An Interview with Amber Sainsbury, Founder of Dramatic Need

Recently I had the pleasure of speaking with Amber Sainsbury, founder of Dramatic Need, a UK based charity that brings creative arts education to underprivileged children.  Amber is a Hollywood actress who has been in movies such as 30 Days of Night, The Ferryman, and has been in television programs such as Hex and The Poseidon Adventure.

The Official Patron of Dramatic Need is Her Excellency Dr Lindiwe Mabuza, South African High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. The Board of Trustees includes Oscar-winning film director Danny Boyle, famous for his work with Slumdog Millionare, and South African-born actor Sir Antony Sher.  Dramatic Need’s global ambassadors are the American actor Josh Hartnett and the Danish photographer and model Helena Christensen.

James: Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss Dramatic Need with me.  You are known for a couple of things – you have worked as an actress and you are also the founder of Dramatic Need, a non-profit Charity devoted to providing art education to impoverished areas.  How did you make this transition from being an actress to the founder of a non-profit?

Amber: Well I started acting when I was very young.  I had my first television job when I was 15 and spent a year in correspondence school in order to make a TV show.  It became a sort-of default career, I mean; I didn’t really know enough to make a decision back then.  I look at child actors today and they seem so much more precocious in a good way, and mature, and capable of handling it.  For me I just thought – this is fun and creative, you seem to get paid a lot of money, and it seems really easy – how excellent.  And I also had been involved in theater since I was very young and loved the expression and creativity involved and loved the fact that you could essentially be in character or make-believe for a living.  When I was a kid it didn’t seem like the seriousness of adult life could allow such a thing.  So, I worked as an actress and when I got out of high school I got into drama school in London and trained as an actress.

I think that had I not worked as an actress right away I would have realized that my personality best suited to do something in development, even though I enjoyed acting and drama.  I had always been interested in the world and what was going on politically- although I’m sure incredibly ill-informed and not particularly well traveled. I do remember feeling the need to do something pro-active but not really having  the wherewithal to make it happen. Instead I got swept up in acting, I got an agent in London,  the United States and Australia and worked pretty consistently in film and TV – and it was great!  I felt very excited to be doing it, and as I said I loved the acting. It was make-believe.

But, the problem I had is that so much of what actresses to, unless you are extraordinarily lucky enough to really hand-pick your projects – particularly as a girl I found it very often was to do with stuff that I wasn’t necessarily interested in, like the kind of social-networking, dressing up to look as attractive as possible, auditions – and it started to loose something of its varnish and many of the things I had fallen in love with in acting started to dissipate.  I eventually found myself in 2004 on a set in South Africa making an American film called The Poseidon Adventure.  I spend six months in Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities on earth.  But, I really only saw the inside of the studio and the hotel room, and though everybody in cast and crew was lovely, I started to itch to get out and see a little bit more of the country.  I felt quiet hemmed in.  Claustrophobic.  So, at the end of filming I came back and spent almost a month driving from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and on the way I stopped at a farm in the Free State which is a little-known part of South Africa.  It’s very rural, it’s very segregated, it’s sort of the birthplace of the real Afrikaner political movement.  In a sense, although it’s changing slowly, it was and still is the place in South Africa where Apartheid is still most fervently represented.

For myself, having never been to Africa before I was, like so many people who have traveled to that continent for the first time, I was completely captivated by the place and the people, but also horrified by, in South Africa’s case, the political horror story that had happened pre 1994, and by how demoralized the next generation of young black South Africans seemed to be. This, despite the fact that Apartheid was no longer their specific burden to carry. There was a lot of despondency; a huge amount of nihilism facing young kids, particularly in the Free State because there was no employment opportunities, and even if there were jobs,  it had become so engrained in them that because of their skin color they would not ever be able to have the opportunity to do anything.  I was very moved by this. I wound up teaching in a small primary school on a farm in the Free State.  So I taught the only thing I knew how to teach, which was essentially drama and theater; I had no teacher training at all.  I couldn’t believe the impact it had on the kids.  It was almost like I was reminded of the whole reason that I wanted to be an actress.  The impact of ‘make-believe’ on kids.  Apart from anything else they had such fun.  I think a lot of these kids who are born into families of say eight or nine children plagued by what their parents are plagued by –whether it be HIV, alcoholism, or extreme poverty – there is a real despondency, they are not given the chance to be kids very much since the burdens placed upon them are so adult.

So, before having felt that the arts, while they are so wonderful, were not something that was ‘essential’ in either life or in development, that they were indulgent or frivolous or fun, simply for entertainment – I suddenly started to think of the arts as maybe being an effective tool for change, even if it’s a small incremental change in somebody’s ability to think well of themselves.

James: Would you say that your experiences as actress carry over in understanding how it helped you develop as a person and understanding how it helped them develop?  Was there a connection between that?

Amber: Yes, I did feel that there was a connection between my personal development in that industry and the way that the kids reacted to being given dramatic and character exercises.  It is something that brings you out of yourself, and particularly when I was in drama school, we were constantly being challenged to do things that we weren’t automatically comfortable with, because it takes some guts to get up and do something that you don’t automatically feel is your forte, and of course for these children they didn’t feel like any of it was their forte, they had never been introduced to anything like this.  There was a real sense of exploration and excitement with these children, realizing they could be someone else, if just for a moment, I can be anything I want, how amazing. I am not hemmed in by my personal circumstances.

So I had this idea for Dramatic Need. I wrote it down on a piece of paper – a napkin in a service [gas] station driving back from the Free State. When I came back to London I did a lot of research on arts education and applied arts in conflict environments, and really started to put together a sense that post any major conflict, whether it be political or out and out war, afterward, as people seek to resuscitate their sense of self and to find a means to explain or breakdown what has happened to them, there usually is an explosion of creativity – people trying and re-establish what makes them human.

I became increasingly convinced that this was a really powerful thing, and that there should be an opportunity for creative people to go out to parts of the world that are less fortunate and share their skills – that there was a constructive purpose to that.  I thought the other advantage is that people in the arts tend to be naturally gregarious and outgoing –Their profession is communication – of emotions, of messages, of thoughts and opinions. And that in going to Africa, they might then return and communicate what was going on, what was happening to these kids.  And, the more long term connections that were established between artists in America, the UK or wherever, and these South African kids the better.  We might eventually end up with a network of creative skills and interchange that ordinarily these children would never have the opportunity to experience.

James: Absolutely, I definitely think that within any society throughout history the arts have been in one form or anything the biggest source of the inspiration and creativity that comes which carries over into so many different areas of a society.  One thing that came to my mind when I was looking at Dramatic Need is that you can never really know what the future is for a specific population of children, but the effect that art can have as far as inspiration.  This branches off into other areas of study, and in time can cause those people to become leaders of society and eventually change the whole course of the way that society will go.

Amber: Yeah of course, and self confidence is a hugely underrated part of true development.  If a person or indeed a people don’t believe they are capable of moving forward, of ever amounting to something, of becoming successful, as so many of these kids don’t  then it doesn’t matter how much money you throw at the situation, it will not change. But if you can manage to flick that small switch in a child’s head about how they go forth in the world, it is possible they can then impact their family and peer group, sometimes, their entire generation.  Dramatic Need has recently seen an example of this fundamental change in self-confidence and the further positive repercussions it’s had. One of our kids Soboko Phillimon Morobi, did a film-making workshop with Dramatic Need.  He was born without his left hand, an HIV orphan, into poverty in the Free State. Through a film he made in the workshop he won an internship at a media company in Johannesburg and has since been offered a full time job as an editor at that company and now lives in Johannesburg fulltime. These Christmas holidays he is to make a film about how HIV has affected his home town.  So, as you say, it’s a reciprocal, long-term impact, because, in changing someone’s mind you essentially change the way they make decisions in life.

James: Do you believe that art education helps children think more critically and eventually as adults think more critically about stigmatization, stereotypes, and different divides in society that break people apart?

Amber: Absolutely, I think that the arts have a greater hope of bridging cultural and ethnic divides than virtually any other development tool. Currently, so much of development thinking and funding is, justifiably, focused on the real essentials like food and water, and of course without those things there is no point trying anything else.  But once you get past basic needs, you then face this terrible cycle in any area of long-term conflict where people have cross-generational hatreds or prejudice, leading to cyclical eruptions of violence, whether it is ethnic, cultural or gender related. Without resolving the root causes you are never going to get to a point where you are not lacking in basic needs. And I don’t think the causes are just poverty, poverty of course plays an enormous role, but I think that lack of self-worth, stigma, gender -disparity – these things, though of course linked to poverty, can and should be addressed separately.  The arts seem non-threatening. For children and young people who have certain misconceptions deeply ingrained: HIV doesn’t really exist, condoms are poison, rape is deserved, Zulu is bad, Sesotho is good, white skin is status, black skin is worthless etc, the arts might initially seem unrelated. They don’t get their back up immediately, they are not intimidated by the sound of music of the appearance of a paint-brush – they enjoy it. It seems fun. But then as you work through the workshop with them you can start to slowly introduce themes that affect them.

You can encourage children who have been enjoying drama improvisation or puppetry or playing drums to start shaping their new skills around quite difficult themes. But they will happily do it, because they have begun to enjoy the medium so much. They might suddenly find themselves up on stage portraying a character with HIV and it will be ok, it’s not actually them, it’s just a character. But they will still start to understand the emotions that someone with HIV might be going through and communicate those emotions to the audience. Suddenly everyone in the room is thinking about what it might feel like to be HIV positive, because there is their mate up on stage declaring that he or she is. It is a subtle development tool, but hugely effective. I believe that in terms of long-term development goals the arts are the way forward.

James: What is the basic scope and strategy of dramatic need?

Amber: Basically we send skilled volunteers with significant experience or training in a creative industry to a rural school in sub-Saharan Africa. The charity provides all the equipment and this equipment is left with the school when the volunteer leaves. The volunteer stays in the community for up to two months and works with the children towards creating a performance or exhibition of their work in front of the community based on themes that adversely affect the children’s lives.  More often than not we end up with the entire community coming out to watch. We mainly work in South Africa.  We have 33 schools across South Africa that work with us, and that equals four and a half thousand children.  Each volunteer tends to teach around 1000 kids each because they teach in up to five separate schools.  We have just this month connected with two establishments in Rwanda, an orphanage/ school, and vulnerable women’s institute.  Dramatic Need is going to start operating in Rwanda from early 2010, so that’s going to add almost another 3,000 people the charity reaches.  These are not just children; we are also working with adults and in particular vulnerable women in Rwanda.

James: And that can have huge impact.  For example as you mentioned before the kind of “switch board” changing someone’s perspective, whether it be an adult or a child, this art can appeal to the human side and create small changes that can exponentially expand out.

Amber: Of course, and there seems to be two things that happen when you see parents and community leaders coming to watch the show.  We often have people from the community that can hardly believe that their child has made something that is so special and they’re hugely proud – amazed and respectful.  The other thing that we get, for example, is if we are doing a play about HIV, it’s a very effective way of passing the message in a gentle way so parents come along and think – that could be my son or daughter, perhaps that is something that we need to think about. It can be very powerful to watch.

James: I’ve heard you talk about sustainability as a goal of dramatic need, making sure that the art is not something that just comes and leaves.  I was wondering if you could expand on that a little bit more.

Amber: Well I think when you support a charity or get involved in development of any kind, (particularly if you are like me, if you don’t have a specific development background), and start trying to help– you realize, when you get to know communities and see how things work, that your model has to be adaptable  so as to continue to benefit the community by the most effective means. What’s really important to us is that these communities become real epicentres of youth empowerment and creativity. So when Dramatic Need volunteers go out, we ask that they focus on training teachers as much as the children, so that when the volunteer leaves the teacher can carry on teaching the children who wish to continue with whichever art medium it is.  We are furiously fundraising at the moment to establish a local community arts center in one of the rural townships in which we work. We have the building – all we need is enough funding to purchase the equipment and pay the teachers. There are so many kids who are hanging out in the township, no jobs, no cinema, no theatre, no transport – nothing but alcohol, drugs and dropping out of school – we are hoping that this Community Arts Centre will give something productive and stimulating for the children to engage in as well as making things which can be sold on and therefore providing a small income.  You have to be able to provide the community with the means to continue with what you started.

James: What is the long-term vision of dramatic need?

Amber: Ideally I would like to have community arts centers in all of the areas we’ve worked in. To grow larger and incorporate more schools across Africa, and to have Dramatic Need scholarships for art academies overseas. I would also like to have a far-reaching network of local teachers who have the skills to continue to teach kids.  Eventually we would like to get to the point where Dramatic Need volunteers are really just a secondary part of what we do and we send them out to these centers that we’ve set up.

James: What are some of the biggest barriers that Dramatic Need faces?

Amber: I’m sure this is something that any charity would say to you but one of the biggest problems we face is convincing people of need of what we do.  Obviously people are very wary of giving their money, there’s so many charities out there, and everything is worthy, everything’s a great cause.  It’s impossible as a donor or contributor to try and decide between the myriad of organizations out there doing really great work.  One of the things that we struggle to convince people of is that, although what we are doing is not providing essential life supporting supplies, we are supporting people’s humanity and mental and emotional quality of life – something that is, we believe, just as essential long-term.  Getting communities, and in particular young people, to open up and confront difficult issues will help to avoid violence and conflict in the future. Of that we are convinced.  But, we struggle to convince people that what we are doing is of enormous value and perhaps as valuable as many other charity initiatives out there.

James: How do you feel that arts education carries over into other forms of education and other areas of society that some people may see as being more essential?

Amber: The thing about the areas we are working in is that the education system is so substandard. Added to this, the children come from enormously difficult backgrounds – huge incidences of child rape, domestic violence, family alcoholism, enormous poverty, and many find school extremely challenging.  Especially for those that have dropped out because of various reasons, returning to school can be terrifying.  There are big gaps, I mean I was recently teaching a class in South Africa that theoretically should have been for twelve year olds, and in fact was filled with eighteen year olds who were intimidated by the learning process, had failed on multiple occasions and didn’t want to be there.  But they became really enthusiastic when we started to do drama and dance, turned up every day, and started to participate in the class. The other teachers noted a change in many of their attitudes in other subjects, it was great. Music, drama and arts for most kids, especially if approached in a relaxed non-intimidating manner, is a less scary to approach to learning.  We’ve had lots of incidences where a child won’t say anything in class, but they start doing a music lesson and suddenly begin to see that it is really fun, that they can do this and experiment a bit.  The confidence that gives is then spread throughout the education system, because you have children who are suddenly enthused about learning and coming to school as was the case with my 12-18 year old class!

I think if it were possible so summarize the three things that separate human beings from the rest of the animal kingdom, I would say that the ability to reason, to articulate our thoughts in speech, and to create.   As I said, historically in periods following great strife there is usually an explosion of creativity.  Without our ability to express ourselves we aren’t going to take anything in.  If kids feel that they are lost and can’t express themselves then it’s only going to get worse.  The arts are very flexible and non-restrictive.  Students can really get in there and do something hands-on, they can take ownership over something that they have created. That’s hugely important for a child who has been brought up with nothing.

James: I definitely agree.  I think that art education is so important and many people don’t understand how it effects on such large underlying levels.  For example with math you can measure a specific score on a test, but with arts you can really measure how it will affect a person and often that effect will only be seen long-term.  But in the end that’s going to be what really matters because it will be related to the choices people make in accordance to others and the way they choose to live their life.

Amber: I agree.  I also think that in terms of their peers and particularly for children who have been bullied or abused, it is then an enormously potent thing when that child gets up on stage and turns out to have an absolute gift for comedy or singing or dance or painting. A kudos that comes from their fellow students can be more valuable than anything else.  As you say, that can have very far-reaching, positive consequences. The arts are often the last thing that school curriculums attend to and it’s a great shame for children that are getting left behind in the education system. The arts might be where they happen to have astonishing talent and they might never get the chance to prove it – to others or themselves.

James: How can people get involved with dramatic need and help cause?

Amber: Well that’s really easy.  If they are in the arts or have any kind of training in the arts then they can go out of Africa and volunteer.  Aside from that we really appreciate anyone spreading the word, if they put a link to it on Facebook, talk to their friends about it, or write to us so that we can send posters that they can put up a community center.  And of course like all charities we always struggle for funding. So if you can donate five pounds online, or if you are feeling particularly generous donate a hundred pounds online! That allows us to reach further people and send volunteers, and hopefully eventually reach our goal of opening our arts centers.

James: Thank you so much for your time, is there anything else you would like to add?

Amber: The arts have existed for millennia.  There is a reason that our ancestors painted on cave walls, it is a fundamental expression of the human spirit, and if you don’t maintain and encourage that in areas where people have been radically dehumanized you face long-term problems. The opposite of creating something is destroying something. And we don’t want that.

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