Tanya Wilson stars as Esther in the NGM musical LUV ESTHER. She spoke at length to Mike Rimmer.
If you didn't know by now, Luv Esther is the new musical presented by the people at New Generation Ministries which is already wowing audiences in the UK. NGM have plans to take it beyond these shores. Tanya Wilson is the front woman for the girl group T-girl but has stepped up to play the lead role of Esther.
In these days of Pop Idol and X Factor, Tanya points out that the Bible tells us that Queen Esther auditioned for her own role in history as well. She says, "It's really funny actually because we take that up in the show. It reminds me of Pop Idol, where you have to go in front of a panel and do an audition and see if you're good enough to get in. It's quite similar to that. I had to audition like everybody else for my part in the musical. At first I actually wasn't even thinking about going for the show. But I remember at one point God telling me to go and audition for it. It's so different to what I've been doing with T-girl and the pop thing, but I went for the audition and I just prayed that God would make it really obvious to me and to the director and producer who were watching it that it was right for me. It was good because God made it really clear straightaway and so I got the part pretty much the same day as I auditioned. So that was really good!"
Now Tanya's put T-girl on hold and will spend the next two years
touring with Luv Esther. She explains, "All of the cast are signed for
two years. Probably because it's so much hard work learning all of it.
It took us nearly a year to learn all the routines and the new
choreography. To tour with new people each year would mean A LOT of
auditions every year."
For the uninitiated, Tanya explains about the musical. "It's a bit like a pop opera; something you'd see in the West End. It's based on the story of Esther in the Bible. It's very up-to-date. It's an old story that has been brought right into the 21st century. It's got singing, dancing, rap, hip-hop, ballads. It's got a West End-standard set, so it's a very cool set - all different levels and moving screens; great lights and video and stuff. It's really amazing and it's something that's going to go on tour for the next two years - in this country in the first year and hopefully in different countries in the second year."
Tanya explains the origins of the production. "God challenged Ray Goudie, the NGM director, to put something across that would pull the church back to being intimate with him and to be called 'for such a time as this' - to make a difference. And one of the other reasons we're doing it is because we want to raise money for the pandemic of AIDS in South Africa. So we're supporting quite a few charities through Luv Esther. Through the performances, we're raising up people to support these charities, which is really exciting."
So what does Tanya think of Esther? She pauses for a second and responds, "Esther is a girl who probably didn't think much of herself. She was a refugee orphan and probably didn't think she was going to achieve much in her life. But she was plucked out of that life and obviously became a queen and saved a whole nation. The whole theme is that we may all think of ourselves as ordinary, normal people, but we can all achieve amazing things through God. We're called to rise up and to achieve these things for Jesus. That's what's so exciting! Esther was just a normal, ordinary person who did amazing things."
Whenever an actor approaches a character, there's a period of deciding how she should be portrayed. Does Tanya relate to Esther's character in the musical? "Well, the thing about Esther is that she wasn't really that scared." Tanya continues, "But I think I would be very scared if I had to risk my life because obviously when she approached the king she could have died. She did that to save her nation and I hope I'd do a similar thing in the same situation! When I got asked to do the role, I knew that I really wanted to prepare myself spiritually with God. I knew God was calling me to be, not one person on stage and a different person in life, but to really get intimate and close with God. So I spent this year really preparing myself for the role as well, which was good."
For a number of years Tanya has had the opportunity to get a great deal of ministry and performance experience with her work with T-girl. But it's a huge leap to go from performing with a pop group to working on a West End style musical. She can obviously sing and dance but can she act? "Well, I wondered if I could do it as well to be honest!" she responds. "We've had a year of training and the director, Murray Watts, has done a lot of stuff with films and different plays and the theatre company Riding Lights and things like that. He spent quite a lot of time developing us in our acting skills. Fortunately I've been able to carry it off. But it definitely has been a real stretch for me, which is good, because I love a challenge. So much of this has been a real challenge. It's been such a big thing and God's just really been there for me and the rest of the cast in this."
Although there were plenty of rumours about what's been happening at NGM HQ in the build up to the launch of the musical, we now get an insight. They've been having their own private acting school! Tanya laughs, "Oh it was really embarrassing because you know at these acting drama school places, you have to do embarrassing things. You have to pretend you're animals and do weird things and make weird noises to lose all your inhibitions. So we went through all of that and hopefully we've come out better people for it! I think the thing with the acting is that you have to go past any insecurities and embarrassment to just kind of go for it. I've been through so many embarrassing situations and been humiliated so much that I feel like I'm a better person for that, a lot more secure and just ready to go for it no matter what. The training's been good for that."
When it comes to this style of production, what some people don't realise is that when it's live action and Tanya is on stage and performing, if anything goes wrong she has to improvise her way around it. She confesses that not everything has run smoothly. She explains, "I remember on the first night, so many things just kept going wrong! People didn't realise it though. There's one scene where I have this massive wedding and I walk down the stairs to the front of the stage, but the train of the dress got caught at the top of the steps so I just couldn't move. So I had to stay there for the whole of the first verse until someone unhooked me and then I just carried on as if normal! So many little things like that happen. Our director, he was always shouting at us, 'Don't corpse!' - which means 'Don't go out of your character! Stay in it! Make something up if you're stuck!' That's really, really difficult to do because I'm the kind of person that just wants to laugh. I have to really control myself and stay in character!"
So, when you see the musical, the best way to see if everything is going to plan is to check whether there's a slight smirk on Tanya's face! Alongside the human element of the production, some of the ideas for staging it are very high tech. Tanya explains, "If you've ever seen the film Minority Report, there's a lot of computer screens where you touch them and this text comes up, amazingly. Well in the show we've got a lot of that. A lot of communications are done through a video screen which is almost like a big massive mobile phone or computer screen. A lot of what we're saying comes up on that through different movements that we do on stage that triggers the screen, which is really cool. But also, we're setting up a text community where people can text us and get more information, after the show.
The text information is about the AIDS crisis in Africa. At the beginning of 2005, Tanya went to visit Sparrow's Rainbow Village in South Africa. The experience was an inspiring one. "It's actually the first AIDS orphanage in the world. That's one of the charities that we're supporting. It's just such an amazing thing and such a privilege to have gone there. But we really hope to raise up people to be either missionaries or to support people and charities and to give money. Our aim is to raise a million pounds over the two years that we are touring. At the end of the show we give people an opportunity to either donate money or to commit to sponsoring people through various charities. So it's really exciting and we hope to make a difference. Getting closer to God has given us more of a compassion for the people that are hurting. We need to make a difference in these people's lives and we're so challenged to do that. Hopefully we'll challenge other people through the show to feel the same about it."
The visit to South Africa was also traumatic for Tanya. She describes what she saw. "In one part of the orphanage there were about 80 little children between two and six, and all of them were HIV positive. They were just so gorgeous! My heart really went out to them and I just wanted to stay there. But I know that wasn't my calling and that God wanted me to come back and to make a difference here. But it just totally opened my eyes. You know in the Bible where it goes on so much about helping the poor, the widows, the orphans? Over here I haven't come across so much of that, but going over there to South Africa I understood what God meant. These are the people you want us to help and to look after and make a difference with.. I'll definitely be going out there again because I really, really want to make a difference in their lives."
One of the ways Tanya is making a difference is through her performance as Esther and the way the musical raises people's awareness of what is happening. Performing for two hours a night is a bit of a stretch compared to the shorter pop shows she's used to giving with her group. "We are all signed up at the gym," she confesses, "and we have to go every week to try and keep our fitness up just so that we can get through these things and stay healthy and well. So it is a long show. It's not long when you're watching it, just when you're doing it. So it's quite tiring!"
When Tanya steps onto stage to perform each night, what is she hoping that the audience will get out of the performance? "I think for me one of the main things is that people will see the heart of it. We hope that people will fall more in love with Jesus through the show. And out of that, they will reach out with compassion for the poor, which we are showing them through the show. I know that through the last few years, in the preparation for Esther in NGM, God has been doing so much in us and calling us to come up close and personal with him. To be intimate with him and to deepen our relationship with him. Hopefully through the show, even though it's about Esther and the king, people will see it's about them and their relationship with God as well. That God is so passionately in love with them. And hopefully they will go away feeling that."The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.