Corey Campbell (graduated BA Acting, 2013) is the founder and Creative Director of Strictly Arts, a physical theatre company that devises work that is engaging, thought-provoking and unique. In 2018 Corey was made an Honorary Member of RBC and in 2019 he was announced as one of three Creative Leads who will oversee the Belgrade Theatre’s production programme for Coventry’s year as City of Culture in 2021.
BA (Hons) Acting graduate
What did you enjoy about your time at RBC?
One of the huge things for me was meeting people I wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunity to meet. In the area that I grew up in, everybody was working class, but at drama school, I got to meet people from all different walks of life.
When did you set up Strictly Arts and who with? Why did you choose to set up a theatre company?
David Vann, who was a tutor at the then Birmingham School of Acting, is someone who I actually met before I started at drama school, and he was on my journey throughout but has sadly passed now. He is the reason why I act and one of the main reasons why we created Strictly Arts.
I actually met David because of my bad behaviour, when I was on probation. He basically took me in and became a real father figure. I don’t know how to articulate how much he meant to me. I’ve got Meares-Irlen Syndrome, which is a bit like visual dyslexia, so when I finished school, I wasn’t able to read or write, and David taught me how. He also gave me my first monologue, which I used for my audition to get into RBC. In fact, everything I’ve ever used that monologue for, I’ve got the part.
When David died I was confused and didn’t know what was going to happen. One thing David instilled in me was the importance of owning your narrative, your story. He would often talk about ‘this call from the industry for black and ethnic minority people’, and he would never let me fall for anything tokenistic or stereotypical. I kept thinking about that, and that’s when I decided to start my own company – so we could tell our own stories.
At the time I didn’t really know anything about how to run a company. I didn’t even really know how to direct yet – I’d literally only just been taught how to act. But what was lovely was that my whole year at RBC supported the launch to the company.
What have been your highlights/successes since starting Strictly Arts?
One of the big highlights for Strictly Arts was going to Peru, meeting people from a completely different country and performing Freeman. For it to have such a massive impact on them, and to personally see how it resonated with people halfway across the world was phenomenal.
There have been loads of other great achievements. We’ve travelled all over the world now – I think the only continent we haven’t hit is Antarctica. We won awards in Edinburgh, we sold out venues on our very first tour, we got a five star review in the Guardian, and over 15,000 people have seen Freeman. For a little company with 300-odd followers, that’s not bad.
What challenges have you faced since graduation?
Loads! I don’t like agents, so let’s start there. There were some narratives that I didn’t want to be part of but I had to get paid. A lot of the work that was coming in, I just wasn’t interested in and artistically it didn’t satisfy me. However after David died it changed my whole perspective, and when my perspective changed it just kind of kicked my brain into gear; so now if I want something, I take it. Nothing can stop me. Beforehand, I was still kind of waiting, if that makes sense.
I also find Admin a bit challenging. Anything that involves writing I still struggle with.
What advice would you give to actors thinking about auditioning for drama school, or just starting their training? Particularly if it was someone like you who came from a background where it might not occur to them to go to drama school.
Don’t be afraid of your preconceived notions of what an establishment like Royal Birmingham Conservatoire might be. It’s a big title, isn’t it? The Queen’s behind it, there’s a “toire” at the end – it’s pretty heavy stuff. But the people there genuinely care and pay attention to helping you as an individual. They really do take the time to make sure they don’t just churn out factory-setting performers.
I would also recommend putting in as much work as you can. Unfortunately it’s an industry that doesn’t sleep, so you have to put in the hours. And lastly, try to always have fun!
What was it like to receive an Honorary Membership, did it mean a lot to you?
When I was first told that I was receiving the membership, I didn’t know what it was! I arrived on the day with my family and started to recognise people like Andrew and Julian Lloyd Webber (the latter wasn’t Principal yet back when I studied), that’s when I realised that there were some serious cats in the building.
For me, it meant a lot that the place which helped to birth my excitement for acting was willing to recognise my work in any form. I didn’t feel worthy of it, but I was really grateful and It has really opened doors for me. I can tell you since I started putting those letters after my name, everybody answers my emails!
What are your plans for the future?
I’m now the Co-Artistic Director of the Belgrade Theatre, along with Balisha Karra and Justine Themen. Our Artistic Director Hamish Glen is still here, so it’s a very complicated dynamic. My plan is to re-establish what it looks like to be an Artistic Director of the future.
The work that we’re trying to do is about making sure that the Belgrade theatre and West Midlands in general are ahead of the times. The Belgrade engages really well with its community already, but I want to take that one step further. As a Co-Artistic Director I want to see a change in regional theatre presenting work that emerges from its community, and professional work that engages with its community, with everything side by side and on an equal footing, rather than in a hierarchy of shows.
In terms of the shows, we have a show coming up in December that will be changing what Christmas looks like in the B2 studio, with an immersive experience that will recreate the atmosphere of a nightclub. Coventry has a very strong club culture and music scene, so we’re going to exploit those things in a production that’s going to have singing, dancing, live music, food, drink, all in the theatre. You’ve never seen the theatre like this before!
Then later in February I’m co-directing Crongton Knights with Esther Richardson from Pilot Theatre. Crongton Knights is an adaptation of a great novel by Alex Wheatle which follows the journey of a group of young people aged 15-16. It explores identity in young people, and how they feel trapped in their communities because of postcode wars going on around them. It’s a really urban, youthful story, encompassing beatboxing and typical Strictly Arts movement style.