A return to the stage: Actress' hopes for the future

The arts and entertainment industry has been one of the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

With theatre doors locked and film sets shut down, performers, writers and directors have been forced to find new ways to engage with their audiences.

Over the past year many have turned to technology to stage virtual productions using the likes of Facebook Live and Zoom, which has been warmly received by viewers around the globe.

Among those who have witnessed and played a part in the sector’s resilience is Karen Johal who was living and working as an actress in New York when the Covid crisis hit.

Five years earlier she had moved from Walsall to train at the city’s prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts and has gone on to secure many leading roles in theatre, television and film.

But with theatres closed and projects postponed or cancelled, she returned home to spend lockdown with her family.

Karen, who plans to return to the US later this year, has relished the chance it’s given her to reconnect with passion for acting.

“The pandemic has changed my approach to the trajectory of my career and what I thought I wanted in terms of career goals,” the 30-year-old tells Weekend.

“We as an industry have lost a lot but we have adapted in a huge way. I have been able to work behind the scenes on my craft in a less pressured way and get back to the bare minimum and rediscover what it is I love about acting and why it is such an essential part of my life.

“The industry is revelling in the virtual world and keeping some of the new methods of auditioning and working safely, which means that I can be anywhere in the world and still reach the right people.

“I’ve been able to work in a way that allows me to feel less anxious and inhibited. I have had to face the reality that I may lose an integral part of my life at any moment so wasting time in my head about what the ‘right’ thing is or moulding myself into what I think the industry wants, isn’t a sustainable way to think anymore.

“The pandemic overall has awakened a sense of ‘this could all be gone’ so why not enjoy myself and make a lasting impact and go for it – whatever happens, happens,” says Karen.

The former pupil of Perry Beeches Secondary school in Great Barr is continuing to perform in a number of different virtual performances.

“I was cast as the lead role in a Facebook Live production of Lysistrata which was produced by The Mechanicals Theatre Company.

“It was broadcast in New York and we had a great live virtual audience from all over the world. We did full costume and our wonderful production designer Cecilia Faraut designed our posters and zoom backgrounds.

“It is a testament to the skills of people in the theatre and film industry to how we’ve adapted during the pandemic and also to the power of keeping connected,” says Karen.

Coping with the challenges of lockdown hasn’t always been easy and with so many people in her industry out of work, she admits she did begin to question her career choice.

“I think the biggest challenge has been adjusting to the pace and slowing down. When you work professionally in an industry where you’re self-employed there’s an ingrained sense of drive that you have.

“When you see no end in sight you do start to question whether your choice in career is the right one and especially with the UK government pushing for retraining in certain fields, it is challenging to go on and continue knowing you might not be working.

“So that has been the toughest challenge, but the one I am most proud of,” explains Karen.

Committed to following her dream in the acting world, she has used the break from ‘normality’ to concentrate on honing her skills and making valuable contacts.

“I have been able to work on my skill set and adapt to the new self tape virtual world, which I consider a huge achievement because I did not have that time to learn on the go before.

“I have been able to meet with some major UK agencies this year and I have been auditioning for productions in the UK and in New York for film and television.

“I was invited to audition for NBC’s The Blacklist starring James Spader by a casting director who saw me in the show Good Fit in New York in 2018. I have also been cast in a feature film called Victimhood for Kill the Lion films which starts production in 2022 and I have a number of exciting new projects on the go.

“I was also interviewed on BBC Sounds radio show Midlands Masala by Gagan Grewal where I got to talk about the projects I have been involved in,” Karen tells Weekend.

She believes lockdown has given both audiences and those who work in the industry a new-found appreciation for its work. And the period has also led to positive changes and highlighted issues around diversity, inclusion and representation.

“The industry has had to look inward in regard to representation, a lot has been brought to the surface in an urgent but necessary way.

“We use film and theatre to escape into new worlds and stories and the people behind these productions are more essential to our daily lives than ever before,” she says.

Karen fully believes the entertainment industry will be able to make a full recovery after the threat from Covid has receded. “You have to accept the instability of the industry as a whole when you choose this as a career. I think the return to the theatre will be a huge celebration,” she tells Weekend.

Overall Karen is feeling optimistic about the future and excited about what opportunities lie ahead in the coming months and years.

“The wider industry is opening up to make space for artists like me, as a British South Asian actress. You look at things happening like Simone Ashley being cast as the lead in Bridgerton on Netflix.

“I have hopes to be an active participant in that change and hope my accolades and achievements help change the lens through which we see ourselves in the media and not just for myself but for anyone who is a minority in this industry,” says Karen.

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