YORK Stage Musicals are to present The Hunchback Of Notre Dame in…2022.
“Theatres may be closed at the moment but that does not stop us planning for the future,” says artistic director Nik Briggs.
“We are honoured to be producing The Hunchback Of Notre Dame at the Grand Opera House in Autumn 2022. With lyrics by Wicked’s Stephen Schwartz and music by Aladdin’s Alan Menken, this is a very exciting project for us indeed.
“It was one where we were approached by the rights holders, like with Shrek The Musical. We love that because we’re not in the rat race to get it, and it’s nice they value the work we do, especially with Disney, who have very strict regulations.”
The York Stage diary for 2021 is taking shape with Shrek The Musical confirmed for a return to the Grand Opera House next spring, over the Easter holidays, and rights secured for Elf next winter.
More shows are being lined up too, not least a new work from Alex Weatherhill, who starred as Bernadette in York Stage Musicals’ production of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert, The Musical, in September 2017.
“Alex came to see us in Tim Firth’s The Flint Street Nativity and Steel Magnolias and said he wanted to do something for us, and we’re delighted as he writes the summer show at the Bridlington Spa,” says Nik.
Shrek The Musical will bring York Stage full circle, being the last show the company staged at the Grand Opera House before the Coronavirus pandemic shut down theatres and the first to be mounted by YSM once the Cumberland Street theatre re-opens.
As for The Hunchback Of Notre Dame, Nik says: “It’s a show we’ve always wanted to look at doing because it’s never been done in the West End, only in America, so it will be nice to bring it to York.”
Indeed it will but, after his tour de force as Shrek in Shrek The Musical last September, will Nik be playing the Hunchback? “Definitely not,” he insists. That Autumn 2022 slot still leaves plenty of time to change his mind, however.
“FINALLYYYY the day has come that I can say this… I got into drama school!!!!!” So read Louise Henry’s ecstatic Facebook announcement that she has been accepted for the fast-track diploma course at the Musical Theatre Academy (MTA), in London, from October.
Louise, you may recall, made her professional debut in December as “York’s very own” Louise Henry – in reality from Knaresborough – playing Snow White in Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs at the Grand Opera House, York. From 30 auditionees, she had landed the part while working at the Hoxton North café bar in Royal Parade, Harrogate,
In the midst of the Covid-19 lockdown, she secured her MTA place through a Zoom audition – “how bizarre,” she says – and now comes the challenge of raising the finance for her two years of musical theatre studies in Tottenham Green.
“Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood are centred around shows and performing, the earliest being chosen to play Whoops A Daisy Angel in Year 1 – a role I played with absolute conviction, I’ll have you know.
“If I were to ask you what your wildest dream was, beyond all imagination, what would you say? Genuinely, what would it be? Mine would be to perform for a living. My heart is so happy on stage.”
Now, the bad news. “To attend this phenomenal school and receive the training I have long yearned for, I must fund the £32,000 fees with no government funding,” she revealed on Facebook.
“The MTA is not linked with a university and therefore I cannot apply for a student loan in the same way other courses can. Yes. I know. BUT, and humour me here, if every one of my 1,481 Facebook Friends generously donated £20 (or £21.70 to be precise), I would make the amount in full.”
Louise understands that such a proposal is “wishful thinking on my part”, but her Facebook post added: “However, if, by chance of incredible generosity, half, a third, or even a quarter, of said friends donated anything possible, I would be in a much more promising position to be able to attend this school.
“If people kindly donated even £1, I’m £1 closer! If you could share it to reach your friends and family further afield, my chances are immediately increased.”
CharlesHutchPress is delighted to spread the word, having enjoyed Louise’s performances in such York Stage Musicals roles as 16-year-old Liesl von Trapp in The Sound Of Music and 40-year-old Jane in Twilight Robbery, as well as a young Australian woman, Gabrielle York, in Rigmarole Theatre Company’s When The Rain Stops Falling last November.
Since then, there have been her dark-wigged Princess Snow White in pantoland and her latest York Stage outing as plucky, resolute but physically fragile Louisiana bride-to-be Shelby in Steel Magnolias in February.
“We are living in such strange, difficult times,” her Facebook open letter continued. “Everything is uncertain for everyone I know and the world is suffering every day. I’m hoping, by this point in the post, that you can appreciate that I simply have to continue as if we aren’t in the middle of a global pandemic.
“Please believe me, I wish I wasn’t asking for help at a time like this. I understand and agree that there are far more worthy and important causes but I feel I have to consider the potential of my future career.
“Of course, I have spent every minute since I received my offer considering how I could logistically, carefully and respectfully raise money under the current circumstances. But making sure I abide by the Government’s restrictions is leaving me with little I can offer by way of help in exchange.
“Saying this, if there really is anything – walking dogs with my gloves on, helping in the garden, an online singalong or bedtime story for your children – I will help in any way I can! Equally, if you have any suggestions, please send them my way! Once these restrictions are lifted and we are all much less at risk I will, of course, help in any way possible.”
Summing up her situation, Louise says: “I have to be optimistic in that I don’t know who’s hands/Facebook timeline the post might fall into. I’m doing all I can to make this dream a reality, and that means, for me personally, asking kindly for any help I can get.”
To assist Louise, go to gofundme.com/f/mta-musical-theatre-training.
Charles Hutchinson puts the questions to Louise Henry as she chases her acting dream and the means to secure that future
WHAT attracted you to MTA in particular? How long will you be studying there and what are your hopes and expectations with this course, Louise?
“MTA’s diploma is only a two-year course and so your training is intensified throughout this time.
“The school only accepts 22 students per year and, therefore, you’re in a very elite group of performers, and the contact time, as with many drama schools, is incredibly high at 40 hours per week.
“Equally, the course is split 50/50, 50 per cent focused on stage and 50 per cent on screen acting, which is always something I have wanted to study alongside musical theatre. Everything I read about MTA made me feel as though the course would fully prepare you to be a triple-threat musical theatre performer, but also be trained thoroughly as a screen actor.”
What steps did you have to go through to land a place at MTA?
“The audition process was obviously very different to that I’m used to: the lockdown implemented by the Government on the outbreak of Covid-19 meant that travelling to the audition would be impossible and potentially very dangerous.
“I soon received an email from Annemarie [Lewis Thomas], the school’s principal, who stated that the auditions would go ahead regardless and instead be held over Zoom, which I was actually very excited about as it would be a totally different experience!
“When the day came, I set up my laptop in my bedroom and had prepared the monologue and song I’d have taken to the audition anyway and from then on it was actually very simple!
“It felt much less daunting than actually being in the room, and I suppose if that translates through people’s auditions it would make the panel’s decision much easier in that it’s based off a very true and honest performance.
“We were even able to do some improv over Zoom with the other auditionees, which was such an interesting experience, led by their head of acting, Tilly Vosburgh, and a group vocal workshop with the head of voice, Josh Mathieson.
“They work very quickly there and so once I had sent in a dance audition – to a song of my choice – I heard back within about 24 hours actually! It was record timing and meant I didn’t spend two anxious weeks refreshing my emails – a feeling I’d grown used to over the past few years’ auditioning.”
Over the past year, you have done a variety of roles on the York stage – musicals, a pantomime, an Aussie play, an American play – showing an all-round talent. Why pick a musical theatre course?
“My first love has always been musical theatre and was initially what I wanted to study straight out of A-Levels. However, it felt as though my dance ability was always letting me down and so I spent a few years going to dance classes with Lyndsay Wells in Harrogate and instead chose to audition for a few years for straight acting. “That being said, singing and acting have always been my strong point and so musical theatre was always my preference.
“Working with Nik Briggs’s York Stage has been invaluable and being able to perform in a few predominantly acting roles has been a great opportunity to exercise that skill without relying on song and dance.
“Equally, working in the Grand Opera House pantomime over Christmas only intensified my drive to pursue musical theatre and so, on being recommended the MTA, I felt led to audition.”
What did you learn from making your professional debut in the 2019-2020 Grand Opera House pantomime?
“Performing in the pantomime was such a brilliant insight to the kind of life I could be working towards. Every day I would try to remind myself that actually soon it would be over and everyday life would assume, and in actual fact you don’t go through every day singing and dancing and dressing up!
“I constantly allowed myself to feel grateful for each performance and despite the intense hard work put into every show, I never tired of performing it. In fact, I really wish we could’ve had more shows somehow crammed into that mad month!
“It taught me that performances can be put together under your very nose and all of a sudden your show is ready and you’re opening. It also taught me that the illusion of a show is one of the most magical and fulfilling experiences for both the performer and the audience member.
“There was no better feeling than getting to the end of the show and being able to see our audiences dancing in the aisles and singing along with us. I’m just really grateful I had that experience and insight to what my life could be like – with a lot of hard work and luck obviously!”
How did it feel playing the title role in your professional debut in Snow White?
“Playing the title role was a little bit of a shellshock experience every day really; everyone else I was working with – even the incredible children playing the dwarves – had worked a panto run previously, so I was a total newbie.
“The cast and crew made me feel so welcome and I learnt so much from the friends I made. There was also something pretty lovely in that, because I wore the black wig, which was in total contrast to my hair at the time, very few people recognised me leaving the stage door. This was nice as it kind of protected the magic of the show for the kids who had come to watch.”
Did you pick up any good tips from the old pros in the company such as Vicki Michelle, Martin Daniels and Mark Little?
“Working so closely with Vicki, Martin and Mark was incredibly insightful and I got so many opportunities to chat with them about their experiences with performing and acting.
“Mark and I were interviewed by BBC Radio York at the same time and so we had a good chat that morning about his career and I spoke to him about how different things are now, in terms of getting into performing.
“Everyone was so encouraging and supportive, they were always spurring me on to try and keep working for this career. It was incredible watching the show being put together and acting with them was a real joy.”
How had your year gone before lockdown, on stage and off?
“Before lockdown, I was applying to any auditions I could find via the National Youth Theatre member’s board, having been a member since 2015 when I was lucky enough to be invited to attend their intensive summer-school course.
“I sent off applications for a film in which I was cast as an extra, so drove down to London to film for a couple of days in February. That was a fab experience and something I’d never done before.
“I auditioned to attend a workshop with Katie Greenall, a National Youth Theatre associate, and was asked to go down and work for three days on an idea of a performance she is devising.
“I had a couple of auditions and recalls for National Youth Theatre’s REP company, and throughout all the trips to and from London I was working on Steel Magnolias back in York with York Stage.
“This was probably my favourite show I’ve ever been involved with, from the incredible cast I was lucky enough to work with, to the direction and production of the play.
“I just feel so grateful that it came together and we could perform before this lockdown was implemented. So, actually, I had quite a busy few months!”
How are you coping with lockdown?
“Lockdown has been a little bizarre and definitely an adjustment. But I really do love a routine, so once I’d established my routine at home, I got comfortable very quickly! “I love exercise and training in different ways, so I’ve been training my family in ‘bootcamp’ sessions three times a week, then one big workout on a Sunday morning.
“I’ve been creating workouts for three friends separately and doing many Zoom dance classes and yoga sessions. It’s probably the most active I’ve ever been! “Alongside this, I’ve been trying to learn a new song each week, focusing on songs that I wouldn’t usually go for. I try and sing these when my family are out walking, so I don’t deafen them with a loud belt!
“Obviously, I had a lot of preparation for my audition and also was asked by Nik [Briggs] at York Stage to get involved with his Songs From The Settee, singing Doctor’s Orders from Catch Me If You Can.
“I’m really glad to have the offer from MTA, so it feels like I have something to work towards once this is all over.”
What would going to MTA mean to you after all the work you have put in already to develop your skills?
“I’m not going to lie… it’s been a long few years, auditioning to train at drama school, and it has always felt really gutting to have not secured a place despite usually getting to final recalls.
“Every time you feel so close and then can’t help but wonder what it is you were lacking? Or if they already have ‘x’ amount of 5’6 females with brunette hair? You hear that it can be down to issues that small, and it becomes really frustrating trying to pinpoint what it was about you that they didn’t want.
“So, this year, to finally secure a place, in the middle of so much uncertainty, I really feel overwhelmed by it! I know it is so clichéd but this is really my one dream to try and achieve making a career of performing, so the place at MTA, I believe, is the first step towards that dream becoming reality.
“I can’t put into words what it was like finally seeing ‘we are delighted to inform you…’ on my acceptance email. I ran downstairs screaming; I feel bad for my neighbours!”
It may be an obvious question, but what makes you want to be an actor?
“Not at all an obvious question as I have absolutely had moments over the years of ‘oh god, why am I doing this?’. ‘Why am I putting myself through this?’. But quite simply, there’s no better feeling to me than being on stage and performing.
“I don’t know how I can describe this concisely, but there’s a feeling I get when I’m taking my bow or at the end of a run or in the ‘big bit’ of a song and it’s just like you’ve won the marathon or the lottery or you’re reunited with someone, and your whole chest is just full and you feel like you might just ‘Mary Poppins’ it at any second and take off.
“And that feeling to me makes everything else worth it. It’s massive lows but MASSIVE highs and for some peculiar reason the highs make you forget all the lows.
“It’s all I could ever see myself doing, and I would regret it forever if I didn’t throw myself at it and give it everything I have.”
Grim question: If you can’t get the money together, what happens to your plans to go to MTA?
“Interesting. I suppose I can’t really answer this, as that simply isn’t an option for me. I will, and am, doing everything I possibly can, given the current circumstances, and I truly believe I will make this work.
“To me, there is really no alternative: this training is all I have longed for over the past four years. Obviously, so far, I have received some wonderful and incredibly generous help from friends and family, and alongside that I’m saving every penny and plan to work alongside my course.”
“I plan on creating a series of videos, mini-performances of songs or spoken word to post online hopefully for the viewer’s enjoyment – which might encourage people to donate whatever they can.
“The payments are termly and so that breaks down the sum, and I’m incredibly lucky as the MTA are very keen on not letting money be an issue between you attending the course.
“As I said, they choose only 22 students per year and so they have spent a lot of time in selecting who they truly want to train. Not only is this a real honour to have been offered a place, but it also reassures me that the school wants me there. There’s no better feeling after working so hard over the years.”
REVIEW: Steel Magnolias, York Stage, John Cooper Studio, Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, until Saturday, 7.30pm and 2.30pm Saturday matinee. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorkstagemusicals.com
NOTE the shedding of “Musicals” from the York Stage name for this Nik Briggs production, although music from the Eighties still blares out from the radio at Truvy’s Beauty Spot, whenever it is tapped.
Girls Just Want To Have Fun, sings Cyndi Lauper, and the girls on stage want to have fun too, but the cycle of life has a habit of getting in the way.
Indeed just such a spanner in the works led to Louisiana playwright Robert Harling writing Steel Magnolias in 1987 as therapy after losing his sister to diabetes.
Once billed as “the funniest play ever to make you cry”, it takes the form of a bittersweet but sentimental comedy drama, delivered by an all-female cast.
Briggs assembles a fine array of York talent, all of whom have excelled in musicals previously and are now showing off their acting chops to the max, without recourse to the heightened dramatics of song.
Briggs and set builder Geoff Theaker have gone for a traverse stage design, a configuration that is under-utilised in theatre, but makes you aware of the audience reactions on the opposite side, and also has a way of intensifying drama in a story of triumph and tragedy, dyeing and dying.
Steel Magnolias’ setting is a bustling Louisiana hair salon, run by the ever-comforting Truvy (Kathryn Addison) in a converted garage, home to her little rural Southern town’s most successful shop for 15 years.
Pictures of the Eighties’ American hairstyles du jour are omnipresent, raising a smile of familiarity that is repeated with the assortment of hair-dos favoured by the women we meet. Bunting criss-crosses the salon, while magnolias tumble down the walls.
Significantly, men are never seen – and there were only four among the first-night full house – but they are often disparaged in conversation, one of the sources of humour in Harling’s script. What’s more, they are represented by the loud, intrusive blasts of a bird-scaring gun and the barking of big dogs. Enough said!
If the men are but a nuisance, the women seek comfort in each other, and where better to do that than in the haven of a salon as nails are painted and hair teased into pleasing shape.
At the epicentre is Addison’s perennially perky Truvy, whose mantra of “There’s no such thing as natural beauty” is passed on straightaway to quirky new asssistant Annelle (Carly Morton), whose God-fearing demeanour is coupled with mystery over her past.
One effervescent, the other quiet, together they must orchestrate the ever-hastening wedding-day preparations of plucky, resolute but physically fragile Shelby (Louise Henry), whose love of fashion and pink in profusion are emblems of her not giving in to diabetes.
She and her mother, the cautious but forceful matriarch M’Lynn (Joanne Theaker), do not have the easiest of relationships but their love is nevertheless unconditional.
The salon’s endless circle of gossip is joined regularly by the wise, good-humoured, football club-owning widow Clairee (a phlegmatic Sandy Nicholson) and the grouchy, erratic loose cannon Ouiser (Julie Ann Smith, with just the right dash of eccentricity).
Briggs’s direction is both well choreographed and well paced, with plenty of movement to counter all that sitting down in salons, as Harling’s tissue-box drama of marriage and motherhood, love and loss unfolds.
The never-easy Southern drawl is mastered by one and all in Briggs’s excellent cast, who are equally strong as an ensemble and in the solo spotlight. Theaker is particularly good, especially when M’Lynn is in the grip of grief, while Henry, last seen as Snow White in her professional debut in the Grand Opera House pantomime, is fast becoming one to watch with an admirable range already at 22.
YORK Stage kick off their 2020 season with Robert Harling’s
comedy-drama Steel Magnolias at Theatre @41 Monkgate, York.
Running in the John Cooper Studio from February 19 to 22, this 1987 American play focuses on the camaraderie of six Southern women who talk, gossip, jest and harangue each other through the best of times and comfort and repair one another through the worst.
“Steel Magnolias is alternately hilarious and touching with
six female characters that are all as delicate as magnolias yet as strong as
steel,” says director Nik Briggs.
His cast comprises Joanne Theaker as M’Lynn; Louise Henry as
Shelby; Julie-Anne Smith as Ousier; Sandy Nicholson as Clairee; Kathryn Addision
as Truvy and Carly Morton as Annelle.
Yorkshire actress Joanne Theaker returns to the York Stage
company, having led the cast as Maria in The Sound Of Music at the Grand Opera
House last April.
Previously, Joanne has played Sister Mary Roberts in Sister
Act; Diva in Priscilla Queen Of The Desert – The Musical; Judy in Dolly
Parton’s 9 To 5 The Musical and Paulette in Legally Blonde. Elsewhere, she has
performed at Hull Truck Theatre in the original casts of John Godber’s Thick As
a Brick and Big Trouble In The Little Bedroom and at the Stephen Joseph
Theatre, Scarborough, in Neil Simon’s They’re Playing Our Song.
Louise Henry joins rehearsals after making her professional debut
as Snow White in this winter’s Grand Opera House pantomime, Snow White And The
Seven Dwarfs. Previously, for York Stage Musicals, she had performed in The Sound
Of Music as Liesl last April and Twilight Robbery as Jayne in May. West End
actress Julie-Anne Smith last appeared for York Stage Musicals as Violet in 9 To
5 in 2017.
Briggs says: “Bringing Steel Magnolias to the stage, and
working with these six women especially, has been a joy. It’s no secret that I
love working with strong women, especially in the rehearsal room and you don’t
get much stronger than these six.
”Having previously directed many female-led shows – Sister Act,
Legally Blonde, 9 To 5, The Sound Of Music, Be My Baby and Little Voice – Steel
Magnolias has been on my ‘To Do’ list for a long time.”
The women’s closeness drew Briggs to Harling’s piece. “It’s
relatable, the salon is a world in itself and the six characters are an adopted
family,” he says. “They laugh, cry, argue, support and challenge each other
within this world and it really allows for the drama and comedy to flourish and
“We’ve had tears of laughter and tears of sadness over the rehearsal period. This really is a show to see with your closest girl friends and family. Come, laugh and cry together, and if you want to wear pyjamas and bring a large carton of ice cream with you for the ultimate girly ‘night in-out’, we won’t judge!”
Harling was inspired to write Steel Magnolias, his first
play, after his sister Susan died of complications from diabetes. Premiered off-Broadway
at the WPA Theater in 1987, it quickly transferred to Broadway, where it became
an instant sensation, running for three years and spawning the hit movie
starring Dolly Parton, Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Daryl Hannah, Olympia
Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine.
York Stage in Steel Magnolias, John Cooper Studio,
Theatre @41 Monkgate, York, February 19 to 22, 7:30pm plus 2.30pm Saturday
matinee. Tickets: £15, concessions £13, at yorkstagemusicals.com, on 01904 623568
or in person from the York Theatre Royal box office. “We shall be supporting
York and District Diabetes UK Group throughout the run,” says director Nik