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Today we speak to Tanya Bridgeman whose one-woman show, Shoes to Fill arrives at the Iris Theatre next month. Expect some nostalgia, being a person of colour within the industry and taking back control over her own narrative.

Talking to Tanya Bridgeman, the star of one-woman show Shoes to Fill and the co-founder of Fair Play Productions, feels like a breath of fresh air. As a mixed-race woman hailing from Kent, she shares with me her experiences of success and obstacles within the theatre industry. From the moment she starts talking about her play, it is clear that she has great passion for theatre and expanding it to be more inclusive for everyone.

Shoes to Fill is a solo show about a 20-year-old woman trying to navigate her way through life, inspired by various stories based on Bridgeman’s grandmother. She describes it as “a passion project that is very close to her heart.” Bridgeman says that the star of the play “finds it hard to take control and say, ‘I deserve to be where I am at the moment.’” This leads to her speaking with her grandmother and she takes inspiration from their stories to help her history to the other end.”

When I ask about the meaning behind the name Shoes to Fill and inspiration behind writing it, Bridgeman tells me that it’s based on a favourite story that her grandmother used to tell. She repeats the story to me, with a few chuckles in between: Her grandmother used to walk to school in Ireland and her dad was a chauffeur for a Lord and Lady, who bought her grandmother and her sister shoes to wear to school. However, no one else wore them  so they would hide them in the bush. After school, they would go pick them up but one of them was missing. “It’s just this whole idea like I’ve run with. I’ve always been a bit of a sneakerhead as well – I love shoes, and then there’s the whole idea of doing grandmothers, elders and myself proud.”

She goes on to stress the importance of making Shoes to Fill a one-woman show “The narrative has to be carried by one person,” Bridgeman explains. “Which means it keeps the audience on your side and that there’s no hero or villain. It’s just about the audience wanting to go on the journey with this. The audience and the performer don’t get a break from each other. If there is dialogue, it’s interesting because you’ve also got to imagine how one person is going to perform it in terms of using different voices, or body language.”

Another project that Bridgeman took on during lockdown was the founding of Fair Play productions with Alex Miller. Both grew up in Kent, which has a theatre scene far smaller than London’s. “I’d never seen a play until I moved to London at 18, and before that I only knew musicals,” she reflects.

“We just want to create theatre that is for everyone,” she says. “We genuinely mean that in terms of performers, backstage, and the audience. We want to create a space that is safe, that’s exciting, and isn’t just about sitting in a row, looking at a performer and feeling like you can’t open a packet of crisps or like you can’t laugh. We want it to be an experience, where people can have a drink, get up and go to the toilet and not feel bad about it. Also, we want a trip to the theatre to be a whole night out rather than sitting in a dark room for a couple of hours, and then not speak to the other 200 people in the theatre. We want people to talk and discuss.”

Bridgeman remarks that finding and growing Fair Play Productions came with a number of challenges. “People have had time to create and think about what change they want in the theatre industry so we’re not the only up-and-coming production company,” she says. “It’s really competitive at the moment.” On a more positive note, she says that the process of setting up a charity has all been very interesting to learn.

To finish, we have a prolonged discussion about being a person of colour in the theatre industry, and her experiences as a mixed-race woman within it. She voices her thoughts regarding the current situation concerning diversity in theatre. “It’s a whole thing about being represented, or if you are being represented, it’s only in one certain way in which the industry often sees people of colour – as a stereotypical caricature. But there’s so much more than that,” she says. “There are so many stories that haven’t been told. We’re always put into the same roles and then pinned up against each other. I often found that the calls that were coming through did not represent who I really am.”

To tackle this long-standing issue, Bridgeman says that she decided to control the narrative and advises AYT readers to do the same. “I thought to myself, I’m just going to start writing these characters myself, and that is the biggest piece of advice I would give to anyone, especially people of colour. If you’re not seeing yourself represented on stage or on screen, do everything in your power to create that yourself. Find your allies within the industry and that way we’re going to create an even better one for the future.” She goes on to tell me that, “we need to get away from this idea that there’s only one type of theatre.” With theatres across the country opening soon, and with all of the conversations that have been had about it, we can only hope for a more inclusive and diverse industry going forward.

Shoes to Fill is playing at the Iris Theatre from 5 to the 10 July. For more information and tickets, visit the Iris Theatre website.