For his most recent role, Shak Gabbidon-Williams has been performing across the UK as Marvin Gaye after being cast in the role for last year’s Motown the Musical tour. After graduating in 2018, Shak booked his first professional role as Seaweed on the UK Tour of Hairspray, and as a child actor, he made his West End debut as Young Simba in Disney’s The Lion King. Shak has now set up The TBH Podcast with fellow actors Michael Jeremiah and Fred Smiley, which can be listened to on their YouTube channel and streaming services. Chatting to Shak recently, he talks about performing as Marvin Gaye on the Motown the Musical tour, playing Seaweed in Hairspray and starting The TBH Podcast.
How was the experience performing as Marvin Gaye on the Motown the Musical tour?
Wild to say the least! To be able to play such a complex man with so many layers took a lot of research and practice. Getting to spend time with some of the creatives involved who know Berry Gordy and the Motown greats on a very personal level really helped to gain an insight to his personality and motivations. In terms of cast, I couldn’t have asked for a better family of people and honestly made friends for life there.
What drew you to audition for the show and how was it getting into character for the first time?
Growing up as a young black performer, the idols you look to are the Michael Jacksons, the Will Smiths, the Marvin Gayes. So, I turned up to my first audition originally up for the role of Smokey Robinson (I think it’s the generic ‘boys audition’ template) but in my head, the only role for me would be Marvin, so I turned up and sang I Heard It Through the Grapevine! I later found out that explicitly showing I wanted to be Marvin and nobody else really helped me gain the role; apparently it was very ‘Marvin-like’. I ended up finding so many similarities with myself and Marvin, as well as a lot of complete parallels. It was honestly an honour to play one of my idols.
What was the production like to tour with?
This question is tricky because as a company we had a great time together in our MoTour bubble. We did however have a few uncomfortable encounters across country that I’ve mentioned before on several platforms. The general experience was great, I think as a company of young, mainly black performers we quickly became a close family and I learned so much about myself on that tour.
Do you have any standout moments from your time with Motown?
Being able to perform in my hometown, Oxford is always a massive highlight. Just being able to go back to your city on stages you performed on as a child and show that the boy from the estate is actually starting to make something out of himself. Hopefully that will help the next kid from the estate and it goes on from there. The main standout moment is meeting my girlfriend and being able to work and tour with her pretty much the entire time.
Can you tell us about playing Seaweed on the UK Tour of Hairspray?
Surreal. I think in the two months we toured I learned more about true stage etiquette and how to carry yourself as an actor than I did in the three years of drama school. You learn to sing, dance and act at a high level for sure, but that extra “you’re in a job now, what next?” WITHOUT the horror stories that some teachers will give you, you don’t get that until you find yourself around a bunch of experienced actors. I really think Hairspray for me was where I learned what it really means to be an actor who takes pride in their work and the power of consistency.
How was it having this as your first professional acting job after training at Guildford School of Acting?
As it was my first job out of drama school, I went into it really wanting to please everybody. Being one of the few young MT actors of colour that I knew of in my city, I’d actually done Hairspray quite a few times, so the actual role itself wasn’t a daunting task; I knew who my version of Seaweed was, due to multiple opportunities I had to fine-tune him. That extra push and fine-tuning from the directors and dance captains was exactly what I needed to get him just right!
What was the music and choreography like to learn?
In terms of music, to me, it was standard procedure because of my experience with the show, if anything it was just slightly more regimented with ensemble numbers which is to be expected when you make the transition from amateur to professional productions. In terms of choreography, I was super excited to work with Drew McOnie, who had been my favourite choreographer from when I went to see In the Heights at King’s Cross for the first of three times. I only got to actually meet him maybe twice and very briefly, but that choreo is always in my head. I love it so much, even when you’re walking off stage after a full show which ends with a fifteen-minute You Can’t Stop the Beat, dripping in sweat in a salmon pink suit, you’re still thinking “How much fun was that??”.
What did you enjoy most about playing Seaweed?
Seaweed was basically me plus a lot of confidence. I couldn’t tell you a thing I didn’t like exploring about this character. Unlike a character like Marvin, you have to start from scratch which is just as exciting as doing the research and becoming a person that really existed. I saw Seaweed as the popular kid everybody wanted to be at school who was good with everybody. A real leader. I do miss it at times! Another massive highlight for me was getting to work with Brenda Edwards who taught me so much. She was an onstage and backstage mum for me and really pushed me to be my best at all times.
What do you remember from your time as Young Simba in The Lion King?
An absolute dream come true. I was born a year after The Lion King film came out and according to my mum I would watch it every day until I was about five, and, to this day, it’s one of my top five films ever. I remember being a superfan when I got there so all the lines I already knew (although I knew them all with an American accent, had to get that out of my system quickly!). I remember how much work and effort had to be put in to get everything right and how The Lion King really installed in my mind the importance of a strong work ethic. I made friends there for life that I still bump into on occasion as they stayed within the industry. Natalie Kassanga was my partner, so we were Young Simba and Young Nala together, and I have so many hilarious memories of Idriss Kargbo and Leah St. Luce, who we found ourselves paired up with a lot of the time backstage.
Whilst training, you played Alonzo in Cats and Hud Johnson in HAIR the Musical, can you say about these?
This is a tricky one for me because at the time I was really happy with how my third year went. When I look back, I certainly have a few questions for the teachers as to why the only role I got was through the fact the role [Hud] had to be black. At the same time, I’m grateful because HAIR was an insane experience to be able to do with your friends. The directors that were brought in – Chrissy Cartwright, Graham Gill and, particularly, Tim Luscombe – really pushed me within the shows. Tim gave me an extra poem he’d put into HAIR to discuss the social gap between White and African Americans at the time, and Graham Gill, to this day, will message me with auditions that he’s suggested me for (unfortunately I’ve been booked, but if you see this, Graham, keep them coming! 😂).
Was there anything that drew you to a theatre career?
The panto. The Oxford Playhouse panto and Stagecoach. I remember watching the panto for the first time and just being blown away. I did the panto for four years in a row as a young child, then did a year of The Lion King, and from then it was pretty much solidified. At this point however, as much as I love the theatre I am finding other avenues that are just as fulfilling with a bit more control over what I do.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I like to make music mostly. I’ve been writing lyrics for a while and I’m working on some stuff I can’t wait to release. I also spend as much time as I can in the gym and when everything is done for the day, my PS4 is always waiting for me to either fire up FIFA or have a Netflix night with my girl.
You’ve started The TBH Podcast with Michael Jeremiah and Fred Smiley, how did this come about?
Well, all three of us have loved podcasts for a while, favourites being Halfcast Podcast by Chuckie Online, Filthy Fellas and the Joe Budden Podcast to name a few. And when the opportunity came to take on something myself, I had to get Fred and Michael involved and we kind of hit the ground running straightaway.
What plans do you have for the podcast?
I think our plan right now is to try to stay consistent and grow our following. I’ve also got a few plans with a separate project that’ll be on YouTube as soon as I can buy some more equipment, so there’s a lot more content to come from me! Also, if you haven’t yet, subscribe to The TBH Podcast and follow us on Twitter (@PodcastTBH) and Instagram (@the_tbh_podcast)!
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