Acting Dyslexic: Part Two

Firstly, THANK YOU! I had such a great response from my Access For All blog posts: Acting Dyslexic: Part One and Bullseye (a theatre review on Vocal Eyes’ audio description). I received emails from dyslexics and people who use the audio description service, thanking me for writing about disability in a “cool way“. Peppered with unexpected virtual kisses and hugs, I feel loved by strangers readers. Although I hate to call dyslexia a “disability“- I believe it should be rephrased as don’t “diss” the “ability“.

Anyway, dyslexia has ruined my life since 2008. Undetected at high school, my decent GCSE grades disguised the big D. Thinking back, all the signs were there… poor reading, pronunciations, grammar, terrible memory and the struggles with spelling and proofing. I would spend hours in my bedroom, rewriting and reading the same paragraph over and over again. Dyslexia has always been within me, it’s just somebody confirmed it with the fancy paperwork.


Studying Performing Arts at college, the floodgates opened. I had chosen the wrong course. With a shaky script in hand, I was a performing disaster. Words were skipping and memory was fading. My coordination was something out of robot wars. Crying in the toilets and thinking the end was nigh, my tutor knew something was wrong with me. They were right…I’m dyslexic.

In my dream world, I’m an actress and perform on the London stage every night. I also have two dachshunds named Sherlock and John (don’t laugh!) and a penthouse, overlooking the River Thames. This girl can dream. In reality, I am a marketing assistant for a theatre and blogger (not knocking it!). I market other people’s talents…the ones I wish I had!

Reminiscing these college days, I wondered whether any dyslexic actors or actresses suffered and wanted to share their journey with me. They did – evidence here! That’s when Jenna Fincken contacted me for a chat over coffee at the Southbank Centre.

Meeting Jenna was like sitting opposite to the dream version of me. Clearly fate had brought us together for a couple of hours. Except my dream was her reality. Jenna graduated from the Oxford School of Drama last July. She’s just beginning her career as an actress in the “outside” world.

Immersing herself in freelance work, Jenna was recently cast in Tom Ratcliffe’s debut play Circa. With sold out performances at The Old Red Lion in November 2015, the play transferred to the Theater de Meervaart, Amsterdam for its world premiere.

Jenna Fincken and Scott Westwood Circa
Jenna Fincken and Scott Westwood in Circa by Tom Ratcliffe

Jenna discovered she was dyslexic in Year 9. Despite being confident, her parents suspected something was wrong with her poor SATs results. Due to financial reasons, her secondary school refused to test her, but luckily with her parents’ support and research, she was diagnosed outside school. “My parents were my heroes.”

Mentally clutching our certificates in hands, Jenna and I both share relief and reassurance towards the “You’ve ticked the dyslexic box“. However, Jenna noticed a change towards how people reacted towards her diagnosis. People began to “make a fuss” as “I began to doubt myself whether I was using dyslexia as an excuse”. Missing her beloved P.E lessons with friends, Jenna explained how her school isolated her into special education lessons and felt “patronised”. Although she appreciated the additional help, she was alone and segregated from her “non-dyslexic” buddies.

Studying at the Oxford School of Drama, Jenna remembers the wise words from the Founder and Principal George Peck: “You have to make your dyslexia work for you”. These words inspired Jenna to no longer treat dyslexia as “big issue” or sob into a big tissue.

Jenna has learnt how to free her characters from her dyslexia. She refuses to let her frustrations accompany her performance. “My character wouldn’t mess up so why should I?” She also doesn’t feel the big need to discuss dyslexia with fellow cast mates. “Don’t expect people to care, you still got to do it”.  Her determination was clear here, but Jenna does have heart as it was soon followed with the inspiring statement: “Failing is fantastic though as you can only go up”.

Wanting to high five Jenna across our small table, she explains how she researches the innards of her characters, examines their narrative and adapts them for a backstory. “I approach the script like a theory based project and build upon the groundwork. I analyse the script’s language. With every single fact, I always ask the question how does she feel?” Her eyes sparkle with the love of her craft, including the transformation of a bunch of muddled words on page into a living human being. She approaches acting her way.

Frank hello emma kay.gif

Jenna believes dyslexia has 80% helped and 20% hindered her craft. The major hindrance was overcoming sudden panic attacks. Her haunting memory of messing up a singing assessment gripped our conversation into a moment of silence. Site reading was another toughie for Jenna as she went into complete “shutdown” mode  whilst reading the script for the first time. “I would faint or throw up”. Feeling completely hopeless, Jenna no longer trusted her body or abilities. She reassures me she has learnt several coping mechanisms to regain control, thanks to her love of simply breathing!

Showing off her diary, she also shows me the many To Do lists in her extremely neat handwriting. Holding her organiser as if it was the holy bible, Jenna speaks the gospel truth of organisation, “Book your thoughts in a To Do list” for memory purposes.

#Jose Sarmento Matos.  London, Soho Theatre. Lines in Sand. 10-06-15.
Jenna Fincken and Lawrence Swaddle in Lines in the Sand directed by Abigail Graham

Yearning for the return of positivity, we smile to the same tune of “Dyslexic Creativity”. Jenna nods as she mentions that dyslexia grants her freedom to “improvise” and get “straight to the point”. Reminiscing her workshop with Frantic Assembly, she enjoys “visually listening and connecting to things through the body”. She began to actually “see the music” and “dance to the rhythms”. Understanding and sharing these weird and wonderful approaches, I understood her unusual ramblings towards creative experiences. We don’t do literal, we express.

Jenna Fincken and Scott Westwood 2
Jenna Fincken and Scott Westwood in Circa by Tom Ratcliffe

“I think the most important thing is not seeing your dyslexia as a problem as it what makes you you, and is probably the reason why you are in this industry. So think of it as positive thing rather than a hindrance. Find why it makes you unique and use it to your advantage”

Jenna Fincken

Feeling giddy with understanding, I always love turning strangers into friends. Jenna confirmed we should talk about dyslexia more, just without the big dramatic fuss.

Depending on your life experiences, dyslexia is no real biggie, but it’s good to open the can of worms butterflies. I applaud charities like Dyslexia Action as their advice has always helped me find comfort and support. I’m writing about dyslexia in such a light hearted way for this post, but I am still gripped by the fear of having dyslexia.

Recently, I spelt two show titles wrong “La Travita” (La Traviata) and “Renior Revered & Reviled” (Renoir Revered & Reviled). These typos missed my proofing radar dozens of times. Mentally kicking myself, a reader commented on my “significant errors”. He wasn’t to know I was dyslexic or the time pressures in the workplace, but the words significant and errors hit me hard. Don’t take it personally, Emma…perhaps he’s right….I am a significant error….actually no….”slight correction”….

If you’re dyslexic, please do comment below or email me. I would love to hear how you cope with dyslexia or share your tips and tricks.

Follow Jenna Fincken
Twitter: @jenna_fincken @WildcardTheatre
Spotlight: 3137-7861-0053Casting Call Pro

A Midsummer Nights Dream



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