Q&A: Motown supports developing artists

Reporter: Robin Johnson, first published Fri 12 Aug 2016 17:14

This weekend, young British BAME artists from across London, including actors, musicians, dancers, singers and rappers, will take to the Hackney Empire stage with the cast of West End smash-hit Motown The Musical to perform an original show based around its rich musical and cultural origins.

The culmination of Hackney Empire’s flagship Artist Development Programme (ADP), which enables artists aged 13-19 to spend a fortnight crafting a production with the guidance of industry professionals, takes place at the theatre on Sunday 14 August. Tickets and more information is available through the theatre’s website.

One major influence on the production is Motown The Musical director Charles Randolph-Wright, who told us a little more about the initiative, why Motown is the perfect medium through which young artists can express themselves, and why you should be booking your tickets for Sunday.

Tell us about Motown The Musical’s involvement with the Artistic Development Programme (ADP) at Hackney Empire.

[Creative Director] Susie McKenna is an old friend of mine. We were having lunch when I was here rehearsing for the show back in January, and she said they had picked Motown as a summer theme for the ADP. I said “Woah! We should be involved in it!” Some of our artists actually came through the Hackney Empire, or have taught there, so I suggested “Why don’t we merge the companies?”

The idea was that kids in the programme would create their own show, write the music and write the scenes, and then we could integrate that with numbers from our show, using our cast. So we’ve been working together on colliding these worlds. It’s been amazing to watch.

How have you personally enjoyed the experience?

I think it’s imperative for younger audiences to have what I call ‘permission’ from those of us who are lucky enough to get to do this [work in theatre], so when they see me and other people who work in the industry, it opens the door for their thinking “I can do that as an occupation; I can work in sound, I can work in costumes, I can do various things, and not just perform.”

I’m always about education and trying to pass the torch, so having the Motown The Musical company able to come in, you go in “helping them” but I sort of think they help us more – it reminds you why you do it, it inspires you, and it’s thrilling.

Why do you feel that Motown The Musical is such a good fit for the scheme?

Motown literally changed the world with its music, its style, its feeling. I’d say that Motown is a movement, not just music, especially here in England where it still has such resonance. The show is amazing to watch. I went to a matinee at the theatre, and the audience reaction was beyond anything I could imagine.

Because of its storytelling, the show is very relevant: we’re dealing with issues now that we were dealing with fifty years ago and the kids really get that, which astounds me. They ask how what was going on then relates to what’s going on now, with the different movements, with what’s happening in our country, and with what’s happening with Brexit, so they talk about it. And what better way to do that than via theatre? Art is the way to heal.

How have you been working with the artists in the rehearsal room?

I’ve been talking to them about what the show means. For example yesterday, I told them about being in St. Louis; our touring company was there at the time of the Michael Brown Trial, and they didn’t know if the show would even run because they were afraid of riots.

There were more than 4,000 seats in the theatre, and every audience member came to the theatre, shaken. But experiencing this show together, they came in as individuals and they left as a group; they came together during the two and half hours of the musical. We talked about what that felt like, to know that this show had affected a change, and that this show had helped people heal at a time when they felt it was impossible.

I have great hope for our kids, because they’re the ones that have to change this. We’ve not done a great job of it, my generation, so I looked to them, and I said “listen, it’s your responsibility, you have a different view, you can change the world – Motown changed the world, and you can do that.” That’s why Motown has all the right elements to be part of this programme.

Just how talented did you find the young artists? Are any of the Motown The Musical cast fearing for their places?

Haha, not yet – the mentees are all under 18, but that fear will come soon! Although I can’t help but sit there and go “ooh, that’s a Diana, that’s a Stevie, and that’s a Michael!”

Watching these kids, you see how great the programme is, because if they hadn’t done it, they may not have had the opportunity to even think that they could. They’ve been running it for sixteen years in Hackney, and it’s an amazing thing; I hope that the idea of us being involved draws more attention to it, and that more people see the tremendous work that they’re doing at the theatre.

Can you think of any standout moments from your time with the artists?

Some of the songs that have been written are really incredible. One song, I just thought immediately “They wrote this?!” It worked in so perfectly with the things they were saying, and the other Motown music that’s in the show.

What surprised me about their writing was that their songs are from a contemporary place, but they sound classic, and I thought that was very surprising. They also wrote different monologues and different scenes, and each one had resonance. They’ve done their research, they’ve worked hard on these characters, and they wrote something from their hearts. That impressed me and moved me.

What do you think are the kinds of challenges facing developing artists today?

I still think unfortunately we have issues with colours, we have issues with class. We constantly fight to try and change that. How do we make the playing fields equal? How do we find more opportunity?

Why should people come to the Hackney Empire on Sunday to support the show?

Firstly, because it’ll be extraordinarily entertaining - these kids are so talented, and you get to see some of the Motown company as well.

But it’s the idea of hope for the future; watching these kids will inspire you no matter what age you are, and make you realise that together we can change things and make a difference, despite where we come from, who we are, or how we look. These kids really make you realise what we can do and what we should do, both here, in my country, and globally.  

ADP: Motown At The Empire takes place at the Hackney Empire on Sunday 14 August at 17:00. Tickets and more information is available through the theatre’s website.

More about

Motown The Musical

Shaftesbury Theatre