The Guildhall School of Music and Drama has apologised to actors Paapa Essiedu and Michaela Coel for the ‘appalling’ racism experienced when they were students there. During an improvisation lesson in which Paapa and Michaela were the only black students in the room, a teacher allegedly used the N-word. The improvisation game was set in a prison and the teacher was playing a prison officer looking for drugs among the students who were playing prisoners.
Paapa said in an interview with the Guardian, while promoting his new show The Lazarus Project, that the incident left him ‘shell-shocked’.
The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, located in the city of London, is one of the top 10 acting institutions in the world. Paapa Essiedu- who starred in Michaela Coel’s award winning show I May Destroy You, said that the comment ‘clearly shows a lack of respect and understanding of what the experience is of someone who is in that position, in that skin, in that institution’.
A 2022 report by the Diversity School Initiative, which was set up to improve diversity in drama schools, noted that there were widespread claims of overt racism and casting bias in drama schools such as LIPA, LAMDA, ArtsEd and Mountview.
Essiedu noted that the curriculum was focused towards white actors, and plays with themes such as slavery left him feeling uncomfortable, as the historical context was much different than for white actors in the class.
The school has formally apologised and a spokesperson said:
“Guildhall School apologises unreservedly for the racism experienced by Paapa Essiedu, Michaela Coel and other alumni whilst they were studying at the school. The experiences he shares were appalling and unacceptable.
“We have since undertaken a sustained programme of action to address and dismantle longstanding systemic racism within the acting programme, including commissioning an external report into historic racism and a comprehensive and ongoing process of staff training and reflection.”
Essiedu, who was the first black actor to play Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2016, confirmed he still had a good working relationship with Guildhall and, in 2020, directed Guildhall students in the play Either.