For nine months, Shakara Carter has been gestating the story of the Panda. First conceived in June 2020, in a world grappling with a global pandemic and the social inequities highlighted by lockdown, the ‘rapid response’ creative piece reflected the turmoil felt around the globe. Nine months later, we catch up with MA Classical and Contemporary Text student Shakara as she is set to premiere two new performances featuring her Panda Persona – and bringing her Triptych to a close.
Shakara Carter has worked hard to get to where she is today. Her route to the MA Classical and Contemporary Text programme hasn’t been straightforward, with programme leader Marc Silberschatz commenting “this is a person who hasn’t had anything handed to her”. Her studies came to a halt after nine months due to Covid-19, but Shakara has not let this obstacle slow her down. With her Masters deferred to 2021, and locked down, Shakara created her Panda, a persona designed to help her – and the audience – face some uncomfortable truths with humour and humanity.
“I go into a completely different vibe when I’m working with the character of the Panda – it helps me channel questions and concepts that I’m struggling to articulate.”
In the first of the trilogy, we meet a panda that is unlike the preconceived version of the panda we have come to know and love. Notions of a cuddly, sedentary, kung-fu loving mammal are thrown out as this panda articulately rages against her place in the world as a minority, struggling with her isolation. When watching this character evolve over the three pieces, it’s hard not to be moved.
“People loved her! I wasn’t expecting that at all,” smiles Shakara.
“I didn’t realise how much people would connect with it and I got so many requests to continue her story.”
“The panda persona definitely helps me talk about big things and there’s so much in it for people to respond to. I’m really cautious that it’s labelled an ‘issue piece’ as I don’t want the audience to think it’s only for certain people…It would be unfair of me to try and shoehorn any political ideology behind what I’ve made.
“Triptych has been made at a very unique time in the world, and I’m hopeful that there is space in the art for everyone to take something away. Acting is about trying to make that human connection and show everything from the joyful to the ridiculous. I think the panda persona does this well.”
The timing of the two new pieces is apt. Conversations around womanhood, vulnerability, privacy, privilege and maternity swirl across the press, social media and Whatsapp groups. The world feels on the cusp of another surge, a demand for change, for recognition that what is considered normal, should not be.
It’s a lot of responsibility for one panda. And why a panda?
“Well that’s a story!” Shakara laughs. “This project is a spin-off from The Panda Project which I’m working on with Nihaarika Negi through our collaboration Some Asian Country. Nihaarika and I received funding from Arts Council England to work and research in India and it was during this experience that we spoke about the impact colonialism has had on us. It was quite an emotional conversation, and at the end I said, ‘I just need a hug’. All of a sudden Nihaarika asked me, ‘Do you know you can work as a panda hugger?’ It made me laugh.
“And it’s true. You can get paid to hug pandas all day long. I think we could all do with more hugs than we get – especially these days! Anyway, I started to research more into pandas and found so many interesting facts and crossovers.
“You think of pandas as lazy when in fact they are stuffed with bamboo all day long – despite the fact their bodies aren’t made to eat or digest bamboo. The idea that an environment can have such an impact on your ability to function, but that you assume it’s your own fault…well, that speaks so directly to me and my experience, and I imagine, the experience of everyone in some way or another.
“And I was fascinated by the fact that pandas unconsciously abort their pregnancy if they sense the external environment wouldn’t be welcoming to the cub. This resonated so much with me, and the hostile environments I’ve experienced. So, I guess, I felt a real affiliation with this panda, battling forward in a world not really built for her.”
Head of MA Classical and Contemporary Text Marc Silberschatz introduces the three pieces writing: “I must confess to being overwhelmed – overwhelmed by their complexity, depth and honesty.” But it must also be countered that these pieces include humour, joy, wryness and, surprisingly, a reading of The Gruffalo.
The panda’s monologue is interrupted in the final instalment by one-year-old Mothei, son of Shakara’s close friend, and a breakout star. The panda coos at him and sighs, “This is enough.”
And so, we ask Shakara, is this enough for her now?
“I’ve had a long journey to get to here. I’m going to finish my MA this year and it’s made me realise that I don’t need or want to be anything other than what I am. And that is what actor training – especially at RCS is all about. It’s not cookie-cutter training, it’s about finding your way of becoming an actor both professionally and artistically.
“My audition to RCS was a revelation. I felt seen, and my work was seen. I wasn’t pushed to be anyone I wasn’t. And that made my work so much better! I remember thinking, wow, if that’s what they can do in 30 minutes, imagine a year of that training.
“On day one, we were welcomed by the Director of Drama Hugh Hodgart, and he stood up and told us: ‘You are creative beings. You are artists. This is what you do and who you are. You are many things and this is a place for you to become all you can be.’
“And at that moment I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. I feel like that now – I would never have made Triptych if it hadn’t been for the MACCT programme.
As graduation looms and Shakara prepares for the professional world, she is hopeful for the road ahead.
“Triptych, and the two recent productions I’ve been working on have involved me playing loveable, flawed, nuanced characters and I believe that’s exactly what my studies have set me up to do. The programme has prepared me to navigate a world which can, at times, be hostile and unkind – just like the panda’s world. She finds a middle ground in her imperfect world and that’s what I’m seeking, the balance between what the world should be and what it is – carving out your place as you go. Finding joy where you can. And I think that’s perhaps enough.”
You can watch Triptych in its entirety when it premieres on RCS at Home on 22 March.
You can contribute to Shakara’s Go Fund Me campaign.