Tori Allen-Martin who will play Chelsea in H.R.Haitch at the Union Theatre from 9th May spoke to us about the role, the history of the production and how she manages to Act, Sing, Produce and Write.
In H R Haitch you play the role of Chelsea. Tell us about her – what drew you to the role?
First of all the writing, Mary Evans (book/lyrics) is wonder woman- I fell in love with Chelsea instantly. I practised with my mum on a train back from Glasgow and we were laughing out loud. I was desperate to play her. I’ve been calling her a Millenial Mistress of her own Destiny. She’s a real twenty first century heroine. She’s completely what you see is what you get – this huge mixture of influences and experiences – like so many of us. She’s blunt and inappropriate but kind and hilarious. She loves a selfie or rather a #Chelfie but is a super talented chef. She’s a beautiful contradiction and completely loveable for it. I think most people will be able to relate to her – because she’s wonderfully human – flawed but ultimately has a great heart and she’s doing her very best. I love her. And for this to be a lead role written for a mixed race person – it’s unheard of! Which is so sad in this day and age but the complete truth. This is the only time in my life I’ve been offered a lead role specifically for my casting that I haven’t had to write for myself. There are a handful of other opportunities out there but it’s thin on the ground particularly in musical theatre, I’m struggling to think of any others actually. So, in short, it was a no brainer!
H R Haitch was originally performed in 2015. What’s it like for you to return to the show and the role three years later?
SO NICE! It’s so rare that this happens. I’ve workshopped or seen so many great pieces that never see the light of day, so huge props to Iris and Shrapnel for making this happen. It’s no mean feat. I’m so excited to revisit her because it’s inevitable that you grow as a performer and a person with every year that goes by. I’m really excited to see what we keep and what we change. We presented the piece stood at mics before so I can’t wait to explore her physicality – Chelsea wasn’t written to stand still – she flaunts it all – so I can’t wait to set her lose! It’s also crazy that three years ago, I hadn’t even heard of Meghan Markle let alone know that she was about to become a real-life Princess! Wait?! Will she be a Princess? Or will she have one of those funny titles they stick on people? I’m gonna go with Princess. Anyway, it’s nuts that the writers had this idea that we all thought was gorgeous but probably never saw coming, and now look. It’s testament to the writers that it’s not only stayed relevant but become more relevant!
Rehearsing and performing this alongside all the media attention on Prince Harry and Megan Markle must create interesting challenges for you as an actor? Are you avidly paying attention to the royal wedding, or are you avoiding it?
Avoiding. That’s the beauty of H.R.Haitch having come first– Chelsea already exists in my mind and despite the similarities the stories are of course completely different- this one is fictional for a start! Yes, Meghan Markle and I are both mixed race but we’re entirely different people, and Chelsea, if she were real, is an entirely different person to both of us too (though she looks a hell of a lot like me). I really hope people wouldn’t come expecting us to do some pale imitation of Meghan Markle – Chelsea couldn’t be more different from her – she’s a chef from Barking, her mum was a page 3 stunner and her dad owns a pub. So I think if I was studying Meghan Markle for inspiration I wouldn’t quite hit the note. I think the actual royal wedding will be absolutely beautiful and I’m so for it, but despite enjoying the fact that three years after workshopping it a brown girl is actually marrying into the royal family, I see them as two totally different entities. This is just a nice nod to the times. Dreams really do come true. Meghan found her Prince Charming and we got our show staged!
In real life, the buzz created by a mixed-race princess was sadly but maybe not surprisingly all positive. Does this affect you and how you’ve approached this production?
No. I know I’m the underdog. I’ve been an underdog my whole career. I’m a woman, I’m brown, I wear a size 14. I don’t tick all the right boxes and I’ve struggled because of it. It’s sad to me that in 2018 we feel so behind the times, that for someone like me to be cast in a part that actually asked for the things I am is such an unlikely occurrence – it affects me but I am a firm believer in be the change you want to see. If one other mixed-race girl or girl with a belly society has told her she should change, can come see this and think ‘I’m going to keep going’, then we’ve achieved something. I approach this production like I would any other, with 100% commitment, dedication and hard work. I’ll give it absolutely everything and leave a bit of myself on that stage every night to be swept away with the other debris. Not because of the subject matter or because I feel there’s more to prove because it’s about something similar to real life – but just because that’s what I do when I go to work! I’ve grafted for too long and taken too many knocks to give anything less than my best. Some people won’t like me, some won’t like the show, some will try and spin different narratives and find similarities (that we never professed to be there) falling short – but that’s OK, because you can’t please everyone but for me this show is about escapism, it’s about having a laugh, it’s got heart, and it’s heroine is kind and beautiful for all the wrong reasons. We need more heroines like Chelsea because it’s 2018 and why shouldn’t she be a leading lady. We need diverse stories and we need diverse characters. H.R.Haitch ticks all the boxes, and it ticks boxes for people like me who so often feel we don’t tick a box. People will relate to Chelsea because she’s just someone trying to do the right thing – an ordinary person thrown into extraordinary circumstances. You’ll laugh with her and cry with her and that’s how I’m approaching this production, like any other human, playing any other human.
As well as being a talented actor and singer, you have written and produced many original musicals for your own company. What’s your creative process? Where do you get inspiration? And how do you find the time!
That’s nice of you. A lot of 4am bedtimes is the honest answer to that last part of the question. I tend to mull over an idea and then let it settle, and then it tends to come out in one big multiple word vomit and I tend to not go to bed until it’s done, or at least until an act is done. I’m inspired by life, by the people around me – my phone is full of overheard conversations on public transport. My mum and boyfriend know when to be quiet now, I think they can tell by my face that I’m listening in! As I said earlier I like to be the change I want to see – I get sick of the same old narratives, like the struggle for young black actors – white actors don’t get asked that question the same way. I get sick of working class voices not being represented, of LGBTQ stories being about that, rather than a character just happening to be gay or trans or Chinese or black or fat and so on. I want all of my work to represent a typical London tube carriage – when would you ever get on and see a bunch of people who look the same? Never. I often feel alienated when I go to the theatre, no-one looks like me or sounds like me – so I write for me, I write for my friends, we have to keep trying to give a voice to the voiceless, because it matters. They matter. Watching Black Panther was nuts, I realised that black people finally got the experience white people get almost every time they go to the cinema! We’ve a long way to go with black representation, and there’s so far after that with other ‘minorities’ who have even less representation. I want to do all I can in doing my bit. I’m still learning myself but I just keep striving to be better and more open minded and I hope one day it won’t be so hard for people who look something like me or who look something ‘different’ to the ideals we’re bored with on the daily, to get a job, or to feel that they’re heard. If I can use any small successes I get to open the door for others, then that can only be a good thing. So, I’ll just keep on shouting till they listen.
2018 seems to have got off to a great start for you, with sell-out performances of your show The Hardest One at the Other Palace in February alongside H R Haitch, and a TV role in Pure on Channel 4. What are you most excited about over the next few months?
Having a seat at the table to be honest. I’ve got some amazing opportunities heading my way and it feels like some of the people in positions of power might finally be paying attention. There’s a long way to go and a hell of a lot more knocks to come I’m sure but this year feels like progress. I can’t wait for PURE to air – the team and the cast are nothing short of amazing and the show is important, it’s also produced by women, and written by a woman, based on another woman’s memoir (charting her personal mental health struggles with Pure-OCD) – so, that’s something for the diversity card, and they’re all absolutely kick ass too. I’m filming a returning series for ITV too, and she’s a small but really interesting part, that’s not colour specific (nor is my part in PURE). I’m buzzing because it feels like the world is waking up. It’s a scary but exciting time to be alive, a change is coming – sometimes it needs to get worse before it gets better, and I think our generation is an example of that, and no doubt we’ve a long way to go but I feel like we might just be able to make a difference. I feel like people are getting ‘woke’ as it were, slowly but surely. So I’m excited to keep collaborating, to keep telling stories -especially those that belong to voices we don’t turn up loud enough and I’m excited to keep learning. It’s been a real struggle till now if I’m honest, there have been amazing times along the way but I’ve come close to quitting a lot – I lost a lot of faith in myself, in the industry, to the people in power, so to feel like some of my wildest dreams are finally something I can actually touch – that’s very special. So I’m going to ride this wave for as long as I can and drag as many people along for the ride with me as humanly possible.
H.R.Haitch plays at the Union Theatre from Wednesday 9th May – Saturday 2nd June 2018