I first met Shekinah McFarlane at a youth drama group in Leicester, where I have particularly fond memories of playing Kenickie alongside her Rizzo in Grease. The group was run by a passionate tutor who gave up his time voluntarily to teach young people about drama. Looking back, it’s groups like that which gave me the confidence to journey into the performing arts industry, heart first. Sadly, that particular group has now closed down due to a lack of funding – a stark reflection of the Arts today. Since then, I’m priveleged to have worked with Shekinah professionally on a number of occasions and she remains one of my oldest and closest friends.
Shekinah’s previous credits include American Idiot (UK Tour), Hair & Hair50 (Hope Mill Theatre – Vaults Theatre), The Lion King (Disney Theatrical, UK and International Tour) and most recently, her West End run of the smash-hit musical Six which she’s currently taking on its UK tour. Despite her jam-packed schedule, she made time to chat and answer a few of my questions.
Six is the latest musical megastorm to hit the UK. What’s it like being part of the show?
Starting with the easy answer, it’s amazing. It blows my mind that I get to be a part of such a phenomenon, something with such power that’s exceeded a lot of people’s expectations. It’s a special gem of a show. It’s also (at times) overwhelming because of what the show brings. Through the stories we tell we are spreading messages of self love, confidence, intelligence, heartache, tragedy, inner power (I’m sure the list goes on), and our Queendom – a wonderful array of beautiful people – look up to us. I’ve become a role model and with that comes certain responsibilities. So finding the balance of it all is quite something but I am enjoying and embracing everything; learning everyday.
Could you give us an insight into the journey that brought you to the West End?
Well, I have been singing since I was three in church. Around the age of six or seven I became a StageCoach Leicester Kid and had my first role, playing Bluebell in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with Shakespeare for Kidz. I enjoyed the applause, I loved working with people who were different, I was wowed by the adults doing what they love and seeing an audience mesmerised by the honest and full-hearted performances. It was then that I knew this was something I had to do. My heart was in it.
I was the kid who performed with her friends in the school playground and that continued into Secondary. Any opportunity that came along I took it, from singing in the school choir to putting on a fashion show that I could perform in myself, I never wanted to stop. If I wasn’t singing I was dancing, or teaching an artistic discipline to younger students, or writing/collaborating or learning how to play the saxophone. Around this time I wanted to delve more into acting, I wanted to be a Triple Threat. I wanted to see what my Best Me was and I was excited by the self discovery. That’s when I joined a youth group called Kiss My Face (which became Young Actors).
Obstacle number one: This came when they cancelled all upper GCSE arts courses at my school. My fix was to out-source my music GCSE from another school. I watched so much So You Think You Can Dance to keep up artistically/choreographically. After secondary school, I went to Brooksby Melton College and joined the two year musical theatre course. It was an interesting two years.
Obstacle number two: People don’t like it when you work harder than them. Yeah! What I came to understand is that some people who aren’t as driven as others strive to bring you down in order to hide their own poor work ethic. I couldn’t adhere to that. I’m a stickler for staying in my own lane and doing me. I became one heck of a person. Gosh I loved her! Whilst there I put on a tribute to Bob Fosse and thrived in being not just a performer but a creative, giving me a new-found respect for creatives. Finishing my two years at BMC, I headed to London for a one year course at AMTA. It was definitely an eye-opening year. By this point I was determined to reach my goal of performing professionally as an adult. It was just a matter of when,. Everyone has their time.
Obastacle number three: Being compared to other women of colour. Being compared to people who were stronger in different disciplines led me to suffer a massive loss of self confidence, something I’ve only recently overcome. There was no overnight fix. Six years on from BMC, golly, that girl is back; older and wiser and I love her all the same. ‘Self Discovery’ – She’s still on it folks! Now when I’m alongside other people I ask myself three questions: What makes us different? Where can I improve? What am I doing right? In a world filled with negativity be positive.
Obstacle number four: The NOs. Ooft, guys, there have been a few, but I’m surrounded by some great people who remind me in times of I-don’t-knows that something’s coming. I’ve had the pleasure of playing the Arts Theatre twice, The Lyric W.E, numerous national and international tours and it’s all been a journey. Not one that has been all stars and flowers but it’s mine and, in my not so busy times, I like to reflect and see how far I have come.
Obstacle number five: Injuries. As a performer, we’re always told the show must go on, so when you don’t feel 100% it can be hard to take time off. You feel like you’re not the performer that people hired you to be, that you’re not doing your job. Then, when you’re ready to come back, the producers may decide you still need more time away and that can put you in a bit of a hole. I’ve been there and it’s hard to get over the thought that you are now a tainted or broken performer. You’re not. Listen to your bodies. Take care of your health; body and mind.
Obstacle number seven: Not-So-Nice People. I’m not gonna delve into this but all I can say is, keep your wits about you, don’t become entitled, know your worth and be a kind person. Reputations are a thing.
Who inspires you?
To name a few… My family; their support is genuine love and that, THAT inspires me. My Nan; she always used to watch me singing with friends and in groups in church. She used to say, ‘When are you going to embrace your own shine?’, encouraging me to seize opportunities for myself. I think she knew where I was going and I that think she’d be uber proud of where I’ve come. My friends; seeing them thrive in all situations, good or bad. Chris Tendai (a college friend); we’ve both had journeys which take my breath away. We are doing what we always said we would. Adam Scown (choreographer/director): I worked with Adam on my first job after training, he helped me to discover what kind of performer I was. My past cast mates: I tell you, being around different stories, different views, it keeps you real and grounded. To the most recent, My Queens: these women have taught me so much and shown me love on a different scale. And finally, I’m inspired by a passion to inspire others.
Over the past year there have been negative comments on social media aimed at understudies. As someone who’s been an understudy, what do you say to the critics?
Everyone on a job is booked for a reason and we can do the job we’ve been booked for. I know you’re going to feel a little upset about it but I guarantee you’ll still leave with a smile on your face. If you catch someone on their debut you’re in for a treat. The energy on that stage will be electric, it’s filled with extra love and support for that individual so how about you shoot some back, because we are giving you our all. Some of our understudy chances are far and few between. We perform like it’ll be our last, every time. You won’t want to miss it!
To my fellow Swings/Understudies/Alternates, you are all amazing human beings, I am truly inspired by you all. The skills it requires, the effort and time it takes to stay on top of it all – it’s a mad ting! I tip my hat to you all. The show cannot go on without you. You are valued, you are phenomenal, you are Swing Bible Ninjas. All the respect and love to you!
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
What is meant for you, will be for you… You may want it all but sometimes the universe/industry will surprise you. Be open to change and grasp the opportunities that are right for you with both hands. Contracts don’t last forever so take the lessons and it’ll become clear why you were there. It was meant for you.
A no is not always the end, It is merely a ‘not yet’. Sometimes you might audition for the same job multiple times and get so close only to face rejection again. But something more fitting will come along. Take me for example, I’ve been seen for one job four times. Three of those I made it to finals and still didn’t get it. That was almost one no too many. But then American Idiot came along and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. That was the yes that followed the ‘not yets’.
Cry, Acknowledge, Accept, Dry… Gosh, it is so ok to cry when things look bleak. An unwanted feeling of lost passion, NOs, horrible situations… Okay, but what’s next? You can’t dwell, life is for living. Notice what it is that upsets you, why it does, and then accept the fact that something has got to change. Go back to class, be creative in other ways to fill your time until the next thing, collaborate, change your surroundings. Little changes make a world of difference. Dry those eyes, there is greatness out there that is yours for the taking.
Quiet doesn’t mean you’re failing, a quiet period is fine. Do you know how much you can grow in that time? Surround yourself with supportive people and come back with new vibrations. Get loud again and embrace different energies. True friends will celebrate your new flow with you. It was level up time.
Know your worth! That one is simple
What’s next for you?
A good few months being a Queen, maybe a workshop or two and some new songwriting. Missing the studio a bit.
Hypothetically, if you were the Queen and could make your own laws, what would be the first law you’d introduce?
Every school would have a self-love class. Too many people cannot say thank you when someone says they are beautiful. It’s not just an aesthetic thing, it’s a vibe, an energy.