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Past/Present/Future for … Julie Atherton

Julie Atherton is a musical theatre actress best known as an original West End cast member of puppet musical Avenue Q. Her other credits include Mamma Mia!, Out of this World and Fame, and she is a founder member of Notes From New York, a company dedicated to showcasing the work of US composers in the West End. She released her own album, A Girl of Few Words, in 2006, and is currently appearing in the UK premiere of American Adam Gwon’s musical Ordinary Days at the Finborough Theatre. She is returning to the cast of Avenue Q from 1 December until it closes on 28 March 2009, and headlines the Christmas in New York concert alongside Maria Friedman at the Lyric Theatre on 7 December.

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PAST: It was my drama teacher at sixth form college that really inspired me to try acting and I decided just to go for it because I’m not very good at anything else! So I went for an audition at Mountview (which I’d read about in a book in the college library) and got a place - I then had to audition for the council and they gave me a grant. It was very nerve-wracking, moving to London was a massive step for me.

I got Mamma Mia! not long after I graduated from college. That was my first taste of the West End and I absolutely loved it. When I went up for Avenue Q, it was just another audition. About half way through they said “ok, can you stick your arm up this puppet”, and I remember thinking it was the strangest thing I’d ever been up for. I didn’t really know any puppet skills, so I just had to improvise. I hadn’t seen the show in America, so I didn’t really have a clue what any of it was about. After I got a recall, I obviously did a lot more research, but it was still very weird because you couldn’t take the puppets home and practice, you just had to think on your feet during the auditions.

The success of the show took us all by surprise. We knew it was a great show – funny, brilliantly written – but we’d no idea it would attract such a cult following. I think it’s because it resonates with so many people, and touches on so many different subjects. I’m so glad it did take off, because I think the team all worked so hard on it and worked so well together that they deserved the success.

PRESENT: I was sent a script for Ordinary Days through my agent - I’m sent quite a few scripts to look at, but this one stuck out for me. When I heard the music as well, I realised it’s just the sort of thing I like, something of a cross between Jason Robert Brown, Stephen Sondheim and Jonathan Larson. It’s very contemporary, conversational musical theatre. And I quite liked it because it wasn’t a massive dramatic story like a lot of musicals, it’s just about moments. It’s quite hard to explain because there isn’t really a plot as such, it’s just a glimpse into people’s lives, how they make decisions and how they came to make the decisions they did.

It’s great performing at the Finborough. I’ve done Notes From New York for several years now, and we’ve played some really intimate venues – it’s what I love doing. It’s actually more nerve-wracking to play a studio venue than it is to perform on a massive West End stage, where the audience is quite far away and just look like a sea of darkness. In a small venue you can pick out particular faces, it’s quite scary being eyeball-to-eyeball with your audience!

I think the show’s got definite potential for the West End, but obviously I’m not involved with all of that. I just act! I have no idea where it’s going to go, but if somebody likes it then hopefully it will have a future. It marks Adam Gwon’s first outing in this country, but I think he’s going on to big things. Though to be honest I only know this show, so maybe I’m not the best to judge!

FUTURE: I’m stepping back into Avenue Q in December until the end of the run (in March 2009). I’ve really missed it, I miss Kate - I know she was pining for me! I just really loved doing it, and thought when else am I going to get the chance? And the company are all lovely, so I’m sure it’ll be a fun reunion.

Beyond that, there are all sorts of possibilities really. I’m one of those people who can’t plan; I just go in whatever direction I’m taken. If something is put in front of me that I absolutely want to do, I’ll do whatever I can to do it. I’d love to try a sitcom, or, like most other actors, would love to do a film. And there’s talk of maybe another album soon, so we’ll see. In the more immediate term I’m doing a workshop of Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi in a couple of weeks and then I’m involved with the Perfect Pitch workshops at Trafalgar Studios, so there’s plenty going on.

My advice to anyone looking to pursue a similar career would be to think about it very carefully. Many people go off to drama schools thinking it’s going to be a laugh, whereas in fact it’s also an awful lot of hard work. If you don’t have the balls to be out of work and get told that you’re not good enough for this and you’re not good enough for that, and you should look like this, and you shouldn’t look like that, then get out because it’s really hard when there’s nothing coming in. You’ve got to take the lows with the highs. But it is amazing when it’s high so if it really is your dream and that’s really what you want to do and you can’t see yourself doing anything else than absolutely go for it and don’t let anyone stand in your way.

- Julie Atherton was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Ordinary Days is at the Finborough Theatre on 3, 9, 10, 16 and 17 November 2008 – click here to read our interview with the cast and director Adam Lenson on our Off-West End microsite. Julie Atherton is returning to the cast of Avenue Q from 1 December 2008, until it closes on 28 March 2009.


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