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Exclusive: Audience member covers for performer after last-minute illness in Into the Woods

Melissa Bayern in costume backstage at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, as the Witch in Into the Woods Melissa Bayern in costume backstage at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, as the Witch in Into the Woods
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A graduate fresh out of drama college went from audience member to starring role at Manchester’s Royal Exchange with just five hours rehearsal, after a lead cast member was unexpectedly taken ill.

In what has been described as a “fairytale in itself”, Melissa Bayern put herself forward for the role of the Witch in Into the Woods after attending a performance in which Gillian Bevan, who should have been playing the role, was taken ill. Bayern subsequently found herself making her professional stage debut in the musical.

The actor, who had just played the part of the Witch in her final performance on a musical theatre course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, had gone to see the show with friends.

She watched as one of Bevan’s fellow cast members stood in as the Witch, script in hand.

Afterwards, she decided to leave her details at the theatre for director Matthew Xia, offering herself up for the part should Bevan not be better for future performances.

Xia subsequently contacted Bayern, who found herself being offered the chance to take up the part, with just five hours of rehearsal. She played the role for seven performances.

Describing the moments just before going on stage, she told The Stage: “I don’t think I have ever been so terrified in my whole life. But everyone kept coming up and saying that I looked so calm and confident. In my head, I just wanted to make everyone else comfortable that I could do it.”

Bayern said she had been about to board a train back to London when Xia had contacted her. He initially told her that she would not be needed, as he expected Bevan to be better, and Bayern returned to London.

However, the next day the show’s casting director called her and asked her how soon she could be in Manchester.

She returned to the north, and the following day was in at 9am for costume fittings and a five-hour rehearsal, before going on stage that night.

“The girl who had originally gone on as the Witch [Rachel Goodwin] was also the dance captain and she helped me through every second. On my first night, people backstage helped me and told me what my next entrances were. I didn’t think I would be able to do it, but I did,” she said.

Her stint in the show, which was from January 6 to 10, marked Bayern’s professional stage debut in the UK.

“It was a case of ‘Is there a doctor in the house’, except it was ‘Is there a witch in the house?,” she said.

Originally from the US, Bayern said she hoped the experience would lead to other opportunities at both the Royal Exchange and further afield.

Xia told The Stage: “Melissa was stepping in to cover one of Sondheim’s biggest characters, with just five hours of rehearsal. She did an amazing job, as did the rest of the company and team, who were all incredibly adaptive and supportive.”

He added: “The inimitable Gillian Bevan is now back for our final week, but we will always be extremely thankful to Melissa and her enterprising decision to leave her telephone number with stage door… it’s almost a fairytale in itself.”

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