Double interview: Juma Sharkah – Olivier-Award Nominee and War Refugee and her mentor Jane Harrison – Principal of The Arts Educational Schools

JumaJuma made her professional theatre debut in the lead role of Liberian Girl at the Royal Court whilst in her final year of training as an actor at the renowned Arts Educational Schools (Arts Ed). She received high critical acclaim and an Olivier Award nomination for her harrowing performance as a girl forced to take on the brutal role of a child soldier during the Liberian Civil War. Upon finishing her training, Juma performed in The Skriker at the Manchester Royal Exchange alongside Maxine Peake. Still only aged 21, Juma will next be gracing the stage at The Old Vic in The Lorax by Dr Seuss. Originally from Sierra Leone, Juma came to the UK as a war refugee aged 12 and studied at Leyton Sixth Form College Expressive Arts in East London where she lives with her mother and sisters.

Juma was discovered and has been mentored by Jane Harrison since her drama school training. Jane started at The Arts Educational Schools (Arts Ed) as Director of The School of Acting and was involved in creating an innovative Film & TV Department. Following her time there she became the Principal of Arts Ed in 2009 and has continued to build a strong industry reputation for the school. Jane discovered Juma and became her mentor throughout her time of training. She also helped lead the design and build of The Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation Theatre at the Arts Ed in 2013 thanks to a generous donation from the Foundation.

Her early career was in acting, presenting and directing where she worked with many diverse companies and organisations leading to a strong interest in training and education. She went on to study for a BA (Hons) in Education and Drama and a MA in Performing Arts whilst teaching and directing at all the major UK Drama Schools. Her main interest is in creating a student focused school where a student from any background can succeed and continue on to have a highly fulfilling career.
Jane has acted as a consultant for many organisations including Drama UK, City University, Birkbeck and the British Council.

Juma – You have had a remarkable journey leading you to an Olivier-award nomination at the age of just 21. Tell us about your background in Sierra Leone and how you originally came to London.

I was 12 years old when I first came to the UK from Sierra Leone as the middle child of three girls. My mother had left for London a few years before to start a new life here and we eventually followed. I did not see my mother much for a few years and was raised by my extended family – but she made sure we spoke on the phone every day. Due to the war in Sierra Leone I missed a year of school – but schooling in Sierra Leone is different than here. You attend class according to your level of knowledge, rather than your age. The rules are also generally much stricter than here – for example my hair had to be done perfectly every week. Socks have to be white, shoes perfectly polished and you address all your teachers with Sir or Madam. The arts are seen as part of daily life rather than something special to focus on as an extracurricular activity or as a unique subject. And they are definitely not seen as a career option – everyone there aspires to be a lawyer or doctor.

When I arrived in London (we lived in Beckton and then Forest Hill) I was put straight into year 8, which was correct for my age – but I had quite a hard time settling in. My English was bitty and I also had an accent that everyone in Leytonstone wasn’t used to at all. The main thing that struck me about London was – it’s always so dark! And I wasn’t used to the cold. But I was ecstatic to be here because it had been a dream for many years to live in this land of opportunity. There were times in Sierra Leone when I had nothing – not even clothes – so I have always felt extremely grateful for this opportunity.

What do you think are the most common misconceptions that we have here in the UK about the situation in Sierra Leone?

People in the UK seem to mostly associate my home country with Ebola, the war and the Leonardo di Caprio film Blood Diamond. What they don’t see is the huge amount of love the people of Sierra Leone believe in and pass on, which defines our culture and way of life. Everyone is your auntie and uncle. Everyone is your family and everyone looks out for each other. In London it is much more about the individual succeeding while in Sierra Leone you look out for your family above everything else.

When did you first discover your love for acting and who did you learn from? Did you have any acting idols?

My favourite actress is Genevieve Nnanji who is Nigerian – she has always greatly inspired me. She is so raw and I just love that. Dance and drama had always been part of my life but in London I decided to take those subjects specifically in school. I did not tell my mother though as she would not have approved. Nobody in my family had ever been near the acting profession and it was generally not encouraged to aspire to. But acting became an outlet for me to be myself and to feel less insecure – whether I was rapping away in my bedroom at home after school or taking part in improvisation with my friends…it made me part of everything rather than feeling that I was different.

I had no idea what drama school was or that you could train at university to become a professional actor. I knew nothing. Luckily, I was guided by a great drama tutor at school who told me how I needed to prepare for this career. I ended up auditioning for three drama schools (though nearly wasn’t able to try out due to the audition fees) – and then chose Arts Ed because for the first time in a long time – I felt at home. I immediately sensed that the teachers really cared about each of their students and it reminded me of the family feel I had grown up with in Sierra Leone. I was also very lucky to receive a full scholarship.

What was the most important thing you learnt at Arts Ed and what were your most memorable training moments? What has this experience taught you about yourself as a person?

JaneJane’s support throughout and beyond has been extremely important to me and I feel so blessed for that. At Arts Ed we had a class called extreme emotions, which allowed me to explore extreme highs and lows and levels of human emotion and how to portray these as an actor. I needed these classes greatly as in my culture I was taught to listen politely, speak when I have something intelligent to say and not “show off” for the sake of it. So I had to learn that in order to become a full version of myself and portray a character completely, I had to access all range of emotions – and that this was a positive thing. The whole Arts Ed experience allowed me to grow so much as a person – I am generally rather shy in my nature and conscious about my accent so being around such a supportive network of staff and students was the perfect way for me to find out what I am fully capable of. I was always told – we want you to be the best version of yourself – you are the training. We are here because of you. It made me feel very safe. I still warm up the Arts Ed way before all my auditions and performances and keep in touch with everyone.

You have now left Arts Ed, just completed performing in a play at Manchester Exchange and are about to start at the Old Vic Theatre in The Lorax by Dr Seuss. How are you finding living as a working actor without the support system you had at Arts Ed? How do you structure your days and what motivates and energises you?

I learnt so much from Maxine Peak at the Manchester Royal Exchange. She was extremely nurturing and caring with me in every way. It is actors like these that become a new mutual support system as now of course I don’t see my Arts Ed classmates regularly anymore. I am looking forward to The Lorax because I have had a run of dramatic roles, so this will be a great comedic change and challenge for me to develop further as an actor. I live at home with my mother and sister who are behind me all the way – it keeps me grounded as my day structure still includes preparing meals, cleaning the home and helping my sister with her homework. In some ways I don’t feel I have left the Arts Ed environment because I can come and visit and talk to staff at any time. This is another great thing about Arts Ed – their support system remains even after graduation, which is so important when some of us can feel a bit lost in the great wide world of professional acting out there. I have also just joined the new formal mentoring scheme designed to help the new first year students adjust and settle in.

How do you think the UK could specifically further help women in the arts develop their creative talents?

I believe the UK is generally losing much of its black talent to the US – for example Idris Elba. The opportunities are still not here for us and so we audition for screen and other roles in the States because there the casting process is more about the character as a full person rather than ticking specific ethnic boxes. These actors then come back to the UK when they have made their names – but it shouldn’t really be like that. We need these opportunities here. I don’t believe in any limitations – I want to play Othello one day! I also think it would be good to have a female support system, especially as many actors are not as lucky to have an alumni network led by Jane Harrison like I do at Arts Ed. We need more women in prominent roles behind the screen/stage as well as on and this starts with establishing a place where all of these women can meet, be mentored and help each other grow.

Jane – you have an acting and presenting background yourself. How did you originally get started in this field?

I completed an acting degree at drama school and originally started in TIE (Theatre in Education), which I found fascinating. It was all about changing mind sets at school in regards to bullying, social structure and giving young people a sense of purpose. I realised that performing really can change people’s lives. I was also involved in some educational documentary TV presenting and a long time ago I even did a panto directed by Richard Eyre. I had children young and decided I would like to stay at home with them so completed an educational degree (as well as another performance MA at Middlesex University with a focus on physical theatre), bringing me full circle in order to start directing and teaching at different drama schools.

Jane – Arts Ed is attended by a variety of foreign students, some for whom English is not their first language. How do you help them settle into the UK and training in English? What is the motto of Arts Ed?

We live by the motto that we are there for the students. If it weren’t for them, we would have no purpose, hence our whole purpose and goals to aspire to starts with them and with their needs in mind. We respect each and every one of them for coming to train with us. If you create a strong ethos at the top then this will trickle down and if new teachers join us who don’t live by the same ethos – they tend to realise this quickly and move on.

In terms of foreign students, I do not treat them any differently because I have realised that people can surprise you and it is best not to assume difficulties or issues and stay open to just getting to know each individual. I have come across students who have lived in the London area all their life but suddenly have huge problems settling in, while others who have never lived in Europe but travelled a lot, take to the London drama school life like a duck to water.

What are your future aspirations – career/personal?

Juma: I would like to ignite a flame of peace and love through all the work I do.

Jane: Keep on creating new opportunities for students like Juma.

Who is your inspiration and what do you believe makes an inspiring woman?

Juma: Ballet dancer Michaele DePrince, Assandi, Bismark Anoba, Chloe Dean, Artistic Director and Choreographer Kenrick H2O Sandy.

Jane: All my students.

To find out more about Arts Educational Schools, please visit here

Jennifer Reischel
About the author

Jennifer Reischel is the Business Development and Communications Manager for Entertainment Media Group, which includes the St. James Theatre in Victoria. Completing a theatre degree at Mountview Academy Jennifer first pursued a career as an actor performing on stage and screen. Migrating into writing and penning the award-nominated guide book “So you want to tread the boards”, Jennifer became a theatre critic and feature contributor for The Stage, as well as launching the global video audition website The Stage Castings. Additionally, Jennifer has acted as a judge for the Leicester Square Theatre New Comedian Competition of the Year, cast plays for Soho Theatre and hosted industry events workshops in the West End and at the Edinburgh Festival. Twitter: @jenreischel. Website: www.performingarts-auditionguide.com

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