Melissa Johns is an actor, who trained at East 15 Acting School, graduating in 2012 and we are very proud today to announce that she is our 2019 Alumna of the Year.

But this accolade isn’t just for acting – it’s also for Melissa’s activism, and reaching out, and making change to better the world around her.

Melissa grew up in Ledbury, Herefordshire and knew from an early age that she wanted to make acting her career. Melissa was aware of the fact that acting was the preserve of middle class kids, or those from wealthy backgrounds. Sadly, this still remains a common perception.

But undaunted, when she was nine years old she responded to a local theatre casting for the play Through the Dark Clouds Shining. They were looking for a main character, a child evacuee... and Melissa jumped at the opportunity. She said in a recent interview: “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!” And she got it, and the acting bug had bitten.

Fast forward several years and Melissa has now landed parts in TV dramas, including the BBC’s Casualty and Doctors, and she was selected from over a few hundred applicants to take part as one of ten actors in a day-long workshop for ITV’s Coronation Street, which was specially hosted to invite interest from actors with disabilities.

By the end of the day, Melissa was asked to keep in touch – which she did, for three years, sending them clips of roles she had landed. Her patience and persistence paid off, when out of the blue, in May 2017, she was woken by a 2am phone call from her agent saying she’d been cast in Coronation Street – without needing to audition – and filming started just four weeks later.

Melissa says: “This proved to me that even when you feel like things aren’t going your way, you have no idea what’s going on the other side of an interview or a casting door – things can change so quickly!”

It’s no mystery that acting can be a notoriously risky business. In Melissa’s view, building up a strong personal resilience is essential. She says: “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’d advise anyone looking to pursue a career in acting to do some detective work and establish a connection then keep in contact.”

While acting is undoubtedly a huge part of Melissa’s life, she hasn’t stopped there.

Today she also uses her voice to promote female empowerment and body-positivity. She believes that we should be proud of our bodies, and she thinks one of her biggest achievements has been learning to embrace and celebrate the body that she was given.

She says: “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.”

And she is still being part of that change: she puts words into positive action, as co-founder of an organisation called Triple C – the creative confidence collection – that develops projects that break down the barriers for inclusivity and representation of disability in the arts.

As part of their remit, Triple C workshop teams visit special educational needs schools and colleges, where drama has been cut from the curriculum because of funding – with the firm belief that all children should have the right to explore creativity through drama, including, and especially, disabled children.

As part of TripleC, Melissa also co-created the Disabled Artists Networking Community, which encourages professional disabled artists to network with professional industry guests– such as directors, producers, and casting directors – to work towards making a pledge to help break down barriers in the industry, by enacting change in their own organisation. For example, an executive producer may pledge to see at least one disabled actor for an audition every role that will be cast.

Melissa says: “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.”

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the Essex Spirit. And we say “Brava, Melissa!”

Chancellor we present our Alumni of the Year, Melissa Johns.