The actress talks to BroadwayWorld about starring in the new version of the classic Stephen Schwartz musical
Tsemaye Bob-Egbe is a Nigerian-born, London-based West End performer. She most recently starred in the world premiere of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical at the Aldwych Theatre, where she performed as Alline Bullock/Ikette, also understudying and performing the role of Tina Turner. Other credits include Janelle Woods/The Shirelles in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.
Tsemaye talks to BroadwayWorld about her role as Leading Player in the new outdoor production of Pippin at the Garden Theatre, London.
You’re a couple of weeks into performances. How has it been going so far?
It’s been going really well. We had our press nights last week on Thursday and Friday, and we’ve had amazing reviews so far. And not only that, we’ve had lots of people coming in and being really grateful to see theatre again. So that’s really reassuring. The audiences have been really encouraging, absolutely loving the show. The cast and creative team are just amazing as well. So it’s been a good few weeks.
How did you spend your time during lockdown?
My lockdown was like everyone’s – it was kind of up and down. I had a few good months, a few bad months. I was in a position where I was due to be taking a break anyway – I was about to take a month and a half off. My plan was just to sleep and watch Netflix. So that was sort of it for the first month [laughs]. I didn’t really do much in terms of the arts or anything. I just took some time for me. I didn’t mind that I put on weight and all those kinds of things. It didn’t matter to me. What mattered was that my family and friends were well, and thankfully they have been so far.
After a while, I started writing. I’ve been writing a pilot episode for a new TV series and writing a musical, as well. And then I started singing and playing the piano again – just re-finding the joy in the things that I do. So that’s been my lockdown. I got engaged as well – so that’s been the most exciting thing! [laughs] So yes, it’s been very up and down. But as long as we’re still here and we’re still trying every single day, that’s what counts.
How did it feel to find out you were going to be performing again in one of the first productions to take place in London since lockdown began?
It was a bit mental. I got the audition on the Tuesday, learnt the song overnight and filmed it on Wednesday, then found out I had the part on Thursday. The cast announcement was released on the Friday, and then we started rehearsals the following week.
So there wasn’t much time to mentally prepare. When I got the call, I was filled with a lot of – I don’t want to say anxiety – but apprehension. I was very nervous. I was nervous about performing again, I was nervous about my stamina. I started focusing on all the things that could go wrong rather than the fact that it was actually happening. So I had to tell myself, “Actually, you’re going to be back in the room. You’re going to be singing with people, you’re going to be working creatively. That’s what you should focus on.”
I had to actively tailor my mind to the good things about being back in the room and being able to perform again. And I feel like for me as a performer, it’s less about me being on stage and more about the collaborative process and what the audience gets from it.
I haven’t really missed performing in front of people, necessarily. What I miss is people’s reactions to what we’re giving to them. Seeing families in the audience. It’s so precious to see young people watching with their parents, especially for me. It’s something that I absolutely love and look forward to experiencing myself in the future.
Especially since this is an experience that children wouldn’t normally be having if we were in total lockdown, or may be finding it hard to come by at the moment?
Exactly. For people who’ve been cooped up at home for the whole of lockdown – parents trying to homeschool and doing all these things online. For them to actually spend a day watching theatre is great. And perhaps they wouldn’t normally go to the theatre. Because the thing about the theatre industry, especially in terms of commercial theatre and the West End, is that it’s not really accessible to a lot of people. Or maybe people don’t know how to access it. And since our theatre is a fringe venue, tickets are a bit cheaper. And perhaps people in the neighbourhood are the ones that will come and see it, too. Which is great.
It sounds like your rehearsal period was pretty intense due to the current Covid situation. How was it for you?
I was really… nervous. [laughs] I’d been quite good throughout the lockdown period, not really coming into contact with a lot of people. I walked into the rehearsal room and everyone was sort of “Do we hug each other?”, and I had to put my hand up and say, “I don’t feel comfortable doing that.” So it was a bit weird to be honest.
But we were definitely free to have these conversations and encouraged to wipe down everything we came into contact with. I wipe down my props every day and I don’t touch anyone else’s. And these measures that we’re putting into place, everyone’s really respectful of them. Everyone’s really respectful of the social distancing, respectful of how people feel about sharing certain things.
But generally it went very well. It was very intense as we only had a week. There’s lots of choreography in the show, which you might not think is achievable in such a small space. But it works so well, and I’d say the group numbers are probably the best ones in the show. When everyone’s on stage together, the energy is just amazing.
So the rehearsal process was really really good. To get in there and start singing again, to start being creative. Dex (Steven Dexter), the director, encourages a very collaborative process and we’re always allowed to offer up our ideas if we feel something might not be working. So even though the rehearsal process was busy, it was really freeing as well.
Pippin debuted on Broadway in 1972. What do you think it is about the show that has helped it stand the test of time and still feel relevant today?
That’s an interesting question, because I had friends come in yesterday to watch the show and we were talking about the story of Pippin. And I think one of the best things about it is that it’s really open to interpretation. In terms of when the show is set, ours is set in the era the piece was written – a very hippie type era. The recent Broadway version was set in a circus, and the one at the Menier Chocolate Factory was set inside a game, I believe.
So you can almost set it anywhere and in any time, and the story is still relevant. It’s about a young boy trying to find his purpose in life. And I think everyone can relate to that. He tries different things and struggles throughout. I don’t want to say too much, but he meets obstacles along the way – and that’s what the story’s about.
I think the reason it still feels relevant is because it’s a story within a story. Everyone takes away their own understanding of it and no one’s right or wrong. Listening to friends talk about it yesterday and hearing their views around it, they were so different from what I imagined they would be. And quite different from mine! But you can see crossovers and that’s fine. There’s beauty in it being a kind of a grey area.
The theatre industry is working hard to implement safety measures in the hope that it can get back on its feet as quickly as possible. Can you tell us about how that works in terms of Pippin?
It’s a garden theatre so it’s outdoors. We have put a canopy up because obviously, British weather is a bit unpredictable. I mean it’s raining as we speak! But in terms of the audience, temperature checks are taken, details are taken for Track and Trace as well. The audience sit in bubbles and there isn’t actually a cast list or programme handed out. There’s a laminated piece of paper that displays the names of the cast, creative team and so on, and that’s wiped down after every show.
In terms of the cast, there’s minimal passing of props between one another. We wipe down our props of course, and we’re all distanced somewhat within the show. There’s some scenes where there’s meant to be a kiss, but our choreographer Nick [Winston] has done an amazing job of creating intimacy without touching. It’s really interesting the way he’s done it. I watch it every night, because luckily I’m on stage and not involved in it. I just find it astonishing – so many people in the audience forget to clap because they’re so in the moment.
So it’s an adjustment. I wouldn’t be sorry to say it’s difficult sometimes. But I think everybody’s accepted that these are challenging times, and it’s absolutely necessary to be taking these precautions.
Can you tell us a bit about your role, Leading Player? What are they like?
The leading player is the head of this troupe of storytellers. She or he – the sex is irrelevant as they’re simply a person – take Pippin through this journey of self-discovery. Guiding and advising him. Keeping him going. And also sort of directing the other players as well.
It’s multifaceted and complex – but I like to keep it quite simple! I’m not going to tell you what my objective is, because I don’t want to reveal the end of the show. But essentially, my role is to guide the story. One of the reviewers said I’m the compere – and I think that’s a great way of describing my part in the production.
Without giving too much away, what would you say is your favourite moment or number in the show?
Every time Ryan [Anderson, who plays Pippin] opens his mouth to sing is my favourite moment! Apart from that, I would say the ending. The last scene is probably my favourite moment in the show because…. something happens!!
What advice would you give to those in the industry who are struggling and looking for inspiration during this difficult time?
A couple of things. I would say firstly, I’m very aware I’m speaking from a privileged position because I’m in a production at the moment. And I know there are a lot of people who haven’t even had any auditions let alone work come through at all. But I’d say you’re not alone in this. I was like everyone else – I had two jobs cancelled. Two amazing jobs I was really looking forward to, cancelled. And I had to not think about the things I was missing out on and rather what I could do for myself in the time. Self-development stuff and working hard.
And I think one of the biggest things I learnt in that time was to make sure my work was not my identity. I love my job. But not being able to do your job for seven months, and now the government is saying probably another six month to a year, it can be very, very detrimental to people’s mental health.
I would say find joy in other things. Find joy in family, find joy in hobbies. I recently discovered that I might enjoy painting. I went to this painting thing in a garden – and I wasn’t too bad! So that’s another avenue I’m going to explore. And the writing I mentioned as well, that’s another thing I never actually imagined I would do. So I think take this time to explore other parts of you aside from the performing aspect.
And just be kind to yourself. I mentioned things like gaining weight, eating things that aren’t healthy necessarily. My friends say to me, “Come on, you’re a qualified doctor – you should be promoting a healthy lifestyle.” And yes, but – times are hard! If you want to sit in bed and watch Netflix and eat junk food, I’m not going to judge anyone, because it’s really really hard at the moment.
So just be kind to yourself. If you don’t feel like singing, take some time off. If you don’t feel like going to the gym, that’s OK. Don’t be so hard on yourself. If you only do a few things from your checklist every day, then that’s absolutely fine. If you wake up everyday and you’re spending another day on this earth, that in itself is an achievement.
And lastly, why should audiences see Pippin?
I think audiences should come and see Pippin because we’re in really dark times and it offers escapism. A lot of people are very anxious at the moment and there’s lots of uncertainty. And for me, seeing live theatre is a way for me to forget everything that’s happening in the world. To be able to see and discuss a show – it’s something outside of yourself. And also I it’s just a great story and the cast is unbelievably talented. Every day I feel honoured to share the stage with such talented human beings. And so I think because of them, they should come and see the show!
Pippin at the Garden Theatre until 11 October
Photo credit: Bonnie Brittain