The secret to debut success

Andrew Langtree with Lisa Stokke, making her professional debut, in Mamma Mia! in 1999 Andrew Langtree with Lisa Stokke, making her professional debut, in Mamma Mia! in 1999
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As the inaugural shortlist for The Stage Debut Awards is announced, John Byrne speaks to actors and creatives about their first jobs

Landing the lead role in a West End show shortly after graduating seems like a stage debut well worth shouting about. For Lisa Stokke, the original Sophie in Mamma Mia!, even whispering the news was forbidden for almost a year.

“I’ll never forget turning up to a piano shop on the Edgware Road in 1998 with my fellow Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts student, Andrew Langtree, for a secret rehearsal with Abba’s Bjorn Ulvaeus.”

Today, as one of the top musical theatre stars in Britain and Norway, Stokke still considers that debut to be the job that changed her life. “It’s very different doing a few shows at university to building the stamina to handle eight shows a week in the West End.”

Tanya Moodie. Photo: Fiona Fletcher
Tanya Moodie. Photo: Fiona Fletcher

Multi-award-winning actor Tanya Moodie agrees that a debut marks a new chapter rather than the end of a performer’s education. “In August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson at London’s Tricycle Theatre in autumn 1993, a few months after I left RADA, I was able to witness the working processes of established professionals who were seriously first-rate. I did a lot of watching, listening and modelling myself on their behaviours. I was fortunate to have Paulette Randall as director. She is excellent with actors of all levels of experience. The leads were two titans of the art – Lennie James and Cecilia Noble. Cyril Nri took me under his wing and remains a friend and mentor who gives excellent advice and expert hugs.”

‘So long as I work as hard as I did on my first show, I know I’m on the right track’
Matthew Parker

Matthew Parker. Photo: LH Photoshots
Matthew Parker. Photo: LH Photoshots

“Terrifying, exhilarating and exhausting,” is how Matthew Parker, London’s Hope Theatre artistic director, describes his directorial debut, a physical theatre adaptation of Chekhov’s short story Ward No 6 at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2009. “The show was nominated for The Stage Edinburgh award for best ensemble, transferred to the Camden People’s Theatre, awarded a Time Out Critics’ Choice and sold out. It was an amazing kick-start to my career. Not every show since then has been a massive hit, but so long as I work as hard as I did on that first show, I know I’m on the right track.”

Luke Sheppard, whose credits include In the Heights and The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 3/4, also directed his first show at the fringe. “Jet Set Go! was a small musical we made from scratch in our bedrooms at university. I spent a year in planning, and wore every hat people would throw at me; director, choreographer, producer, marketeer. Learning those skills has given me a great appreciation of what everyone does in our industry.”

Multitasking was a feature of Scott Le Crass’ debut, too. “I played a sprite in an open-air production of The Tempest in Canterbury, understudied Ariel, Miranda, Ferdinand and Stephano, and helped build the set. It was the acting stage manager role that gave me my first taste of what it was like to work on the other side of a production.”

His work on the ‘other side’ continues, not least as Offie-nominated director of Sid and also Plays for Chechnya, starring Ian McKellen.

‘After working in film, my stage debut felt like getting into comfortable clothing’
Lucy Sheen

Zoe Waterman. Photo: Robert Day
Zoe Waterman. Photo: Robert Day

Laura Eason’s Remarkable Invisible is part of Theatre by the Lake’s summer rep season and Zoe Waterman’s fifth show as director at the venue. “The Bogus Woman in 2008 was my first. I had directed before, but never as a professional. On top of that, it was away from home – my first experience of deciphering a digs list – and a one-woman show. Krissi Bohn played 82 characters. A lot of anxiety about ‘firsts’ built up before we started, but evaporated once we were in the rehearsal room and had to get on with the work of putting on the show.”

Lucy Sheen, whose recent theatrical work has included the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Snow in Midsummer and The Scar Test at Soho Theatre, found her stage debut to be a lot less anxiety-inducing than her screen one. “My actual professional debut was as the female lead in Ping Pong, the first British feature film to focus on the British Chinese community. Back then, theatre was where your training was focused. It was assumed that, as a graduate, that would be where you would cut your teeth. Film was a huge learning curve for me, but when I eventually made my stage debut in Riddley Walker at Manchester’s Royal Exchange, my theatre training meant it was like getting into comfortable clothing, even if it was new.”

Tanya Vital. Photo: Michael Wharley
Tanya Vital. Photo: Michael Wharley

Tanya Vital was in the middle of a National Youth Theatre production when she got the chance to make her debut in the BBC children’s show Kerching!. Her CV now combines successful plays, such as Piece of Silk, alongside screen work in Emmerdale and Brief Encounters. “My stage debut was in 2006, but my next stage production wasn’t until seven years later. I think there’s a misconception that actors who start out on screen can’t do stage work, but imagine light passing through a prism; screen acting is like taking all the colours and layers you learnt in theatre and concentrating that down into fine, laser-sharp precision.”

Do you only get one debut? For many experienced performers, each new career chapter enjoys this status. Lloyd Notice looks back fondly on his first night as Mufasa in The Lion King. “I was filled with an overwhelming sense of fear and privilege. It was a show that I’d always wanted to be a part of and at last I was standing there enjoying every minute as if I was part of the audience as well as a performer. But an equally powerful debut for me was when I fulfilled my ambition to launch my one-man show, Taken, based on Mark’s gospel. It was great to see people moved by such a story and for it to work on so many levels is the kind of experience that keeps me going.”

Koko Brown. Photo: Olivia Ema
Koko Brown. Photo: Olivia Ema

Actor and writer Koko Brown feels similarly. “My professional acting debut was at the Lyric Hammersmith in its pantomime Aladdin, but I consider the opening night of WHITE, my solo-show about race and identity, to be my professional debut as a theatremaker. I had to learn how to distance myself from it as a writer so that I could approach it as a performer, a completely new experience for me. I also incorporate vocal looping and live music, so I had to learn how to perform with a machine as if it was my scene partner. The show is really personal, quite emotional and takes a lot out of me, so I did a lot of meditation as well.”

Her advice is certainly worth meditating on for all those making their debut in the future, whether it is their first or their 50th: “Ask for help. Stay calm. Remember to breathe. Most importantly, remember the audience doesn’t know what’s supposed to be happening, so whatever you’re doing, it’s right.”