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“Arts and culture transforms my ability to understand myself and others” – a dazzling theatre Q&A

Q&A with Yamin Choudhury and Stephenson Ardern-Sodje

We were delighted to be joined by Yamin Choudhury and Stephen Ardern-Sodje for this week’s Thursday Thoughts on theatre!

Yamin is Artistic Director of Hackney Empire, a renowned theatre that has seen a score of talent come through its doors over its one-hundred-and-twenty-year history. Yamin first joined the Empire in 2003 and has a background of work in inclusive theatre spaces such as the Haringey Shed and the International Village in Australia and China. An award-winning arts practitioner, he has been instrumental in catalysing the careers of the next generation of talent with his Creative Futures programme. The programme encourages young artists to immerse themselves in the world of theatre and build their skills and confidence, regardless of their ability or background. We love his work!

Stephenson has dazzled on stage in Hamilton, playing no less than four roles, including the lead, Alexander Hamilton. After studying English and Creative Writing at Brunel, he gained an internship at Green Door Pictures through Creative Access in 2015. Stephenson then decided to take a chance and audition for Hamilton. Despite having no experience on the stage, he impressed them so much that they funded a Master’s in musical theatre. Stephenson later re-auditioned and made his West End debut a year later.

Both of our speakers had incredible stories to share on their journeys into theatre. Stephenson kicked things off by asking Yamin what exactly being an Artistic Director entails. After joking that most Artist Directors like to “mystify the job”, Yamin explained that his role at Hackney Empire “involves a lot of people management, a lot of planning and administration, a lot of meetings, and a lot of trying to identify opportunity, artistically and professionally”.

While the position might sound more business orientated, Yamin’s passion for theatre began from a love of the stage. He was first introduced to Hackney Empire when going through a “very difficult period in my life, I was lost, I was isolated”. However, when he encountered performances on the Empire’s stage, he was blown away by the range of performances on offer: “As soon as I was introduced to theatre at 18, it was like a drug. I couldn’t imagine life without it”.

“As soon as I was introduced to theatre at 18, it was like a drug. I couldn’t imagine life without it”

Yamin was inspired to pursue a career in theatre before eventually returning to the Empire. He emphasised “there’s literally nothing I wouldn’t do for this organisation, because it saved me. Arts and culture transforms my ability to understand myself and others, and if it can do that for me it can do that for everybody.” Stephenson agreed on the powerful impact theatre can have: “When theatre’s at its best, it feels like nothing else.”

Addressing a question from an attendee who asked, “How do you overcome imposter syndrome?” Yamin answered, “I haven’t … In the spaces I enter, looking the way I do, speaking the way I do, you are the odd one out.” However, he acknowledged that not everybody feels it. Referencing Sharmaine Lovegrove, Yamin explained “she doesn’t suffer from it at all, because her sense of value and self is so strong that it goes above her head. That’s what I aspire to be.” Stephenson also encouraged surrounding yourselves with people “whose opinions you value … When I’m worried about not being worthy of something, having other people understand that feeling can help you realise you’re not alone in it.”

When discussing taking chances in the industry, Stephenson also stressed:

“Don’t ever let the first no come from you”

“What is stopping you really? You know you want it, so try and make it happen.” He encouraged attendees to not let having the right experience or qualifications hold them back; the first step in achieving your goals is allowing yourself to pursue those dreams.

Finally, in the Q&A, when asked what changes we might expect in theatre, Yamin and Stephenson looked towards the changes that might shape the stage. While Yamin acknowledged the uncertainty in the industry, he encouraged creatives to take this as an opportunity to spark change:

“Covid-19 has proved that innovators will thrive. Revolutionise. Be cutting edge. Be exciting. Reframe models of success. Don’t wait for the establishment to do so.”

“Covid-19 has proved that innovators will thrive. Revolutionise. Be cutting edge. Be exciting. Reframe models of success. Don’t wait for the establishment to do so.”

A huge thanks to Yamin and Stephenson for their thoughtful, moving and inspirational words. You can watch the session in full here