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Editor’s view: Talent shouldn’t be pigeonholed – ask Lia Williams

Lia Williams in Oresteia at the Almeida. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Happily, it’s not uncommon for me to meet people working in theatre who found their first jobs in The Stage [1].

The positive effect the publication has had on theatre professionals of all generations is one of the enduring pleasures of working for an organisation with a long history – I once had a conversation with Ian McKellen about how, as a youngster, he made a weekly pilgrimage to his library in Bolton to read a copy.

The Stage has played a part in helping to launch the careers of some pretty eclectic folk: from the Spice Girls, to Kenneth Branagh, to Idris Elba. This is regularly the case with performers but also managers, technicians, PRs and people from all corners of the industry.

Still, I was surprised when I read our big interview with Lia Williams [2] this week to discover the details of how the actor, who is about to reprise her lead roles in Mary Stuart in the West End, got her first break through the pages of this publication.

Mary Stuart review at the Almeida Theatre, London – ‘two fine, fierce performances’ [3]

It wasn’t so much the fact of it, as the circumstances. Williams is best known for her work in serious drama, often in difficult and demanding roles and, yet, as she explains: “A job came up in The Stage for dancing girls in Spain – I’d done a bit of dance training, so I went for the audition and got the job. In those days you needed an Equity card, and being a showgirl in Spain got me mine. It was possibly the hardest thing I’ve done in my life, but it was also one of the best – it taught me how to be strong and resilient and tenacious.”

Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised that someone who has gone on to be one of our most interesting stage actors started life as a dancing girl in Spain. I was guilty of the kind of compartmentalising that we too often see in the entertainment industry – the idea that musical theatre actors ‘can’t do’ plays, or theatre actors ‘can’t do’ TV.

This has always been a live issue, but it has recently blown up after Equity – in a survey of its members – referred to ‘musical theatre performers’ and ‘actors in plays’ to which some have taken offence [4].

As Williams’ experience shows, many of these distinctions are completely arbitrary. Talented artists are able to work across genres – and that’s not only the case when it comes to performers.

After all, Follies [5] was Dominic Cooke’s first foray into musical theatre directing.

Email your views to alistair@thestage.co.uk [6]