I’m revisiting a London theatre company I covered earlier this year called represent. The company is comprised of professionals from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Not long after it launched, Creative Director Guy Woolf told me about represent.’s virtual productions. This fall marks the company’s first London season with in-person performances, including Albatross at The Playground Theatre and Interruptions at Jacksons Lane Theatre. Since represent. also offers periodic talkback sessions after some performances as part of their educational outreach, keep an eye on their What’s On section for the schedule of talks.
Albatross, directed by Jess Edwards and written by Isley Lynn, focuses on the encounters between rough sleeper Jodie and tattoo apprentice Kit. Interruptions, written by Stephen Jeffreys and directed by Guy Woolf, explores the story of an imaginary country about to go through an election and a military coup.
I checked in with represent. to see where they are in their shift from virtual to in-person theatre. Joining me on Zoom was actress Sarel Madziya, who shared an amazing perspective on her journey in the acting profession. Madziya stars in both Albatross and Interruptions.
Did you learn a new skill or hobby after the pandemic started?
I took up painting during lockdown. That was quite fun! I’m not good at it. [Laughs] It’s very fun and relaxing.
Did you paint anything in particular?
Flowers, trees, and sunsets are my go-to and when I’m in my element.
What was a challenge you faced as you were starting your acting career?
I come from a very religious family with a Christian background and African parents. Explaining to them that I didn’t want to be a lawyer, doctor, or engineer was kind of nerve-wracking. For a really long time, I was doing acting on the side. I was telling my mom I wanted to be a lawyer. Then I got to my A-levels and that’s when I had to tell my parents, “Listen, I don’t think law is for me.”
Surprisingly, my dad was very supportive. I thought he would be the hardest. He shared that he was also into the arts, that it was something he wanted to do when he was younger. My mom took a little bit of time. She always says, “When you get your Oscar, then I’ll be super proud. We’ll wait until then.” [Laughs]
One of my biggest challenges was trying to get my family on board with something that isn’t that normal in our culture. It’s not the route most immigrant children would take, where you appreciate what your parents have done for you and you understand the value of having a course that you can get a job with. I showed them a new way of thinking. Thank God they were supportive. I’m blessed.
Last year, Guy told me about represent.’s virtual programming. What was it like for you to transition from virtual to in-person?
I’m very much theatre trained. I had to shift from being big with theatre to bringing it all to this little box [points to the Zoom window]. The lesson from that shift was not to be afraid to be more intimate. In theatre, you’ve got energy and stage presence. When it’s on a screen, trust that people will feel it if you’re feeling it. That was a new thing for me in this new medium. I’m grateful the online production of Money was a success in its own right.
Going from virtual to physical now is the best thing ever. You can’t replace theatre. I love theatre. You can’t replace the audience, the energy, your cast mates, and having them near you. Bouncing off of one another has something very beautiful that you can’t get on Zoom, unfortunately. As much as we were making do with what we’ve had in the pandemic, I was grateful to be back in a rehearsal space to play, have fun, and figure things out. It felt like being back at school after summer holidays, when all your friends are there. You underestimate how much you learn by being with other people physically.
What’s one thing you can’t do without from your acting toolkit?
Research. I work from the script, always, but I don’t want to pull random facts from nowhere. If it’s in the script and it feels real, then I go with it, but my research is very key. It puts a good baseline for me and for my characters. Especially having done some ads for TV and film, you’re used to being given a script and asked to churn it out. Research does me a world of justice so that you feel true to your character.
This season features plays such as Albatross in its world premiere and Interruptions in its European premiere. What’s exciting to you about diving into this material?
It’s not been done before! People don’t have preconceived notions of what they’re going to see. They come open and ready to receive anything. We could say Interruptions or Albatross, but I could just be there folding paper onstage. No one knows what to expect, which is scary and exciting. It’s fresh. That’s what is most exciting about doing new work.
Is there more pressure for you as the originator of a role?
Absolutely, yes! In the current production, Albatross, we are the original cast. It’s never been performed before. There is a lot of pressure because you want to do it justice. Both of our plays touch on very deep things that as a society I think we need to be talking about. You also want to do that justice. I feel the pressure, but I also think if you’re reprising a role that Meryl Streep did, that would have pressure as well. There is pressure on both sides. I am quivering every night I go on stage.
What does being part of represent. mean to you with its unique mission?
What’s most exciting is [that] it focuses on working class actors—we feel forgotten because there are so many talented people out there who don’t have access or resources to do what they want to do. Since we are the original and the first company, I know the vision. I can see where it’s going. I know how it’s affected me and my peers in the cast and even the crew. It’s exciting to know this little baby is going to flourish and blossom. It could impact hundreds of kids and working class adults. There are so many avenues it could go.
What’s it been like working with your directors, Jess and Guy?
First of all, working with Jess after the year we had was a godsend. She was the first director we got into the room with. She created a safe space for us to feel like sometimes we’re not going to have good days, because it’s very new to us after a year of doing nothing. She also allowed there to be a safe space where you could speak on what you want for your character. Sometimes I’ve been in rooms with other directors who tell you what they want to see. They tell you, “This is your emotional journey. I don’t care how you get there. Just get there.”
As an actor, you had to figure it out yourself. Jess allowed you to open it up, facilitating it as a director by giving you exercises and different ways to look at the script. There are quite heavy monologues in Albatross. It was hard because my last monologue is deep and emotionally a lot. You could play around to figure out where you wanted to take it.
It’s the same thing with Guy. They are two very different directors, but they have that common knowledge of creating a safe space. With Guy, Interruptions is a lot more physical. We’re lifting tables and throwing spoons. It has a lot going on. Sometimes I’ve been in productions where it is physical theatre and you get left behind with the movement. They plow through and I felt like I had no idea what was going on. [Laughs] Guy breaks it down and asks if you are comfortable and you’ve got it. He’s quite quick, but he says, “If ever you feel I’m going too quickly, just be like, ‘Guy, five minutes please? Rewind and go over this last thing.'”
Two very different directors and two very different plays. With a three-week rehearsal period, they have made us feel safe. We feel that we are capable and can do it. That’s refreshing because you don’t get that in this industry a lot.
You mentioned research. Could you tell us about the research you did for this season?
In Albatross, one of my characters is a homeless lady. The other is a tattoo artist. These are polar opposites. I have no idea about tattoos. I haven’t got any. That was also interesting to go into. I had my own preconceptions about them. I did my research. As artists, they value their work. It’s not throwaway to them.
We started Interruptions last year before lockdown. It has to do with military coups and a regime. For me, growing up in England I have no idea or base knowledge. It’s not just reading and watching documentaries, but really trying to understand individual journeys and experiences. That was emotionally heavy. We want to do this deep subject justice and not skim over it. You want to feel like you know what you’re talking about as you say your lines. Also, there are references to religion in one scene, where I play a Sister in a holy place. While I have a religious background and come from a religious family, not all religions are the same.
It’s interesting to go through these avenues and find out things about your characters. Even the way I walk and talk is influenced by what I research.