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Featured Artist – Tonya Joy Bolton

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Pamela Raith Photography_Tonya Bolton_032

How would you describe yourself and what you do?

If I was to describe myself in five words I would say I am Trailblazing, Authentic, Creative, Compassionate & High-Spirited. I am not afraid to speak about taboo issues and spark debate. My work takes people on a journey that’s universal yet deeply personal, challenging yet compelling, entertaining, educational & empowering.

As well as being an accomplished actress & author, I am also an Empowerment Specialist  and motivational speaker with over 15 years’ experience of training other artists and working with vulnerable people, particularly young people who have poor emotional well-being, mental health and social difficulties.

I am really passionate about utilising the creative arts to help people break destructive cycles and move forward into the life they want and deserve.

As the founder of not-for-profit organisation ICU Transformational Arts, I deliver engaging arts programmes that help break destructive behaviour patterns, re-engage people in education/community and reduce risky behaviour.

Born and bred in Birmingham, I have been writing all my life. Published in numerous short story & poetry anthologies and academic journals, I have performed extensively throughout the Midlands and also internationally. I have also co-authored 18 books and written many plays on a wide range of topics.

Tell us a bit about your connection with STUN.

I have been a fan of STUN (Sustained Theatre Up North) for a long time and inspired by its tireless dedication to the growth of BAME Creatives across the UK.

As an organisation we are extremely passionate about bringing issues relevant to to BAME communities and artists into national focus, redress the balance and shake up the arts landscape.  We wanted to partnership with STUN to reach more diverse audiences across Manchester & beyond, particularly BAME communities.

What got you started?

I have been writing since I was a small child. I can honestly say that writing saved my life. I was one of only 3 black children at my primary school and I was brutally beaten by teachers and bullied by the pupils for being Black. Writing became the outlet that helped me deal with the many emotions I was feeling.

What was your big breakthrough?

Writing & performing Holy & Horny is without a doubt one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever encountered.

I wrote Holy & Horny to address my shocking discovery that an alarming number of Black and Asian & ethnic minority women are not reporting sexual and domestic violence or accessing sexual health services. Although most sexual & domestic abuse incidents in these communities go unreported, it is far more widespread than openly acknowledged.

It also highlights that women shouldn’t ignore their sexuality or sexual health regardless of their cultural or religious background. These subjects are rarely discussed within our communities and as a result many Black women often suffer in silence.

Having overcome many personal challenges in my life such as experiencing bullying, homelessness, domestic violence and sexual abuse, I felt an overwhelming sense of responsibility to stand up and speak my truth. In doing so I found a strength I never knew I had.

Holy & Horny has already had phenomenal success in the UK including breaking box office records and is literally changing lives. Not only did I discover my voice for the first time, but speaking my truth encouraged others to do the same. It was the greatest gift I could have given myself and my community.

As a result of watching the play, numerous women in the audiences reported their own rapes to police, received counselling, accessed support services and began to recover from the trauma of sexual and domestic abuse.

Ultimately Holy & Horny is a play that transcends race, culture or gender and speaks to the human condition inherent in us all.

What’s the best advice you’ve had?

“Be true to yourself,” and “You don’t get to choose how you’re going to die, or when. You can only decide how you’re going to LIVE right now”

High point:

My work is breaking new ground with helping to prevent child sexual exploitation. In 2013 I felt that not enough preventative work was being done to address the problems of sexual exploitation and self harm before young girls actually became victims.  So far more than 2,500 girls across the UK have participated in my ‘Breaking the Silence’ empowerment programme and key to its success, is a specially designed play called ‘Hidden’. This play and preventative programme has had phenomenal success. As a result many girls are disclosing their problems to teachers & parents for the first time & getting the support they need.

In 2014 I also wrote a new play called ‘Man Up’ which is currently touring schools & male detention centres across the UK. In 2014 I was a finalist for the NWG Network Outstanding Contribution to Victims Awards and my organisation ICU Transformational Arts was shortlisted for the National UK Sexual Health Awards.

Can you describe your process?

Usually I’m moved to write about an issue that I’m passionate about, usually something I feel is being ignored or minimized that needs addressing.

I then consider what will be the best medium to convey my message or tell the story. That might be a film script, a short story or a poem depending on what exactly I want to say, the audience I want to target etc.

I chose to use the medium of a one woman show for Holy & Horny because for me it is the richest and most empowering form of theatre. My one person play enables me to connect so deeply with diverse audiences in ways conventional theatre doesn’t come close to achieving.

I have a special love for live theatre performance as it has the ability to tell compelling stories as well as explores difficult issues and transforms lives in ways that TV drama cannot.

Theatre is effective because it influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behavior. Theatre also brings people together and in an age when most of our communication happens in front of a screen, I think that this gathering function of theatre is, in and of itself, something valuable.

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