The main transferable skill I took away from my University experience was emotional intelligence: understanding and interacting with diversity of culture, religion, gender and creative ideas – not everyone is going to agree with you and that’s fine. I also liked being thrust into an environment where everything is questioned and where you were supported from day one to experiment with the person you wanted to be – personally and professionally.
Comedian, Actor, Public Speaker and Executive of Push.
What did you study at Queen Mary and what are you doing now? I studied a joint honours degree in Hispanic Studies and Drama; it was a four year course with a year abroad built in. I then went on to do my masters. Initially I was going to do my masters at Queen Mary after attending a brilliant lecture by the School of English and Drama’s Dominic Johnson who was a huge source of inspiration for me, a guy who constantly questioned what art is. In the end however, I completed my masters at the University of the Arts London (UAL) seeing as they offered a course on screen acting – an area I specifically wanted to go into. What also influenced my decision was the fact that my friend had enrolled on the Drama Centre (part of UAL) course and offered me a direct reference to what it was like to study there.
I then went on to do some internships to gain relevant work experience whilst earning money. One internship involved me creating the performance element of interactive, immersive tasting events. I also worked as an usher at Soho theatre which was great to be near a stage even if I wasn’t on it; there is the danger that if creatives go into something non-creative after doing an arts degree, that they will become demotivated and disillusioned. For me, staying around the environment allowed me to see what work was being produced, what creativity was getting funded and to decide how I would make my next steps into that world.
Amid all of this, I was lucky enough to see an advert on the UAL jobs and opportunities board for recent graduates looking for ‘wise and witty speakers’ to deliver talks to school students. This appealed to me seeing as I was a student ambassador during my time at Queen Mary and I wanted to help students and give back to the higher education sector. The post was by an organisation called PUSH which has been going since 1992 and which I am now an Executive of (responsible for business development). Next year will be my tenth year working for them, and I often think how different my life would be if I had never auditioned for the role (ironically the audition was harder than anything I’d ever done before…and I was almost rejected twice!); Push has saved me at points financially but more importantly mentally, and I will always be indebted to it and the people there – particularly founder and CEO Johnny Rich: who has truly been a mentor for me in understanding employability and work wellbeing.
Over time, speaking openly to entire school year groups for an hour solo, has helped my resilience when going into auditions with big casting directors and with potential hecklers when doing comedy (not that I’ve had too many of those gigs!). It is also more rewarding talking to young people compared to acting which is essentially quite a selfish thing – even though one needs to have a collaborative and open mindset. I have helped developed PUSH into school talks that involve a team of comedians and actors; we put on comedy events themed around higher education and employability in collaboration with HE colleges and universities – including with the National Collaborative Outreach Programme: an OFS-funded initiative to get more students into higher education from less-privileged backgrounds). PUSH has gone from strength to strength and has given me a supportive and balanced route into what I do now – actor, comedian, public speaker and scuba diving teacher!
Why did you choose to study Hispanic Studies and Drama? I always liked the idea of learning another language; I felt like I was ‘entitled’ to do so seeing as my Mother, who is from Hong Kong, never taught me. I also did Drama and Spanish for GCSE and drama outside of school; when I did drama I didn’t feel shy anymore, I could immerse myself in the character and it helped with the bully at school – my acting skills meant I could talk him down usually by making him laugh. University itself appealed to me as it’s not just four walls of a classroom all the time, there are different forms of learning like debates, presentations, independent research and workshops. I had considered joining the Royal Navy or my Dad’s business – in fact I actively tried to look for other routes but I kept getting drawn back to university. The temptation was to keep everyone else happy, my dad didn’t want me to go to university and my Mum wanted me to study a more secure degree like Maths or Engineering. In the end I put myself first and stopped listening to those around me, which is the biggest single mental hurdle to overcome as a young person.
What were some of the rewards and some of the challenges of your year abroad? My year abroad was a weird one. I could either work or do the Erasmus programme. After my application was unsuccessful for a job with the British Council teaching English, I scraped a place on the Erasmus programme in Granada, Andalusia – the former Arab capital of Spain, a beautiful city with an old town, palace and the birth place of tapas and flamenco. When I got there I was actually quite homesick and I developed a bad hernia which worsened to the extent that it took a toll on me getting to (and focusing on) my studies. My mental health declined and ultimately it caused me to move back home for treatment. My tutor was instrumental in ensuring that I kept my Spanish revision up throughout this tough period and she also changed my assessment to a year abroad project instead of the Erasmus exams system. I returned to Granada from March to June and did my project on immigration tensions in southern Spain.
Retrospectively I can look back on this year abroad with more fondness, as it made me independent and resilient and meant that I could focus with a fresh perspective on my Drama when I returned to London. Overall I got a 2.1 which I am proud of – although a degree is never about the certificate or grade: it is about the experiences, life skills, community and professional contacts you take away for the future.
You previously mentioned that you were the first in your family to go to university – did you feel like there was a lot of pressure on you? Before university I went to private school which was a really academically pressured environment. University was a given, I didn’t get asked what I wanted to do, I got asked what university I wanted to go to. That type of language fed to young people doesn’t provoke open impartial choices. My Dad didn’t want me to get a degree and my Mum didn’t want me to get the degree I had chosen so I felt the pressure to prove them both wrong. When my Dad eventually came to Queen Mary for my graduation, he really liked being on campus and all of the fanfare. I still have a picture of him in my mortar board and gown, holding my scroll. He couldn’t stop smiling and even though he couldn’t see what I was going to do with the drama, he could at least see that it was a transferable skill and that I had clearly matured as an individual and had developed a goal in life.
I knew that I had to move away for university and that half the skills I would learn would be how to live independently, to get experience of balancing a course with work and generally how to step outside of my comfort zone. I had only been to London twice before I got here. I had been a kid so even then it was just to the touristy parts, not Mile End and Whitechapel which weren’t as gentrified in 2004 as they are now. I love that about Queen Mary – it still has a bit of grit and a rough charm around the edges. I’m glad it hasn’t lost that and I really hope it never does.
What are the other transferable skills you have taken away from your university experience? Emotional intelligence: understanding and interacting with diversity of culture, religion, gender and creative ideas – not everyone is going to agree with you and that’s fine. Debate fuels change in society and creativity fuels debate: the two go hand in hand. I liked being thrust into an environment where everything is questioned and where you were supported from day one to experiment with the person you wanted to be – personally and professionally. I’m from a leafy mainly white town in Cheshire (I didn’t see a single black person in my town growing up, or in my school) and I was drawn to study in London because I share my Mum’s ethnic minority side and I craved a little difference. I also gained critical thinking and research skills which are invaluable in the creative arts world, alongside cultural and social capital (a lot comes through who you know).
What fuels your creativity and inspires you? The logical answer that comes to mind is seeing other people’s work; but there is the danger that you might copy it (they do say imitation is best form of flattery). Also people and places inspire me; the environment that you’re in can either massively stimulate you or stifle you. It is up to you to live as instinctively as possible each day, to know if it is doing the former or latter inside you. The Pinter Studio here at Queen Mary was a place where we could go crazy and try new things out. It is important that creatives never lose this essence of play. QMTC was massively influential in giving me this sense of play and creativity throughout my studies. I would urge current and prospective students to join clubs and societies as they build your employability just as much as your course.
You speak quite openly about mental health in your work and you actively campaign to raise awareness and encourage people to talk. What advice would you give to current students who might be struggling with their mental health? Your community is really important. Talk to them. People have the responsibility not just to look after people affected by mental health but to look after everyone. Look at a friend like you’d look at a character, have their mannerisms changed? Are they not on WhatsApp for a day or two? All of these little things matter as you know your friends better than anyone. Even people dealing with their own mental health problems should look out for their friends; it is like philanthropy. I have found the more you can help other people if you’re struggling, it actually helps you by taking the focus off yourself and your own problems. It can be cathartic to share.
Before you even get to university, find their welfare office or people you can talk to confidentially, should you enrol there. You’ve paid for the service (as part of your tuition fees) to talk to someone. When you leave, you might have to wait 3-6 months to talk to someone impartially who is qualified, and pay a lot for it. Visit the chaplaincy on campus, it doesn’t matter if you’re not religious, it can just be good to talk to someone who will listen without judging you. Apps and social media can bombard us – turn off your phone sometimes and detach. Remember that you are not your social media profile, you do not need to be perfect. No one is (and if they say they are they are lying and most likely insecure about their own identity). Understand that sleep and diet massively affect you, think of yourself as an athlete. Treat your degree and learning habits like they are your training. Your body can only function at its peak (like an athlete) when you fuel it with the right things. Exercise is also brilliant to alleviate things like depression and anxiety.
I did a commercial campaign this month for #InternationalMensDay to try and combat the statistic that the highest rates of suicide are men under the age of 30. Guys naturally don’t talk about their feelings as much and are often forgotten about seeing as one in four people suffer from some mental health related issues at some point in their lives. My 25-year old cousin in South Africa committed suicide last year. I was shocked. His suicide was related to low feelings of self-worth. At university you need to develop self-worth, it is not just about your course, if you leave with a 2.2 but you know who you are and you feel more grounded as a person, this is more important.
What was so special about your time at Queen Mary? Can you describe a few special moments? Ironically being away from Queen Mary for my ‘year’ abroad was a very special moment as it gave me time to breathe and the completely different environment gave me a new drive for my fourth year in London. The ridiculous things you tend to do at university were also very special to me, such as the mad nights letting loose in the late E1 (the equivalent of Drapers). But awareness and appreciation of mental health are the main things that I’ll take away from Queen Mary, as well as a greater appreciation of people and what higher education is.
What is the story behind your name ‘Moj Taylor’? Taylor reflects the British side of my family: my dad's side arriving from South Africa when he was a child. People presume my forename is an Asian thing, when in fact my name is Peter. Moj was short for 'Mojo' because I had none! I was awful at chatting to girls, and I was quite shy up until the age of about 12. I got a bite for drama when I did Bugsy Malone in year 6, and then started to get more into it in secondary school - with my mum enrolling me in Stage Coach performing arts on Saturday mornings (1 hour of singing, 1 hour of drama, 1 hour of dance) in my local youth hall. The drama side really started to bite, and after taking it for GCSE I never really looked back. My GCSE and A Level drama teacher, an inspiring woman called Mrs Bloor, encouraged me to not only continue drama into higher education, but also to keep the name 'Moj' (shortened and more elusive!) as 'Peter Taylor' was an England football manager, and I don't look like an England football manager!
Can you describe what a typical working day looks like for you? Freelance lifestyles are never typical. Depending on if I'm travelling away for talks and workshops across the UK, my alarm clock can vary from between 5am and 8am. It is rare for me to have any 2 days the same, and extremely rare for me to have a day where I'm not doing some element of paid work or planning/prepping/arranging paid work. I like to try and keep tech-free and not look at my phone or laptop too much...which is almost impossible in my career: emails and calls will suddenly come through, any time of day, about bookings for talks or auditions. I am mostly working off my laptop in a cafe, or taking calls, and dashing around on public transport. I try and fit in the gym at least 3-4 times a week...I rarely get sick, but that is a conscious thing: I'm aware that my body and mind are my tools to earning and building success, so I need to do all I can (good diet, good sleep, regular exercise) to try and minimise the chance of 'breaking down'.
Do you have a favourite spot on campus? If so, where is it and why? My favourite spot on campus would have to be the Harold Pinter Studio in Arts One. It holds a lot of special memories for me, good and challenging, and it is a black box for creating art that I'll always remember pushed me out of my comfort zone. I did a lot of devised pieces in there, for my degree, but also fund-raising shows for QMTC (I performed with them every summer at the Edinburgh Fringe, and was Secretary in my 4th year). When one of my closest university friends passed away in July 2017, our old Queen Mary group wanted to host a night in memory of him, in mid-July. He died on the 4th, and it was so last minute but everyone was devastated and shocked, and we needed a joyous release and a sharing of stories (that's what he would have wanted). Our old university drama tutors got in touch with us, and offered us whatever we needed and whatever arts space we desired. The Pinter seemed like the perfect place to hold this. That night, almost a decade since we graduated, will always be so special for us and has cemented Queen Mary in our hearts. I also used to like sipping a coffee, when stressed, overlooking the cemetery - not to speed up any desire to be in the ground, but because it is so unique and reminds me of how Queen Mary is a special campus and caters for all cultures and religions...living or passed!