Posted on 30 July 2010.
By Linda Badger.
The international smash hit, West Side Story is touring Australia, currently playing in Sydney before heading to Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide later this year. A musical theatre classic, West Side Story has it all – hard hitting choreography, brilliant music and a story to make the heart wrench.
Dance Informa’s Linda Badger got a chance to speak with two of the talented cast.
Rohan Browne, playing Riff (Leader of the Jets)
Tell us about your experience in the show so far?
I think this is such an amazing piece of theatre. I saw this show when I was 14, (16 years ago) and I thought it was incredible! The agility, the passion and the dancing telling a story! Ever since then I had a dream to be involved in this show and so it’s a real honour to be playing the part of Riff and being able to do this every night , getting the joy and satisfaction. It’s such a real challenge, mentally and physically. It encompasses every aspect. It challenges me every day. Who wouldn’t want to work and do that?
What was the audition process like?
It was quite intense! Joey McKneely, the choreographer/director is a very intense person. He stripped everybody back to what the truth of the story is about. I was working on Chicago at that point, which is more minimalistic dancing, and I came from that to do the audition, which was so physical and full on. Joey workshopped some scenes with me, and because he was so intense I kind of walked away from that thinking I didn’t get the job, because I thought I didn’t give what I needed to give . I was doubting myself, as you do as an actor, but luckily I landed the gig. It was very tough competition. Everyman and his dog wants to be in the show, so it was tough.
Would you say you were primarily a dancer or a singer?
I trained as a dancer, but I’ve played some roles in other shows, which is now pushing me towards more singing and acting. I’m not an amazing singer, but I can sing and I’m not an amazing actor but I’ve learned instinct. How I would categorise myself…dancer, singer, actor.
What is the most challenging thing about the show?
The acting. This is my 14th show, and you get so used to doing musical theatre acting, which is highly dramatized and melodramatic. Or it’s a pastiche, so you’re doing a show within a show, which means it’s even more dramatised. This show kind of goes against those natural basic instincts of “hey! I’m acting!”, and I had to strip it back to how I would say things if it was real life. Joe calls this a drama, or a play. It’s not a musical. The issues we are dealing with (racism, rape), means that it’s quite delicate , so if you’re ‘acting’, it doesn’t get the audience in , it doesn’t have that raw emotion like it is actually happening for real. So I think the most challenging thing for me was just going back to the basic truth of how would I act if it was just me, putting my emotion, putting my fear, putting my anger in and stripping everything back. But in saying that, the dancing is also so hard. I’m still sitting here sweating from just doing the gym scene twice! It’s so full on! But even the singing is a challenge. I sing the ‘Jet’s Song’ and I sing ‘Cool’. It’s singing spoken word. Every aspect I have been challenged in. But I think the acting is the most challenging for me.
Nigel Turner-Carroll, playing Bernado (Leader of the Sharks)
What was your experience like leading up to the opening of the show?
For me the whole process started three months before rehearsals. I was at the gym four times a week, ballet two to three times a week, and going to flamenco classes to learn some salsa and tango, to get the Latin flavour.
After you got the part?
I got the part at the end of last year, so I had quite a bit of time to think about it. I was doing a lot of character work leading up to it, so I had done a lot of homework coming into it. It’s been great because we’ve had ballet class every day, and now they are starting to alternate ballet and stretch class. So as the season goes on, all throughout rehearsals, everyone has improved in their abilities. But it’s been tough as well. I had a few injuries, leading up to it, but it was perfect timing in a way - I’d rather injuries earlier on, than now. This show is very physically demanding. I come off stage with bruises every time. We are very lucky to have a full time physiotherapist.
Is this a show that you’ve always wanted to do?
It wasn’t something that I’ve always wanted to play, it’s a role that I have seen and loved. I wasn’t actually going to audition until I’d read the script and I thought it was so good. That’s when I went, “I need to play this role”. I think it says a lot. Bernado represents all immigrants. It’s a bigger picture thing and for me it’s very political as well. In Australia, as well as most places in the world, I think I’m standing up for the immigrant, or the underdog. People can take their different sides or opinions, but that’s the way I feel so that’s why I wanted to tell the story.
You obviously have a really good connection with your role, which makes it that much more real when you get up there.
I always try to aim to bring that onto the stage, but with how I’ve approached this role, it has bled off stage as well. It’s kind of fun to explore those different sides of yourself. He is quite a passionate character so that does make it hard to switch off. I’m sure the time it takes to switch off will get smaller and smaller, but at the moment it just takes that little bit of time to cool down after the show.
Were you a dancer growing up?
I started pretty late, but I started in performing as a dancer. I pretty much got straight into the musical Hot Shoe Shuffle in which there were acting and singing roles as well. I had the experience straight away of acting and singing, and I fell in love with acting. So I took time off the dancing stuff to focus on my acting for three years (at NIDA). I didn’t plan to go back into a musical, but I don’t see this as a typical musical, it’s a play for me.
How was your audition process?
It was a week. I thought I got cut after the first dance call. I actually walked out because they didn’t call my name. My phone rang and they said “You’re meant to be in the room”. I said ‘”What?” and they said, “didn’t you hear your name get called?” They thought they called my name and I wasn’t going to argue, so I ran back to the room. I think Joey knew what he was looking for as a director so it wasn’t too drawn out and the audition process was more of an acting workshop rather than a dance call or anything like that. Even then, I didn’t know if I wanted to do it still. I thought I’d do the audition and see how I felt. But working with the director, even in the rehearsal room, I thought I would love to do this. And the choreography isn’t dance steps, it’s psychological gestures and so every single thing really has a meaning. I hope that really comes through when we do it.
What advice would you give young performers trying to enter the entertainment industry?
First and foremost you’ve really got to love it. You have to know yourself. Do you want to do it to be rich, or for the fame, or do you want to do it because you love it and you want to be the best that you can be? This is why I do it. I think that you need to be clear on that when you first start. And it’s cool if you want to do it for fame, which I don’t think that there’s that much of, but it’s tough and you have to be willing to work hard when no one is looking.
To see Rohan Browne and Nigel Turner-Carroll in action, make sure you get tickets to West Side Story. Visit www.westsidestorythemusical.com.au for all the information.
Bottom photo: Carolin Smolek