Summer Strallen: ‘I used to do jobs for the acclaim – now it’s about enjoying what I do’
It’s less than two months since I interviewed Scarlett Strallen in these pages, as she returned to the London stage from New York to star in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s current production of She Loves Me. And now I’m interviewing her younger sister Summer, who’s just got back from staying in her apartment in New York, as she prepares to meet a new acting challenge: starring in a touring production of Terry Johnson’s play Hysteria.
The sisters are very close and each talked a lot about the other. They have two younger siblings, Zizi and Sasi, both also actors, and their careers have each intersected. There was the time, for instance, that Scarlett was starring in the West End in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as Truly Scrumptious, and Summer was her cover; Zizi is currently starring in the title role of Mary Poppins in its UK tour, a role that Scarlett has also played in the West End, on Broadway and in Australia. Today Summer points out: “We’re all very different, but people get confused sometimes between us. Zizi and I are more similar than Scarlie and me, but on Twitter I get it all the time, because Scarlie isn’t on it.”
They are the daughters of Sandy Strallen and Cherida Langford, who were worker bee dancers in West End musicals through the 1980s and 1990s, but never became headliners. It is not coincidental that Summer’s own West End debut, aged 16, was as a swing in the final cast of Cats at the New London Theatre, of which show her parents had been in the third cast. “I was a student at Laine’s for a year, when an open audition came up for Cats. My parents knew the run was coming to an end, so they said to just go for it. And I did.”
Her aunt is Bonnie Langford, who had been in the original cast of Cats, so it’s very much a show that’s in the family DNA. After appearing in Cats in the West End, Summer also went out on the show’s next UK tour, and she recalls: “When we got to the Manchester Palace and were doing the get-in, I stood by the prosc and thought that I felt that I’d been there before. My mum called and I told her, and she said, ‘You were in my tummy when we did Song and Dance there.’ It was an odd spiritual moment.” As it was when, as a swing in Cats, she was suddenly asked to step in for the White Cat – a role she wasn’t officially down to cover, but was asked to step into at short notice. “When Chrissie Cartwright, who was the artistic coordinator on the show, asked me, I said yes even before she finished the sentence. My mother had played that part, and she came and watched it and cried all the way through.”
Showbusiness is clearly the family business. When I asked Scarlett about the career choice made by herself and her siblings, she told me: “I suppose it’s like being born into a family of doctors or mathematicians. It’s just so in your world.”
Today, Summer tells me she was initially resistant and even rebellious. Their grandmother Babette famously ran a dance school, which both Scarlett and Summer attended as children. “We’d just be there on Monday and Thursday nights – mum and dad would be working at night, so it was kind of glorified babysitting really, and I completely rebelled. I would say, ‘I don’t know why we’re even here.’ I think the word for my childhood was ‘awkward’.” Scarlett affirmed this: “Sum was so the opposite of what I was. I never thought she’d want to follow me.”
Summer also admits she suffered from “second child syndrome”, in which “I naturally rebelled against the first. But then Scarlett went off to Arts Ed at the age of 10, when I was still at normal school, and she’d talk about ballet class and I thought, that looks like fun compared to normal school. Of course, I thought it was the better option.”
So she followed her there a year later. Summer was, in fact, already a stage veteran at that point – she’d made her first appearance in pantomime at the age of three, appearing in Aladdin at Wimbledon Theatre that was headlined by Cilla Black. “I still remember having to dance Shall We Dance? with the Emperor.” And during her school years, she hilariously recalls how she’d sometimes be illicitly performing pantos on school days: “We lived in Chiswick, as my mother and I still do, and we’d drive past Arts Ed and would say ‘Duck, school’ in case a teacher was outside. I still do it now.”
As a child actor, she also appeared in The Sound of Music, playing Marta (the second youngest of the Von Trapp brood) when she was around seven, and Scrooge with Anthony Newley at the Dominion when she was 12. “I still remember how his PA, who was his daughter, would bring him lemon and ginger in a flask.”
It was certainly a good apprenticeship for the business, but she does sometimes wonder if the business chose her rather than vice versa. “I went through a big process a few years ago of thinking I’d been thrust into the business and of not really knowing why I was doing it. So I had a hiatus of about four years of not doing very much, and I’ve realised that things really have happened for a reason for me.”
Scarlett, too, referred to this time when I spoke to her, and said of her sister: “She had a moment when she felt a burnout and asked herself, ‘Am I loving this? Did I choose this?’ And she had to take a step away and fall in love with it again, which she has.”
Q&A: Summer Strallen
What was your first job? I was a swing at 16 in the final cast of the original production of Cats in the West End.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Enjoy the moment and take everything as a lesson.
Who or what is your biggest influence? My own demons are what drive me most – they’re there for a reason. What’s it trying to tell me? Usually, it is to trust myself. My biggest influence is my faith – not that I’m religious, but that everything is happening for a reason. And my biggest support is my mum.
What is your best advice for auditions? If you’ve done the work and training and are completely prepared, you won’t be nervous.
If you hadn’t been an actor, what would you have done? Something to do with animals. I always said I wanted to be a vet. I think that in a past life or a final life I will be a dog. I have two – Bamm-Bamm and Pebbles.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I used to have loads, but now I just meditate and do breathing exercises to get into the zone.
Today, Summer also refers to the fact that in her last major West End role in 2011, headlining in Top Hat opposite Tom Chambers, “I was at the height of ego Strallen”. It’s not an attribute she’s particularly happy about today. She’s accumulated a striking set of four Olivier nominations for her stage work, but confesses: “They were amazing, but I didn’t enjoy it at the time. I didn’t really feel like I deserved them. If I were to get another, and I’m not assuming I would, I feel like going in my pajamas – I’ve always been trussed up in a dress that I’m not quite comfortable in. I didn’t appreciate it as much as I would now; that’s a good thing to know, and I’d really embrace it now. The reward isn’t the awards, though, but doing the job and how much you enjoy the job while you’re doing it. I was doing the job to get the acclaim. And that’s the worst reason for anyone to do a job. You need to take stock of the moment and be grateful for it.”
She describes one such moment movingly: “I did have a moment on the first night of Top Hat during Cheek to Cheek, when I was dancing with Tom Chambers and we had a follow-spot on us, dancing with our backs to the audience, and I caught a silhouette of him and me. I’ll never forget it. I felt like I was Ginger Rogers.”
So, after Top Hat, she decided to take stock: “I decided I needed to rest. It had been hard work; but that was only because I made it hard work. I’d got on this hamster wheel of musicals, and I felt I couldn’t get off unless I took the jump and said, ‘I’m not doing them for now.’”
She changed agents – she left Jorg Betts for Niki Winterson, though she says today: “I love Jorg– he nurtured me and gave me a career for 14 years that I’ll always be grateful for. There was nothing wrong, but I needed a change, and it’s a different dynamic being with a woman now.”
She has recalibrated her career ambitions during the gap. It was doing a musical at Chichester called Damsels in Distress in 2015 that she says “reignited my passion and made me believe in it again”, not least for being surrounded by actors like Sally Ann Triplett (now a close friend), Richard Fleeshman, Richard Dempsey and Isla Blair. “I was with other players at a level where we could bounce off each other.” It also reunited her with director/choreographer Rob Ashford, whom she first worked with on the Donmar Warehouse’s West End production of Guys and Dolls as a member of the ensemble. “That’s still the peak job I did – the best musical I’ve ever done.”
Prior to Top Hat, she had a baptism of fire appearing in the original cast of Love Never Dies. “Oh my goodness, it was hard.” The role was dramatically demanding. “My character had to put a gun to her head and be suicidal; it would take it out of me.”
But more than that, the process of putting the show on proved exhausting too. “We were in constant rehearsals for 11 months out of the 12-month contract – when has that ever happened? It never stopped. I said to the producer one day, ‘I’m too tired to do this.’ Now, I would put myself in the other person’s shoes more; had I been able to do that then, I would have tried to rally the troops more. But the trouble with that show was that the focus was predominantly on the love triangle, so other things got missed. The show had a fantastic ensemble, but they were not used – it was a lost opportunity.
Andrew [Lloyd Webber] came to see me about eight months in, and asked me what I thought. I said the show needed a massive mechanical elephant with me on top of it and people coming down from the ceiling hanging on silks if it was going to try to top Phantom of the Opera. That was such a spectacle and it still is. But with Love Never Dies, everyone felt wasted and undervalued.”
That brings her to her current involvement with the union Equity, where last summer she became a council member. “I want to help bring a community back together. After many people crashed out of the union, they have become dispersed. But as the cast of Hamilton showed [when the then vice-president elect Mike Pence attended a performance], they were not afraid to be authentic and stand up for themselves.”
She does not see the relationship as antagonistic but collaborative: “There doesn’t have to be a ‘them and us’ with producers. We all have the same objectives, to create beautiful shows. There seems to be a weird separation between creatives and money men. But we all want to make the best product.”
But even as she values the work of the union and champions it, she notes the importance of looking at every situation for what it is. Her current job with London Classic Theatre in Terry Johnson’s Hysteria is not an Equity contract.
“If it was, they’d have to pay a certain amount towards pensions. But this company is run by Michael Cabot, who is putting it on because he loves the play. He’s producing the art he wants to see. Red tape shouldn’t prevent him from doing that.”
Summer Strallen’s top tips for an aspiring actor
• Know what you’re good at.
• Challenge yourself – push yourself out of your comfort zone all of the time; if you’re in your comfort zone, you’re in the wrong place.
• Don’t do it for the money.
The company is, however, paying Equity rates. It is ultimately, she says, about “fairness and actors feeling valued”. She continues: “When they do, they do so much better work. In my first chapter of work in musical theatre, I saw how other people weren’t. I was being so valued, but I didn’t realise that it was taking away from the value of the ensembles.” The same applies to working on the low pay/no pay fringe: “Sometimes all the actors see is themselves slogging their guts out in a disgusting, freezing theatre, and the person who is running it going on holiday afterwards to the Seychelles.”
So part of her new mission is activism for theatre actors; but also stretching herself both on and off stage. “You need to push yourself out of your comfort zone all of the time; if you’re in your comfort zone, you’re in the wrong place.”
It’s one of the reasons she’s now appearing in a play: “I’ve previously been in a play by Ron Hutchinson called Flying Into Daylight at Live Theatre in Newcastle, but it was about tango and I was using my dance and had to sing a song at the end. But with Hysteria, it’s a big role and scary. It’s completely 100% just talking.”
Today she has proved that talking is something she is good at. And it’s part of her new set of priorities. “You have to enjoy what you’re doing at the time. That’s how I choose jobs now: will this challenge me mentally? Will it push me to find out something new about myself? Rather than how much money I’m being paid, where my name is on the poster, am I getting a car home and do I get a dresser? Some of those are nice and I wouldn’t say no to. But you can get into a whole cycle of luxury and entitlement. Now, I just let that go.”
CV: Summer Strallen
Born: 1985, London
Training: Arts Ed then Laine’s
Landmark productions: Cats, New London Theatre (2001), then UK tour (2003), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, London Palladium (2004), Guys and Dolls, Piccadilly Theatre, London (2005), The Boy Friend, Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London (2006), The Drowsy Chaperone, Novello Theatre, London (2008), The Sound of Music, London Palladium (2008), Love Never Dies, Adelphi Theatre, London (2010), Top Hat, Aldwych Theatre, London (2011), Damsel in Distress, Chichester Festival Theatre, (2015)
Awards: Olivier nominated for The Boy Friend (2007), Drowsy Chaperone (2008), Love Never Dies (2010), Top Hat (2011)
Agent: Niki Winterson
Summer Strallen stars in a touring production of Terry Johnson’s Hysteria from February 1-May 20