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Theatre company director shares his journey to success

MAKING WAVES: Paul Anthony Morris says he has created a new ‘style’ of theatre

"AS A young child growing up in Brixton, my first ever role model was Muhammad Ali. His charisma and brilliance lit-up my household, school playground, local barbers, market stalls, churches and streets with his poetic agility, unprecedented talent in the boxing ring and truculence in the face of a hostile and repressive American society.

"My next role models were the sensational Nicholas Brothers, whose breathtaking tap dance routines included back flips, somersaults, side splits and box splits down curvaceous railings and staircases, up pillars and walls, across bars and pianos and from underneath tables and chairs. The Nicholas Brothers oozed style, and their routines were unforgettably brilliant. The first time I saw them in the film Stormy Weather, I instantly wanted a career in the arts as a tap dancer.

"But, I was frustrated in my desire, having no place to attend and learn how to become like my heroes.

"Then, destiny stepped in and kept my dream afloat. While accompanying my cousin to her admissions interview for her new school, I could hear from the school waiting room tap dancing echoing from the end of a long narrow corridor.

"The journey down the paper-thin walls of the corridor brought me to a hall flooded with light on one side where the children were in the middle of a tap dance routine, with sparks seemingly flying from their toes
and heels.


COMING SOON: George Eggay as Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Paul Anthony Morris' latest production (image credit: Kim Hardy)

"Suffice to say, the following day I was lining-up with my cousin in my first ever uniform at my brand new school at nine years old.

"Barbara Speake Stage School exposed me to a whole new world that I never knew existed for children. At the school, we were taught tap dancing, modern dance, ballet, acting, singing and modelling for catalogues. But the most exciting part of going to the school was the opportunity to appear on TV, just like the Nicholas Brothers and Muhammad Ali.

"However, after learning how to tap dance, the desire to be a tap dancer soon faded, primarily because of the difficulty of trying to master the flexibility to do the splits, but also because of the emergence of a new role model – the enigmatic and mercurial Prince of Hollywood, Sidney Poitier.

"After seeing In the Heat of the Night, I was determined to act just like Sidney Poitier in whatever acting opportunities would come my way at stage school. I studied Poitier keenly and embodied his trademark intensity and stillness.

TRAVELLED

"My ensuing roles as a child actor in dramas such as Kids, Striker and Horse Called Jester, were wonderful opportunities to imitate the ingenious Poitier style which travelled with me right the way through my career as an adult actor in such plays such as Woza Albert, Equaino, Things Past and The Guise which won an Edinburgh First Fringe Award.

"After a number of years working on the stage, a new quartet joined my artistic pantheon.

"Spike Lee exploded on the scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s along with Robert Townsend, Julie Dash and Ousmane Sembene. But it was Lee’s entrepreneurial values and guerrilla filmmaking, producing, writing, directing, editing, publishing, and merchandising which captured my imagination and set the course of my present career. Spike’s success led to a foray in the film industry with Artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah and filmmaker Rodney Charles.

"Our collaborations as writers, directors and producers resulted in Charles’s award-winning film Once Upon a Time which was screened by the BBC and scheduled in film festivals all over the world.

"The shift to create original work, rather than to perform, as a writer, director and producer, accelerated the creation of my theatre company Crying in the Wilderness Productions, along with a new theatrical style which I’ve coined Theatre of the Soul, combining drama, music, stylised movement, poetry, film and dance to animate my narratives. This multi-disciplinary approach to my theatrical work has resulted in awards, published plays and invitations to write and direct abroad.

"My latest production, Invisible Man for the Certain Blacks Harlem festival is an adaptation of Ralph Ellison’s blistering and seminal novel which goes far beyond telling the story of a marginalised individual, but of a shared human condition that speaks directly to our time. This particular production, featuring George Eggay as the Invisible Man, the Byron Wallen jazz quartet and choreography by Complicite associate Shane Shambhu, seems to have brought me full circle by drawing upon all of the essential qualities of my role models whose excellence lit-up my passion to engage with the arts as a vocation and also maps out where my current work as an artist has emerged from, and the importance of celebrating this legacy."

Invisible Man and the rest of the Certain Black: Harlem programme is taking place at Rich Mix, 35-47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA (telephone number: 020 7613 7498). For more information on the venue, visit: richmix.org.uk. For more information on Certain Blacks, visit: richmix.org.uk/festivals/certainblacks-harlem-festival

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