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In The Heights Interview

It's hot in the city and the Liverpool Empire Youth Theatre is set to turn up the heat further with their latest production, In The Heights. We caught up with Natalie Flynn, Director and Creative Learning Manager and cast members to find out more.

What made you choose In The Heights as your next production? 

Natalie Flynn (NF): We wanted to pick a show that would challenge our Youth Theatre Company, creative team and audiences.  It was important to pick a show that had themes that our cast and audience could relate to. The show has a timeless message that is told through a fantastic musical score that includes elements of Hip Hop, Rap, Latin American and traditional Broadway. The characters within the show are on the brink of change, they are full of hopes, dreams and pressures which is a universal theme that all of us can relate to. 

How big is the cast and how old are they? 

NF: Our 45 cast members are aged 15 - 21.

What do you think you can learn from musical theatre as opposed to a stage play? 

NF: There are so many things to learn from all forms of live theatre/performance regardless of whether it is a play, musical, opera or ballet.  Live Theatre offers us as performers and audience a shared experience.  An experience that provides a mirror to society, it provides an opportunity to partake in one of the most basic human instincts which is storytelling. These stories and characters enable us to connect to people, places and ideas that we might otherwise not be exposed to. 

What attracts you to musical theatre as a genre? 

NF: Music and dance are emotive and a powerful forms of expression which pull on all our emotions. The music in the show gives insight to the characters, it provides entertainment and moves the story along quickly whilst still contributing to the tone and style. The musical provides a source of escapism and magic that can transport its audiences. The dialogue between characters is heightened allowing all manner of things to be said and expressed that would otherwise not be conveyed. 

Do you have to be able to sing and dance to be part of the Youth Theatre? 

NF: We hold annual auditions to be part of the Youth Theatre and from the auditions, we select a company that will work with us for the academic year.  Participants do not have to be trained singers or dancers.  Some join our company having never previously performed and others will have had lots of previous experience or training from one of the many fantastic dance/drama schools within the local area.  All members are passionate about performing and have to be very committed to working hard.  More importantly they have to be good team members. 

How many performances of In The Heights will there be? 

NF: Three. Two evening performances at 7.30pm and a Saturday matinee at 2.30pm.

What is the most important thing to consider when putting on a piece of musical theatre? 

NF: You have to be true to the story and true to the characters.  The performers have to convey the story through the elements of acting, singing and dancing in equal measure.  Time has to be given during the rehearsal period to not only perfecting the choreography and songs but also to allow the actors to explore the themes and motivations of the characters they are playing. Physical and vocal health is also very important - its hard work performing in a musical!

The show is set in a Latino suburb of New York, how do you bring such a different culture to life on stage in Liverpool? 

NF: With its history as a port city Liverpool has a diverse population from around the world and so this show is perfect for telling that story. This is a story of family, home, love and pride and knowledge of heritage.  The characters represent three distinct generations within that community that can be seen throughout the world. The generation who moved away from everything they know to start over in a new country, the generation that has roots in both their new country and the old, and finally the generation that has lived in the country their whole lives and the enormous pressure they face to rise even further above what the previous generations have achieved. 

Why did you want to be involved with the production In The Heights?

Jamil: I have been part of the Empire's youth projects for nearly 6 years including ballet and musical theatre. When the show was announced to be In The Heights I saw the opportunity to further get involved as the show is more contemporary and would set new challenges for me.

Jaheim: I like acting and I wanted to try for the main part.

Ellie: I wanted to be involved with In The Heights as it is my favourite musical and from previous shows with Liverpool Empire Youth Theatre, I knew it would be fantastic!

Beth: I have done many previous shows with the Empire Youth Theatre and I love the whole process.  I meet so many amazing performers and creatives and we all work together to create an amazing piece of theatre. I also love In The Heights, it is one of my favourite shows, so I had to audition.

Why do you think In The Heights appeals to modern audiences?

Jamil: In The Heights uses more modern styles of music such as hip hop and rap which allows younger and more modern audiences to relate to the characters and story more. 

Jaheim: It's true to life. Due to the reactions towards people from ethnic backgrounds in the show and how it's the same in everyday life in some places.

Ellie: I think In The Heights appeals to modern audiences as it is about everyday struggles that people can relate to. It's about overcoming these issues and uniting together as a community and making bonds stronger with family and friends, ensuring positivity.

Beth: I think it appeals to modern audiences because of the music, it is so current and diverse that people don't expect musical theatre to incorporate some of these styles. It is very intriguing!

What learnings do you think you can take away from musical theatre as opposed to a stage play?

Jamil: Stage play actors can use speech to convey a character's story but a musical theatre performer can also exploit the medium of song to further express the emotions and story of a character which I personally think can be appreciated more.

Jaheim: To always be confident and to always try my best and be myself.

Ellie: Stage plays are often quite naturalistic whereas musical theatre gives you the confidence to show all aspects of talent within you from singing to dancing as well as acting.

Beth: I have learnt how to incorporate all 3 disciples into one, to communicate a story to an audience. We can express ourselves through music and dance without speaking a word.

What do you think is the most exciting part of putting together a show like In The Heights?

Jamil: I think the concept of togetherness within the show makes it really fun for everyone to get involved in and have their own individual personal narratives within the set story.

Jaheim: The time when it's all finished and it looks amazing 

Ellie: I think the most exciting part of putting this show together is the unity that it brings to make the show as powerful as it can be. Everyone in this show has the same importance, from the ensemble members to the principals, which helps us all to bond really well together for a positive outcome.

Beth: A great part is meeting new people- cast and creative team and working with them. Also learning new material- songs, dances and exploring another person's world and communicating one story through this.

What attracts you to musical theatre as a genre?

Jamil: The range of characters and styles within the genre attracts me because it always brings new challenges for you to take on and improve your skills.

Jaheim: I love comedy and I love shows that involve all types of races/ethnicities.

Ellie: The thing that attracts me to musical theatre is the 'wow factor' and passion it holds. When listening to the harmonies and seeing the company dance and act together it brings an unexplainable feeling of joy and happiness.

Beth: What attracted me was incorporating all three disciplines and the joy of doing three things I love and performing this for an audience.

How are you able to sing and dance at the same time (are there any techniques to use?)

Jamil: You need to work on your cardio ability and then it's mainly about breath control and not sounding too out of breath. 

Jaheim: Always focus and keep calm.

Ellie: For singing and dancing, I think the most important thing is your breathing and knowing when to breathe and how deep to breathe. You should experiment with how much power you put into your dancing and perhaps slightly tone it down allowing you to perform to the best of your ability with both singing and dancing.

Beth: I have to say singing and dancing at the same time is very tricky, but I feel it is all about practice! The more you practice the better you become (build up your stamina). I don't really have a specific technique, I think it is just knowing your own body, you can find places to breathe and places to adjust and try not to hold tension. 

The show features a broad range of music and dance styles. Which was your favourite?

Jamil: I think the commercial hip-hop style are my favourite because it is a change from what I'm used to.

Jaheim: Both due to the how powerful they are together.

Ellie: My favourite number in the show is Blackout where there is a power cut in the neighbourhood and the full company come together to unite. I love this, not only because of the warming harmonies but because of the story behind each character's emotions.

Beth: Definitely the rap! I don't rap in the musical, but I love it! It is so captivating. I also love all the Latin dance - I think it is great fun, challenging and interactive. 

In The Heights runs at the Liverpool Empire Theatre from 24 to 25 August 2018.

Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Book by Quiara Alegría Hudes
Conceived by Lin-Manuel Miranda
An amateur production by arrangement with R&H Theatricals Europe
In The Heights Rehearsal Shots by Jono Symonds Photography