Jessica Elliot is calling for greater diversity within performing arts - a problem that has really been pit in the spotlight more than ever this year.
We caught up with her to chat about some of the problems that the youngsters she works with are facing and some of the changes that she would like to see happen going forward.
- You set up J' Dance Factory back in 2007, so what made you want to set up a performing arts school in the first place?
There was a distinct lack of things for local kids to do in the area. All of the available dance school options had existed since the war and I was eager to bring a fresh spin and an all-inclusive approach to classes to the area. At J's, there are lots of different classes and opportunities for everyone regardless of ability.
- You have been quite open in your views about the lack of diversity within the performing arts arena, so just how big a problem is it? Is it something that your students are experiencing when they are trying to find work?
I think it's going to be a problem until we reach a point that we don't need to talk about it anymore. It became apparent last year when a student of mine auditioned for a part in a big West End show but when he got there he said that he 'didn't think the part was for people of his skin colour'.
That made be extremely frustrated and sad that a 10-year-old boy saw his skin colour as a barrier in the 21st Century. I do think the situation is slowly changing and roles are becoming more 'colour blind' but we do still have a long way to go.
- Of course, there has been an uproar this year with the Oscars and the fact that all the acting nominations have gone to white actors. Inevitably, the Academy has been called 'racist'. Is it really the fault of the Academy or is it more the fact that there are fewer opportunities for black and minority actors as a whole?
It is no secret that there are fewer opportunities for actors of colour so yes to some extent it is inevitably reflected in the awards. In my opinion, some amazing films were overlooked in the nominations this year, Straight Outta Compton being one. The bottom line, however, is that someone has to win. The winners of the Oscars are not decided by a public vote and is not necessarily ' the ticket buyers' choice.
It would be nice if a more diverse range of films were recognised but for me, it's nice that my students and young clients can now go to the cinema and see a film that has an actor that reflects their backgrounds both ethnicity and socio-economic group. I think the change in the awards will come but the Academy has to become more diverse first.
- Earlier this year, Idris Elba called for a greater diversity on TV and cinema screens here in the UK. What do you think needs to be done to open up more doors and break down these prejudices?
I believe that time will change things. The children growing up now are so much more aware of cultural diversity and the need for it than ever before. Maybe it's because I was born and raised in a very diverse part of the country but race has never been a big deal to my personal outlook.
It's as simple as 'If you are good you should get the job' and I think if more people adopt this kind of attitude, the industry has a chance of making a positive change. It is of course about money and the producers and casting directors want to put the most popular and best actors in films to sell tickets. I do really think that with a new more liberal generation coming through things will hopefully change.
- What do you hope the influence of someone like Idris Elba can achieve. He admitted in his speech in the House of Commons in January that he too had seen that glass ceiling?
Just like with any other controversial issue, when a big name is willing to speak out people start to take notice. In terms of impact, for me, someone like Idris Elba has so much of an influence as at grassroots level many of the most talented children I work with come from a similar background to Idris.
Seeing someone that resembles themselves is the biggest influence and inspiration to them to keep going and working towards their dreams. For some, there may a glass ceiling but young people, if they believe they can smash through it, they can achieve anything and maybe there will be no need to talk about the issue of equality one day.
- But it is not just race that is being talked about in the performing arts arena at the moment, but class and education. Julie Walters has spoken out about the lack of working class actors. Just what are the difficulties facing those who come from less privileged backgrounds?
Lack of funds to afford training has traditionally been a huge barrier to families who may not be able to afford to send their children's to theatre school or get the type of education they require to pursue their chosen career. I think this is where schools like J's Dance Factory come in. Offering quality, affordable part-time training for all. We prove that parents don't necessarily have to be affluent to pay your way through.
With love, support and guidance great things can be achieved. I think more funding is needed for the arts in schools and the local community as that's where lots of the young talent is going to come from. Also, more funding for good British films and television series as that's where fresh talent can truly shine.
- 2015 has been seen as a great year for female-driven movies with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road, Sicario, Carol, and The Hunger Games, would you agree?
Yes, I have had the opportunity to meet some fantastic female directors, the fact that many are now directing Hollywood Blockbusters can only be a good thing. Some girls may not have even considered a career behind the camera in years gone by but times are changing. Women are breaking through and making an impact which can only be positive. Girl Power!
- But female directors seem to be struggling to get the same opportunities than their male counterparts, why do you think that is - once again, all the Best Director Oscar nominees are men? Do you think we are going to see a major turning of the tide soon?
Absolutely! It's only a matter of time before the girls overtake the boys! I have had the opportunity of meeting several up-and-coming directors, and some of the best of these that my young performers work with are female. Sometimes a different perspective is needed in different situations and I think there have definitely been examples of female directors give projects a unique edge.
- Finally, what's on the horizon for you this year?
We've had some major success this year with kids securing lead roles on television and on the stage. I want to continue building the agency and I am also continuing to franchise the business... watch this space...