Ever since graduating from the prestigious Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, Tyrone Huntley has taken the world of musical theatre by storm…
Starring in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre and earning an Olivier Award nomination for his critically acclaimed performance as Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. More recently Tyrone also made his directorial debut with the musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Southwark Playhouse and was nominated for the Ian Charleson Award for his performance as Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
We caught up with Tyrone ahead of Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s upcoming concert for Jesus Christ Superstar – the theatre’s first performance after it had to close according to government regulations – in which Tyrone will reprise his iconic performance as Judas.
Hi Tyrone, how have you found living in lockdown for the last couple of months?
Couple of months? It feels like it’s been years! It has been really difficult. But, thankfully, I’ve been around family the whole time so I feel I’ve had it a lot easier than some.
You’ve been involved in a lot of different fundraisers during lockdown, including performances with co-stars from The Color Purple and a performance of I’ll Cover You with Cedric Neal. Do you believe theatre has particular power as a force for good in society?
I think entertainment, in general, has pretty much been the main source of escapism for everyone during all of this, whether it was tv, radio, music, etc. What was great about the online concerts and showcases I was involved in is that it gave theatre performers (who felt legitimately surplus to requirements) an outlet for their creativity and gave audiences, who were so craving live theatre, something to quench their thirst. It was great to do something a little bit different and help raise a bit of money for charity too.
You studied law … but now you’re an actor, how, or why did you make the transition?
I studied law after I trained in musical theatre. I was performing in a show and felt like I needed a focus outside of work to shake up my routine a little bit. Law was what I was going to do if I didn’t end up going to drama school and so I thought I’d give it a go. I’d study during the day and do the show in the evenings. It was really interesting and I gained a lot of insight into how the world works in terms of law and politics. It also taught me how much I don’t want to be a lawyer so it was really useful in that respect.
Your musical theatre career spans so many iconic shows – Sister Act, Hairspray, Memphis, and Dreamgirls. How have you found negotiating this industry?
So many of the incredible shows I’ve been a part of and roles I’ve played have been related to race. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been given such amazing opportunities but, and I can only speak from my personal interpretation of my experience, I feel certain barriers when it comes to being seen as anything other than a “black actor”. For example, unless the breakdown for the role suggests the character is black or “any ethnicity”, hiring a white actor is par for the course. I hope that one day “white” is not seen as standard.
So, let’s talk about Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert. How does it feel finally being able to return to the theatre?
It’s a relief, to be honest, and everyone involved feels so fortunate. Even now, the future of theatre in the UK is uncertain, and to have at least a few weeks to remind everyone what we’re fighting for when we say ‘Save Theatre‘, is a great thing and so necessary.
Have social distancing guidelines had a significant impact on the way you’ve been working?
It’s been challenging. Health and safety is the theatre’s top priority. if we couldn’t adhere to the regulations, the theatre wouldn’t risk doing the show. Social distancing is strictly enforced and masks are mandatory at all times except in performance.
It’s a very different way of working in an environment where usually everyone is so close and often tactile, but with the knowledge that the entire industry is looking at us to pave the way as it were, we all understand the responsibility we have not to let the rules get in the way of us having a successful run!
You first played Judas at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016 – a performance that saw you get nominated for an Olivier Award. What’s it been like preparing to play Judas again in such a short space of time?
Very hard. I’d said goodbye to Judas three years ago. It is a challenging role in all respects and jumping in with two weeks to prepare is like a resting athlete deciding to run a marathon with the same notice! It’s going to take some time to settle completely but I’m hoping the adrenaline and genuine eagerness to get back on stage will help me through until then!
Aside from your work as an actor, you also made your directorial debut last year with a production of Ain’t Misbehavin at Southwark Playhouse – the first London revival in 25 years. What drew you to directing this musical?
I had no previous experience directing a big-scale musical so what I loved about Ain’t Misbehavin’ is that the piece is essentially a revue celebrating the magnificent musical catalogue of the legendary Fats Waller, and with little to no set plot, there was freedom for us to adapt the material thematically and create a show which played to the strengths of the performers, allowed us to play with intricate choreography and find a narrative that I felt comfortable exploring on my first go.
I recently directed a reading of a play as part of Wildcard Theatre Company’s Full House programme which was entirely different. Shakira Newton’s Things I Can Laugh About Now is a one-woman play which follows a twenty-something woman as she shares her experiences of domestic abuse and mental illness. It was so interesting to learn more about and contextualise these hard-hitting themes for the purpose of a reading and what was brilliant was that this time I had the actual scripted adaptation of the writer’s lived trauma as a strong foundation to work from.
Do you have any other projects or plans on the horizon – will we see you doing any more directing in the future?
I have no plans after JCS. Does anyone? But I’d love to direct more.
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert runs from 14th August to 27th September. Find out more about the show and how to buy tickets here.