We spoke to Melissa Johns, 2019 Alumna of the Year about her time at Essex and her journey into acting and activism.
How would you sum up your time studying at East 15?
East 15 took everything about me, all the wonderful things my disability had given me in my life so far, and completely embraced it and allowed me to go on to magnify and glorify it.
How does it feel to be awarded the Alumna of the Year Award from University of Essex?
I was in complete shock when I was approached to be the Alumna of the year for Essex, I always thought this was awarded to people who have studied an academic subject, for doctors and scientists, so for me it has given validation on how much you can reach out and change the world through the arts. I feel so honoured.
What inspired you to pursue a career in acting?
People often ask me how I got into my acting career. I’m from a little town called Ledbury in Herefordshire, my family are from a working class background and performing arts was always seen as a middle class career, for those who have money. At nine years old a local theatre put out a casting for Through the Dark Clouds Shining looking for a main character, a child evacuee. I was born without a right forearm and hand but at the tender age of nine, in my naivety, I didn’t even think my disability could be a barrier – I just knew I wanted that part!
Barbara Jones the writer and director of the show cast me and gave me my first real taste of what it’s like to perform live on stage. Not only did I feel incredible but my family were so proud of me. Barbara is still a very close person in my life and she opened up so many lovely opportunities to me. Barbara took me to theatre shows in surrounding areas and kick-started my passion for acting. She didn’t see my disability as a barrier and she fuelled my determination to follow my dreams.
How did you land your role within Coronation Street?
In 2014, Coronation Street opened up an opportunity for ten actors with disabilities to take part in a day’s workshop, including shooting a show reel on the Street. By this point I had credits from the BBC for Casualty and Doctors and I was selected from over a few hundred applicants. At the end of the day the last thing they said to me was “Melissa please keep in touch and let us know what you’re doing”. I’ve now learnt if someone from the industry tells you that and you don’t keep in contact then you have shot yourself in the foot! Over the next three years I continued to keep in contact with the casting department sending them clips of things I was in.
A life changing moment, which I’ll never forget, was in May 2017. I won a fitness award for shedding a positive light on disability and fitness and my prize was a trip to LA to meet the girls who set up the competition. A couple of nights before I flew home I was woken up at 2am by my agent calling me to tell me I had been cast in Coronation Street – I hadn’t even auditioned for a part! It transpired the director had been shown my show reel, and without even calling me in to audition, had cast me in the show. I started filming about four weeks later. This proved to me that even when you feel like things aren’t going your way you have no idea what is going on the other side of an interview or a casting door – things can change so quickly!
Do you have any advice you’d like to share with our students?
It’s the same for anything in life, you’ll get knocked back but you have to build up a resilience and find out what your fight is and fight for it. Things don’t come to you, you have to chase them and let the world know why it should be you. I would advise anyone looking to pursue a career in acting to do some detective work and establish a connection then keep in contact.
What do you feel has been the biggest achievement so far?
My acting is a huge part of my life but my passion is using my voice to promote female empowerment and body-positivity. We should be proud of our bodies. One of my biggest achievements has been learning to embrace and celebrate the body that I was given. I had an awful time as a teenager coming to terms with my disability. I felt so isolated, nobody in the media looked like me, it’s still not where I think it should be, but the creative industries are slowly getting better at embracing under-represented groups, and I’m very proud to be part of that change.
I am the cofounder of an organisation, tripleC – or creative confidence collection. We are still in the early stages, but our aim is to create projects that break down the barriers for inclusivity and representation of disability in the arts. We create workshops that we take to special educational needs schools and colleges where drama has been cut from the curriculum because of funding. At tripleC there’s a belief that all children should have the right to explore creativity through drama, including and especially disabled children.
Disabled Artists Networking Community (DANC) is another one of or projects. It’s a regular networking event that allows professional disabled artists to network with professional industry guests. Each industry guest (directors, producers, casting) then makes a pledge to take back to their organisation/theatre that will help break down barriers in the industry, for example, an executive producer may pledge to see at least one disabled actor for an audition every role that will be cast.
What are your plans over the next year?
Together with growing my own career I will continue to grow tripleC alongside fellow Coronation Street actor Cherylee Houston.
Any final words of advice for aspiring actors?
This industry isn’t easy. But I don’t need to tell you that. You would have already been told it a million times. Just keep going, remind yourself daily why you chose the path, work on your resilience and always bounce back.