Thursday, 11 July 2013

Ashleigh Gray | Interview

Graduating from Guildford School of Acting in 2003, Ashleigh made her professional debut as Kim in the UK national Tour of Taboo before making her West End debut in the London Company of WICKED at at the Apollo Victoria Theatre where she was in the ensemble and understudied Elphaba. She was soon promoted to Stand-By Elphaba the year after joining the company, she left in 2010. Her other credits include Notes from New York, Kirsty in Only You Can Save Mankind, NHS the Musical, Miss Lynch and cover Rizzo and Jan in Grease, Emily in Myths and Hymns, Simply the Music of Scott Alan, Maid Marion in Robin Hood, The Songs of Bobby Cronin, Unwritten Songs; The songs of Michael Bruce, First Things Last; The Music of Lance Horne, Miranda in Betwixt!, Diva’s Sing Scott Alan, Wicked Witch in Mother Goose, Amanda in After The Turn, Lorraine Campbell in I Dreamed a Dream, Fairy Firefly in Jack and the Beanstalk, West End Men and Supporting Susan Boyle in concert. She can also be heard on The Journey Home by Mark Evans, Surrounded By The Sounds by Tim Prottey Jones, Acoustic Overtures; The songs of Dougal Irvine, Stand Tall; A New Rock Musical, Unwritten songs; The Songs of Michael Bruce, Christmas in New York and Sentimental Heart by Oliver Tompsett. She will be featured in Momentous Musicals alongside Gareth Gates, Rachael Wooding and John Owen-Jones which starts its short UK Tour from the 17th July. 

How did you get into performing arts?

I always loved singing as a child. As far back as I can remember there's always been music around me and even though no one else in my family sang or played, I found myself singing along and creating little dance routines to songs at any given chance. So I guess I was always destined to grow up to be a performer. My family were, and continue to be, very support of my love of music and performance so they willingly allowed me to join the local amateur dramatic group and also encouraged me to follow my dreams and go to drama school. The rest, as they say, is history.

You made your professional debut as Kim in Taboo. What was it like working with Boy George on your first show after graduating?

George sadly wasn't actually involved in our production as he was off setting up the transfer of the show on Broadway at the time. Regardless of that, I had the best time on that show. When you go through drama school for three years, training to work in a profession you love and admire, to finally be out there doing it, is really quite special. That show will always be special to me for that reason. The added bonus being that it was a fantastic show, a great role and I got to work with some wonderful and talented people.

Are there any special memories from your career you'll never forget?

Lots! Landing my first lead role before I graduated from GSA was pretty special. Also, having my close family all there supporting me in my West End debut was pretty amazing too. I think they were just as, if not more, excited and nervous as I was!

You were with the company of WICKED for quite a few years, being in the ensemble and then the Elphaba stand-by. What do you think is so special about that show?

The great thing about Wicked is that there is something in it for everyone. It transcends all ages and interests. Whether you're six or seventy six, are a fan of The Wizard of Oz or have never seen the film, you can sit in that theatre and be completely swept away with the the set, the costumes, the songs, the choreography. But at the heart of it all, is this wonderfully poignant story - one that everyone can relate to, of love and friendship at its best.

Elphaba is such a huge role but how did you find interpreting the character?

It really is an iconic role, so to have the chance to put your own spin on it really was great. With that, comes great responsibility too, however. I still to this day get letters from young people who find themselves relating to or in a similar situation to Elphaba. Whether they have difficult family relationships or they too feel outcast at school, the show has a wonderful way of bringing those people together and there's nothing nicer than hearing first hand from them, how seeing the show has given them hope and the knowledge that there are other people out there going through and coping with the same things they are!

You were also brought back as an emergency cover, whats the story about that?!

That was crazy! Over 6 months after leaving, I received a phone call to ask if I could go back to the show for one night. All the girls who played/covered the role were either ill or on holiday, so I went in with no rehearsal to play the part that night. It was the most incredible, almost 'out of body' experience. Before I could over-think it, I found myself on stage and my body just took over and was doing all the actions and saying all the words as if they'd never left my brain and I'd never been away. Although I must admit, I think I did make up a few of the spells!

Going from huge theatres like the Apollo Victoria to an intimate space like Trafalgar Studios where you were in Betwixt! must be an interesting challenge, what was that like for you as a performer?

It really was a challenge. The combination of lights on stage and the size of the auditorium at the Apollo Victoria meant that you could play to a full house of 2500 people but never see anything past the first few rows. At the Trafalgar Studios however, you could see every single person, which was terrifying. Especially as I spent most of the show as a disembodied head, being wheeled about in a box. On more than one occasion, I found myself, quite literally, face to face with audience members sitting in the front row. It can be quite daunting as well when you're playing a comedy in such a small venue. If you can see the audience not laughing or enjoying themselves, it can really affect your performance.

Being in a show where you had to be in a box for a lot of it must have been quite a contrast to being painted green and flying!

Wow, I certainly have played some diverse roles when you put it like that!  Absolutely - there's a lovely freedom with Elphie, especially in the first act when she is younger, there's a lot of running around and of course flying. Miranda on the other hand, was a disembodied head, so not much movement there! All her emotions and physicality had to come through just my head!  The original design of my box had a lovely chair in it for me to sit on throughout the show but during the tech, I suggested that it might be better if I sat cross legged on the bottom of the box, that way my head would be lower and it might look a lot funnier! I was regretting that idea about a week into our Summer run!

As well as Betwixt!, you have been involved in quite a few original musicals like After the Turn, Robin Hood and NHS for example. How important do you feel new musical theatre is?

I think it's so important and I am a huge champion of it. Its hard to imagine but there would've been a time when the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Boubil and Schoenburg sat in a room pitching ideas for Phantom of the Opera or Les Misérables to people in an effort to get it staged and now over 25 years later, these shows are still running across the world. Had they not been given that chance, we would never have seen those Momentous Musicals! I firmly believe that we have some excellent musical theatre writers in this country and while the classics are dominating the West End stages, there is most definitely room for new writing.

Everyone made fun of the 'Susan Boyle Musical' until the 5 star reviews came out! Portraying the story of a real person's life must have had its challenges but how was your experience on the show?

The incredible thing about the Susan Boyle story is that it really is the ultimate fairy tale - and it's all true! The story of a young girl who was told she'd never amount to anything, who never gave up on her dreams and by an incredible turn of fate, is now one of the best selling artists in the world. What's not to love about that?! Similar to Wicked, by bringing the story to the stage it not only allowed people to understand and appreciate Susan, it also made people think that if she can do it, against all the odds, perhaps they too can achieve their own dreams. I had a great time on the show. For me, as a Scot, it was really lovely to be working back home, with a predominantly all Scottish cast, on a very Scottish piece. We had a fantastic creative team in Ed Curtis, Kennedy Aitcheson and Nick Winston, who really made the show something very special.

And working with Susan Boyle?

Susan's great. She really is your typical wee wifie from Blackburn, who is having an absolute ball doing what she loves to do - sing! Susan and I actually come from very similar backgrounds, both being from small Mining communities in Central Scotland. On reading her book, before I started work on I Dreamed A Dream, I was amazed at how alike our upbringings were. From singing at the local Miners Welfare Clubs as a child, to family sing songs in the living room. Spookily, Susan and I both recorded our first EP's in the exact same recording studio in Midlothian.

Is there any musical you'd like to see get revived?

Well, actually, one of my favourite shows of all time and the first show I ever saw in the West End is being revived very soon! Miss Saigon. I adore the score and I'll never forget how much it touched and affected me when I went to see it in Drury Lane all those years ago! I believe the Momentous Musicals audiences might not have to wait until 2014 to hear that wonderful music again!

What are your dream roles you would love to play in the future?

I am very lucky to have actually played what I consider to be my dream role. Ever since I heard the soundtrack and saw the show on Broadway, I just knew I had to play the part of Elphaba in Wicked. There are some other classics I'd love to do in the future though - Eva in Evita, Fantine in Les Miserables. I still live in hope that one day, cross gender casting will be a thing of the norm and I'll get to give my Phantom a go! That's a great part!

Do you have any embarrassing on-stage stories?!

Oh wow - far too many to talk about. They've all been highly embarrassing at the time (like falling off a suitcase downstage centre during the Wizard & I)  but when I look back on them, it's highly amusing. I count myself very lucky that I get to do a job that I love and brings so much delight in that way. Every time I step out on that stage there's a possibility it could all go wrong and I'll embarrass myself - and I love that!!

You're taking part in the tour of Momentous Musical, can you tell us a little about the show?

It's going to be a show that will take its audience on a tour of the biggest, best, most momentous (if you like!) shows that have shaped the world of Musical Theatre as we know it today. I'm very much looking forward to working again with the lovely Rachael Wooding and meeting and working with Gareth Gates and John Owen Jones for the first time. With a great cast and new orchestrations from our fabulous Musical Director, George Dyer,it's certainly not to be missed!

So what kind of songs can be look forward to in Momentous Musicals?

Covering many ages and genres, I think the show is going to delight theatre goers with  classic songs they know and love and some more modern tunes from the likes of Les Miserables to Matilda. It's certainly a show I'd love to go and see, if I weren't in it!  I am personally very excited about the songs I'm going to be performing, some that are new to me and some that I may just have sung a few times before!

Finally, whats next for you after Momentous Musicals?

I'm due to return to the SECC in Glasgow for a second year of Pantomime fun  with John Barrowman and The Krankies, so I'm very much looking forward to that. Before then, who knows! That's the beauty of my job, I can be flying high one minute and in a box the next!

Follow Ashleigh on Twitter:  @Ashleigh_Gray 

Left to Right: as Elphaba in Wicked (Apollo Victoria), with the cast of I Dreamed a Dream (UK Tour), as Miranda with the cast of Betwixt!, as Kim in Taboo (UK Tour).

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