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2nd September 2023

Maiya Quansah-Breed on the success of Six, representation in theatre, and returning to Hope Mill

We sat down with Olivier nominee Maiya Quansah-Breed ahead of the UK regional premiere of Lizzie at Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre
Maiya Quansah-Breed on the success of Six, representation in theatre, and returning to Hope Mill
Photo: Maiya Quansah-Breed

Lizzie, “the true crime punk rock musical” based on the story of Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted for murdering her father and stepmother with an axe, is having its UK regional premiere at Hope Mill Theatre this month. It is the first UK-built production of the show, and it will be followed by the musical’s first UK tour.

At the musical’s launch event, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Olivier nominee Maiya Quansah-Breed, who is best known for playing Catherine Parr in the original cast of Six.

“Were you ever expecting Six to be SIX?” I asked, referring to the musical’s sudden success.

“No. Absolutely not,” Maiya admitted.

The cast appeared at West End Live shortly after joining forces, but it was not until they got to Edinburgh that things started bubbling. They got an incredible reception in London, but it was not until they returned to the West End, after the first UK tour, that things got wild. She admitted to thinking, “What is in the water? What has happened to this show? We’ve created a monster!”

“If you would have told me that that would be the start of my career… I peaked too soon!” she joked.

Maiya reunited with the rest of the original cast last year for a special appearance at Hampton Court Palace. She described the reunion as “glorious” because “I was so young when I first got that job that I was all bright-eyed, bushy-tailed; I was like a steamroller.”

She went back, aged 24, older and wiser, after a few years away from the show. Freya Sands, the show’s associate choreographer, told her that the way she holds herself is different. “That is the biggest compliment you could give me,” Maiya said.

Maiya and I agreed that Six was so different to anything else at the time, and other shows are replicating its gig-like approach (e.g. Fantastically Great Women, Cake), much like the rise in hip-hop theatre following the success of Hamilton. Sylvia, which finally earned Beverley Knight MBE an Olivier Award, appears to be inspired by both.

Lizzie actually came before Six but, at the time, people weren’t ready for it, but Six, in the most gorgeous way, has opened this door. Lizzie was already there but now people are ready for it,” Maiya explained eloquently.

Lizzie and Six have several similarities: they are both gig musicals, they are both biographical, they are both historical, and they are both feminist interpretations (they turn history into herstory).

“When do you ever see ten women onstage that are telling stories that are powerful and strong, and they’re not talking about ‘I love him, I want him’? It’s about holding your ground and being a woman and queer. The beauty with these stories [is that] you are being you, in a sense,” Maiya said.

Maiya has made a name for herself playing strong women so I had to ask her if she is drawn to playing badass bitches.

“I love being a badass bitch!” she laughed.

“I’ve had the ultimate pleasure of playing some badass women. When, what, why, how has this happened? It’s so rare that [as performers or creators] we ever sit back and applaud ourselves for stuff that we did. I’m always the first person to self-deprecate but I know every person is,” she explained, before affirming, “The work I’m doing is very bloody good. The work I’m doing deserves space. I deserve to be here; I deserve this.”

Maiya came into the industry at a time when opportunities were beginning to get better for actors of colour, and since Black Lives Matter, representation has improved further. But as I discussed with Keisha Thompson, this representation can become tokenistic.

“I think I’ve been quite lucky,” she acknowledged. “Thus far, I haven’t been cast because people deem me a person of colour. I end up getting cast because they think I’m right for the job, which I think is a beautiful thing, and I think the more of that, the better. People shouldn’t be pigeonholed. We’re actors; we should be able to play anything. Saying that, I also champion true representation – of seeing somebody who looks like you onstage; somebody who can inspire you because you go, ‘I look like that person.’”

Indeed, one of the most rewarding parts of Maiya’s job is finding out that she inspires other people.

“I find it crazy that I’m now somebody’s inspiration; that I’m inspiring a young 11-year-old who now wants to do musical theatre. It reminds me of a younger me. I find that the older we get, [we think] ‘I love what I do but it is a job’. When I see somebody who is still so enthusiastic, it ignites it again for me, and it reminds me why I still do it. It’s nice to be re-inspired by people who say that I inspire them.”

Whilst musical theatre can appear glamorous and exciting, she admits that it is not for the faint-hearted – so you really have to hold and cherish the beautiful moments.

She still finds it surreal that this is her life: “I never, ever thought that I would be in this position; I never thought this would be me. I always knew I wanted to do it, and I’ve got the greatest support system at home, and I think that was a driving factor as well: I was never allowed to quit. I’d have a paddy and my mum would be like: ‘Okay, so you’ve got that out now. Are you ready to move on?’ Just because you’ve had one little pothole, [it] doesn’t mean you should throw to towel in. I know that not everyone who wants to [do] this as a career [has that].”

Whilst Maiya knew that she wanted to be a musical theatre actress, she admits to being naïve and not really knowing what the career looked like or entailed.

“I just thought, ‘Well, I’ll go to college and do musical theatre, and then I think I want to go to drama school’. It was my teacher, Paul Williams, at Pendleton, who [told me] ‘You’re auditioning for drama school.'”

Maiya followed Paul’s advice but, sadly, she did not get in anywhere at first.

“I took a year out, got on the reserve list for GSA, and then, on my 18th birthday, they [said], ‘You’ve got a place’. From there, I was still loving what I was doing, not realising I was going to make a career out of it. I kind of fell into it [and] landed on my feet. It’s divine timing. I was in the right moments at the right time.”

“And now here you are!” I said. “Speaking about where we are, this is your third Hope Mill show – why do you keep coming back?”

The first Hope Mill show she starred in was a revival of Rent. Earlier this year, she appeared in an external production that Hope Mill hosted: the European premiere of Head Over Heels.

“I love this space. I love this theatre. I love the things they put on,” she told me.

She especially loves that Hope Mill is a producing house so starring in a show here allows you to create (or reimagine) your characters.

“When you get into a career in theatre, a lot of [shows] are already existing, and that might be your aspiration, but where’s the space to create? Sometimes you are just standing on seven, you’re standing on six, you’re looking at the spotlight, you’ve got to deliver it in this certain way.

“I’ve been very lucky thus far that I’ve been able to be in a space where it’s very collaborative, and I’ve been able to create, and I’ve been able to originate. It’s never ‘No, it’s done like this’. It’s been so nice [to still] be able to create in a space with some incredible people and learn from [them]. It’s a journey; it’s a learning curve. I know I’ve been doing it for five years now but it’s still that process of ‘I’m still learning.’”

We ended the interview by finally talking about the purpose of this interview: Lizzie.

I’ve known about the story of Lizzie Borden for about a decade, but only recently did I find out that there was a musical based on the story, and I knew nothing about Maiya’s character, Alice. Warning: spoilers ahead.

“[Alice] is the next-door neighbour, and in this version, Alice and Lizzie have a very strong friendship that turns into a relationship [but] at the time, everything was hush-hush. It’s Alice who brings out the tender moments in Lizzie, and that’s so beautiful because she’s driven by this morality and truth, and she wants the best for Lizzie.

“She really is a pillar, in the sense that, ‘I am gonna be here for you; I am gonna help you; we’re gonna do it together; I’m gonna work through this with you’. But it is eventually that morality and truth that make her turn her back on Lizzie. It is that element of, ‘I just want the best for you, but I can’t do that for you if you’re not willing to open up to it.”

You can catch Olivier nominee Maiya Quansah-Breed in Lizzie at Hope Mill Theatre from September 1 to 30 and on tour until December 16 2023.

Jay Darcy

Jay Darcy

Theatre Editor. Instagram & Twitter: @jaydarcy7. Email: [email protected].

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