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Returning to Reims: An emerging actor’s story

Ali Gadema – theatre maker, poet and co-founder of Young Identity poetry – forms part of the cast for Returning to Reims. Here, Ali talks about his experience of working on the production…

Two months ago, I was in the final week of rehearsals for my final third year play in training as an actor at Manchester School of Theatre. This was a milestone for me as I had never completed any formal training. I had dropped out of high school in 1995 and spent the next 8 years of my life wondering the country, technically homeless, couch surfing, sleeping rough, living in hostels and generally making life awful for my family. In 2003 I came home to Manchester and got heavily involved with Contact Theatre. Over the next ten years I would build myself a new life and a career as an artist. Art was in fact the only thing (apart from the undying support of my family) that had been a consistent factor in my life.

Flash forward to May this year and I’m in my last week of rehearsals about to complete my training as an actor, and like any actor leaving a conservatoire environment I was beginning to become anxious about what came next. The world is a worrying place for any out of work actor and emerging from drama school this is amplified by the fact that you are leaving an environment in which you have been consistently working over a period of years. The world can tend to look like a bleak place.

So, I’m leaving rehearsals with the lovely Pat Trueman on the last Saturday afternoon before show week and I receive a phone call from John McGrath, Artistic Director of the Manchester International Festival. “Ali’ he says, “I’m with Thomas Ostermeier, he’s one of the most prominent directors in the world right now, we need someone to show us around working class areas in Manchester for a show he’s working on, there isn’t a part in this show for you but I think it would be nice for you to meet Thomas”

I was, of course stunned. I went along to meet Thomas with no expectations and I was confronted by a man with an intense intelligence and playful aura. I could make no mistake within seconds of meeting him that I was in the presence of greatness. I had asked the crew to meet me outside my favourite Jerk Chicken place in Moss Side. We spent the rest of the day working, meeting people from the area and shooting film for the show. Over the course of the day Thomas and I had several conversations about theatre, training for actors and in particular the existing environment of privilege and elitism within the conservatoire system. Although I feel that this is an area which Manchester School of Theatre is drastically improving upon, there is still room for improvement. It seemed that Thomas was on the same page, as he was quick to remark that “things are similar in Germany” and that “this is an area I am particularly passionate about”.

After an amazing day, the crew dropped me home and I swapped contact details with Thomas, expecting to maybe arrange a coffee meeting with him when he returned to Manchester for the festival. Imagine my surprise when my final year at drama school had been completed a few weeks later upon receiving a phone call from John McGrath; “Thomas would like to see you for a part in the upcoming production Returning to Reims, it’s a tiny part but I think this is a great opportunity for you”. I nearly fell out of my seat!

A couple of days later, I received a phone call from Thomas in which, very apologetically, he proceeded to explain how tiny my part was three times. “Thomas” I said jokingly, “feel free to cast me in something bigger next time round, but for now this suits me just fine”. The following week, I received a call from my agent. “Good news Ali, you have been offered a job with the Schaubühne and they want to fly you to Berlin this Friday”. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. Fortunately my corporeal self was in the waking space. Two days after the final drama school party (a typically messy affair), still nursing the remnants of a hangover, I was on a plane to Berlin. This marked the start of a new chapter of my professional life.

I think that the lesson to be taken from this experience is that in life you never quite know what is around the corner and that every opportunity is to be seized, no matter how small; you never know what will come out of chance meetings with people you would never have the opportunity of meeting otherwise.

Returning to Reims runs here at HOME until Fri 14 Jul. Book tickets and find out more here.