Interview: OUDS President Francesca Amewudah-Rivers

Cesca Echlin meets this year's OUDS President to discuss post-Medea hype, the need for increased representation in theatre, and what she wants to change about Oxford student drama.

Francesca Amewudah-Rivers shot by Laura Henderson Child for Cherwell.

It’s 9am on a rather uninspiring, grey Tuesday morning in 0th week. But, as we begin the shoot in St John’s garden, our photographer, Laura, exclaims of our model in her hot orange metallic puffer jacket: “Wow, that’s amazing. As soon as you stepped into the shot the brightness rocketed.”

That’s how best to describe meeting Francesca Amewudah-Rivers for the first time. Her reputation certainly precedes her – as President of OUDS and director of the extremely successful all-BAME production of Medea at the Keble O’Reilly in Trinity, I expected to be intimidated at our first meeting. But Fran (as she is commonly known) has a way of making you feel really comfortable. Whilst she is clearly a talented person, she speaks about the issues we discuss with sensitivity, humility and real compassion.

Firstly, Fran explains how she became OUDS President. As she became more and more involved in the Oxford drama scene in her first and second year, friends began suggesting to her that she apply for the position. Initially, she was wary of the idea, but, reflecting on the problems within Oxford drama, she quickly began to realize how much she wanted to transform things. I am struck by how organic Fran’s path to leadership feels – it was without exaggerated presumption or ambition, but an intense desire to make the change she wanted to see.

An emphasis on access, diversity and representation feels central to Fran’s presidency, and this is a topic she speaks about with passion. Foundations for this kind of change were originally laid when Fran set up Oxford’s BAME Drama Society at the start of her second year with fellow students Riya Rana and Taiwo Oyebola, providing a space for people of colour to develop, explore and encourage dramatic ideas and impulses. From this society came the idea for the all-BAME production of Medea at the O’Reilly, which was met with critical acclaim.

This sensational production coincided with the publication of Oxford’s access statistics. These figures were disappointing to say the least – a shocking fact is that, in 2017, Oxford admitted more students from Westminster School than black students. As such, the representation of BAME people in Medea proved particularly poignant. Fran remembers seeing the effects of Medea, and insists that “the most rewarding thing” about the performances was “seeing diversity in the audience.” She recalls seeing people of colour, utterly enthusiastic, because normally “they’re not seeing their stories on stage.” Medea, with it’s all-BAME cast, references to the Windrush Scandal, and the consistent depiction of its protagonist as the “outsider”, brought into focus narratives that are too often pushed to the wayside when it comes to theatre.

Fran recalls the experience of putting on Medea joyfully, but also describes the feeling of immense pressure in the weeks before the performance. “It was terrifying…. It was literally like the inside of my head being put on stage for everyone to see.” But, the play, she says, took on a life of it’s own: “what was in my head”, she says, “wasn’t what it became. You can only imagine something to a certain extent in your head. That’s what’s so great about theatre.”

I find myself curious to ask her more about herself, and what she plans to do after university. She insists that, after university, she needs “to do what makes (her) happy” and that will not involve a “nine-to-five desk job.” Fran tells me that music is a central passion of hers – it is what she studies at St John’s College, and she used these skills to compose the beautiful music for Medea. Getting into the creative industry is inevitably difficult, and Fran explains the additional barriers for people of colour because, so often, “their parents have not had theatre empires” or perhaps because “most immigrant families don’t have the money to take their family to the theatre.” Thus, again we return to the problem of lack of diversity and representation both on the stage, and, crucially, in the audience.

So, as President, what does Fran want for the future of OUDS, and Oxford drama in general? First and foremost, she insists that “at the end of the day…it’s student theatre. It’s all about having fun… and taking risks.” She points out the potential for Oxford student drama to take itself too seriously, describing a “hierarchy” in the way venues are used. Students focus on a set path, starting with a BT (Burton-Taylor Studio) show and aiming eventually for a Playhouse show. Instead, Fran insists, we should do away with this, and think “what’s the best venue for this project?” Each project should be approached with as much respect and encouragement as the next. Crucially, Fran insists that Oxford drama should be an “inclusive” place, where we appreciate the “many blessings” we have. The drama community at our University should chiefly be “about supporting each other.”

“So what can we do to get more involved and push for change?” I ask her. For freshers, or those new to drama, – “If you want to act, audition for things, if you want to create anything, write. Create your own narratives and put yourself out there… If you really do care about something and want to see it happen, and if you fail or if it’s bad, you’ve learnt from it. You’ve not lost anything.” For those further down the line, and more established in the Oxford drama world, “really think about how you audition” and about making those who audition “feel comfortable.”

As our interview draws to a close, I feel a warm and all-encompassing feeling that can only be described as optimism. If this is the effect of this year’s OUDS President one-to-one, I can’t wait to see more of what she achieves with the full support of Oxford’s dramatic community behind her.

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