Shelley Maxwell: A 'likkle Jamaican Girl' doing big things abroad

Sunday, August 12, 2018

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One could safely say her future in the performing arts was inevitable. As a child, she spent a lot of time singing and dancing in her grandmother's backyard and staging mini productions in her living room. Jamaican-born director, choreographer and performing artiste Shelley Maxwell believes those cherished moments laid the foundation for her career in theatrical arts.

Maxwell, who now resides in London, shares that her love for theatre began at age five when her mom enrolled her in dancing as an extra-curricular activity at Wolmer's Preparatory School. That love grew over the years, thanks to unflinching support from her mother and “a tribe of people”.

“We say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, that's exactly how I feel about my success. I was nurtured by a village of people who contributed to my journey,” she says.

That village included her first dance teachers, Adrian Fletcher and Barbara McDaniel.

Maxwell's studies continued at Immaculate Conception High, The University of the West Indies, and Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. She also studied at Escuela Nacional de Danza Cuba, and thereafter at Integrated Movement Studies Laban in the United States. After spending some time in the 'Big Apple', Maxwell explains that she returned home to develop work before finally moving to London.

That move, she explains, though initially uncertain, became one of the highlights of her career.

“I had no idea what London held for me. However, having worked on a recent National Theatre production of Nine Night has felt like I have come full circle,” she tells the Jamaica Observer.

She describes that opportunity — working in the National Theatre in London in a play that embodied Jamaican culture and family life — as a surreal experience made even more poignant because she worked alongside two Jamaican drummers.

“I am driven by passion and love for my craft and theatre,” Maxwell says. “It is what makes me happy. It drives me forward.”

She recalls another National Theatre performance during a production of the play Fela.

“I danced and sang my heart out in that audition and was thrilled to be able to work with director, choreographer, Bill T Jones. It was one of those rare occasions when you recognise how important and impactful the story you are telling is and how lucky you are to be a part of it,” she says.

As a movement director, Maxwell has worked with the famed Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), among others.

“My first journey into movement direction was for the Royal Shakespeare Company doing a contemporary version of Hamlet. I remember having a moment of just wanting to pinch myself on the first day. As I stood facing the RSC theatre I remember thinking back to my days in Jamaica studying Hamlet in high school. I remember in that moment feeling a great sense pride that this 'likkle Jamaican girl' was helping to create a masterful production using a majority black cast of actors to create a 'new' Hamlet,” she says.

And later, there was Twelfth Night.

“It was also lovely returning to the National Theatre to work on their production of Twelfth Night, a huge production with a complex set and a lovely cast and creative team. This was the first time my mom got to watch a production I had movement directed. It was wonderful being able to share that with her,” says Maxwell.

Maxwell tells Career & Education that the impact of each finished theatrical performance on its audience is the most rewarding part of her work.

“Whether it promotes a debate, provides healing, entertains or edifies, it makes the work worthwhile. I take great pride in working with a team of people to create something magical,” she says.

This magic of which Maxwell speaks may be the driving force behind her reason for pressing forward.

“I think my life and my job are intertwined,” she reasons, adding: “Movement is my passion and that passion filters into my everyday life.”

Though she has had her share of injuries over the years, one of which she reveals broke her confidence to the point where she took a nearly two-year break from dancing, she has never been able to deny her love for the artform.

“I realised that denying my passion was not in my DNA. Dance is also a psychological battlefield [built on] negotiating ageing in a craft that favours the young, thus keeping your feet firmly rooted in self-belief and in the resilience of self makes all the difference,” she says.

For her, that mindset is manifested in her physical, mental and emotional development.

“Physically, I have what I term a 'learned body'. It may not be as youthful and quick as it once was, but it has lots of knowledge and understanding of how to impart and convey stories in an artful form.

“Mentally, being someone who has made a living professionally away from home, I have a strong sense of independence and focus. There was always a need and drive to make things happen and to not get too weighed down by feelings of isolation or fear of the unknown.

“Emotionally, I have learned to accept many things in life and not question the workings of the universe. I try to keep myself balanced between work life and family life and constantly try to allow time to nurture self,” says Maxwell.

And in a world where women are constantly challenged, Maxwell says that questioning her capabilities is not a topic she entertains since she endeavours to present a clear work focus and an impeccable work ethic. She further explains that being a mom to a young child has made her work challenging, but she has learnt to skilfully balance each aspect, to the point where she now considers herself a “master juggler”.

The has her sights set on widening her career to include film and TV in the future. But for now, she continues to hone her craft away from home, admitting that although she misses her family in Jamaica and “not having a creative voice on the Jamaican theatre scene as I strongly feel that I have stories I'd like to tell on those stages too”, London has provided boundless opportunities both personally and professionally.

To up-and-coming theatre performers, Maxwell advises flexibility, since no two projects are the same. As such, research and contact with individuals in the field are key, lending some level of experience.

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