Andrew Wright on Stepping Out in Salisbury
Written (and set) in 1984, the play is about nine women and one man tapping their troubles away once a week in an old church hall, urged on by ex-chorus-girl Mavis. This unlikely troupe of amateur tap dancers prepare for their end of term charity show, while behind the show-biz smiles, life continues in unexpected and not always welcome ways. The show has been presented both in the west end and on Broadway to great acclaim, spawned a hugely successful film version, starring Liza Minnelli, and a slightly less successful musical version in the 1990s.
This new production of Stepping Out returns to its roots, and is directed by Adam Penford, Associate Director on the National Theatre’s West End and Broadway smash-hit, One Man, Two Guvnors. It is choreographed by Andrew Wright who received an Olivier Award nomination for the current West End production of Singin’ In The Rain. Andrew’s other credits include: 42nd Street (Chichester Festival Theatre and Curve, Leicester), The Critic/The Real Inspector Hound (Minerva Theatre), Wonderful Town (National Tour), The Showgirl Within (Garrick Theatre), Nunsense A-Men and Naked Boys Singing (Arts Theatre), Almost Like Being In Love (National Theatre), Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi (Liverpool Playhouse, Union Theatre) Best Choreographer nomination Broadway World Awards 2010, By Jeeves (Landor Theatre), I Sing (Union Theatre) and Soul Traders (Edinburgh Festival). Assistant director and co-choreographer for Chess in Concert (Royal Albert Hall) and seven productions of The Night Of 1000 Voices (Royal Albert Hall and Odyssey Belfast). Betty Blue Eyes, Curtains, The Drowsy Chaperone, My Favorite Year, 42nd Street, Spend, Spend, Spend, Putting It Together and State Fair (Arts Ed), My Favorite Year (Guildhall).
Taking time out from rehearsals, Andrew spared a few minutes to speak to Whatsonstage:
Q: Tell us about the play, and what you, as a choreographer, bring to it?
A: Well it’s about a group of normal people (housewives, a student nurse, shop owner, employment office worker, etc.) who go once a week to a tap class in a village hall outside London. Set in the mid-80s. It is people from all walks of life who want to learn to dance – not professionals, they are an amateur bunch of people who for their own reasons, go for the enjoyment of it.
As choreographer, it’s a difficult balance, as all through the play the cast cannot be allowed to look too confident or rehearsed, but at the end there is one big number where they are transformed into these fabulous dancers, so goes to the other extreme. We see the characters from the very early stages of their dancing–when they can’t even walk in time, let alone tap dance in time. We see the whole journey for these characters from beginning to end. And what I am fighting to achieve is realism. What inevitably happens is the performers get too good too soon. Its our fourth week of rehearsals, and the rhythm is now getting into their bodies, so I’m trying to get them to cling on to how we all were in the first week, when they were doing the routines for the very first time. At that time they were understandably a bit flummoxed by it all, and we need to hold on to that and replicate it on the stage. At the end of course we will (hopefully) see this wonderful transition into fabulous dancers.
Apart from the dance classes of course, there are two full production numbers back to back at the end of the show to choreograph. One is the dress rehearsal, of the number they have been working towards throughout the show – ‘Happy Feet’ – which is supposed to go okay, not brilliantly of course – a bit rough around the edges (honestly) - but THEN we see them a year on, when they come back and they are all polished and professional. So what we get is a real journey for all the characters, not only in their dance, but in other areas of their lives too.
What is exciting for me is I think that we are the first production to have the rights to do the ‘Stepping Out’ number from the movie – you know, the one sung by Liza Minnelli. I am a huge fan of that film, and the script of course doesn’t specify what number is used for the grand finale, so Adam (Penfold) the director and I sat down to decide what number we should use, we felt that was such a fantastic number to end on, so we asked the rights holder if we could use it, and they let us! What is also is great is that we have Rachel Stanley playing Mavis, who is a singer as well as dancer, so it fits nicely, and she is able to open with the vocal section, as Liza does in the movie. It’s become a huge, epic number, really. And it was this routine that I started with them on their very first day! I really wanted to push everybody, really wanted to challenge them, making it as technically demanding as possible. There doing some really hard stuff actually.
Q: Are the cast new to dancing?
We have all sorts of different levels actually, some advanced, some a little rusty and so on. For all of us it has been a steep learning curve actually.
Q: What appealed to you about this production now?
Well I love the play of course, having seen it in London at the Duke of York Theatre when I was very young, and as I’ve said, was a great fan of the film. And actually, having just done Singing in The Rain which is heavily dance led, I thought it would be quite nice to take on a job which was slightly less demanding – however it has not quite turned out like that! I was completely wrong, and it’s been hugely demanding even though I’ve technically only done three numbers, there is dance, at various levels, throughout the show.
Q: How are you finding being away from London and at Salisbury Playhouse?
It’s really lovely. Although I live in London, I am a country boy at heart, from Somerset originally. I’ve never been to Salisbury, and it is a great place to be, and the theatre is lovely too. I find it very like Chichester - All the staff are great, and all really care about the product and the shows they produce on. Everyone here is doing it for the right reasons. I’m really enjoying my time here.
Q: Do you prefer working on the big West End Musicals, or out in the regions?
I like both, I just want to work! I think that stems from when I was a dancer. You have to go where the work is. Obviously, to have a show on in the West End was always my dream, and I’m very lucky to have Singin in the Rain still running at the moment. But I love creating work, wherever. It doesn’t really matter to me where it is as long as it’s a piece I’m enthused by and have a passion for.
I had never worked in Salisbury before, so it is somewhere new and exciting, which appeals, and I saw this job as a nice opportunity to take on work that I really wanted to do.
The idea is that I do three days a week here then back up to London, but that hasn’t quite worked out. I’m here most days, but I love being here, and I love being with the crew, and I like being in the rehearsal room rather than being away from it.
Q: You have a huge back catalogue of work now. What are you most proud of?
As a performer, I did Cats for 3 years, and I loved doing that. You could completely lose yourself. When you’d had an awful day you could just come in and paint yourself, and become a different animal entirely. Great escapism.
As a choreographer, my big break was 42nd Street in Chichester 3 years ago, so I suppose I hold that as a key turning point. It is a pure dance show, and it was actually a huge risk for Chichester giving me the job at that stage in my career, and I was well aware of that. I knew that I had to prove myself on that job, and it was an epic amount of dance, but truly wonderful to work on. I suppose that was the pivotal job for me.
Q: Why the transition from performer to choreographer?
Even at college when I was training to be a dancer I was interested in choreography, and would work on bits here and there. When I was performing in the west end I was working on stuff for the fringe and working with colleges, keeping my hand in. I started to do more and more choreography and eventually my agent said that I had to make a decision because you cannot do both dance and choreography well. I think I was trying to do both, burning the candle, and ending up doing neither to the highest level. But also I was getting older.
2006 was my last dancing job, in Scrooge at the Palladium. I thought then, what a great job to end on – performing at the Palladium! Also, I was never going to be a leading man, I was always a good dancer and an understudy, so I’d just reached the end of that phase. I remember sitting in my dressing room on the last day thinking that was it – and actually feeling fine about it, quite excited about starting a new career.
And it really was starting all over again. I had been lucky enough as a dancer to be constantly in work, but as a choreographer I was quite literally starting all over again, working for pennies at fringe theatres, in pubs etc. – doing anything to get my name about. It was a huge challenge and a huge risk of course, but you have to take risks in life. If you go safely through life it’s not very exciting is it?
I am driven by challenge, I like to challenge myself. You have to put yourself in positions where you are not overly comfortable, and push yourself to be creative. Otherwise you would just coast along.
Q: Stepping Out runs at Salisbury until 6 October. Then whats next?
Straight after this I am doing a new production of Betty Blue Eyes, to try out some new elements of the show which I’m really excited about as I loved the show in London. Then after that (hopefully) Singin In The Rain goes into a re-cast, so I will be working with the next set of performers, possibly re-working some of the routines for the different performers.
Then, next year, I am working on a huge new revival of a show that I am absolutely not allowed to tell you about. It is one of the first shows I was taken to by my parents and I cannot wait to get started on it. I’m super-excited about it – watch this space!