Behind every bright idea is the force of purpose – the lack of something essential that roused a transformative idea. For actor and director Joseph Charles – a Saint Lucian-born resident of the UK who lives in Hornsey, North London – a lack of opportunities for black performers led to his founding of Thee Black Swan Theatre and Opera Company. Birthed in 1992, the company has since staged multiple productions including White Witch (2017), Black Sparticus (2015) and Dido & Aeneas. Willing to speak about his journey, Charles checked in with The STAR Businessweek for a chat.
STAR: What led you to the performing arts?
Charles: Fate. I don’t really know the reasons. I ended up being an actor. Of course, I was interested in it but there are lots of people who are interested in the arts who don’t necessarily go into it. That’s the usual. People give you a lot of humbug about why they get into acting but the truth is they just fall into it. Sometimes people may want to be actors now but they don’t actually ever become an actor or work in the theatre or the cinema because the opportunities are not that easy. You just fall into it. It happens and then you just go on.
STAR: What is it like, working in the UK as a Caribbean performer and director?
Charles: It has its pitfalls. Being a black person sort of restricts you a bit because there is racism within the business – within everything. You are limited to playing parts based on your colour. Therefore, unless someone wants to make it “the black Julius Caesar”, you are restricted. And that’s the reason I decided to direct because, obviously, I wanted a larger scope for myself.
STAR: Is this why you founded Thee Black Swan Theatre & Opera Company?
Charles: That’s very correct; to give other black actors opportunity. But, they don’t necessarily see my company as a company that gives them opportunity because racism is a two-way monitor really. Black people think if they work for a white director their opportunity is greater for growth. Therefore, they would prefer to take a small part from a white director because what they see is financial opportunities – the white population controls the wealth and the power. We as blacks don’t control it, so the opportunities are scarce. I still have problems of casting, say, “top black actors”. There are not many but the few that have a reputation of any sort would not want to work with me.
STAR: What does your company offer black performers?
Charles: What my company is trying to do is to multi-racially mix us all up. We have white, black, green, yellow, orange actors; whatever you want to call them. So we’re multi-racial.
STAR: How have you raised funding for the company?
Charles: We’ve gone “Arts Council” in this country which helps most small companies like mine with funding. They give you a certain percentage of your funding, about 45%, so you have to raise the rest from other sources. But the Arts Council has particular rules. Of course, there are moments the Arts Council thought some of my ideas were trite. Or, if I wanted to do something large and exotic; like, I wanted to do Don Giovanni which is a huge opera. When I applied for it they told me it would be preferable for me to do something new rather than doing an established opera. So you can guess what they’re saying to me; that they didn’t think I was capable or I shouldn’t handle something like that because, obviously, I was going to change the cultural structure of it.
The second part is raising money from other sources. The local black businesses are not interested in theatre or cinema or they’re not interested in putting their money into it. Therefore it causes a problem. So it is difficult that I have to sort of, by a wind and a prayer, beg, steal and borrow to create my theatre.
STAR: What is your advice to black performers pursuing careers in the performing arts?
Charles: To be more politically aware of what they’re doing. Most plays have a political status to them; there’s not a play in the world that doesn’t. I actually think that basically all Caribbean performers should be careful of scripts they’re handed and decide whether it makes them look stupid; whether its conforming with a stereotypical type. Look at it politically and ask: “Why am I in this play?” If you think you would not like to live like that person, then don’t do it. Then things will change.