My Study Day at the V and A

I attended the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Les Mis to Matilda: A Celebration of Musical Theatre Study Day to discover my inner stagey selfie. I wasn’t a funny girl, waking up early on a Saturday, but it was totally worth it! Let me take you through the schedule with my ramblings, notes and photos – thanks to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Close your eyes and let the music set you free
Simon Sladen leads a conversation with acclaimed musical theatre actor Scott Davies, who has a long association with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s international hit musical The Phantom of the Opera, having played the iconic role of the Phantom on tour and in the West.

Les Mis to Matilda _low res (1)
Scott Davies and Simon Sladen ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Before he spoke, he sang. Standing in the middle of the lecture theatre with only the piano as his best friend, Scott introduced us to his Phantom and sang The Music of the Night. A haunting, wake-up call to all things Stagey.

Rocked up in his jeans and blazer, Scott looked like an ordinary bloke, far from the Phantom. Like a bend and snap, Scott’s voice suddenly distorted his body into protective curls, hands clutched the air for his musical storm of sound drops and head basked in the spotlight. I would rely on the cliché – it made my hair stand on end – but I had shaved. His performance chilled me out and magically transformed The Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre into a West End stage.

Our applause tapped Scott back from his Phantom dreaming and his imaginary mask slipped away. After receiving a delicious and unexpected performance, I was all ears. Huddled around a small table, he joined Simon to talk the cards of humanity reality within the West End theatre world.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but I haven’t seen The Phantom of the Opera so, believe me when I say, I will go and see the show. I’ve been holding out for a while in hope the opportunity arises (*cough* blogger ticket *cough*) or my parents finally listen to my mummers above the birthday candles. Ticket prices can make the eyes water, but Scott’s enchanting talk watered the seed weed of temptation.

With only 45 minutes to cover his career, Scott discussed his life with honesty and openness. It wasn’t a “me,me,me” session, but gave an interesting insight on how he became the legendary man behind the mask.

Attending the open audition for The Phantom of the Opera at 8am, Scott’s audition number was 485. At 3pm, Scott and fellow auditionees were told to cut down their songs to 15 bars as auditions were overrunning. Desperately wanting to impress the panel, he chose the high notes in If I Loved You from Carousel. At 4.55pm, it was his turn: to be play the Phantom.

After four weeks of intense rehearsals, learning the music and stage points, Scott remembers his first night as the Phantom. Sadly, it was for the wrong reasons. His father passed away in the morning! Biting his tongue to conquer the grief and the nerves, Scott was determined to own his new role.

“Your mind can play lots of tricks” – Scott Davies

Lightening the mood, Scott laughed at the memories of the Phantom of the Opera’s devilish robotic boat (sorry to ruin to the magic). The boat stops, Scott as the Phantom gets out, offers his hand to Christie, but the boat continues to sail, causing the Phantom to chase the boat around the stage. Awkward!

Despite only being on the stage for a grand total of 29 minutes, the pressure of performing on the West End stage as the iconic role is pretty daunting. Using anger, passion and seduction, Scott describes the blood, sweat and tears of “You got to be on it every night”, but it is certainly a dream role for any actor to play.

The Producers
Peter Huntley leads a conversation with director Guy Unsworth and casting agent Jim Arnold CDG, on the joys, trials and tribulations of producing musical theatre shows in the West End.

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Peter Huntley, Guy Unsworth and Jim Arnold CDG ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

A great discussion on how musical theatre survives as a collaborative form. Pumped with adrenaline, it’s maintaining the marketing momentum for musicals which is the hardest practice. Like football, you start in the lower division, dribble through rehearsals, prat around with the ball, bite a few players and then it’s game day…and you’re suddenly scoring for international league. However, the real test is learning how to satisfy everyone on that team.

During the discussion, it was estimated £6.5million is needed to put on a brand new musical. Cue the wails of commercial risk and bangs of closing shutters towards the plague of a newbie with fresh lyrics and script. Theatre owners are risk averse, they simply want to make the money to keep their business alive. Bums on seats please!

Audiences want to see people they know so make way for the star casting debate. Don’t groan! Ask yourselves “Why do stars become famous in the first place?” Because they are likeable? To state the obvious, the ultimate aim is to sell tickets so stars can help sell a show. They attract media exposure – gold dust if you get your show star on the Graham Norton couch!

Knowing the difference between star casting and dream casting is very important, it applies some sense of reasoning before the eye rolling. Dream casting means that the star can act or sing AND has the weight to pull in the punters. Think the perfect people pleaser! Think Imelda Staunton in Gypsy.

Top tips for actors:
– Act through song – the gold dust element of a musical is their storytelling. Fantastic singer? Good for you! But don’t lose focus or lower your priority on the acting skills.
– Have a fourth skill – can you speak or sing in another language? have a party trick? (My party trick is I can fart with my hands! Beat that!)
– Embrace fringe theatre and work your way up – fringe theatre could grant you a very lucky break. Don’t be snobby dobby!

Magical, mischievous, miraculous: Matilda
Matt Wolf leads a conversation with Award-winning actor Bertie Carvel, who originated the role of Miss Trunchbull in the RSC’s sensational production Matilda the Musical.

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Matt Wolf and Bertie Carvel ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bertie Carvel was an intriguing guest, offering plenty of hot and shade to his theatrical “process” for Miss Trunchbull. Chewing on gum, I sensed Bertie was nervous, struggling to catch those fly away words, but expressed his deep thought towards his character.

Working with the children, he was amazed at their sense of play bulldozing the serious dramatic reality of adult actors. The children’s play is their reality so Miss Trunchbull was able to dominate the children in disturbing yet funny ways.

Exploring from the ground up, Bertie enjoyed the experience of working from a “transformation palette”, crafting his Miss Trunchbull’s mannerisms and femininity over three years. He “bounced around the journey of femininity”. Dressing as a woman may scream the horrors of the Panto Dame, but Bertie treated Miss Trunchbull seriously. She deals and delivers “dark stuff” so Bertie believed in her story.

“Trying things on the outside and the feeling you get inside, that’s authenticity. Like choreographers, telling you what to do, but you’re not believing in the unnatural moves. It’s the experience of doing it for yourself, that’s the lesson…” – Bertie Carvel

Briefly touching upon body dysmorphia, Bertie revealed the inner sense of your outer body as he carried around Miss Trunchbull’s weight suit. He admitted this physically intense prep drained and mentally tested him. Carrying around all the prep for the day until showtime, the rehearsals, anxiety and mental focus was the challenging task. However, he wanted to feel like Miss Trunchbull: tall, straight, masculine with a top knot to enable authenticity for the audience to participate and invest in Matilda.

“Amazing to leave a legacy and be written into the DNA of a show. Having a record of work and making memories, that’s you work…” – Bertie Carvel

Big shows, small spaces
Keith Lodwick leads a conversation with stage and costume Soutra Gilmour and Simon Kenny about designing for musical theatre productions big and small -from a site-specific production of Sweeney Todd to Urinetown: the Musical

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Keith Lodwick, Soutra Gilmour and Simon Kenny ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I loved this discussion and don’t want to claim these points as my own so…for the wannabe set designers, here’s my notes:
– Develop a personal aesthetic
– Have the freedom to think about ideas and paint the frame
– Build your model box as it is a great way to establish a dialogue about the space and your mind.
– Your model box encounters every single problem you will make in real life and how to resolve them
– Remember you are responding to the script, but don’t get bogged down
– Develop a shorthand and don’t create vast buildings like on film sets
– Absorb the script on an open level – on a wind level.
– The designer’s job is to allow the set to be vague and open to all possibilities.
– Work out how the directors prefer to work – some are not visual, some are sensational (like Jamie Lloyd)
– Working with directors – it’s all about how much trust, input and control you have
– Never try to be original, only be personal – don’t be clever or wacky
– Try to find a world that’s yours
– Find something you own and discover your voice.
– Sometimes give what the audience expects from a script, but offer designs from a different perspective
– Forget the film/book and reimagine the set for an audience today
– Keep the essence of the script alive
– Remember theatre is the beauty of visual poetry – it’s expressive
– West End theatre has biting commercial pressure to make things work so it requires to make things look expensive (even if they aren’t!)

Life upon the wicked stage
Sophie Reynolds leads a conversation and make-up demonstration with Margie Bailey, Costume Supervisor for Wicked, and Abigail Richards, wig assistant on Wicked.

Sorry! I was simply too distracted to make notes because this happened and I was green with envy…

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Abigail Richards and soon to be Elphaba ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Les Mis to Matilda _low res (21)
Abigail Richards and soon to be Elphaba ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Study Day was a great opportunity to learn all things stagey so a big thank you to all those involved, especially the fantastic performers from the Mountview Theatre Academy! Don’t forget to check out the Curtain Up display at the Victoria and Albert Museum! See what’s all the fuss about here.


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