This year’s Luke Westlake Scholarship was awarded to Melodie Karczewski during a ceremony at the Turbine Theatre, Battersea last Sunday evening attended by the eight shortlisted performers, the panelists and industry professionals.
The award comes courtesy of the pioneering Just Add Milk Theatre Company (JAM) whose mission is to make the industry more accessible for actors from working-class families, reflecting the backgrounds of its three founders who met while studying at ArtsEd. I well remember how exhilarated I was when I saw Year Ten at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2016. It was their first production and it transferred to a sell-out run at the Tabard Theatre shortly thereafter. These were clearly guys filled with passion and talent who were going to make a name for themselves. They soon saw beyond their own development and in addition to producing new writing that attempts to promote often unheard voices, they began creating affordable workshops involving agents and casting directors. As they point out, "The acting industry frequently notes the lack of working-class talent, but without support it is near impossible to get started".
In 2018 they were joined by producer Liam McLaughlin and developed Digging Deep, a play about male suicide and men’s mental health. Already committed to these issues they had no idea then just how much tragically closer to home they were to become. In March 2019, JAM spoke at Lambeth Council’s Lord Mayor’s Suicide Prevention Event, talking about how to use theatre as a platform to discuss men’s mental health and male suicide. Further success came in 2020 at VAULT Festival, this time with a sell-out run of Who Cares, a play devised in association with Muscular Dystrophy UK. In response to their work during the pandemic, JAM were awarded the Best Establishment Award at the Industry Minds Awards 2021, as well as the Most Accessible Company award at the Southern Enterprise Awards. They were also one of the New Diorama Theatre’s Emerging Companies for 2019/20 and as of September 2021, they have hosted over 500 workshops, seen over 6000 actors and given away over £2,500 worth of free places on their workshops.
Their largest single award is the Luke Westlake Scholarship which supports a working-class student through their last year of study and first year of entering the industry as a performer. The package provides artistic and financial support valued at over £4,000. It includes Spotlight membership, subscription to The Stage, headshots, showreel, stage combat training, tax return accountancy, £500 towards rent and a series of meetings with agents and casting directors.
Luke Westlake was a friend of the founding members of JAM. He trained with co-artistic directors Kristian Wall and Kyle Rowe at ArtsEd and had begun a promising career with performances in Luther and Dark Heart among his television credits. His suicide in June 2020 devastated the company and all who knew and loved him. They decided that their annual award should take his name. In a tribute to him they said, “A diligent, fierce, working-class actor, he represents everything the scholarship stands for and JAM are very grateful to his parents, Bridgette and Lee, for giving their blessing to continue to run the scholarship in his honour”.
Melodie Karczewski from Thanet, Kent, is currently a second-year student on the BA (Hons) Acting course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and is the second consecutive student from there to win the Scholarship, but its first disabled winner, experiencing seizures from a non-epileptic attack disorder. Casting director Faye Timby, who was on the awarding panel said, “We received a high volume of applications this year, which was extremely rewarding as it demonstrated a raise in the profile of the company and the incredible work that JAM strives to do, but it also meant that the competition was fierce, and in turn, it made choosing our recipient a great deal harder. Melodie’s talent in her audition tapes was undeniable. Her performances translated as truthful and authentic, something even the most accomplished actors can struggle to achieve.”
Scholarship Co-founders Wall and McLaughlin said, “Melodie is a very worthy winner of the Scholarship this year, from the strongest shortlist to date. We are fully invested in her exceptional talent, unique story and now, journey - we can’t wait to watch her grow and follow in the successful footsteps of our previous winners, Madison Stock and Ayo Adegun”
In her application video, Karczewski said of winning the Luke Westlake Scholarship, “It would give me a support network that I wouldn’t really get otherwise… I don’t have the support of family network, I don’t have any parents, so I’ve been wholly independent since the age of 18. Coming from where I come from there wasn’t a lot of theatre, I don’t have a large network. I was lucky enough that Open Door paid for my auditions for drama school, and wising me up on how to do it. I’ve been really lucky with schemes like that and I really appreciate the opportunity. I could use the support and I could use the help.” Now, she has that support and help.
The shortlisted performers were Rawaed Asde, Rebecca Bell, Amelia Braithwaite, Ibraheem Hussain, Meg Olssen, Olivia Simpson and Evie Ward-Drummond. They will benefit from workshops with an agent and casting director all from the funding provided by Just Add Milk.
Photo by Lidia Crisafulli.