Interview With…. Suzanne Ahmet

We chatted to Suzanne about starring in Marvellous at the new theatre @Sohoplace.

(c)Craig Sugden

Hi Suzanne – what can audiences expect from Marvellous? Hello! Thank you for inviting me to chat. Audiences can expect to be immersed in Neil Baldwin’s unique and exquisite life story – one which sees him overcome personal challenges and outside adversity; shines a light on countless stories of community spirit; Neil’s unfaltering positive attitude and the way it has impacted many people’s lives, for the better. Theresa Heskins’ playscript and direction, is as faithful to Neil’s own words and descriptions of his life, as possible.
As an ensemble, we work inclusively: with trust, and an abundance of playfulness and generosity – both onstage, backstage and among the wider creative team. These values allow us to tell Neil’s story with the investment, clarity, and love it richly deserves.

What stood out for you when you first read the script? We had an early stages development week in January 2019. Theresa had already spent meaningful time interviewing Neil and written several scenes, including his parents, Mary Yates and Harry Baldwin meeting, journeying into marriage and Neil’s early childhood. Honestly, once I’d read their encounters, along with the beautifully detailed footnotes, which then led to a wealth of historic context – I was completely hooked. Relationships are often what both audiences and creative teams long to feel close to – so the fact that these scenes were already layered and truthful, allowed me to feel close to Neil and his exceptional story. The unaffected way both Neil and the wonderful Potteries community interact with and support one another, is humbling and moving. Another strand that was already present in the early drafts of the
script. With Neil in the room, that first development week allowed us to talk with him directly, hear his memories and then ask him to guide us through improvised scenes depicting key moments in his life. I’ve never had such a privileged experience. To be in that room was very special.

How does it feel to be part of the opening production for @sohoplace? I’m speechless. It is an honour. Pure and simple. We are so lucky and so grateful to be part of another, once in a lifetime moment – and who is at the heart of it all? – of course, it’s Neil. The @sohoplace team have come to visit us several times, at The New Vic. They have all been so
warm and generous, which has made me feel that I am in safe, supportive hands. We are excited to transfer to a new and very different space. We’re aware that acoustics and
therefore dynamics will shift and change, both on stage and with our treasured audiences. This is a dream come true. To be stretched and developed so meaningfully in your profession is what makes one feel enriched, scared (in the best possible way), and open to being developed. This really is a special contract. I pinch myself every day to make sure I’m not dreaming!

It’s never an easy task to bring a real life personality to the stage and add a dramatic slant to their story – how does it feel for you? It’s a brilliant and breath-taking responsibility. And one that I feel honoured to be part of. The exceptional Michael Hugo is our precious conduit to Neil Baldwin. I have worked with Michael since 2013, and I am moved, every single performance, by the level of intuition, detail, investment, and deep consideration he has brought to his portrayal of Neil. Around our “Real Neil”, Theresa Heskins has invited an exceptional group of actors – who again have invested heart and soul into their portrayals of Neil’s community and personal stories. I watch my cast-mates in warmups and on stage and am consistently awed by their sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and exquisite ingenuity. The skills and experience shared are second to none.

Theresa, our director, has planted a very important seed at the heart of this work: that we are as faithful to Neil and his telling of his story as we can possibly be. From this, we grow roots, branches, and personal investments, as we live in his world.

Playing Neil’s dear and extraordinary Mother, “Mary”, is a gift. And I have never been given such a gift. It is a rare and cherished opportunity, exploring the different stages of Mary’s life.From living and working in a munitions factory in WW11, to marriage, motherhood and defying labelling of her child in 1940s Staffordshire; insisting that Neil is given an education and equipping him to both dream and learn life skills, with the ultimate goal of making her son independent.

As I’ve followed Mary’s responses to Neil’s fearless experiences with the world, I’ve noticed a pattern, which I’ve tried to apply to each of her moments with Neil: “Worry, Watch, Admire”. She of course questions who is influencing Neil, but rather than lock the front door, she steps into Neil’s world, asks questions, offers him tools but at the same time deeply admires her son’s ambitions and ability to realise his dreams. Neil opens Mary’s world as much as she allows and supports his dreams. She is incredible.

How have you found being involved with the production so far? It has fundamentally changed and developed me on both a personal and professional level. We are an inclusive company in the fullest sense of the word. We are a team which includes both neuro and gender-diverse actors, as well as members of our wider creative team with lived experiences of neurodiversity.

This is the first time I have ever worked closely and consistently with neuro and gender diversity. We have built a room where difficult questions are pondered and debated. We took time to set out our values as a company: including keeping one another safe, honouring boundaries and allowing space to learn each other, as well as the play. While it has been deeply humbling to begin understanding the complexities of our team, it has also been important to allow myself to feel challenged, as well as exhilarated by the experience.

Company members have been so beautifully open and generous in sharing their personal experiences. Another rare gift – to be inside that sphere, learning, feeling and evaluating.
But at the same time, I’ve needed to allow myself to feel moments of overwhelm.

It has been important to voice the latter in a safe, private space – as we can think quietly together about how to make the workspace inclusive in every sense of the word. Both for those of us who are diverse and those who are typical. Caroline Wilkes, our Associate Director, has been instrumental in making this space and these discussions available to us all. Her support and expertise have been fundamental to the entire process.

What has ensued is a dynamic, resilient, robust, and therefore sparking team of creatives who I deeply admire and am grateful for. These relationships are not surface. They grow roots and continue to develop and nourish as we journey together. By my colleagues speaking so openly and eloquently about their complexities, it has allowed me to look at and in fact, feel my own. Which means, being oneself – which ultimately means living a fuller, richer and more vulnerable work and personal life. I think I’m happier than I’ve ever been – not because everything is right, but because I’m not covering up. That courage has come from this process, this team and this remarkable story – led by our one and only Neil “Nello” Baldwin.

By Emma Clarendon

Marvellous continues to play @Sohoplace until the 26th November. Book your tickets here.

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