Charlotte Armitage: Helping actors with disabilities to pass the screen test

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Acting helped Charlotte Armitage cope with the stress of bankruptcy. Now her film and television acting academy is providing a springboard to success. She spoke to Ismail Mulla.

Charlotte Armitage didn’t get off to the best of starts in business. Back in 2011, she was convinced by an ex-partner to set up a chain of hairdressing salons.

Charlotte Armitage, managing director of Yorkshire Academy of Film and Television Acting. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Charlotte Armitage, managing director of Yorkshire Academy of Film and Television Acting. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Ms Armitage said: “I went into that and it was just hell on earth every single day I was running it.

“I hated it. It’s just not my background. You need to have passion for what you’re doing. You really need to care about it. That’s why it didn’t really work out for me.”

In fact, the young and naive Charlotte Armitage went personally bankrupt in 2013 after the business spiralled out of control.

To compound matters she was also expecting a child. Understandably, it put a lot of pressure on her.

Charlotte Armitage, managing director of Yorkshire Academy of Film and Television Acting. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Charlotte Armitage, managing director of Yorkshire Academy of Film and Television Acting. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“When that happened I felt like my life was over,” she says. “But I remember my dad saying to me ‘look you’re still alive, you’ve got your health, you haven’t lost your limbs or anything – you will get over this’. He was right.”

To cope with the stress of the business going under, she turned her hand to acting. It was a natural move for someone who paid her way through university by modelling.

Ms Armitage said: “When the business was going under I went to London and I did an acting course down there.

“I found that I was paying a lot of money to go to classes that are taught by people who don’t really know anything about acting.

Charlotte Armitage, managing director of Yorkshire Academy of Film and Television Acting. Picture: Tony Johnson.

Charlotte Armitage, managing director of Yorkshire Academy of Film and Television Acting. Picture: Tony Johnson.

“That really annoyed me because I wasn’t learning anything and I didn’t feel like they were able to teach me what I needed to know.”

She also came to realise that there was no real acting school up in the North and believed that there was a need for such a provision here.

So while she was seven months pregnant, Ms Armitage decided to set up the Yorkshire Academy for Film and Television Acting (YAFTA).

Today, the Leeds-based business employs 22 staff and is also a talent agency for some well-known soap actors.

While others, who had gone through the emotionally wringing process of bankruptcy, might shy away from challenges in their industry, Ms Armitage is different.

The entrepreneur is playing an active role in improving diversity in the film and television industry.

YAFTA has its You Can scholarship programme, which provides someone from an under-represented background an opportunity to undertake a diploma at the acting school.

Ms Armitage is a particular advocate for disability representation on screen. YAFTA represents James Moore, who earlier this year became the first actor with a disability to win a National Television Award (NTA).

He plays Ryan Stocks, a character who like the actor himself has cerebral palsy, on the popular soap Emmerdale.

She says the award win was a “massive moment” and Ms Armitage hopes that it can be the catalyst for more roles for actors with disability.

Ms Armitage’s passion for disability representation comes from her own experiences growing up in Harrogate.

Her older brother had fits as a baby that left him with brain injuries. Having a brother who was mentally incapacitated put the family under a lot of pressure.

People would treat Ms Armitage and her family differently as a result.

She said: “I felt hurt a lot as a child because of the way people would be towards my brother or towards me.

“They were quite discriminatory about his disability. It was just sheer nastiness really. There wasn’t the understanding back then that there is now.”

Despite this there is a lot of work to do on levelling the playing field when it comes to disability, Ms Armitage says, and film and television can play a key role in changing perceptions.

She said: “The media, soaps, film and TV, has the power to influence the younger generations. Normalising certain things in younger generations leads to acceptance. That will reduce prejudice.

“At the end of the day when people are accepting or think something is normal, they are not going to be prejudiced against it. That will create a much more levelled and balanced society on the whole.”

The only way the situation is going to improve is if roles for people with disability are written in. Production companies also have to make special allowances when it comes to logistics and extra support.

Ms Armitage said: “More roles need to be written for people with disabilities. I think there is a fair representation of race on screen right now.

“We don’t want to get to the point where it’s getting to negative discrimination. It’s just got to be equal. We don’t want people to be like ‘you’re not going to get a part now because you’re white and blonde’.”

As well as running YAFTA, Ms Armitage is also pursuing her passion for psychology. She did a degree in psychology and worked for the National Policing Improvement Agency before her ill-fated run in the hairdressing industry. “I worked in their examination and assessment department, which was all occupational psychology,” Ms Armitage said.

She is now doing a doctorate in counselling psychology and hopes to help improve people’s mental wellbeing in the future.

There are similarities between the disciplines of acting and psychology. “There’s a lot of psychology in acting for a start,” Ms Armitage says. “We have a lot of people who have mental health problems coming to us because it’s a safe space, where they can feel comfortable and work through their issues.”

Ms Armitage is juggling her doctorate alongside not only running YAFTA but also raising a daughter on her own.

Having people at YAFTA, who she can trust, helps her with the juggling act.

Looking back it could have been very different for the entrepreneur but by riding the knocks she’s come out stronger on the other side.

“What I would say is I’m really grateful for all of the negative experiences that I’ve had because actually those are what have shaped who I am now and what I’m doing now,” Ms Armitage said.

Curriculum vitae

Title: Managing director & doctoral counselling psychologist in training

Date of birth: 12/10/1983

Lives: Leeds

Favourite holiday destination: Bali

Last book read: Understanding Psychopathology

Favourite Netflix Series: How to Get Away with Murder

Car driven: Range Rover Sport

Most proud of: My gorgeous daughter.

Education: BSc (Hons) Psychology, Postgraduate Diploma in Business Management, currently studying for a Professional Doctorate in Counselling Psychology at Teesside University and working as a trainee counselling psychologist in the NHS.