It’s a grey and auspicious January afternoon in the heart of Bristol. Approaching Ella’s home at that time of the day, we drive past the hectic Temple Meads ‒ alive with people and cars ‒ and all we can see are moving shoulders on the sidewalks and rushed impressions on people’s faces. Escaping the confusion of traffic, we arrive promptly at Ella’s home ‒ a botanical haven of tranquility contrasting starkly with the tumultuous world outside ‒ where we immersed ourselves in a thoughtful conversation about her journey into acting and art and how she became the person she is today through yoga and meditation.
Later on, we stopped for food, coffee and cake at Hart’s Bakery and finished our get-together walking around the windswept Temple Quay and chatting casually about life, city-dwelling and meaning-making, and after we said goodbye Ella disappeared into the city gazing beyond the urban horizon with concentration and serenity, giving us the unequivocal impression that there are no errors of perspective in her world and that everything occurs according to the modulated transformations of her inquisitive soul.
For those who do not know you, who is Ella Cumber?
I’m an actor, an artist and a yoga teacher with a love of plants, food and design. I’m also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict that’s also proud to say that I’m over two years sober. I currently live and work in Bristol doing multiple jobs that range from retail work in Bath to life modelling for art schools and groups. And all of this is on top of teaching yoga classes across Bristol, auditioning for a multitude of things in London and running my own business. I also do a lot of work within youth theatre groups surrounding identity and gender as well as occasionally illustrate.
What is your most vivid childhood memory?
I wouldn’t say that my childhood was a very happy one. My mother was a very abusive person and so I have a lot of vivid memories surrounding that relationship, but I do have some clear-cut memories about my time growing up in Dubai. My brother and I would scale our garden wall at night and go and get food from some nearby places; cheese breads from The Lebanese Bakery, shwaramas from Eat & Drink or just an assortment of things from McDonalds. We would always go back to his room with our bounty and just sit there eating in the dark. Before that, we would just build forts out of anything that we could find and watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Channel 33 — at the time I think we only had three tv channels — or just dress up our dog, Dipstick, in different adventure or holiday scenarios and take photos. It was all really silly!
Tell us about your journey into acting and art.
My family has always been a creative one — my brother played multiple instruments and sculpted, my sister painted and made prints and my mother was a singer. There was always some level of performing (whether it be singing, making music or putting on little shows) from a really young age, but I don’t think I really took acting seriously until I was a teenager. I was originally training to be an Olympic swimmer and after some shoulder injuries and a lot of moving around the world between my parents, I fell into a really deep depression and took a lot of comfort in being creative and watching a lot of movies. Eventually, I think I just looked at the actors of the screen and went “I can do that” and decided that that was what I wanted to do. At the time, it took a lot of hard work and determination to prove to my Dad and a lot of my teachers at school that it was a viable career option for me, but once I got into drama school, I think they all thought “wow, she could actually do this”. It absolutely does have its ups and downs.
When and how did you encounter yoga for the first time?
I first found yoga when I was 15 — I had just moved to the UK and was going to boarding school in Wiltshire where there wasn’t very much to do outside of playing team sports. I had never played hockey in my life and never really took to netball even though I was alright at it. One of the teachers there taught yoga as a part of some of the school activities. It was a really gentle class and I remember it being in one of the coldest halls so we were wearing several jumpers but I enjoyed the sense of peace it brought at the time. I then also started to do some yoga YouTube videos in my tiny room and downloaded some apps that listed the poses but I don’t think that I took it very seriously at the time and I never really saw it as something other than a way to stretch and get out of doing schoolwork.
What was the most challenging step in the learning process?
For me, the most challenging step was going through my teacher training and getting over myself and my own ego. The whole training process for me was personally transformative and alchemical in that there were a lot of things to reflect on and process: relationships, finances, failures, successes, everything and then some. No stone went uncovered. I very much felt like a totally different person coming out of it than I did going into it and I’m so glad for it. There was so much work towards moving anything that was blocking me emotionally and mentally that it was a challenge that I could’ve easily bucked away from, but I’m glad that I just trusted the process and my teachers. I’d say that the bigger challenge is now taking everything that I learnt and still applying it to everyday life while balancing multiple jobs and trying to just get by.
What is your favourite pose and why?
That changes every time I come to my mat to practise, but I tend to love doing hip-openers and arm balances. As a kid doing intensive swimming training, I’ve always had a good level of physical strength and whenever I come to do an arm balancing pose like Crow, Scissors and Eight Angle, I feel incredible. I guess why I enjoy doing arm balances is because it reminds me that I’m strong and able-bodied — it sounds silly but when you have a shitty day where you don’t feel like you can do anything, floating your feet off of the ground is one of the best reminders to appreciate the little things.
With hip-openers, I always enjoy doing them because they always give me an opportunity to explore some deeper layers in myself at that moment in time. That could be mentally and some things that have been on my mind, or it could be emotionally and I might just learn that I’ve really been sitting on something like anger or some tension. Sometimes it’s just the physical relief that I get from doing hip-opening poses like Pigeon or Frog — it suddenly feels like there’s loads more space inside my body for energy (creative or otherwise) to just move around.
How did the relationship with your own self evolve over time?
I’ve definitely become more loving and caring of myself over time. When I was a teenager, I was incredibly tough on myself and while that kind of mentality got a lot done and got me to places that I wanted to be in my career, it had very serious consequences on my mental health and my relationships. I would also say that I’ve become more accepting and flexible with my own self. I’m not as hard on my looks as I used to be — being mixed race and not having a very steady or grounded upbringing used to really take over a lot of my identity, and while they very much are still a part of making me who I am, they certainly don’t have as much power over my sense of self as they used to. Being flexible with my sense of self has just been the gift that keeps giving. I don’t think it helps to put myself into a box or into a “fixed” state. It seems really counter-productive to me creatively and keeping myself closed off in that way seems like the opposite to what I would like to do as a performer and a teacher.
What would you say to someone who thinks that yoga isn’t for them?
I would say that that’s totally ok! Yoga isn’t for everyone and there’s so much pressure to get involved in practises such as yoga or pilates that it almost devalues it and turns it into a “fad”. I’d say that they’re always welcome to come to my class and join if ever they want to, but I would never want to pressure someone into doing yoga if they’ve clearly said that they’re not too interested. If it was someone that had already tried yoga, I’d be interested to know what their previous experience was like and what it was that put them off of it. It’s not a beginner’s fault if they didn’t know the difference between a vinyasa class or a yin class and it might be that that person just needs some clarification on what might really suit them.
What is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far?
There was and has been so much in my life that has held me back or kept me in a loop. My last relationship was a huge lesson in learning to let go and to start loving myself. I still grieve that relationship and think of it fondly, but for a very, very long time I still stayed in a state of disbelief and thinking that it would somehow still work out and that they still had deep feelings for me. That kind of thinking just kept me on tenter-hooks and whenever I would see them, I would just stay in that cycle of victimhood and confusion. But it’s just a choice and at any time I could’ve changed it if I wanted to, but I chose to stay on that ride.
It can come across as trite and quite selfish, but if I could go back two years and tell myself something, it would be to just get over it and make a choice. Be responsible for yourself. You can’t change something or someone that doesn’t want changing, but you can choose to get off the ride.
Who do you admire?
There are a lot of people that I admire in my life. I could so easily say that I admire someone famous or a public figure, but I admire my older brother, Duane, the most. As well as being my oldest friend (he got stuck with me I suppose!), he’s been a huge role model for me both personally and creatively. He has such an incredible sense of determination and resilience in everything that he does, and always expresses himself freely and unapologetically. Even if that means we disagree on something, he always stays true to himself and that’s something that I really respect. What I also admire about my brother is how involved he is in the LGBTQ+, voguing and dance community, and how outspoken he is. You wouldn’t believe how proud I am about him putting on his own fundraiser ball next month at Limehouse Town Hall in London — all the proceeds are going towards his application for UK citizenship after living in this country for 15 years.
I’d also say that I greatly admire my boyfriend, Matthew. As well as being the funniest person I know, he’s such a grounding force in my life and is incredibly patient. He really changed what I thought of intimate partnerships after I went through a terrible and heart-shattering relationship in London. He’s always open to listening and I greatly admire his level of openness to the world around him.
You seem very passionate about plants. Who or what sparked your love for the botanical world?
Growing up in Dubai, I didn't really see many green spaces. There were a few parks with grass and some trees, but it wasn't the most green of places to live. As a child I had a Nanny that lived with us — she was also Filipino and was an incredible cook as well as green fingered. She definitely sparked my love for plants and all things green. I have very vivid memories of her collecting flowers that she liked and then a few weeks later, I would see them growing in our garden and it always fascinated me how she could make anything grow in such an arid climate. I also spent part of my childhood in the Philippines and living in Hawaii and I like to think that my time there was a starting point for my love of tropical plants. I only really started growing my own and nurturing houseplants when I was living in London and going to drama school — I lived in Bethnal Green at the time in a very small flat with my brother, and I would go to Columbia Road Flower Market and pick off the cheap plants that no one wanted because they looked half dead. I still have all of those original plants to this day and learning how to revive sickly plants was a big learning curve into growing some of the giants I now have.
Tell us about your passion for bread-making. What’s your secret of a tasty sourdough bread?
I kind of came into bread-making by mistake! I've always enjoyed eating it and have loved sourdough since I moved to London (The Gallery Cafe in Bethnal Green has some of the best sourdough around), but moving to Bristol really inspired me to give it a go. I would buy sourdough from Hart's Bakery and could see them making it and it sparked my curiosity. One of my close friends, Meg, used to live with me and she’s also a passionate bread maker and so I built up a fair bit of knowledge about it before I started. I didn't really take interest until some guests of mine brought some sourdough starter with them and left a bit behind. It was a baptism by fire and I’ve had to learn very quickly how to keep it happy and healthy, but it still delights me every time I cut into a fresh loaf and see all the holes from the air bubbles.
What other projects are you involved with?
Apart from going to auditions, at the moment I’m involved with Travelling Light Theatre. I’ve been working with their Youth Theatre groups for about 10 months and I assist their programmes for young people that are interested in acting and performing. It’s one of the most rewarding things to be involved in and one of the most incredibly supportive companies to be a part of. We recently created a film about colours with the Louder the Words group (a regular group for kids with additional needs) and then showed it at the Barton Hill Festival in a Sensory Cinema Space constructed by Richard from the CHAMP Collective.
I’m also quite actively involved in life modelling and have been working for a few months for the London Atelier of Representational Art in Bristol. I’ve life modelled since I was in drama school and LARA Bristol ask me to hold long poses for them or to model for workshops and drop-in session fairly regularly. It’s been a wonderful way of getting to know fellow artists and learning about a totally different process of creating, while also keeping myself physically active and engaged.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Open to love, trust the process. It sounds cheesy as all hell, but it’s incredibly true. When you just remain open to the world, it ends up giving back so much.
What does a regular day look like for you?
It depends on the day of the week! Most of my days start with me waking up and making a cup of hot water and lemon and some form of breakfast before looking through my social media feeds — I know it’s not the most mindful way to start the day, but I take a lot of inspiration from seeing images on Instagram. If I’m working during the daytime, I’ll then end up going to work either at LARA Bristol or at TOAST in Bath and having a pitstop at Hart’s Bakery on the way if I’m teaching in the evening or doing Youth Theatre.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would that be and why?
I would love to live in Finland. There’s so much history of story-telling and modern design and good food that it sounds like it would be a great fit for me. I visited Helsinki a couple of years ago and loved every minute of it. Everyone was friendly, there’s a deep love of nature and such an open vibe to wellness and looking after one another.
What advice would you give to young girls following in your footsteps?
I would say “Just keep going” and that it’s ok to rest. It can be tempting to always be in forward motion and to think that you ‘have’ to be doing something and that you should be at a particular point in your life, but sometimes it’s perfectly fine to just float for a bit and to give yourself a break. In the yoga world, there seems to be a lot of focus on Instagram and image which can also be toxic if you focus too much on it. I’d really advise young girls to just step back and put in the work — be present rather than focusing on your online presence. With acting, I think it’s especially important to cultivate a life outside of the industry and to build a network of friends who can support you and nurture your creativity. Connect with other kinds of artists too as it can be really insular and cliquey if all of your friends are only actors.
Tell us about your dreams for the future.
I would love to be able to find a balance between my performing and my teaching. I love both very passionately, but would hate to sacrifice one for the other. I certainly dream of being able to be a full time actor again and just doing good work with incredible people and companies, but I would also love to have my own yoga studio and to just build a larger community that supports one another.
And now a question from Éric Poindron’s Weird Questionnaire: What goes on in tunnels?
Fantastical worlds are built and come to an end in tunnels, all within the blink of an eye.
Can you recommend us:
A book: The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla
A song: Diddy Bop by Noname
A film: The Truman Show
A cake: Chocolate fudge cake from Hart’s Bakery