In the run up to the next ‘What Would Julie Do? Live’, I’ve been chatting first steps in theatre, life as a West End Swing and how musicals help you through the tough times with David O’Mahony, who will be headlining our show on 23rd April 2017 at the Pheasantry.
How did you get into performing?
I remember going to drama club when I was a tiny kid but I got into doing amdram when I was 12 – That really gave me the best experience of musicals and pantos.
What was your first role on stage?
My first proper role was playing the Narrator in Joseph when I was 12 at school.
Do you have any advice for aspiring performers or those starting out in the industry?
Performing isn’t necessarily something you choose – it chooses you. If you wake up every morning and feel driven and dedicated to succeed then that’s the first step. Also I would say getting the advice, encouragement and help from those ahead of you – either through training, joining the union or just getting out and meeting people. This is essential as at various points it will feel like you are totally alone – knowing there are other people struggling with the same challenges as you is invaluable.
You are a swing in the current West End production of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which means you have to cover a variety of roles and be ready to go on at a moment’s notice! What are the joys and challenges you experience as a swing on the show?
I joined the cast of Beautiful at a very challenging time in my life. My wife had just left me and cited me (at the time) not being in the West End as one of the reasons she left me. There were other reasons but this one really hurt as I had turned down work to focus on starting our life together. When I got the call to say I had got Beautiful I had an immense sense of vindication from her criticisms. This was one of the most joyful moments of an incredibly bleak time for me.
As far as the challenges go: I cover all three male leads and two featured ensemble. No-one in any other company of the show covers that many roles. This means I have to juggle five different tracks of lines, vocals, harmonies and all the backstage traffic that goes with each role. As a swing, you always have that moment of self-doubt and the thought that it’s simply too much to fit in your brain – that’s normally when it all starts to fall into place. Now I have learned, rehearsed and played each role, I relish going on every time. I guess the other challenge goes with this is that at any moment I could be called on. Someone could get injured or sick during a show: I have to, as quickly as possible, get into a mic, costume and get to the stage ready to launch into whatever scene they are up to. We have a spectacular team on the show – Stage Management, Sound, Costume, Wigs – everyone in the building pulls together to get you ready. It’s scary, but the adrenalin pushes you through.
Do you have a favourite role to play in the show?
I love playing Gerry Goffin – he goes through a lot of psychological challenges and is probably the most complex character I’ve played to date. I also love playing Barry Mann as I feel the role suits me really well and he has the best songs!!
What is your favourite song in Beautiful?
I actually love ‘On Broadway’ – it’s not a song I get to sing, but the energy and choreography is intoxicating. I’ve very lucky to be in a show where I love all the music – My favourite to sing is Barry’s ‘We gotta get out of this place’ as it has an incredible rock range and is just so much fun to sing.
Do you have any audition tips?
Always try and turn the nerves into excitement. Be excited for the opportunity to perform for people. Believe in the excitement at bringing your version of the character to life. Also, having sat on the other side of the table – ALWAYS remember, no-one wants to see you fail. The casting team WANT you to be amazing!! So just relax and do your best. And as George Clooney said – you can’t lose a job you didn’t have in the first place!!
How do you balance personal and professional life?
Ha! Well, given my marital status, I would say I’m still searching for that balance and that answer!! I would say that, a lot of my friends are n the industry and understand the rigors that we go through. I find that dating people in the industry is probably a better idea for me. As for my friends and family outside the industry – I am blessed to have the most understanding and supportive family and friends anyone could wish for. They keep me grounded and focused and never begrudge that I am in work – even if that means they don’t see me for ages!
What do you do to stay healthy? Physically? Mentally?
I try and go to the gym regularly – I have a recurring back problem that is a pain, literally and figuratively but it’s essential to try and keep as active as possible. I also try and eat healthily and not over-indulge in the bad stuff: Everything in moderation. As for the mental health, I believe this is CRUCIAL!! We work in an industry that is fuelled by and fuels emotions. No-one will ever be able to stop challenges – the key is to be able to cope with how you react to things. Simple activities help a lot – going to the gym; spending time with friends; doing something positive. I would also highly recommend books such as Susan Jeffers ‘Feel the fear and do it anyway’, Michael Heppel’s ‘How to be brilliant’, Dale Carnegie’s ‘How to win friends and influence people’ and Bernard Hiller’s ‘Stop Acting and Start Living’. Inspirational and motivating! At any point that you feel you need help: ASK. Call a friend. Call your doctor. Call the Samaritans.
Do you think there is a stigma relating to mental health problems in the arts? What about men suffering from mental health issues? Are there any experiences you’d like to share?
I have suffered from severe ‘Situational Depression’. This is the medical term for feeling depressed about a particular event – losing a loved one; being made redundant; or in my case the breakdown of a marriage. I sometimes worry that by admitting that people will think I am mentally unstable or suffer from other mental health issues that they need to treat me differently. I don’t and they don’t.
There is an inherent danger that people will jump to conclusions and stigmatise, ostricise and judge me for admitting that, after a very specific and horrific time in my life, I needed help to cope. If people do that, I have no desire to work with them or for them and I feel deeply sorry that their judgment will only be curtailed or changed with them going through a similar experience. In any situation I think we should always try and put ourselves in the other person’s position: I’m sure if they put themselves in my position, they would have needed some form of help too.
I’m lucky that I have a brilliant support system. Anyone who knows me knows I am a positive and mentally strong person. Anyone who went through what I went through would have needed help. It was the darkest time in my life. At three points I rang the Samaritans as I was so upset and felt so desperate that I thought ‘life’ and the World would be better for everyone if I wasn’t around anymore. I don’t think I ever would have actually harmed myself – It was more a desperation to understand my heartbreak; to escape all the upset; and that I felt like I had had the best time of my life and then it was callously ripped away from me. I am thankful everyday for the help I received. I’m also incredibly grateful to her: I’m grateful a doomed marriage didn’t continue for any longer than it needed to. I’m grateful she was so categorical with her change of mind and didn’t change her mind back. I’m also grateful that I had evidence that it was over and that it had been a sham. I won’t go into the evidence I discovered but I’m glad I found it all. Maya Angelou said ‘When someone shows their true self: believe them’. I believe I saw her true self and am grateful for that. I obviously wish it had worked out differently but I have to find positives in the situation.
Thank you for being so open and sharing your experiences. It will mean a lot to anyone who is struggling and feeling alone right now. What do you think can be done to help mental health issues? In the theatre industry and in general…
I believe that education is the solution to most of the World’s problems. It would solve a lot of prejudice, be that religious, racist, sexist, homophobia or prejudice against someone who suffers from mental health issues. Educating people on the reality of different conditions and how they can help would be a great place to start. I firmly believe that if I can help other people by being open about my story then that helps too. I know that I am a strong person. I know I am sensitive and fragile in some respects – and I know there’s nothing wrong with that. I guess, like any issue that may carry a stigma such as the Hollywood leading man who comes out as gay, this may have ramifications on their career. I hope others have the strength and courage to admit their mental health challenges, or any other challenges that they have in their lives and that we all respect and support them. When the Welsh Rugby Captain Gareth Thomas came out, his team mates and compatriots were incredibly supportive. As one of my friends said when he heard about my situation: ‘we will form a motherf*cking shield around you’. It’s that kind of support that is crucial.
How has theatre helped you take care of your mental health? Has it ever had a negative effect?
Personally I find great solace in my work: cathartically working through my problems vicariously through the characters I play. The role of Gerry Goffin is probably the most amazing for this. Gerry was a tortured, talented genius whose infidelities and bi-polar sufferings lead to the tribulations we play out in the show. – I have had those exact moments of waking up after a huge breakdown – the panic of not knowing where you are and your self-destructive thoughts becoming reality. I also know that I have said the line onstage and off: ‘Sometimes I’m OK, I feel good, and then all of a sudden: Boom! I’m in a hole and I can’t see light in any direction”. This catharsis and escapism is the privilege all performers enjoy. As for a negative effect – I guess I wouldn’t know. I don’t think anyone would ever admit a prejudice towards me, and if they were prejudiced, I don’t think I’d want to work with them anyway. I also think I am in a lucky position that my issues were very clearly ‘situational depression’ and so there is no reason for there to be any perpetuating effects.
Who/what inspires you?
Career wise I am hugely inspired by people I have met and worked with along the way – they may not be megastars but they have inspired me in so many ways: Billy Pearce, Shane Collins, Danielle Steers… But also people I look up to: Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Hiddlestone, Ryan Gosling, Ryan Reynolds… I’d love to emulate their success and careers.
What lessons have musicals taught you?
Hard work; focus; never, never, never give up. And that any situation can be solved by having a good sing!!
Do you have any lyrics you live by?
Ha! I could say cheesily that ‘You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart’ is a good one to live by. There are lots…
Do you have a favourite inspirational quote?
The poem ‘Invictus’ by William Ernest Henley that constantly inspires me. The last verse is: “It matters not how strait the gate, How charged with punishment the scroll, I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”
If you had to pick a guru or gurus from the world of theatre (characters or real people); who would you choose and why?
That’s a tough one… Mike Dixon is a legend to work with (R: YES! He is!) ; and Beverley Knight is one of the nicest people in the World I think; I think also Jean Valjean would have been a pretty cool uncle!!
What is your dream role?
I’ve always thought of myself as an actor first so my dream roles would be in Film and on stage but I love musicals with a passion. I’ve actually played my dream roles: Jamie Willerstein in Jason Robert Brown’s ‘The Last Five Years’ – I’d love to do a longer run of it. I also love playing both Gerry Goffin and Barry Mann in ‘Beautiful’. I guess roles like Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar would be awesome to play again – I played it at 22 at loved it! Maybe Iago, Dauphin in King John, Ms Trunchball, Valjean, Phantom, Galileo, Batman or the Joker… and then the unknown ones, not yet written…
What is your favourite musical?
Oooooooh, that’s such a tough one… I love so many… I loved The Bodyguard; JCS; The Last Five Years; I’ve seen Les Mis 28 times over the years; Beautiful is perfect for me to be in; I also love Matilda!!
What are a few of your favourite things?
Dogs… I love dogs!! I love a gadget and some stationary! Hahaha… I also have a very guilty pleasure for fragrances: Creed, Penhaligons, Paco Rabanne, Issy Miake… I think I have a problem!!
What do you do when you are feeling sad?
Do SOMETHING to cheer myself up. I tend to overthink things so I try and either solve the problem or if it can’t be solved, I try and let it go. I love a funny film, hanging with friends, going to the gym… Do something for me!
If Julie Andrews was your agony aunt; what would you ask her?
What would she say is the key to her happiness?
What would be ‘loverly’ for you?
All I want is… a cosy room with a dog, a loving woman and a pot of cash, hahaha!
If Mary Poppins got out her tape measure and measured you, what would it say?!
“Must try harder”… “Growing in everyway, everyday”.
How do you solve a problem? (Like Maria or other…!)
Calmly and normally through overthinking!
Let’s finish with a quick fire round!! WOULD YOU RATHER……Go fly a kite or climb every mountain?
...be thoroughly modern or practically perfect?
…Sew or run?
…dance all night or sit absobloominglutely still?
Dance all night
…feed the birds or invest tuppence in the bank?
The bank, boringly!
…tea with jam and bread or lots of chocolate?
…the lusty month of May or snowflakes that stay on your nose and eyelashes?
May… the month of my birth!!
…kittens or wild geese?
I’m allergic to cats, but they are cute, so kittens it is!
….be called a flibbertigibbet or supercalifragisiticexpialidocious?
Anything that starts with ‘super’ I’d love to be called!
…talk of dreams or show me now?
Both… talk about them and then go do them!!
Rosie Williamson hosts and David O’Mahony headlines “What Would Julie Do? Live” at the Pheasantry, Pizza Express Live on Sunday 23rd April. Any profits from the show will be donated to Samaritans. Book your tickets here.