Ophelia Charlesworth graduated from Essex Law School in 2018, but chose to follow her passion for acting and with the help of Essex Startups, set up her highly successful theatre company. We sat down with Ophelia to find out more about her story.

Ophelia Charlesworth performing in You Are African First Before Everything

Please introduce yourself and tell us what you are currently working on?

Certainly! My name is Ophelia Charlesworth, I am a Nigerian-British actor, writer and now a theatre producer. I proudly count myself as an alumna of the University of Essex. I originally studied law before embarking on a journey to act and produce stories.

My most recent work which is currently on tour, is my play, YOU ARE AFRICAN FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING. As the playwright, I would describe it as a production that delves into the intricate dynamics of the African mother-daughter relationship and the importance of embracing one’s own narrative. This unique one-woman show is performed by a single actor and delves into various themes, including marriage, feminism, tradition, self-discovery, and more. My team and I are bringing the show to the Lakeside Theatre on 19 October to celebrate Black History Month.

Why did you choose to study law?

After my A-Levels, I was torn between pursuing a career in law or media. As a kid I was very inquisitive. I always wanted to know the why of everything and I was quite the talkative. I loved the fact that with law I could use my voice for the greater good, helping others find their own.

On the other hand, media intrigued me because it offered a platform for engaging in interesting conversations on important topics.

The turning point for me was when I watched a news report about four young university students in Nigeria, who were wrongly assumed to be thieves. What followed was a horrifying incident where the community took the law into their own hands and lynched these young men in broad daylight. Shockingly, there was no government intervention. I was so furious from it that I thought I’ll study law and be the change I want to see in my country Nigeria.

How did you go from law to setting up your own theatre company?

I’ve always had a passion for storytelling and sparking meaningful conversations. My journey into film and theatre was influenced by my love for reading and analysing legal cases. The verdicts, the evolution of laws, and the often unfair outcomes. It all fascinated me.

I often pondered what it would be like to visually present these cases, capturing the emotions of the time to provide a comprehensive understanding of the circumstances. To pursue this vision, I took the first step by joining the Theatre Arts Society on campus and attending their weekly meetings.

It was during this time that I stumbled upon the Essex Startups Bootcamp held at the business school building. I shared my idea with friends who shared a passion for the arts, and together, we started Steelacts Productions. The goal for Steelacts was to produce thought-provoking theatre and assemble a team of aspiring actors for our annual productions. Our hard work paid off when we won a £500 prize from Santander.

Upon graduation, I ventured into the corporate world, working a nine-to-five job in project management for a telecoms company. However, my passion for theatre never waned. I went on to pursue a master’s degree at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, where I produced my first show as a student.

Since then, I’ve had a remarkable journey in the world of theatre, including successful endeavours in acting, writing, and producing sold-out shows under Steelacts Productions. It’s been an incredible ride!

What do you hope audiences will take away from the show and what broader conversations do you hope the play will inspire?

I hope that the play YOU ARE AFRICAN FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING sparks conversations within the African and Caribbean communities as well as those from other backgrounds. Particularly for individuals with difficult parents.

The hope is that the conversations lead to better ways for parents to relate to their children and vice versa. Difficult relationships can be mended with just the start of a conversation and the willingness of the parties involved to see and hear each other. Also, that people create culture not culture creating people. This is one conversation I would like to discuss with communities in Nigeria.

Can you talk about any future projects you have in the works?

We are in the midst of an exciting tour, taking YOU ARE AFRICAN FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING to some of London’s most prestigious theatres. Looking ahead to next year, my team and I have ambitious plans to showcase the play at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and the Edmonton Fringe Festival in Canada.  Also, I am currently working on a new script which will require a larger cast and I am excited about the possibilities of our next production being bigger.

Do you have any advise for any Essex students who are aspiring to work in the arts?

JUST DO IT! If you have a dream, go for it.

Learn, train yourself, build your network and keep moving forward. If you do not believe in yourself no one will so you have to be your number one fan and DO IT!  To the young artists, write! Start from somewhere. 

Ophelia Charlesworth poster for You Are African First Before Everything

You can watch YOU ARE AFRICAN FIRST BEFORE ANYTHING at the Lakeside Theatre on Thursday 19 October at 7pm.