Screen talks to the founder and CEO of Identity Drama School, Britain’s first black drama school and leading talent agency, IAG.
Noticing a lack of representation at mainstream drama schools for black and minority ethnic actors in the UK, Femi Oguns hit upon something he wanted to change.
“Rather than join the chorus of complaints, I decided to do something about it 10 years ago. I visited all the areas I knew were highly populated with ethnic minority groups [such as] Stratford, Hackney and Brixton, and handed out flyers. Most of the time, the flyers I gave out ended up on the floor, but it was the vision and self-belief that made me see it through.”
Those flyers – with a selling point of ‘want to be taught by teachers who’ve been in EastEnders, The Bill and Holby City?’ – announced the arrival of Identity Drama School, Britain’s first ever black drama school. Almost ten years since its inception in 2003, it’s morphed into an alternative drama school as Oguns believes he’d achieved what he’d originally set out to do.
“I wanted actors to know they could go to a drama school where they would be judged on their merit and ability as opposed to anything else.”
Having started out in acting, including starring opposite Helen Mirren in Tom Hooper’s Prime Suspect: The Last Witness, Oguns drew on personal experience to ensure Identity was the drama school that he would have wanted to go to.
“My experience of being at a drama school was that there was only one other black person there and you did feel segregated. Even though you had this opportunity where you were in this top drama school, they didn’t invest as much into you as they should have done.”
It’s a formula that’s worked: with ten people on its opening day at the Arcola Theatre where it was originally run, Identity now teaches 300 with a secondary base in the Midlands with more than 200 students. The school has attracted the likes of the Royal Shakespeare Company and The National Theatre, which has seen many of Identity’s students star in numerous West End productions.
And with people telling him to set up an agency almost since the start of the drama school, Oguns opened the Identity Agency Group (IAG) in 2006, now based in the heart of London’s West End, Covent Garden. “My business model at that point was more geared towards developing and nurturing creative talent, and it took five years before I decided to set up IAG.”
This meant that instead of inviting agents to Identity’s bi-annual performances, Oguns would handle Identity’s students himself, and only invite casting directors and producers. “By forging a relationship with top casting directors and producers, in turn, we develop a strong element of trust, where our actors are able to show such detail and versatility in front of the decision-makers. This has manifested itself into a wealth of successes across the stage and screen.
“We don’t limit our actors. If you see some of the clients we’ve got out there, not only are they breaking records at the moment, their span of work is so broad. That’s come about not just as a result of us having no choice but to be brave in the work we put them up for – where other agencies would limit their casting choices due to stereotypes – but also because we understand our actors as we know them on a one-to-one level.”
Again, it’s a strategy that’s paid off. Oguns has since set up an Identity Agency Group in LA, representing a number of US actors, and works with the likes of CAA, Principato-Young, TalentWorks, Safran Company, The Hofflund Company, Calibre and Management 360 – to name but a few.
The actors coming out of Identity have certainly made their mark, led by the rising profile of John Boyega. “John Boyega is an example of an actor who knows what having a great management team around you means.”
This faith has seen Boyega appear in Attack The Block, as well as upcoming projects such as Biyi Bandele’s Half Of A Yellow Sun and Billy O’Brien’s Creeping Zero. Boyega was also a 2011 Screen Star of Tomorrow.
But Boyega’s not the only Identity success: Letitia Wright, who played a leading role in Channel 4 drama Top Boy and Sundance pick My Brother the Devil, was one of this year’s Screen Stars of Tomorrow; Adelayo Adedayo, who made it down to the last stage of Steve McQueen’s upcoming feature 12 Years A Slave, is set to play the lead in BBC comedy series Some Girls; while Tobi Bakare was in last year’s The Shadow Line and has played the lead in two Olivier-linked plays at the Royal Court and Soho Theatre. And not to forget Malachi Kirby, who this year was nominated for an Evening Standard award for best newcomer and is featured in this year’s Nylon Young Hollywood issue.
As for Identity’s next steps, the drama school is set to relocate to Islington from its current Dalston base, and Oguns hopes to expand the US presence with a drama school in New York. Yet, however Identity expands, the central idea behind it will remain the same.
“I wanted to give an outlet and an opportunity for actors where they’d be judged on their ability and not the colour of their skin, or how much money they’ve got in their pocket,” states Oguns. “We’ve created a magical environment where we nurture and develop fantastic raw talents, and allow them to blossom into something wonderful and great.”