11 October 2016

Interview with Robbie White - Sunny Afternoon Week

It's day 2 of Sunny Afternoon Week here on OhMyMusicals, and today I'm going to be chatting to king of the understudies, Robbie White!

Em: As a child, who did you aspire to be like, and do you still aspire to be like them now?

Robbie: I was a very hyper-active child, always bouncing off the walls and throwing myself around. My parents dealt with this by channeling that energy into many different and diverse extra curricular activities. This meant I developed a passion for a lot of different things, and in each of those activities I idolised, and aspired to be like, the best. When I was dancing, it was Nureyev, when I was playing football it was Schmeichel, when I was playing cello it was Yo-yo Ma or Eugene Friesen, and when I was singing or writing songs it was Freddie Mercury. I still very much aspire to be like every one of these amazing artists, who committed themselves entirely to excellence in their art, even if I can only hope to emulate that commitment!

Em: If you could play any character, regardless of age, race, gender, etc, who would it be?

Robbie: I have a couple of different answers to this, but my standard answers of Galileo, Mark in 'Rent', or Jonathan in 'Tick Tick...Boom!' seem a little bland given that I'm no longer constrained by race or gender, so I'm gonna go with Effie :)

Em: What’s your favourite role you’ve ever played?

Robbie: I think my favourite character I've played in my career is Dave Davies of the Kinks in 'Sunny Afternoon' (my current job). I have played a lot of characters that I loved, but Dave's is just such a brilliant story to tell; you travel with him through the most tumultuous years of his life, you get to play the highs and the lows of rock and roll excess, he has brilliant biting one liners and moments of real emotional outpouring, all the while being dressed like a god damn rock star! I also have to give a special mention to Svec from 'Once' who was so much fun to play because he is similarly off the wall and reckless, but also with moments of real connection.

Em: What’s it like being in a show that is based on real people and events?

Robbie: It's fascinating! Usually working on a character (or multiple characters as I do in Sunny) involves trying to internalise the text and create a character who makes sense to you and feels true to the piece, but when you're talking about some of the most famous musicians, people and music from an iconic era there is a whole other level of demand. Researching each member of the band, their performance style, their characteristics, their body language, and marrying that with the script and track you have is truly a mammoth task. Add on top of that the need to then give each of the band members their own unique journey and emotion through each scene in the show and you have a huge responsibility to meet! It has been a truly fascinating and eye opening experience to try to connect what I could discover about the real humans and the real story, with what the show and script and music demanded of each character.

Em: What is it like being an understudy?

Robbie: Excellent question! I love being an understudy, but I think I am probably in the minority for a number of reasons. I have discovered that covering multiple roles, preferably in an actor-muso show, is the place in a theatre where I feel both most useful and most happy. It gives me the opportunity to dive into multiple characters with their own journey and songs and style, it fixes the problem of becoming bored with a role in a long contract (because as an understudy covering multiple lead roles you can never be bored!), it gives me time to work on side projects such a writing my own original music when I'm not on stage, and it has taught me many new skills, both in performance and in handling large task loads. I think the reason that I am in the minority in enjoying, and actively seeking jobs as an off stage multi-cover, is that it is an exceptionally difficult job which can also be a terribly ungratifying experience. There are downsides to covering, not limited to how hard a job it is, including the occasional feeling that understudies are almost universally under appreciated and overlooked. Audiences may be disappointed to find out that there's a cover on, some directors ignore or refuse to work with covers, covers names may not appear outside the theatre with the rest of the cast, and you often end up working a lot harder than most for much less reward. The final and perhaps most galling element of being a cover is a symptom I like to call being "too useful to play the part". Multiple times in my career I have seen friends and colleagues who cover, who are phenomenally talented, lose out on first cast rolls, often to inferior performers, because of how useful they are to a company as an off stage cover of multiple roles. It is an understandable decision for a company to make, but it can be heartbreaking to watch. I have been fortunate enough to mostly avoid the elements of covering that can bring a performer down, and have truly fallen in love with having the opportunity to inhabit many different characters and perspectives in a story, and be a vital part in a good show running smoothly.

Em: What is your favourite quote from Sunny Afternoon?

Robbie: "Yeah? Well we are working class socialists from Muswell Hill... And we don't believe in what you believe in, in Muswell Hill, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it!

Em: What 3 items in your dressing room could you not live without?

  1. Smelly stuff: If it's an energetic show and you have to be fairly intimate with cast members, you'd better be smelling fresh :)
  2. Water: As much of it as possible! The songs are high, the scenes are loud and the throat is dry!
  3. Plasters & pain killers: Especially in Sunny Afternoon as it's a frantic rock show, I'm always either slicing my hands open on the guitars, or getting blisters from the bass, or smacking my own hands with drum sticks, so plasters and bandages are a must!

Em: What is your favourite thing about performing in the West End?

Robbie: Being able to actively see the joy you are bringing to people in the audience. Watching audience members cry or reminisce or just connect with what you are doing is a truly remarkable experience!

Em: What’s been your biggest challenge in getting to where you are today?

Robbie: Finding and accepting where I fit in the business, and what suits me as a performer.

Em: Have you got anything to say to people who use phones in theatre?

Robbie: Stop that! You stop that right now! I just don't get it! It doesn't frustrate or upset me personally, but when you're on stage and suddenly just one audience members face is dimly illuminated I can't help but think to myself 'Mate, you've paid god knows how much for a ticket to see a West End show, that Twitter notification is still gonna be there in an hour, why not try and lose yourself!'

Em: What book or film would you like to see made into a musical?

Robbie: I'm very much on the side of wishing there were more new original musicals. Interesting stories designed from the ground up to be told with more than just words, but if I had to pick, I'd like to watch a musical based on the music of Muse, or a Labyrinth musical maybe! :)

Em: What is your LEAST favourite thing about performing in the West End?

Robbie: The tube during rush hour & mic tape!

Em: What are your plans and ambitions for the future?

Robbie: I have many, but first and foremost is my plan to release some of my own original music in a finished form :)

Em: What advice would you give to someone like me who wants to be in theatre when 
they’re older?

Robbie: Do it! As much as its a difficult job, it is a ridiculously wonderful thing to get payed to do, and it is amazing to do something you love for a living!

Em: Is there anything else you’d like to say to my readers?

Robbie: Yes! Thank you so much for reading this far, I hope you enjoyed it! If you would like to keep up with me, my original music or any of my future plans, please come follow and chat to me on Twitter @robbiewhiteThanks for having me :)

Robbie appears to have written his own outro, so I'll leave it there! Be sure to follow me on Twitter @ohmymusicals to keep up with the rest of Sunny Afternoon Week!

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