After turning down a place at drama school due to the high fees, Shanay Holmes forged her own path into the industry, making her professional debut in Thriller Live in the West End, followed by roles in The Bodyguard, Jesus Christ Superstar and Rent. She tells Giverny Masso about her latest role in Trevor Nunn’s The Bridges of Madison County…
How did you first get into musical theatre?
When I was younger I really wanted to go to drama school and it felt like the natural place for me. I auditioned and got into Arts Educational Schools London but, being from a single-parent background, I wasn’t able to afford anywhere close to the fees, which was heartbreaking. About a month later, I saw an open call for The Lion King in The Stage. I went and got down to the finals for Nala. At my last audition, Pippa Ailion [casting director] said: “It’s going to be a ‘no’ this year.” But I asked if she could help me get into theatre and she said: “Absolutely. Call my office on Monday.” She set me up with an interview with 10 different agents, then a month later I was cast in Thriller Live, which was my first West End production.
What is The Bridges of Madison County about?
This show is about a woman who is trying to escape from Italy, where women don’t have many options other than to get married. Then she’s taken to America and finds herself in an unhappy marriage. She becomes a typical American housewife, cooking and cleaning, but she’s an artist as well. Then she meets a man who has travelled the world taking photos and she comes alive. I feel this resonates with women’s issues today.
What change would you like to see in the industry?
Our industry is getting better at casting based on talent rather than skin colour, and I’m a strong believer that the best person in the room should get offered the job. However, I do also feel that a lot of the time, being mixed race has its own set of problems that can come up. I’m a mixed-race woman, but I identify with being black. I feel that when a lot of typically black theatre productions have come to the UK, they’ve often been cast with a stereotypical view of what ‘black’ is and there’s a thing about not being ‘black enough’. So many shows that were written years and years ago don’t identify where the people in them are from or what colour they are, and I feel like those shows in particular need to start breaking the mould and looking for the best actor for the role.
You are also a singer-songwriter – tell me about your music.
I’m currently working on my debut album. My EP came out a few years ago and it received very good grassroots support. I became a BBC unsigned ‘one to watch’, and my first single Worth the Wait got to number seven in the club charts. As an artist, I feel I’ve now reached the point where I really have things to say.
Training: Private lessons (2016-present) and acting course with Scott Williams (2015-16)
First professional role: Lead female vocalist in Thriller Live (2011)
Agent: David Daly Associates
The Bridges of Madison County runs at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London from July 13 to September 14