This week Sarah Day speaks to Ahmed Hamad about his involvement in Hope Mill’s Rent, Stay Awake Jake and his theatre backstory as well as looking forward.
What was your first ever show that you did as a kid, and what was it that got you into the theatre world?
Music is the main thing that got me into the theatre. I was singing in a band and also playing the piano when I discovered what musical theatre was. The first two shows I did were the ones that really pulled me in.
In secondary school, I was in Return to the Forbidden Planet and Little Shop of Horrors. The music teacher asked if I’d be interested in auditioning for the voice of Audrey II (the plant) in Little Shop. I’d never really done any acting on stage so after hearing that I could sit in the band and stay hidden I was really up for it. From there, I joined some amateur theatre groups and everything kicked off from there with shows like Hairspray, Wizard of Oz, and Les Misérables – classic amateur shows we’ve all done! It took a bit of convincing to get my parents on board but now they’re my biggest fans. I also still use ‘Feed Me’ from Little Shop for most auditions which is pretty cool – full circle!
Congratulations on being part of ‘Stay Awake Jake’! Tell us about the show, your audition and rehearsal process, and how it’s been working in the middle of pandemic?
Thank you! I’ve really loved bringing Jake to life. Stay Awake Jake is a one-man-musical about a guy called Jake who drives across the country at night to save his relationship. About a month into the first lockdown, I received a self-tape audition from my agent, Amy O’Neill. At that point, it was going to be an album recording in my bedroom on zoom with the writer, Tim Gilvin. A few months later, it had snowballed into a massive project! James and Rosie Pearson (who cast me) set up Pearson Productions and produced a full album with another producer, Stephen McGill. Grace Taylor was already on board to direct, but a musical director named Nick Pinchbeck supplied a recording studio and Tamara Saringer (who MD’d one of my 3rd year shows!) was the MD. By early September, the album and orchestra was fully recorded and I’m looking forward to hopefully hearing it soon!
Rehearsals for the album and Southwark run were really different. I loved how collaborative it was – the team would let me suggest stuff, add riffs, change keys etc. On day one, Grace said she wanted me to feel like one of the creative team which was awesome. It was mostly 1-2-1 rehearsals with Tamara with some zoom rehearsals too. By the time the Southwark Livestream was confirmed, I knew all the material so it was a case of working out how to get the piece on its feet and in front of some cameras.
What is your process when you get into character for a show? (And also specifically for Stay awake Jake)
My show prep is quite similar to my audition routine. I find I have to be physically warm before singing so I’ll always go for a run or do a workout before an audition. That’s it really! I don’t have any other rituals or anything – I just like to make sure I’m feeling good and ready in my body before starting a performance. I also love getting ready whilst interacting with other cast mates.
Stay Awake, Jake was different in the fact that there were no other cast members to be around. I tried to stay out of my head but found it really difficult. The hardest thing was having no audience – but knowing people were watching live. There was no audience, no immediate reaction, and the transitions between songs were difficult! Usually, there’s some applause where you can take a breath or let someone else take over. Not only was it important to get into character, but also stay in it for the whole time!
Why is theatre important to you?
Theatre is important for so many reasons. There are practical reasons like jobs, financials, tourism etc. But to me, and I assume many others, theatre is more than just that. Theatre teaches human beings empathy and sympathy. As an actor, you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and have the privilege of telling a story – as an audience member you can learn about other communities’ experiences, your viewpoints can be influenced, and some theatre can honestly change your life. There are obviously many pieces of theatre that aren’t meant to change your life, and probably just give you a great night out! This is also really important as theatre also brings people together, and satisfies our need to connect with others. Theatre is SO important as a form of expression and gives myself and many others from underrepresented groups the chance to tell stories.
The theatre industry is calling out for more diversity in their casts, creatives and crew. Tell us what this means to you. Do you feel a positive atmosphere change or does our industry still have a long way to go?
We’re living in such a pivotal moment in history. People are starting to notice and fight for equality; disability, LGBTQ+, racial, gender, etc. I think we’re lucky to be working in the arts – one of the most liberal and accepting industries. That being said, I do think there’s a long way to go. There are still stories coming out from people of colour in our industry from micro aggressions to just plain racism. We’re definitely moving in the right direction with the awareness being raised though. Creatives are starting to step down if their voice isn’t the right one for the project, casting teams are changing their outlook, and people are starting to listen to minorities when they voice their experiences. In my eyes, representation is a really important aspect.
I’m part of a new musical which is releasing an album in spring called Rumi. It’s based on a real historical figure named Rumi, a Persian poet. The cast was announced recently and every cast member is of some ME/NA/SA heritage (Middle Eastern, North African, South Asian). This is the first I’ve ever heard of a cast and creative team having this level of representation and it honestly makes me so proud to be a part of it.
How have you been keeping creative during lockdown?
I’ve been really lucky to have been a part of a few streamed productions like Rent and Stay Awake, Jake. I feel really privileged to have performed on stage during this pandemic – it’s something I won’t take for granted ever again. This third lockdown has been the toughest. I couldn’t get home to the West Midlands before Christmas, and I was alone in the flat up until about a week ago. My housemate made it to his parents’ house and then couldn’t come back until recently. I’ve been trying hard to keep up the creatives juices but I won’t lie, these last few months have been so difficult. Playing the piano and doing some play readings for fun is really the extent of my recent creativity!
Tell us about one of your best/funniest memories on stage?
The best would probably be opening night of Rent. We’d been without live theatre for almost seven months and the energy from the audience after the opening number was electric. I remember looking across the space to Millie and we were both mind blown!
Funniest would be one of the classroom scenes in The Boy in the Dress. I can’t remember the exact line, but I think there was a slight variation in a line that someone said which meant that the whole class knew Dennis was in disguise. I didn’t really explain that very well… but every actor on stage was stifling a laugh for what felt like an eternity! We left the stage and all just burst out laughing – pure joy.
What three things can we always find in your dressing room? I.e Lucky charms…things that help you on stage…blue m&ms..
I’ll always have a bottle of this Chinese cough syrup that singers use called ‘Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa’… if you know you know! I’m pretty much addicted to it so that’s always in my dressing room. You’ll probably also find my Nintendo Switch for between shows! Lastly, probably some sweet treats. I love squashies (sour apple & cherry is the best flavour for sure) and they’re great to keep the energy up during a show.
If your life were a show what would it be called, and why?
I feel like it would be a comedy. I’m pretty clumsy and always making mistakes so how about ‘Ahmed a mistake’? ‘Ahmed’, like ‘I made’ haha… Can you tell I like bad jokes and puns too..?
It’d probably consist of me doing something wrong or making a mistake and just looking straight to camera/audience – let’s get it commissioned!
It has been a really tough year for new actors graduating into the industry. What advice would you give to all the new graduates?
I actually can’t imagine how difficult it must be for graduates right now. Not only have 2020 graduates had it really tough, but now 2021 graduates are also feeling the knock on effect of the year-long industry closure. Using all available resources is the biggest advice I’d give. I’d recommend ‘Just Add Milk’ and ‘The Grad Fest’ for sure. JAM was set up by some friends I know and they offer a wide range of resources from 1-2-1s with agents and casting directors, acting coaching and financial planning as an actor, and also 4-12 week long acting training courses! I’ve also booked myself on some 1-2-1s and this company is so great for staying in the loop.
The Grad Fest was a platform set up during the pandemic to help theatre graduates transition into the industry. With everything shut, graduates haven’t had much support at all, and this company is brilliant. Throughout the pandemic they’ve been committed to giving theatre graduates exposure, offering classes and workshops with industry creatives, and many other opportunities including concerts at West End theatres and many other performances. I’d highly recommend both of these platforms!