BWW Interview: Maiya Quansah-Breed Talks RENT at Hope Mill Theatre
The SIX actress plays Mimi in the Covid-delayed production
Back in February, she was cast as Mimi in RENT at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, but both casting announcements and performances were postponed due to Covid-19.
But now the (socially distanced) show is ready, and she chats to us about rehearsing during a pandemic, keep her casting news a secret for seven months, and her love for the SIX cast.
So, for anyone who hasn't seen RENT, can you explain a bit about the plot and the character of Mimi?
You know what, we were actually having this conversation the other day about how it's one of those musicals where you don't actually know what the driving plot is.
There's so many inner plots within it. There's the story between Roger and Mimi, where Roger is grieving his ex-girlfriend who's just died, which is horrendous; there's Mark who's making a film; and then there's Maureen who's protesting to stop people from being kicked out of the lot. It's a story of trials and tribulations and of people's lives and how they each deal with the situations they're in, given their circumstances.
Mimi is extremely spontaneous and very much lives in the moment. She's probably a little bit reckless, in the sense that she doesn't think because she acts - she's so erratic, but erratic in a good way rather than a bad way. She's got this zest for life that I think is really nice for the show; she's that cheeky character that just slips in.
I think most people think of Mimi as this really seductive and sexual character, but realistically that's not who she is - that's just a part of what she does. I like to play the fact that she's just this young girl paving her way in New York City, and she makes the best of what she's got, when she's got it. She's so much more than this sexy character; yes, she has that side, but she's just able to own her sexuality and sexiness. I feel like she has so much more than people give her credit for.
You've known about your casting in RENT since February. How hard has it been to keep a secret?
It's been so hard. I've felt like half of it was out of my control because of how quick news travels in this industry. So regardless of the fact I hadn't even told anyone, people just automatically assumed. I remember when a friend asked me if I had an audition and I said yes, and her reaction was, "You've already got it, I know you have". I didn't know if she was reading my mind or what!
It was such a dream role of mine as well. Way before Luke Sheppard [the director] had even done the casting, a website had done a Dream Cast for RENT article, and they said they wanted me to play Mimi. So, when I met with Luke, he was like, they stole my idea! I had that idea first!
So yeah, it's been crazy to keep it a secret for so long. Obviously with everything that was going on, it was a when and if situation about whether we were going to make it happen. But it gives me that little glimmer of hope; this show has been my saving grace this year.
How does it feel to be back in a rehearsal room again?
Amazing, it feels so nice to be working with the team. I've never worked with Luke before, and I think he's the most incredible director, and the choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves is just the most beautiful mover I've ever seen in my life. The cast are incredible as well - we're such a like-minded group of people, so it's nice to feel safe in the sense that we're all on this journey together.
What's it been like rehearsing during Covid-19?
It's been odd, don't get me wrong - it's been very strange. We're all quite tactile with our conversations usually, so it's been strange to be socially distanced.
But it will probably change a little bit when we get into the house in Manchester - and we're bubbling, because there's going to be all 12 of us together. There's certain parts of the show that we'll be able to alter too, but right now we obviously have to stick to the guidelines - we have to wear masks, before we come into the room we have our temperatures taken, we have to leave our masks on during certain scenes - so there's a lot of precautions going on.
Luke is constantly risk-assessing everything we're doing. So, it is an incredibly safe environment, but it's very odd, as I've never been in a rehearsal space under these circumstances before.
Have you got a favourite song to perform in RENT?
I think my favourite one is potentially "Goodbye Love".
Everyone's emotions are so heightened, because so much has happened by that point, and you really see the dynamic between each character and what they're going through. It's just one of those moments in the show that really breaks my heart and shows you how different people deal with grief - and that whatever way you deal with that grief is valid. I think that's such a good thing to show.
What excites you the most about being in this show?
I know this probably sounds cheesy, but the fact it's fresh and new. When would we ever be doing this sort of show, like RENT in particular, under these circumstances?
What we've done with the show so far is incredible. Even though we have to be distanced, it hasn't taken away from the story whatsoever. For example, when you first meet someone, you wouldn't touch them straightaway anyway - you earn the right to touch someone and be in someone's space - and that's been shown throughout the piece and it's been accentuated because of the times we're in.
We have something special going on between us all. I also think because we can't have that physical touch on stage, it's made us bond even more.
The show received a lot of praise for its diverse casting and giving graduates like Tom Francis their stage debut in lead roles. SIX was praised for the same reasons, and you made your West End debut in a lead role in that show too. In your experience, do you think casting is improving or is there still some way to go?
I think we're in that place where we're moving forward and it's improving and it's getting better, but I still do believe we have got work to do.
If we feel like, as an industry, we've already reached that point, then we have nowhere to go or strive for. So, I feel that this journey is not finished yet - this is not over. We've got work to do, because how can you reach your final goal without having a lot more work to do? There are still so many more inclusivity things that we need to do, like the way we address people, for instance.
The world is changing very quickly, so we all need to try and keep up. I feel like we're getting there, and because of SIX and RENT and all these other shows that are coming out, we are getting somewhere, but we still have places to go.
You're joined by another SIX queen, Millie O'Connell, who's playing Maureen. What's it been like to work together again?
It's amazing! Millie is like my twin soul so we're having a blast.
When we found out we were doing it together...can you imagine the reaction?! We were just so happy to be working together again because we had so much fun in SIX. Me and Millie get on so well, so I'm so glad that we're back together.
But the whole cast gels; the casting is perfect.
You recently reunited with your SIX queens for The Reunion. How did it feel to be back on stage together again?
It was electric. The bond that we formed during that show is like no other, and we all feel it, and so does everyone who supports us.
Being together again and putting on something so positive during this time, it wasn't just good for us, but our souls and everybody else. It just made my heart so happy that we could do this together and bring out that light within all of this.
What had you missed the most about performing with them?
The energy. Everyone has different energies that you resonate with each person; like how me and Mille are is different to how me and Natalie [Paris] are, but everybody has something to contribute within it.
I have learnt so much from all of these girls; they are not just my friends, they are my sisters. We all call each other sisters, and I did literally gain six more people in my life that I cannot live without. I know it sounds so cheesy, but it's so true; they play such a big part in my life because I went on such a journey with them, and I feel like they helped me grow and grow up. I've learnt more about myself in the process too.
What you see, there is no facade about any of it. We genuinely adore each other. You know how you can never measure your love for someone? That's how it is with the girls - I love them more than anything, I cannot describe how much I love them.
The Reunion featured important and positive messages to women in the audience. Which women have inspired you?
My mum is 100% my biggest inspiration. On the last Reunion show, Mum came to watch it and I gave her a massive shoutout, and I wish she'd stood up when I did because I want everyone to know how much of an inspiration and a big part of my life she is. I would not be here and who I am today without my mum.
I have an extremely heavy influence from my grandparents as well, like my nana and grandma, who sadly aren't with us anymore. My life revolved around those females in my life, and I feel so lucky to have had such a positive upbringing. I had these women around me who have formed and moulded me into the person I am today, and I'm so proud of the person I've become because of them. They're my world.
How did it feel to make your West End debut in such a successful show?
It's just wild, it really is, I can't believe I was the person who was given the opportunity to do that.
We never realised that was going to happen either. So, the beauty was that we grew with the show as well, and the show grew with us. The journey we went through with that show was crazy, and the fact that was the first thing I did, I think I peaked at 21 years old!
Why should people buy a ticket to RENT?
Because it's a story about life. It's about people going through tough things. It's a way to release and feel happy and joy. It's a way to feel anything other than what you're feeling right now.
Why would you not come to see it? It's an absolute classic show that deals with so many difficult moments and so many difficult feelings that you can't help but be drawn to it.
So, if you haven't got a ticket, buy one to the livestream, because you don't want to miss out on this show. What we have created so far, I'm so proud of it and I cannot wait for everybody to see it.
Rent is running at the Hope Mill Theatre between 30 October-6 December. Tickets (for both in person and online streaming) are available on the Hope Mill Theatre's website
Photo credits: Dujonna Gift-Simms