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Shekinah McFarlane on Her Life, Career and Six The Musical

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.

Photography by Johan Persson

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.

Riad Richie on His Season with the RSC

Riad Richie debuted at the RSC for their 2018-19 season, performing in Tamburlaine (Michael Boyd), Timon of Athens (Simon Godwin) and Tartuffe (Iqbal Khan). His previous credits include Macbeth, Mark and the Marked, Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet (Box Clever Theatre) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (Tower of London). Riad has also been lead fencer and combat specialist for films including Cinderella, iBoy and Accident Man.

Say one thing for Richie, he knows how to make an entrance. From abseiling onto the stage in Timon of Athens to beatboxing against the backdrop of Iqbal Khan’s concert lighting in Tartuffe, he commands attention, and with a stage presence that fills the theatre, Richie is the kind of actor you just can’t take your eyes off. Throughout the RSC’s winter season, his performances have been captivating, effervescent and delivered with a touch of class. His portrayal of the fiercely loyal Usumcasane in Tamburlaine being particularly memorable for precisely those qualities.

As he now enters the final week of the season and looks ahead to the future, he is certainly an actor I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of. I sat down with him to reflect on his time with the RSC.

What’s it like working with the RSC?

Quite surreal. You really get a sense of community from day one. It’s like going back to uni. When you move to stratford, you are in this campus-like bubble where everyone is friendly and knows you and it’s a little bit magical.

As an actor, what challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

Being in three shows can really put a strain on your daily life. Understudy rehearsals pretty much take up your free time, so it’s all about managing your day so you don’t feel overloaded. You usually rehearse two shows at the same time, meaning you can be in one room for the first two hours then whisked into another room for the next. Getting into the right mindset for the needs of each room took some getting used to.

What did you enjoy most about working with the RSC?

The freedom to be bold. In all three shows, I’ve been so grateful that I was always able to make an offer in the rehearsal room, no matter how absurd, and the company gave you the vibe that you could do that and take leaps. So now I beatbox in one show, abseil in another and I’m an ultra-violent killing machine in the other.

Was there anything you didn’t expect?

The hospitality. The RSC don’t just support you on stage, they ensure you are well looked after physically and mentally, even if you just need to talk to someone. If you’re up in Stratford by yourself, things can get lonely at times. The RSC became like a surrogate family for those days. Something else I didn’t expect was the ‘Shakespeare Gym’: workshops for company members in which you get to explore and break down texts of the Bard.

What was it like working with Michael Boyd?

He was like Yoda of the theatre world. You could really feel the weight of his presence in the room and all you wanted to do was listen. He’s incredibly generous and receptive to everyone whilst steering the ship towards his vision. Working with Michael was my first experience at the RSC and it was an undeniable pleasure.

What’s next for you?

Being on stage for the past three and a half years means that my showreel has become stale. I think I’ll be getting that updated to cater for film/TV work. I’m also currently in talks with the team at Ragdoll but I can’t say too much about that right now. Who knows, maybe I’ll be back on the Swan stage sooner than I thought! ;)

Riad L Richie in rehearsal for Tamburlaine (RSC) – Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Acting Notes from Curve’s Artistic Director Nikolai Foster

As well as being the artistic director of Leicester’s Curve, Nikolai Foster has directed countless acclaimed productions at leading theatres all over the UK. Born in Copenhagen and raised in North Yorkshire, he went on to train at Drama Centre, London and the Crucible in Sheffield. It was in 2015 that Nikolai took on his current position at Curve Theatre where he’s directed productions such as ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, ‘Legally Blonde’ and ‘Grease’.

With Leicester being my hometown, I was eager to chat with the man behind the curtain of so many powerhouse productions. I asked Nikolai whether he’d share a few notes from the rehearsal room and give me an insight into his work. He kindly agreed to answer my questions. Here’s what he said:

 

What is the most common note you give to actors?

Increasingly, the note that I am finding myself giving more and more to actors is about diction and volume. I think often people confuse being real, trying to achieve a contemporary feel or being cool with being inaudible. As a theatre which celebrates the English language and produces plays written in that language (whether it’s Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton) and even though sometimes these plays require actors to be intimate or to be very detailed and finite, we also need to hear everything that the actor is saying. This is regardless of whether they are performing in our 900 seat theatre, 300 seat studio or our rehearsal rooms. If you can’t hear every single word then the actor is not able to communicate action, emotion or what they’re objectively playing. Although you can still be detailed and real, it is important for the actors to be heard and to feel empowered through language.

 

What makes an actor good to work with?

The principal quality that makes an actor good to work with is an active imagination. I think that is always the thing I am interested in when an actor comes into an audition or comes to a meeting to discuss a play: having an imaginative response to the world of the play, the period in which it is written in, the character and how they exist in that world is vital. You may have all of the acting tricks and vocal acrobatics in the world but if you can’t imaginatively inhabit that world then it’s not going to be stimulating or engaging for the audience. Having imagination, being collaborative and hard-working in the space; and being somebody who has an open, can-do attitude is so important.  I think some actors’ default setting is to think the Director is trying to wrong-foot them or steer them in a way that is intuitively against where they want to go. Whenever I am working with people, I always want to get the best out of them so if I am suggesting something that is too complex for them or that they don’t feel is right, that’s fine, because collaboration is key.

 

Do you have any rehearsal room rules?

I think any Director or creative person (whether a Producer, Designer or Director) who says “these are my rules” is misunderstanding their role in the arts ecology. Our job is to break down boundaries and ensure that thought and imagination can flow. Of course we need a stable working environment where we feel secure and where we can play, take risks and be vulnerable but I don’t think rules or boundaries are very helpful. Of course there are the unspoken rules such as turn your phone off and don’t talk when someone else is speaking but these aren’t rules specific to theatre, these are rules specific to life, good grace and politeness.

 

What holds an actor back?

I think fear is often the thing that holds all of us back. There are a lot of things that actors do intuitively and with ease; sometimes when they’re asked by a Playwright or Director to push beyond what comes naturally and easily to them, it can be a scary point. When you push beyond that, you can often find great things which are really beautiful and electrifying; and that you never knew you could do. You have to push beyond that fear and put yourself in a very vulnerable place before you come out the other end and feel secure with something new that you had never realised you had the capacity to do.

 

Some of your previous shows such as ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ and ‘Grease’ have featured colour-blind casting. For me, this is refreshing and inspiring to see. What motivates you to transcend the traditional casting of productions such as these?

I wouldn’t want us to be known for colour-blind casting. Without being glib, I have always had the belief that theatre should reflect the world around us, the society or the communities we are making that theatre for and therefore it is just natural. It’s something we don’t really think about here, we just cast the best actors and ensure those coming into the audition room are reflective of the world we live in. Therefore, if you are having a casting process which has a broad range of actors from different cultural backgrounds then you are going to have actors in leading roles that are not considered the traditional casting and that is just what we do. It’s not really a choice; it’s just being alive and being in the contemporary world.

 

Headshot Hunter’s Guide to Headshots

As an actor and agent, I know how essential it is to have a good headshot. When I started my search as a young aspiring actor to get my own headshots done, it was a big financial investment I was anxious to get right. I knew good headshots would be vital to get auditions and, ultimately, paid work.

It was difficult to choose a photographer who would suit me and give me the best results from the sea of professional photographers out there. It was extremely time-consuming trawling through photographer listings, then visiting their individual websites to find out what they offered. Photographers emphasised different aspects of their services so comparison was really tricky. All my drama school peers were experiencing the same problems.

My ideal would have been to have the details of all photographers on one website, but that didn’t exist, so I decided to develop a website service myself, and Headshot Hunter is the result!

 

Headshot Hunter

Headshot Hunter is a photographer search, comparison and review website that holds the details of around 70 headshot photographers from all over the UK. The website allows you to search for and compare photographers’ packages. You can refine your search and Headshot Hunter will identify photographers that fit your requirements in areas such as budget, location, style and turnaround time. You can also browse headshots for photographs that you like or feel would match your own style and create a shortlist, identifying suitable photographers.

There is plenty of advice on the website about what makes a good headshot and the factors you need to consider when deciding which photographer best suits your needs. Here is my guide to help you get started.

 

What style of photograph do you want?

Style is the most important aspect – if you like the photographer’s style of headshot, you are more likely to be happy with the end result from that photographer. Remember, you may have to live with it for several years.  The style needs to reflect the sort of castings you are looking for, eg classical theatre, aspirational commercial, urban, gritty TV etc.

Studio or natural lighting? Indoor or outdoor?

It really depends on your preferred style, there is no rule. I would say outside and the use of natural light can be more urban or natural, and studio is generally more dramatic or theatrical.

How much time do I need?

Frankly, the more time the better, especially if it’s your first time. You need at least one hour, but if you’re after a range of looks, you should be looking at at least one to two hours. If you’re comfortable with the photographer already or are only looking for one particular shot then less time is obviously fine.

What do professional headshots cost?

Prices range from £50 to £580. £150 is about standard price, for anything over £300 you are usually paying for the photographer’s reputation, which can be a good thing. Price does not necessarily mean quality or results, but if you find a photographer that you think can give you the results you need, then it may well be worth the money in the long run.

How should I prepare for a session?

Firstly, decide how you want your headshots to represent you – remember they are a marketing tool. Try to arrive with an idea of what you want from the session: what roles do you usually go up for? What roles do you want to go up for? If you already have headshots, do they need completely updating or do you just need a few new looks?  The more preparation you do the easier it will be.

Secondly, make sure you are physically and mentally ready for the shoot. Drink plenty of water the week prior to the shoot and don’t go out drinking the night before or this will show in your photos! It is helpful for the photographer to see any of your previous headshots. If you have any general headshots that you like, they can also be a good reference for the photographer. Go in prepared then just relax and enjoy the session. Any little blemishes on the day can be edited out so no need to panic!

What should I wear?

There are no set rules, but remember to wear something you feel good in and relaxed in. Being comfortable will show through in your photos. However, if you stuff your shirts in a bag they will look like they were stuffed in a bag for the shoot! Take a few tops. Generally, darker, solid colours tend to work best. Avoid bold patterns and logos as they are distracting. Bring a few options, with varied necklines, but not too wide or low, allowing the top to frame your face. If you wear glasses, bring them, although sometimes they can distract away from your eyes, so take contact lenses as well if you have them. Try to avoid accessories such as necklaces and earrings, they will take the focus away from your face.

What about hair and makeup?

Less is more. It’s always easier for people to imagine you with more makeup on, not so easy to imagine you with less. Unique features are what make you stand out and make others sit up and take notice so don’t hide those freckles or scars!

Wear your hair how you normally would, but do experiment with a few different styles before your shoot. For women, it’s always worth trying a few looks with your hair up, as it can affect your age range and can look very ‘period’ or ‘classical’. Don’t cut your hair the day before your shoot! Give your hair a few days to relax after a cut. Think about what your hairstyle says about you, your image and, ultimately, your casting. You want to look like you will when you turn up to the audition!

Black and white or colour?

Most agents and casting directors will want to see colour headshots as close to what you look like as possible. Very rarely, a black & white headshot may work for a very particular casting but colour headshots are now the norm and to not have them will go against you. If the photographer is shooting using a digital camera, then you should be able to have both at no extra cost, as turning an image to black and white is literally a click of a button. Saying this, if you do require black and white shots, many photographers can spend a lot of time converting images into black & white to give them the same quality of shooting with film.  Check this with the photographer first, it does make a difference.

How many headshots do I need?

You need one ‘main shot’: this is your best shot that should be engaging and says a bit of everything. However, it is worth having a couple of others to show your acting range. On your online actor profile, such as Spotlight, you can have around five or six different shots. Any more than this is too many.

Do I need prints?

Prints are very rarely used as part of the casting process anymore, so you don’t need them to be included in the package. A photographer is likely to set a higher fee if they are included. You can get prints as and when you need them from reproduction companies.

How should I put my portfolio together?

Whether looking at your contact sheet (often up to 200 shots) or looking at a selection of final touched images, don’t be afraid to ask for people’s opinions. They will help you get perspective as it is difficult to view your own shots objectively. Saying this, they are your headshots, you have

to live with them, so make sure you pick the shots that you are happy with. Unless, of course, your agent picks them for you, in which case, as long as you are happy with your agent, your work is done until the next time they need updating.

Choosing shots

You probably only need six or so photos to cover your range. More than that and they may be too similar. Two or three different shots are fine. Remember, a range is a subtle difference in look, not the same look in different tops. A mid-shot (ie from the waist up) is often a useful addition. One or two production stills, if they are good and interesting, can add to the mix nicely. In America it’s standard to have a full body shot which makes sense but that hasn’t kicked off here yet.

There is no exact science in choosing a headshot photographer, nor is there a formula for creating a killer headshot. It is an incredibly subjective process. Different photographers work in different ways and process different styles; what will work for some will not work for others. You can argue about what is in fashion, but a great headshot should always look like you when you walk through the audition room door and show you in your best light. You on a good day. Honest & Engaging. My hope is that www.headshothunter.co.uk will help all performers simplify the process of finding the right photographer for them and achieving great headshots.

 

Headshot Hunter User guide 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BEqCi6XOkB0

Headshot Hunter