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Real life stories

Why performers need a specialist service. Andrew's story

Akbar is in his early 30s. He has worked as an actor in mainstream theatre and film, but is now developing a more diverse and fulfilling career in producing, teaching and mentoring alongside his acting – and, he hopes, in a small way, making a difference to the acting business.

From his family background there was no clue that he would end up on the stage. The only son of working-class immigrants from India, he had few friends as a child and no champion among his teachers at school. When Akbar was in his teens, his parents’ divorce exacerbated his mother’s mental-health problems. And he took on the enormous responsibility of being her carer. He spent a great deal of time in front of the TV, and decided he wanted to be an actor when he grew up – though he was already pretty grown up before his time.

‘There are lots of fragile children in this [acting] business, and I didn’t get much of a chance to be vulnerable as a child. But what drama schools don’t teach you is that in order to be a true artist you have to be true to yourself.’

Akbar suffered from all manner of ailments: back pain, migraines, non-specific aches and pains, and depression. He didn’t find any solutions in religion. In his late 20s he embarked on a journey including psychoanalysis and a range of holistic therapies.

His experience of working in the theatrical mainstream was marred by bullying: ‘I think it’s an ethnic thing, aspiring to be part of the establishment. But for me there was a dilemma: do I play along with the bullies in order to keep a low profile, or do I try and change things?’

Inevitably, given the way Akbar looks, he was faced with the problem of whether he should play terrorist roles: ‘I have tried to steer clear of islamophobic and racist stereotypes but to choose roles that are three-dimensional characters with universal stories to tell’.

This is what drives Akbar in his role of producer, teacher and mentor. ‘I believe that people in positions of power should have a clear manifesto as to what they are setting out to achieve. For me, this is about giving artists opportunities that transcend the obvious (in my case physical) characteristics and making small changes to the status quo based on that.’

When it comes to advice for artists trying to forge a career path, Akbar has some wise words: ‘Allow yourself to be vulnerable, don’t hide, but recognise your strengths and weakness. Be practical as well: seek out help from friends who have skills and knowledge you lack; find out all about the ins and outs of being self-employed, especially when it comes to finance. Oh, and learn to touch-type. It’s one of the most useful things I ever did.’

There is no template for a career as an artist, and the nature of the business means there is all too little sharing and mentoring. But Akbar is a model of how it is possible to be brave, prioritise your physical and mental health and look sideways, whilst maintaining your integrity as an artist. And maybe this is the way the business will be forced to change for the better …

October 2007