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In Conversation with Actress Shawna Hamic: "I Want to Bring Who I Am to this Iconic Character."

As part of our Performer’s Corner series, Orange is the New Black's Shawna Hamic talks starring as Ursula in the upcoming musical 'Unfortunate,' her acting experiences on stage and screen, and Christmas time in London.



We’ve seen many childhood classics revised in 2023, from Barbie’s gender theory à la Gerwig to the angelic vocals of Halle Bailey in Disney’s live action The Little Mermaid. And while we're under the sea, we can pay a visit to Shawna Hamic, star of Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula The Sea Witch. The play, opening this December at Southwark Playhouse Elephant, reimagines the tale of another queen of the seas - though be warned, this sassy musical requires you to leave the kids at home.


‘Fun, fishy and fabulous’ is how lead actress, Hamic, would describe this queer musical reimagining of the sea witch’s story. Hamic explains that Unfortunate presents “Ursula’s backstory” with all the gossip we’ve only “dreamed of learning, showing how and why she became the ‘villain’ we know her to be.” Sure, it shares “familiar aspects” to the Disney classic, but ultimately this is Ursula’s time to ‘sha-la-la-la’ her way through her juicy deep sea secrets.


Already boasting an impressive career across stage and screen, Hamic admits she has “ALWAYS dreamed” of playing Ursula. “She’s been on my dream role list for a very long time.” What makes this rendition, penned by Robyn Grant and Daniel Foxx, extra special for Hamic is the chance to take up this dream role in a play that allows Ursula’s fabulous voice to take centre stage. It is a “story ABOUT her,” aided by Tim Gilvin’s diva-inspired pop soundtrack and a boat-load of scandalous humour splashed throughout.


Turning the tide on Ursula’s narrative, the musical is deeply inspired by the “iconic” performances that have come before. Playing with gender and offering an ode to a vibrant history of drag artistry, Ariel will be played by River Medway, of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK Series 3 stardom. Hamic also draws inspiration from the previous performers who have commanded stage and screen as the flamboyant sea witch; “Pat Carroll is the true OG, ultimate Ursula” for Hamic. Hamic explains the negotiation between drawing on previous portrayals and wanting to approach Ursula with a fresh lens, incorporating “hints of Carroll’s version in my voice” yet “really also making her mine. I want to bring who I am to this iconic character while still honouring the Ursula so many grew up loving.


This opportunity to experiment is exactly what drew Hamic to Unfortunate, as the new parody musical is fresh from a sell-out run at 2022’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Hamic notes that “being a part of a new show” comes with a unique set of challenges, but this constant adaptability is equally rewarding. “There are lots of changes that can happen, but it also feels exciting because you can hopefully help shape and build a show as it moves along its journey. The previous versions have been wonderful. I hope my addition can continue that trend and make it even better.”


“Getting into character is always a fun task” for Hamic, yet you may be surprised to learn this is her first leading role in a musical. Despite having taken on scene-stealing roles like Madame Thénardier in the US Tour of Les Misérables, Hamic confesses that stepping into the lead “brings a bit of pressure. Add in moving to a new country away from friends and family and that adds a bit more pressure.” Even so, Hamic’s passion for the project leaves her overridingly “excited to be doing it.”

Shawna Hamic in the promotional artwork for 'Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula The Sea Witch.'

Intriguingly, Hamic has realised that Ursula’s iconic figure offers a fascinating new avenue for her acting. “This character is so informed by her tentacles and her overall look. She’s iconic for a reason. So I’m having fun exploring how she moves and her voice.” This new approach to expression, only made possible by the deep-sea nature of this character endeavour, is “a process, but an exciting one.”


The camera lens has been equally important in Hamic’s career; she’s featured in TV series such as Orange Is The New Black,The Time Traveller’s Wife and Russian Doll, as well as being an avid photographer herself. From these experiences, Hamic has realised she “loves both modes of acting,” yet offers some important differences to consider in approaching each. She explains, “while working in TV you don’t ever have to worry about moving lines and staging into your long term memory. You shoot the scenes one day and you move on to a different scene or location the next. You rarely go back after it has been shot. On stage you take the character’s complete journey every single show.”


Whilst the stage may therefore appear, at first, to demand a more intense emotional acting style, Hamic suggests there are nuances to both performance modes. “You have to learn how to gauge your energy levels. On camera everything is so much more internal. The camera can practically see your thoughts.” Expression is therefore approached differently in theatre, as “on stage more has to be shown to the audience.” Considering the beauty in both modes, Hamic concludes that “both are lovely to express.”


In touching on how her experience as a photographer impacts her acting, Hamic admits that photography is at its core one of her deepest passions, which naturally informs her work. In a beautiful description, one I’m sure many creatives can relate to, Hamic describes how she has "always taken ‘photos’ in my brain in everyday life.” She has “always noticed the way a beam of light can change an autumn leaf to a piece of stained glass. And as an actor I am always aware of light. The art of photography is the balance of light and shadow. I feel much the same way about acting. The balance of it all. The light and dark within the characters and how no one is fully light nor fully dark. It’s all about balance.” It’s a sentiment that can be applied universally, but which seems deeply fitting to the emotional nuances required for performing a queer comedic version of a classic sea villain.


From working across mediums to now working across seas, Hamic has traded the brownstone and neon lights of New York for London's big smoke. “I’ve always wanted a reason that would bring me to live here. Now here I am!” On adapting to British culture, Hamic mentions that within her first day here she headed to Nottingham to see Wrexham Red Dragons win a match, and that her love for “riding trains'' makes her all the more “excited to explore every city” she visits on the upcoming UK tour of Unfortunate.


At the time of our conversation, Hamic is only three weeks into living in London and claims her “expectations are high.” She has “heard London’s the best place to experience the Holiday season.” Whilst the cynical Brit within me wants to warn her of the downgrade Winter Wonderland will be from Hamic’s favourite New York Christmas traditions - including “Rockefeller Christmas Tree and the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall” - I can’t deny that there is always a magic, almost Dickensian spirit in the London air each winter. The giant bells and baubles in Covent Garden bring out everyone’s inner child. So here’s to wishing that Hamic’s London Christmas will be more The Holiday than overpriced market hot-dogs.


Dive into the depths of Ursula’s devious and dazzling story this December. More information and tickets for ‘Unfortunate: The Untold Story of Ursula The Sea Witch’ at Southwark Playhouse Elephant & Castle can be found here.


 

With thanks to Shawna Hamic.


Written and edited by Georgia Gibson, Theatre Editor and creator of the Performer’s Corner and Backstage Spotlight series.

If you are a press member, performer, or someone who works in theatre and you are interested in getting involved with this series, please contact Georgia at theatre@strandmagazine.co.uk.



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