At the only awards to recognise breakthrough theatre talent, The Stage celebrates emerging actors and creatives from all backgrounds. Last year’s winners tell Nick Clark how their careers have progressed in the past 12 months
A year ago, Gemma Dobson was handed the best actress prize at The Stage Debut Awards by guest presenter Jodie Prenger. Now, they are set to star opposite each other in the National Theatre’s touring production of A Taste of Honey.
“How weird is that,” laughs Dobson in a break from rehearsals for the production, which opens September 13 in Salford, the setting for Shelagh Delaney’s play, ahead of a nine-week tour.
Thinking back to the ceremony in central London last year, Dobson says: “It was such an amazing evening, just to be nominated. When I won I started crying. I hadn’t prepared a speech, I just babbled.” Having Prenger present it was the icing on the cake: “I’ve always wanted to meet her, I just love her.”
It has been a busy year since. Dobson went out on tour with Rita, Sue and Bob Too – she won the award for her performance as Sue at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton – and was also in David Hare’s Plenty at Chichester Festival Theatre. “It’s been a really good year. You learn so much on each job, working with different people. That’s why I love the theatre, you get such a good chunk of rehearsals, so you learn different processes.”
It has been a busy year too for Amara Okereke, who won best actress in a musical. She says of the awards: “It was so nice to be around so many people that were excited to be in theatre. And to be around icons like Cush Jumbo, who hosted it. I remember being so taken aback by everything.”
Okereke’s award-winning role as Cosette in Les Misérables in the West End finished in June. “Les Mis was the best year of my life. It didn’t feel like it was real to go straight from drama school into that. It was a big year and a lot happened.” Shortly after, she went into rehearsals for Oklahoma! at Chichester Festival Theatre, which closed last week. On playing Laurey, she says: “I loved it, it’s a brilliant part. What a blast.”
Louis Gaunt won best actor in a musical for another production of Oklahoma!, this time at Grange Park Opera in West Horsley. The performer has worked consistently since, in a series of productions that allow him to flex different performing muscles. First was the high-energy Kiss Me, Kate at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield. Then, at the same venue, he was in Standing at the Sky’s Edge, the critically acclaimed musical by Chris Bush and Richard Hawley. “It was a very special piece,” Gaunt says of the work that ran until April. “It was one of the most creative experiences I’ve been on as it was a new production. It was a huge collaboration.”
Gaunt is currently playing Kenickie in the UK tour of Grease. “It’s been such a whirlwind, I’ve been very lucky to be in such contrasting productions. I always want to touch on different styles and use different tools in my arsenal.”
Another Debut winner who has had a chance to test different aspects of her craft is Khadija Raza, who was awarded best designer. A Linbury Prize for Stage Design winner in 2017, her designs were used in Dido at the Unicorn Theatre. She went straight on to the Young Vic Taking Part production The American Dream 2.0 and is now working on A History of Water in the Middle East at London’s Royal Court.
“It’s been brilliant to work at these venues so soon after graduating,” she says. “For me it’s about the collaborations. That really refines the process. Each show has been so different, it’s taken different skills, which is why it’s so important to find the right people to work with.“
Two of her friends are nominated in the Debut Awards design category this year: Abby Clarke and Maxwell Nicholson-Lailey. “There are so many designers graduating every year, and it can be hard to stand out. Something like The Stage award is just brilliant to put you out there,” she adds.
For the 2018 best actor in a play winner, Akshay Sharan, “the influx of work has been much more regular since September”. After his award-winning lead role in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, he landed a part in Three Sisters at London’s Almeida Theatre, directed by Rebecca Frecknall and starring Olivier-winning actor Patsy Ferran.
Sharan had discontinued his training in Glasgow to audition for various projects in London. “Everything came together really nicely. I had been a background actor at the Almeida for The Treatment by Martin Crimp [in 2017], but this was my first full-blown professional show there. I had a few scenes in every act. It was a nice job but it was also a good way to continue training without having to pay £9,000 a year – watching Rebecca, Patsy and the others.”
Best director Katy Rudd was delighted at winning the award. “It felt great to feel supported by The Stage. As a director you can feel a bit wary of newspapers, as your main contact with them is reviews – but The Stage Debut Awards are a great supportive gesture.”
Rudd, an associate artist at Elliott Harper Productions, won the award for her production of The Almighty Sometimes at the Royal Exchange, Manchester. “It was a totally unexpected event in my career. It was wonderful to stop and take a breath, a pause and receive a bit of validation after many years of hard graft.”
Next, Rudd is set to direct her first production at the National Theatre in December, an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, after working as an associate at the venue. She will also be directing at the Old Vic next year, though can’t say what the production is yet, and hopes The Almighty Sometimes may get a London run.
When asked what he had been up to since winning The Stage Debut Award for best writer, Andrew Thompson laughs: “Er… writing plays.” After commissions from Hampstead Theatre, English Touring Theatre and the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York, he has submitted several scripts and is going into a workshop process.
He won the Debut award for a science-fiction play, In Event of Moone Disaster at Theatre503, and the commission from the New York theatre, he says, is for a work of “science fact”. Its Sloan Initiative supports plays about maths, science and technology. He is also doing a project with the Traverse Theatre in conjunction with the British Council, which will send him to research in Japan for three weeks early next year before writing a play.
“It has been a good year in terms of opportunities, from the play going on and The Stage award,” he says. “I’m now at the point where the projects are starting to come to fruition. It’s been a strong year in terms of meeting people and writing to commission, which is not an opportunity I’ve had before.”
For Gus Gowland, who won best composer, new projects have been bubbling under as he finished his doctorate, which he handed in at the end of last month. “It has been good because it’s given me time to develop things.” His winning work, Pieces of String, was part of the PhD on gay representation in musical theatre. “That was the fun part. Writing the thesis wasn’t quite as fun.”
The musical’s team has been working on making a tour of Pieces of String happen and Gowland has just received a Michael Grandage Company Futures bursary to work on a show called The Red Virgin.
“The Stage award has been brilliant at opening doors and getting conversations going. I feel like it’s kept me in the conversation. It’s been a brilliant way of helping establish my credentials for people who couldn’t see the show. The award is in my office. It’s a good reminder when I’m having a day of writer’s block that I have written something good.”
The Stage Debut Awards 2019, in association with Access Entertainment, take place on September 15. The event will be live-streamed from 8.50pm on The Stage’s Facebook page