*Since this interview took place, a second national lockdown has come into effect. As a result of these new restrictions, a live performance of RENT will now be available to access online. For more information, or to book tickets, visit the Hope Mill Theatre website.
“It’s the perfect show to put on right now,” says Maiya Quansah-Breed. The Olivier Award-nominated actress is talking about the rock musical RENT which, before the announcement of the second lockdown, was due to be staged at Manchester’s Hope Mill.
Loosely based on Puccini’s opera La Bohème, RENT tells the story of a group of impoverished young artists struggling to survive and create a life in Lower Manhattan’s East Village under the shadow of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Playing the role of Mimi is Salford-born Quansah-Breed. The actress is acutely aware of the parallels between showcasing the musical in 2020 and in 1994 when it was first performed.
“At the time it was created there was [the] HIV and AIDS [crisis] and, hopefully, it will remind people that we lived through that pandemic and we’ll get through this one. The biggest difference is that we’re more supportive of anyone who gets COVID-19. When someone contracted HIV back then, they were shunned, extradited from society and rejected by the community.”
She adds: “RENT is a musical about life and loss. No one has the same story and each character’s life unfolds in a different way. You have to find the light in everyone’s journey and celebrate it. We’re trying to find the positives in each story.”
In 2020, the gap between generations is wider than it’s ever been. While the elderly population is potentially more vulnerable to the serious and grave consequences of contracting COVID-19, some younger people view the virus as nothing more than a ‘bad flu’ that they’ll recover from within a fortnight. Politically, there’s a never been a bigger divide between the haves and the have-nots. Does Quansah-Breed think that the stories within RENT translate across the generations?
“Definitely. It’s set before my time but it’s a universal story. I certainly relate to the stories of happiness, loss, grief, love. How you fill your life and what you measure it by. So many people lived through, or grew up in, that period, many with friends affected by the AIDS pandemic, so I think the piece transcends young and old.”
Working on the show has clearly been an emotional experience for the cast, not just because of the subject matter but also being finally able to work again after the theatre world went dark in March 2020.
“I think we’ve all cried every single day since we started,” Quansah-Breed admits. “After we did our first full run, it really hit home that the 12 of us in the cast are able to work right now in an industry where so many people can’t. It makes it all the more special.”
Earning a living in the performing arts is hard enough in more certain times. As we head towards the end of the industry’s most challenging year, does Quansah-Breed believe that things can recover?
“Without a doubt,” she says. “This industry has so much rejection, yet the people within it continue to pursue their goals. Performers are incredibly resilient otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do the job we absolutely love doing. If it wasn’t for the sheer joy it gives us, I don’t know what we’d have to fall back on. We put everything into what we do and that’s why the industry will never fail because we bounce back. It will all return bigger and better because no one puts performers in the corner.”
Throughout the pandemic, many have worried that the arts have been undervalued and overlooked. Recently, the industry received yet another blow after government advice suggested that performers retrain.
“It feels like we’re being disregarded and that what we do is just a glorified hobby,” Quansah-Breed says. “It fuels us even more to say ‘this is not a whim, it’s my livelihood, my career. I have put my life into this’. The arts are so important, and I think people are now realising that a bit more. I don’t think they always make the connection that things they enjoy such as music, TV, film and podcasts are all forms of art. I hope people are starting to understand that so much of it comes from live performance.”
Despite the myriad of difficulties, Quansah-Breed believes that one positive has come out of the COVID-19 crisis. “The virtual stuff that has happened has made theatre way more accessible to people the world over. I love people telling me they’re waking up at 2am in New Zealand to watch our show because they don’t want to miss it. These people would never get the opportunity to come to the UK and see the production.”
With the pandemic rules and regulations constantly evolving (albeit backwards at times), did Quansah-Breed have a fear of following daily news reports in case the rug was pulled on the show at the eleventh hour? “Yes and no, but Will and Joe who run Hope Mill have done such a fantastic job getting us to this point. They told us not to inundate ourselves with news, just to focus on rehearsals for the show and leave them to deal with everything else. That really calmed us all. There’s no point stressing because there’s nothing we can do about it. The theatre team are working within the guidelines. We have to show that live theatre can still go ahead and keep people safe.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” she adds, “With the news changing day-to-day, I’ve had my moments where I’ve wondered if it’s really going to happen, but I move past all that because I’m really fortunate to be in the position to get to do what I love again.”
Quansah-Breed trained at Guildford School of Acting and one of her first roles after graduating was playing Catherine Parr in the hit West End musical Six. The role resulted in an Oliver Award nomination last year.
“It was just wild,” she reveals. “I was in a dreamlike state, sure it couldn’t be happening. When I went to work that night, everyone was talking about it and I cried because it was such a big thing. Even now I’m still blown away by the fact that I have Olivier Award-nominated next to my name. How did that happen? I graduated in July 2018 and got nominated for the Olivier in April 2019. I still can’t quite believe it.”
Another exciting aspect of being in this production of RENT is the opportunity for Quansah-Breed to work in her home territory.
“I’m so excited because I’ve never done anything back home in Manchester before. I was so thrilled when I knew it was happening. Lots of friends and family are coming along. The cast are all living in a house bubble together to keep us safe – just like living in the East Village. Thankfully, we already feel like a community and have really jelled. I’ve found my people.”
With so much success already in her professional life, where does Quansah-Breed see her career going next?
“I want to do everything. TV, music, film and more theatre. I want to experience as much as I can with no regrets. I’m learning more about myself and what I want as I go along. I’ll have a go at anything and, if it fails, I’ll pick myself up and try again. I’ll roll with the punches and see where things take me.”
RENT is on at Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester from November 27 until December 20, 2020. All performances are currently online. Click here for more information.