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BWW Interview: Emma Canning and Daniel Adeosun Talk TROUBLE IN MIND


The revival is currently playing in the National's Dorfman Theatre

BWW Interview: Emma Canning and Daniel Adeosun Talk TROUBLE IN MIND
In rehearsal for Trouble in Mind
at The National Theatre

Trouble in Mind had its stage premiere more than 60 years ago. The biting satire written by Alice Childress centres on racism in theatre. As representation within the industry continues to be addressed, it feels a pertinent time for The National Theatre's revival.

Performers Emma Canning and Daniel Adeosun spoke with BroadwayWorld about the production, the industry and graduating drama school during the pandemic.

Tell us about the play and what audiences can expect

Emma Canning: The play is set in a rehearsal room in 1955 in New York. It follows a group of predominantly black African-American actors who are putting on a new piece of writing for Broadway and it quickly becomes apparent that the play they are rehearsing is riddled with stereotypes.

Daniel Adeosun: The audience can expect to gasp, feel uncomfortable and to laugh. There are different levels to the laughs. There are laughs of awkwardness, there are laughs of "Oh I know this person" or "I've experienced this".

What can you tell us about your characters?

EC: Judy has just graduated from a drama course and this is her first job. She comes from a very liberal, white, wealthy background, and she sees this piece of new writing as being really political and exciting and it really aligns with her 'progressive' views. Over the course of the play Judy's journey is very much one that calls her white fragility and her white savour complex into question.

DA: I play John who is an African-American actor from Newport, Virginia. He's a young man who's also making his Broadway debut. It's exciting to play this character because this is also my debut. John and I having this parallel is interesting because the nerves I feel, John might feel. The excitement I have to step out on stage, John has. It's fresh, it's raw and it's exciting to have that parallel with my character.

Trouble in Mind was first staged 60 years ago, but does it still hold relevance today in terms of its themes and subject matter?

EC: The play is shockingly relevant and sadly so. When I first read it, I finished it and realised I'd kept having the thought that it must have been written by someone in 2021 and set in 1955. I had to keep stopping and correcting myself. My brain struggled to believe this was written and put on 60-plus years ago.

DA: It most definitely still holds relevance - in terms of racial equality, gender and the abuse and misuse of power. Even in terms of survival and surviving in an environment that wasn't made or catered for you as an African-American or as a black Brit or as a woman. How do you then change your behaviour and how do you use your voice or the way you stand to make it easier for you to survive in that environment? Even just being heard - what does it mean to be heard and listened to?

Can you tell us anything about the rehearsal process and working with director Nancy Medina?

DA: The rehearsal process was great. We did a lot of research into what life was like in the 50s and what stories were being told on stage and who was allowed to tell these stories. Who was in the audience watching these stories? What were the acting styles? Was it black face? Was it tap dance, vaudeville? Which actors were popular at the time? It was great to have that wealth of knowledge there so you could tweak your performance and consider how your character would act.

Working with Nancy was fantastic because in the rehearsal room, she gave the room a sense of freedom. We were free to try out ideas and if it didn't work, we'd try it differently and see how far we could push these ideas or strip things back. We were very supported throughout the entire process.

EC: She really created a room that was very open and considerate. It was a very safe environment to speak, to listen and to work in and she's just hawk-eyed. The play itself is very tricky because you have so many people on stage all at the same time and Nancy was able to keep an eye on what everyone was up to, and she'd always be asking what our characters were doing and what our reaction should be. She really breathed life into us all.

Were you both familiar with the play before you took on the project?

EC: I was not familiar with the play before the script came to me. Ashamedly I wasn't even aware of Alice Childress, but that does speak to how we are taught the 'canon' in school and in higher level drama training, so I'm very happy to have discovered this work and to be a part of this new performance.

DA: This was the first time I'd heard about the play. When I read it before my audition, I thought whoa, this resonates, this hits. These are things I can directly relate to. I'm grateful to be a part of it because it's an amazing play that speaks volumes.

The play focuses on racial equality. Do you think representation of POC in theatre is moving as quickly as it might or is there still work to be done?

DA: A lot has changed from where theatre was in terms of representation, but I feel like there is always room for improvement. I'm talking about theatre as a whole, not just the actors or dancers on stage. Who is front of house? Who is working behind the scenes, creating the sets and costumes? Who are the stage managers? Representation needs to fall on all departments, not just what is on stage. But things are changing.

Do you think one of the few positives of the pandemic is reminding us of the joy that comes with live performance?

EC: The pandemic has taught us all a lot of hard lessons and really shone a light on things we took for granted. It left us missing and yearning for those things. I think being in a room with a large group of people and live performance is definitely one of those.

In this age of Netflix etc., what do you think it is that still draws people, especially young people, into the theatre? What more could we be doing?

EC: One of the main things theatre has going for itself is the fact that it is live and in the moment. You have to travel to get there and see it. It's ephemeral. I think that's something Netflix can't compete with. In terms of streaming, there is a lot more of that happening within the industry with things such as National Theatre at Home, which can only be a good thing in terms of reaching more people.

DA: As Emma says I feel like where theatre differs from Netflix and streaming services is that it's live. You're watching these characters live, breathe, celebrate, die, jump with joy before your very eyes and you're watching it with a group of other people. There's a buzz in the air and I don't think you get that anywhere else. It's a communal feeling.

With young people, sometimes there is this sense with theatre that you only know about it if you know about it. I feel there could be more outreach programs to get younger people in. Do the plays that are being put on speak to the younger generations? Some tickets are also still very expensive so maybe that can be looked at in terms of getting younger audiences to the theatre.

Graduating from drama school during the pandemic must have been highly unsettling, especially in an industry that's already very competitive...

DA: Graduating from theatre school during the pandemic was unsettling. I felt like after three years of working I graduated and was thinking, where has the industry I've been preparing to get into gone? It can feel demotivating, but I feel like I'm more ambitious, determined and driven. This is what I want to do. I want to act and tell stories. The pandemic has made me sure of the path I'm going down.

EC: I actually graduated nearly a year before the pandemic hit so I was lucky enough to get that window of in person auditioning and being a drama school grad coming out into the world. It was a bit of an Indiana Jones moment of whipping my hat free of the closing door just in the nick of time.

Was acting always the dream?

EC: No. I actually wanted to be a hairdresser for quite a while. I didn't grow up around any actors and I had never met any, so I didn't realise that it was something that was available to me.

DA: It was something I was always interested in and curious about. My older cousin would go to Saturday classes, and he would have a performance once a year. I'd watch these and at the age of eight I told my mum I wanted to do it as well, so she signed me up. I was there every Saturday acting, singing and dancing. But I was also interested in football and athletics so I didn't know if it would turn into a career for me. When it got to GCSEs and going to college, I had to decide what I wanted to do and realised acting was what I truly enjoyed and I wanted to take it further. I then went to the Brit School and then Guildhall [School of Music and Drama], and here I am.

Is there any advice you'd give to those who want to go into the profession?

EC: My main advice would be to watch in two senses of the word. Watch as much theatre and screen work as you can and dissect the performances, asking yourself what you find inspirational about them.

There is also inspiration to be found in simple people watching in your everyday life. When you're on public transport or sat in a restaurant or waiting for a friend or even by watching television. Shows such as First Dates or Come Dine with Me can show you how a person reacts to a joke, for example, or you might be able to see that someone is lying and then examine exactly how they go about doing this.

DA: Have an idea about the type of stories you want to tell and the roles you want to play. In terms of craft and technique, always work on those tools and those muscles. That could mean going to a traditional drama school or attending and watching plays as much as possible, studying scripts, going to Saturday classes. Put yourself in the best position to be happy and successful in the work you create - whatever success might be to you. I know this sounds corny and generic and basic but no lie: believe in yourself. Have your own back and big up your chest!

Are there any roles you hope to perform or plays you'd love to be a part of in the future?

EC: There's a novel called Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh and I'd love to play the titular role if it's ever adapted for stage or screen.

DA: I want to tell stories that are important and matter and that hold weight like Trouble in Mind. I also want to ride a horse. Seriously, I want a part that involves riding a horse!

Finally, if you had to sum up Trouble in Mind in just one sentence, what would it be?

EC: It's funny because it's true.

DA: Yeah, Trouble in Mind is unfortunately still funny because it's real.

Read our review of Trouble in Mind

Trouble in Mind is at The National Theatre until 29 January

Photo credit: Helen Murray

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