yeah, that won’t be me, but it will be you, you will have a hard time and feel like giving up, but if that’s what you are passionate about, then do it at all costs.
How have you found the industry with your journey as a British black woman?
I’ve found it very inspiring. I’ve found it very hard. You do get to a point where you realise that your journey isn’t going to be the same as the blonde haired blue eyed girls that you went to drama school with, because a lot of things are written with her in mind. Especially at the age I finished school, I left in 1998, so I was working at the age of 17. There weren’t many things being written with my voice in mind at all. I was lucky because there were only three of us around that age, so we did work a lot, but it has been a hard journey, where you have to try everything. I do music as well, so I’ve been in and out of the music business.
Being a black British actress in this country, we all know who each other are and I found that really inspiring, watching my counterparts come up with me, after me or ahead of me and there are some really strong, amazing women who have paved the way for me…breaking barriers. You have Sophie Okonedo, Ashley Madekwe, and Lorraine Burroughs in LA doing their thing, then Lenora Crichlow, that has a direct effect on me. It means people are writing things now ideal for me that wouldn’t have been around before. I’m lucky that I have a lot of support. I was very shy before, but I’ve learned to be bold and make a loud noise about anything that I’m doing that I believe in and make sure that people know about it. Because if they don’t know what you are doing, it could be the best thing in the world, but if they don’t see it, no one is going to know!
What message would you like the audience to take from this play?
What I like about the play is that it’s open. I’d like them to take from the play, conversation and continue to dialogue long after they have left the auditorium. I think that’s the main thing I want, the debate. It’s sort of open ended, there may or may not be a conclusion, but I definitely want that to be ignited in the people who see the play.
What are your next plans?
My initial plans are that I’m doing this workshop at the moment and we’ve got a presentation of that. After the play, I have a month off, which I’m so happy about! And then I’m doing Christmas at Stratford this year so I’m looking forward to that. Stratford is like my home theatre, so I’m happy to be spending Christmas with family. I’ve started a nail business as well, so I’m going to spend October time really putting time into that, because I haven’t been able to dedicate the last couple of months to it…but mainly rest!
Co-produced by What Was That? Productions and Ex Nihilo Theatre Group, In Bed opens at The London Theatre Workshop from 15th to 20th September 2014.
To find out more information and to purchase tickets go to the London Theatre Workshop website :