Coming into her own to tell the story as is: Denise Pitter – an actress, singer, performer and more recently a mother, reveals the path she has created on her journey from Coventry to London.
You were born in Coventry, England – The Midlands. Did you come from a musical background?
Not really. I guess I always liked music. I used to go to an Evangelical church. They sang a lot but it was the opposite of gospel, you weren’t allowed to clap your hands or dance when you were singing. My parents were really strict. I wasn’t allowed to listen to any secular music while I was growing up. It had to be church music, and it wasn’t allowed to be gospel because it couldn’t be anything with a beat or rhythm or anything which was so called “of the world”. So yes I did grow up around music but not as much as you would expect for someone who ended up going into that.
Although you did have that calling for music as a child?
First thing going back, I wanted to be a ballet dancer. I don’t know where that came from? There was something on BBC 2, something with classical music playing, there would be like a head of a girl with a puppet or something and I used to dance along to that. I used to love that but my parents completely ignored me. I don’t think they knew what to do with me. Then around twelve years old, I decided I wanted to become a singer and I managed to get a Whitney Houston album which I used to listen to and copy her.
You are the eldest of three. How did your mom and dad meet?
They have this lovely romantic story. I think both of them were quite shy and they didn’t date a lot. The story is that they were both working in Colchester at the time. My mom had got off from work early for once, which was quite an unusual thing and she was waiting for the bus. My dad drove past her and he thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. He literally said that to his friend who was with him and the friend said to my dad, “I think she’s Chinese”. So my dad said, “well if she is Chinese, she is the most beautiful Chinese woman I have ever seen”. He then coincidentally met my mum at a church meeting and my dad asked if he could correspond with my mother which they did for a while, and then they dated, and eventually got married.
How did you broach the subject to your mother about wanting to become a ballerina?
I don’t actually think I ever did. I didn’t even know about classes at that time. I didn’t know anyone who went to dance classes. The love must have come from watching musicals on TV because my mom liked watching them, from watching things like The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Guys and Dolls, Singing in the Rain, you know all the old TV musicals.
So you were introduced to more worldly music from a really young age?
I guess so.
But you didn’t get any encouragement to go into the arts.
Oh no. Just the opposite. I remember sitting in church once and the minister actually said something about actors being “of the world”, so that was what I had to deal with.
Are you close to your mom?
I am now yeah.
How did the singing start to progress?
I kind of decided to teach myself. I started to learn harmonies with some of the older girls in church. It was Church of England style singing so the style was mostly soprano and my voice was always a bit lower. The songs were always too high for me so I would learn the Alto line. Oh and I did go to singing lessons eventually. I probably was about fifteen then.
Good time to develop the voice professionally. What happened next?
I guess the other turning point was I started to get into acting and drama. Looking back I used to be ridiculously shy until people got to know me. I remember them saying, “I thought you were shy”, because once they got to know me, I’d be the one acting or entertaining everyone. But I remember in primary school, I always had stage fright, I couldn’t do anything. Secondary school, we got our mock results or something. I got Cs for everything and an A for drama but by that point it was already too late because I had already chosen my GCSEs and I thought my parents wouldn’t agree to me doing drama. So it wasn’t one of my subjects at school for the next couple of years but I realized at that point that it was something I was actually really good at. I still did drama on the side. I continued with singing lessons which was classical, more operatic style. In my spare time I was always making up plays. I’d get together with few friends and we’d make up plays. I also used to love rapping back in those days. I used to write raps and perform them for my school mates. I even used to sell my raps.
That would have made you a professional performer. When did you transition into acting?
There were a few instances that gave me the courage. I remember a few of us got called out of our lessons. We were all chosen to go onto this TV show. It was some kind of documentary thing. They came to my house and filmed me getting ready for a disco. It was my first introduction to the world of entertainment. And then the next thing was that I auditioned for a musical at the Belgrade Theatre which was our repertory company. It was a musical called The Tokolosh written by Miriam Segal, set in South Africa. Her dad was quite a political figure in South Africa at the time. That was when Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned and the head of the ANC came to see it. So that was an amazing play to be part of, I had the most amazing time, and then I joined the Belgrade Youth Theatre and that is where it all really started, the magical turning point for me. I got to perform in the studio and on the main stage. And the best thing about the Belgrade Youth Theatre was our director Janice Dunn, she really let us be anybody regardless of colour or size. So I got to play Jesus in Godspell which was split four ways between a black woman and mixed race guy, a white woman and a white guy. And we did it in a way that we had this coat that we would put on and then take on a part of Jesus’s life, going through some of the things that he went through. That for me was just amazing, to play anybody, anything without any limitations which actually now as an actress you realize is not always that freeing. But yes, I loved that place, lived and breathed Youth Theatre. Kept me out of so much trouble.
Did you go to drama school after that?
Yes. I remember the day my Mum spoke to me in the bathroom and said “You really enjoy all this performing stuff don’t you? Well if that’s what you want do do then we will support you.” They had to remortgage the house to help send me to Drama School. I also got help from the ‘Anthony Hopkins’ trust.
How did that compare? Was that really useful?
Definitely was useful and wonderful to be able to spend three years doing what you love — acting, singing and dancing all day long. It’s a weird one though because in some ways it gave me more confidence and skills, and in some ways I think it took away something that I had found in Youth Theatre. I had this absolute confidence because I could play anything and then suddenly when I got to drama school I was told “you’re a black woman, you can’t play this”. Fortunately, there were lots of good things but there was one teacher who was like “You can’t play Juliet in Romeo and Juliet because she’s not black”. I remember having a huge argument with some of my classmates telling them of course she could be. I also remember starting to dislike Improvisation because it started to feel that you had to either do something really shocking or deeply personal and revealing.
There were some amazing teachers though. Drama school gave me some really important skills like sight reading, RP, stage combat, dance and improved diction, so there were things that I learnt. I was a bit of an angry rebel in the first year, felt a bit like Leroy from Fame. I remember I stormed out a few times thinking well what am I here for if you’re limiting me? Why am I paying to attend if you don’t believe I could ever play this or that? I remember another time we had to work on a period monologue and I walked up to a teacher to ask her if she had any pieces I could do and she said in a very patronising tone “Oh Denise there weren’t many parts written for black maids in those days.” I was like Oh — My — God! I was so furious and I left the room, didn’t come back till the next day. But that was the one teacher who would say things like that.
I also remember the first week at drama school, we were discussing habits, ticks that you might have like raising your eyebrows too much, just so that you’re aware of your body but the teacher said to me, “You know Denise, you’ve got a habit of moving your head when you talk. But that is your African heritage because you’re used to banging your head to rhythms.” And that’s what she said to me. I was just shocked. And what’s worse is that I looked around and only three people went “Oh my God, did she really say that?”. The rest were like “Ahhh, that’s really interesting, yeah that’s true”. So there were some really terrifying things. And I had also come from a working class background and the Youth Theatre was really gritty. I remember we were chosen to do a show at the National Theatre, and it was a show we devised ourselves. It was all about relationships, and dealt with the subject of AIDS, racism and abuse. So I had come from this place of doing really gritty stuff to this — where I couldn’t play any roles unless they were black, like black maids. So that was really disappointing.
When was your first professional role and what did you play?
It was at the Belgrade Theatre in Panto then funnily enough it was playing Juliet in Romeo And Juliet. We did a production that went into schools so that was really good.
When did you move to London?
I moved to London when I was about 25. I loved it. I was always a bit big for Coventry, which is a great city to grow up in. But I was a little out there. Back then, I had that Spinderella hairdo, which was tied up tight in a top knot. I remember kids would say, “Oh hello potato head.” Fashion wise. I was more on the London edge. So when I got to London, it was “OH FREEDOM!”. Never looked back. Love it.
What was it like living the life of a fresh face actor starting out in London? Were you proactive?
To be honest, I don’t think I was. I was more of a happy go lucky type. I did have an agent and did work pretty hard to find my own work but not aggressively. I think I am proactive to a degree but not as much as some people.
How did you get your agent?
Through my drama school showcase. I was pretty proactive in drama school. I remember only two of us in my class wrote to loads of agents. The rest sort of relaxed and waited for the school to do it.
How did you support yourself in between acting jobs?
The first few years in London were definitely the hardest and poorest but they were really good fun days. First job was at Pizza Land in Leicester Square. Then in Warehouse clothes shop in Oxford Circus. I worked as a tea lady in a law firm, spraying perfumes in Selfridges and Harrods, even in a photocoying office. It was great though. I just got to meet so many different types of people, all nationalities, whatever, just met all types and had a great social life.
Are you a romantic or a realist?
How does that fit with your chosen career path?
I think it does. It’s all research. I am meeting all sort of characters. I am living the life, the dream. If for example I was crying over a guy, I’d cry but inside I would be thinking I must remember this feeling. I could recreate this. So I was able to step out of myself and think, this could come in handy one day. So being a romantic means that everything is your fuel. It’s your life. You’re the star of your show — your musical, tragedy, comedy, romance, thriller even.
What has been your favorite role so far?
I don’t think I have one. I’ve loved all the roles I’ve played, I just love performing. And probably each role at a time becomes my favorite part. I’ve loved everything I’ve done. There might be certain productions I loved more, but that might be due to the company and how well I’ve gotten on with everyone.
What do you thing is the most important thing to have in life?
Happiness. I know it’s a cliché but I think that is genuinely what is important and what I have in my life. I don’t focus on the negatives too much and I’m a hopeless optimist. Having a supportive family and friends really helps. In a way it can prevent you from being ambitious as you’re always pretty happy with your lot.
You’re a mom now. How has that changed you?
Before I had my daughter, my career was everything. I loved performing more than anything else. There was that selfishness. My husband used to joke, “oh, you’re that kind of actor who gets a call for a job, and it’s BYE!” I was always off on tour. I did leave having a kid to quite late because I was having such a good time. I was getting to an age where I thought if I don’t do it now, I might regret it. I was very much on the fence, but the romantic that I am, I thought if it’s meant to happen, it will happen. The weird thing is I was so ambitious literally before I found out I was pregnant. I had just come back from touring in Japan and I thought great, I am going to leverage this with more work. I was really geared up and ready to find my next gig. I’ve loved singing almost everyday of my life since I was twelve. But just before I found out I was pregnant, I woke up one day and thought, I don’t feel like singing today. I felt the same the day after and the day after that. The desire has only just returned almost three years later. Something definitely switched in me that took away all that desire. My body was busy creating this other thing, a life. It was quite wonderful. It all happened at the right time and my body took care of that. I was able to really enjoy my pregnancy and two years of my daughter’s life and loved it. It’s only now the desire for performance is coming back. Has it changed me? Yes. Performing is not as important now. My ambitious side is starting to return. I’m really excited about returning to performing. I’m looking forward to auditioning and working again but if I don’t bag that job, I have something wonderful in my life regardless.
You have this new look that really suits you. What made you decide to do it?
Well, the new look is that I am completely bald, I have no hair on my head. I have Alopecia basically. About a year and a bit ago, I started losing my hair. I went to the hairdressers to cut my hair short and to my horror they showed me a huge patch of my hair that was missing. They managed to cover it up though and made my hair look great. For about a year I was able to cover it up. But then a few months ago, more hair started falling out and when I washed it, it all matted up so I had to cut it off. That was a scary moment. My husband cut my hair for me and I made a quick decision that I wouldn’t hide it and put my photo on facebook. I have wigs that I wear for auditions and acting jobs but choose to go ‘bald and beautiful’ the majority of the time. It’s not been a huge deal so far although it seems like I am progressing to Alopecia Universalis, where you lose all the hair on your body. So maybe that will affect me more? But right now it hasn’t affected my life too much.
Has there been any difference in the way you see the world now and the way the world sees you?
For me, it’s been actually really freeing. As a black woman, I’ve had to constantly do things with my hair, mostly straightening it, worrying that it’s in place, going to the hairdressers, spending a fortune. Now, it is really very freeing as I don’t have to worry about it. I can even go swimming and literally just wash and go. Luckily, I think it suits me. So when I look in the mirror, I don’t dislike what I see. I’m still the same person. I still have my health. Oh and no one has treated me any differently so far.
Is there an actress who just inspired you to become the kind of actress you are today?
Yes, there is someone that inspired me. When I was in the Belgrade Youth Theatre, this actress came to do a part and there was something about her I just loved. She was a great actress but off stage she was so exuberant. She’s not crazy famous but she has a good body of work, done stuff at the RSC. Her name is Katy Stephens. There was something about her love of performing that I found inspirational. We’ve actually worked closely together on a few occasions since then, did Panto together a few times and the greek play Ion. She’d be really surprised if she knew.
Now having regained the desire to come back into performing, what are you looking for next?
Well, I’ve just secured a new agent and I’m ready to get back into things. I really want to work on my singing as that will fit in best with family life in the long term and provide a regular income. I want to put together a jazz cabaret show that can be performed at bars, hotels, weddings, theatres. And then acting wise I would really like to break into TV, get into another West End show, work at the National, the RSC, Rep and continue to make a living for the rest of my life.
Is there something you’d like to see change in Entertainment?
I guess for me, I would really like to see more people cast regardless of their color. I was watching the trailers for BBC drama recently and there were literally no Black people featured at all. It’s a hard one because people argue that Black characters weren’t around during a certain period and history hasn’t recorded much evidence of us but I think we were around alot more than is portrayed.
Is there a difference between casting in the UK and the US?
It seems like they’re more open in the US to casting roles with different ethnicities. There seems to also be a wider variety of parts because you have your Black middle class over there and Black producers as well as a huge Black audience. As an actor you can play anything – a junkie, a cashier, a doctor, a CEO to the President of the United States. But there seems to be a big omission of Black middle class life here. I love that there was a Black president in films well before a Black president was actually elected. I think that once you envision it on screen or in theatre, then it can actually happen in real life.