Sharon D Clarke – interview
Afridiziak Theatre News had a chance to speak to Sharon D Clarke during rehearsals for the upcoming production ‘The Life’.
What can you tell us about the new production ‘The Life’?
The Life is an old play, it’s new to us here in the UK but it’s been running in the States since 1997. The play is a musical telling the story of pimps and hookers set in 1970s New York. The story centres on a young girl, Queen, and a Vietnam war veteran, Fleetwood, who are trying to make it in New York City. Queen is forced into prostitution and is helped by her friend Sonja to escape the business. Fortunately we have the original Broadway director on board, Michael Blakemore, who is now 88! He is directing this production at Southwark Playhouse and I think that we are so lucky to have him on board to give the UK audience that original experience.
Who is your character and how did you prepare for the role?
I play Queen’s friend, Sonja, who happens to be one of the oldest hookers on the street. She is older, wiser and weary of the world and her work. She should be at the end of her hooker life; to be honest she should have stopped 10 years before. For Sonja her mum was a hooker, her sister was a hooker, she didn’t see any other way but to join the family tradition. With hindsight she could have chosen a different path but this is where life has taken her.
I’ve known about ‘The Life’ for some years, as I’m into musical theatre and I have the CD of all the songs at home so I have known the music for 15 odd years now. I never got the chance to see it at Broadway but having known the story and songs of this play, Sonja, was always a character that I wanted to play as she is so witty and so dry, her lines are so amusing. I really wanted to take her character on. Also one of her songs ‘Oldest Profession of All Time’ is one of my favourites, so being able to get the chance take part in this production was great. I couldn’t turn it down.
I love the music of the show, its funky, soulful, rich, and really stands out for me. I hope when people see the play they can look at these women (the hookers) without judgment and see that they are women with lives, hopes and dreams, doing what they need to do to survive.
I’ve known about ‘The Life’ for some years, as I’m into musical theatre and I have the CD of all the songs at home so I have known the music for 15 odd years now. I never got the chance to see it at Broadway but having known the story and songs of this play, Sonja, was always a character that I wanted to play as she is so witty and so dry.
There’s a line in one of my character’s songs that goes: “I’m sick of never knowing if my next John is going to turn into a Jack the Ripper on the make, but when you’re a hooker getting cut up into pieces is just one chance you have to take.” I hope that the audience really hear and connect with these lyrics and feel real emotion for these women.
How did you get involved in the play?
The casting director called me and asked if I wanted to come in and have a meeting, of course I wanted to as I already knew the show and was excited about the opportunity. At the meeting I met Michael, and he was already familiar with my work as he had seen me in Ma Rainey. It all fell into place after that and I was involved.
Over the years you have built a well-known name for yourself in the industry, do you often find that you no longer need to audition?
I still do auditions, although mainly for TV. But yes, amongst the West End set they all know me and my work so usually if a casting director thinks I’m good for something they will call me for meetings, and then the process starts from there without an audition. I guess you get to a point in your career where people know your work and your reputation and they think you’re right for something or not.
A lot of readers and fans will know you as playing Lola Griffin in Holby City (2003-2008). Do you miss TV or are you happiest on stage?
I’m just happy to be working (laughs). For me it’s not about stage or screen, it’s about working. I am always happy to be working at what I love. If I had to choose though, I probably would choose the theatre as that is where it all started for me. And to this day I enjoy the energy that you get from an audience every night. I love being able to hone a performance each night and work on it, watch it grow. If you come to a show on press night and then come back a few weeks later it will still be the same show, but at the same time it’s not quite the same as the cast and team have grown and made slight changes and also the audience engagement will be different which brings a different energy each time.
In the past you also had chart success, with British dance group Nomad back in the 90s, I still listen to ‘I Wanna Give You Devotion’ today! What’s your first love, music or acting?
They kind of go hand in hand for me, I suppose what came first for me was singing. I started when I was 6 years old and I also went to a dance school so I’m used to doing both. If I had to choose I would say singing. That’s why I love musical theatre so much as I can sing and act so I can combine both loves, then the experience is symbiotic and seamless; which works for me very well.
You don’t have to go to drama school to be an actor there are so many other avenues into this industry that allow you to hone your craft. Get a job as an usher or in the crew, from there you get a chance to watch and learn the actors and also see how a show evolves.
What would be your advice to people trying to get into the entertainment industry?
I always get people asking me this question and the best advice I can give is, you just have to do it. I give talks at schools and workshop groups, and I had one group of girls where I was giving a talk and one of the young ladies was telling me how she always wanted to act. I said to her what have you done towards it? Her response was blank. She asked me what do you mean? I told her, as I tell all young people, you don’t have to go to drama school to be an actor there are so many other avenues into this industry that allow you to hone your craft. Get a job as an usher or in the crew, from there you get a chance to watch and learn the actors and also see how a show evolves.
I always say to young singers coming up that your lyrics are a story. It’s not just about notes, you have to get the emotions and the story across, which is the same in musical theatre. When you’re character driven it’s not just about hitting high notes or sounding as good as Mariah Carey, you have to think about what you are singing, what is the audience going to understand about your story from this song?
For the industry as a whole, I feel that you get out of this what you put in, success and an established career do not come overnight it takes time and hard work.
Info: The Life is at Southwark Playhouse until 25 April 2017 / book tickets