The steadily rising profile of multi-talented Ugandan Sheila Atim is hardly anything to be surprised about considering the manner she has been dazzling and impressing in the art world.
Actor, singer, songwriter and player of four instruments, (piano, violin, bass and drums). Sheila who made a remarkable mark in modelling (what with her natural endowments cutting her for the trade; her height, tall limbs and high cheekbones) earlier on before delving into acting also bagged a degree in biomedical-sciences.
According to Sheila, the vastness of her talent all feeds her, the science as much as the art. “I understand that as human beings we like to categorise things, because it’s easier to find a slot that we fit into. But I resisted that – not as an ideological theory, but because I didn’t want to miss out on stuff! I don’t like the segregation [of arts and sciences]. I always rebelled a little bit.”
Sheila who just turned 27 begun her year hitting the ground running with her project ‘Time is Love’; a project Atim has been working on for a long time. Incidentally threw director of the play, Che Walker ran weekend classes at Wac Arts, an inclusive performing arts training centre in Belsize Park, north London, in whose class Atim ended up even though she had initially signed up for music, and which paid off handsomely.
Che Walker who had spotted Sheila Atim’s creative potential, got her to compose music for end of term shows and would in 2013 give Atim her professional debut in his play ‘The Lightning Child at the Globe’.
“He’s a great friend and my mentor,” she says. “Not many people know me as well as he does. And not many people would say ‘yeah go on – write the music and be the sound designer’. That, in turn, emboldens me when stepping into new territory.”
“Che and I created a playlist of references, but they’re all completely different songs – it wasn’t ‘here’s the sound I want’ but ‘here’s the feeling I want’. You’ve got Stan Getz in there, and Kendrick Lamar. One thing we talked about a lot in rehearsals is LA and earthquakes, and the parallels with the rumbling in us as characters – the things bubbling under the surface.”
In ‘Time is Love’, Atim plays Rosa, a Los Angeles lap dancer mixed up in a seedy underworld of love and violence, sex and betrayal. She also composed all the play’s sound and music.
Sheila who says she’s wary of assuming that she’s successful enough not to face prejudice when it comes to casting, won an Olivier award for her performance in Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country last year, leaving the audiences thrilled with her heavenly rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Tight Connection to My Heart”; she got thumbs up as Limehouse Nell in ITV’s Harlots; and was very impressive as Emilia opposite Mark Rylance’s Iago in Othello at the Globe.
Diversity of the British theatre has been slow but last year with a wealth of hit plays by black artists, and several key artistic director roles going to people of colour, it really does feel like that diversity has finally come, heralding the genesis of a greater and better British Theatre, even though Atim is not so sure.
“I think in some areas the change is genuine; I think in some areas people are scared of not being on the right side of history, but are not actually trying to understand what it means fundamentally and why it’s important. They’re just scared of backlash. And that isn’t helpful for us.”
“We know that when you create a more diverse working environment everyone benefits from that. The people doing the excluding may think that they are making a personal gain for themselves but they’re not,” she points out. “They are robbing themselves – they just don’t realise it.”
Sheila Atim was born in Uganda and raised by her mother. Her mother moved with her to the UK when Atom was 5 years old. She struggled to ensure her daughter got the best she could muster, supporting her daughter’s creative pursuits.
“She was the one paying for my piano lessons, coming to school shows. I’m much more subdued and boring now, but I was a little performer as a child – it was very clearly there.” Atim avers.
According to Atom, her mother, “who worked bloody hard” and became a commissioner for the NHS, was a bit sceptical about her success in her chosen career in the arts: “She was just worried in the way a parent, especially a woman, coming from Uganda would.
Atim’s songwriting has been heavily influenced by Bob Dylan; one of the greatest songwriters of all time, which she credits Atim credits her immersion into, with giving her own work a step up.