Interview: 'The Play Really Explores the Idea of Identity': Actor Giles Terera on Energy, Bravery and Music in PASSING STRANGE

'I hope people feel nourished enough to be able to face their own mountains in their own lives with a bit more bravery'

By: May. 22, 2024
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Interview: 'The Play Really Explores the Idea of Identity': Actor Giles Terera on Energy, Bravery and Music in PASSING STRANGE
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Passing Strange, the Tony Award-winning rock musical by Stew, is currently making its European premiere at the Young Vic. The show tells the story of a young man in the 1980s who travels the world to find himself, going from his home of Los Angeles to the punk rock realms of Amsterdam and Berlin. 

Recently, we had the chance to chat with Giles Terera, who plays the role of the Narrator in Passing Strange. We discussed what made him want to be involved in the production, how the rehearsal process went and what it was like working on two shows at once!

For those unfamiliar with Passing Strange, can you tell us a bit about it?

The show is written by a great singer-songwriter called Stew, and it was written a few years ago in America - it's never been done here. It's semi-autobiographical about his life growing up as a middle-class, African American, young man in LA and having a need to leave and go out and find himself. And so he does that! He leaves America and goes to Europe. So the story is about this exciting odyssey where he takes his guitar and goes off and meets lots of artists and creatives, lives in Amsterdam, lives in Berlin. This is all in the 80s and it's a coming-of-age story about his journey to find himself spiritually and artistically. 

So as the Narrator, you're telling the story of this man. 

Yes, I tell the story. And there's a younger version of me. He starts in the Baptist Church and then when he starts to find his feet, he is drawn to rock and punk rock, so that's the form that he uses when he gets to express himself. So we've got a band on stage so that the whole show is part-gig, part-theatre -  it's a great combination of the two things. So I narrate the story. It's my journey, basically.

And what made you want to be a part of this production?

I wasn't really aware of the show! I was aware that it’d happened, but I didn't know the show very well. A friend of mine told me it was happening, and he thought I’d be in it! At that point, I didn't know about it. I didn't know it was happening here at the Young Vic. There's a movie version of the original Broadway production, and as soon as I watched it, I thought, “I really connect to many parts of the story.” As a young person, as an artist, it mirrored a lot of things that I've experienced in my life. So even though I wasn't necessarily looking to do a musical at that point, I read it, and I thought, “Oh, this is something I would like to explore.”

And then I met with Liesl [Tommy], who’s the director, and we got on very well. I really liked how she described and spoke about the piece. Like all things, it was quite scary in a way. That's always the attractive thing, that, “Okay, what is this thing? How would I do it? Would I be able to do it?” and that balanced with the initial impulse of going, “There's something within this story. I'd like to be in that world.” If those two things are present for me, then that's usually a good sign. So that's really what made me want to do it. Also, the fact that it's written by an African American, but it takes place in Europe. I've done quite a lot of American stories recently, but I like the fact that this takes place in Europe. I was fascinated by the richness with which Stew explores the subject matter of being a black person in an essentially white world. He explores it in a really smart, funny, rich, intelligent way. A non-obvious way, which I found really exciting - I’d never heard it explored in that kind of way before. 

Passing Strange
Giles Terera
Photo Credit: Charles Flint

What is it like being a part of the European premiere of the show?

It's cool! The further on I go in my career, the more important it is for me to work with the right kinds of energies in the room. You can never really tell how that's gonna work out, but in this particular instance, it’s really good. We've got a really good group of people. It's very fun. I opened a play at the Menier Chocolate Factory [Power of Sail] and then we started rehearsing here at the Young Vic straight away, so I've been doing both!

What has that been like?

It's been pretty tough! [Laughs] I did it last year at the National as well. I did two plays at the National but they were both in the same building. So at least there was some kind of plan! It was really good to do that. And then this is two completely different productions.

Thankfully, the play I'm doing at the Chocolate Factory is just down the road, so it's actually been really good fun. Pretty exhausting, but like I say, the energy in the room is very good. Liesl has been great, the theatre has been very good with making sure that I get the time that I need to rest and I don't completely destroy myself. But to answer your question, it's cool, because the play is about identity, amongst other things, and that particular idea is very present at the moment in all kinds of ways. The play really explores the idea of identity and who we are as people, whether it be something that we determine ourselves, or whether it's what society tries to identify as, or our communities try to identify us as. There's a lot there.

And Stew tells the story in such a brilliant way that, like all good storytellers and playwrights, he doesn't necessarily tell the audience what to think. He presents the characters, he presents their situations and how they behave in those particular situations and then allows the audience space to determine how they feel about that or how they would react or act in that situation. There's gonna be a lot for an audience to get from the evening, as well as it being really high-energy - there's some great songs in it! The band is great. There's a lot of energy but behind that, there's a lot to think about and chew over.

What has the rehearsal process been like for Passing Strange?

The rehearsal process has been great! We've had the band in the room from the beginning. The band is present, so you have to do it that way. We've had the band in for pretty much all of the rehearsals and we've been mic’d up and amplified. So all that stuff that we would normally do in tech, we've been able to do in the room, which has been really cool. There's no other way of doing it - it’s sung-through. There are scenes in it, but it's underscored as well.

It very much helps if you can have all the ingredients present. And then we just start to chip away, piece by piece, scene by scene, song by song. We spent a few days learning the score and then we just jumped in! I'm glad we did it that way because it allows you to build up your stamina. And for me, I'm on stage the whole time, so I needed to be as familiar with my text and the music and the material as possible so that I could play in rehearsals. So it's been fun! It's a difficult ask because, as I say, you have all the ingredients at the same time, you just have to do it. You can't sit around going, “Well, this is the music and then this is the movement” - you have to just do the whole thing. So that's been demanding but at the same time, it's been great fun. I've had a good time so far!

Do you have any favourite songs either to perform or listen to in the show? 

It changes! There's a song called “Work the Wound” which happens at the end of the show. By the time we get to that point, you understand what the song means personally to the character, but then he explores the cost of the artist, to be an artist and go after your passion and your dreams. At what cost does that come? Stew writes it in a really beautiful way. So that's probably my favourite song of the moment, but it changes! There’s some beautiful songs in it.

Passing Strange
Giles Terera
Photo Credit: Charles Flint

What do you hope audiences take away from Passing Strange?

Like most things, I hope people go away thinking and feeling how the story might apply to their own lives. Like all good theatre, when you can see that someone has been through what you've been through. It doesn't necessarily tell you what to do, but somehow, you feel that you are able to make a decision.

You are able to be active and have agency in your own life. So as well as enjoying the music and Stew’s amazing score and great songs, I hope people feel nourished enough to be able to face their own mountains in their own lives with a bit more bravery. That’s what it’s done for me. When you can see that someone's walked the path that you’re still on, it's very encouraging and inspiring to know that you're not alone in this journey, especially now.

And finally, how would you describe Passing Strange in one word?


Passing Strange runs until 6 July at the Young Vic.


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