Interview – Audrey Brisson on La Strada, hedgehog costumes and being ‘slightly odd’

La Strada Audrey Brisson Credit Robert Day

Audrey Brisson in La Strada at The Other Palace, London. Pictures: Robert Day

Actress, singer, and acrobat French-Canadian AUDREY BRISSON is currently playing the wide-eyed Gelsomina in the musical stage adaptation of Federico Fellini’s 1954 film La Strada (‘The Road’).

Having spent the early years of her career within the Cirque du Soleil’s embrace, she has carved out a career at the forefront of collaborative theatre, working with directors Sally Cookson and Rupert Goold, amongst others.

Her credits include: Cirque du Soleil’s Quidam, Kneehigh’s The Cast of the Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, The Grinning Man (Bristol Old Vic), and National Theatre’s The Elephantom.

Musical Theatre Review’s Aura Simon caught up with Audrey as the touring production began its London run at The Other Palace.

Going back to the beginning, your parents were both artists, would you say you grew up with performance in your blood?

Yes… My father [Benoît Jutras] the band leader of Cirque du Soleil when I was a child, so I would follow him when he went on tour, from the age of about three, and then when I was four I myself was part of the show. So I started performing at a very young age. I didn’t have much of a choice!

My mother was a singer – she used to have this corde lisse act where she would be climbing up the rope and sing opera. Very, very, charismatic people.

Can you remember the first time you thought about making it your livelihood? Or was it always on the cards that you’d follow in their footsteps?

I fought against it for quite a while actually. After Cirque Du Soleil I came back to Canada to finish high school.

I did study some classical singing, but I remember distinctly thinking to myself at times: ‘I will not become a singer! I will not be like my mother! I will not be onstage! I’m only doing this because I don’t know what else to do.’

I went and did sociology at university because I wanted to get as far away as possible from the stage.

But then…you miss it, don’t you? It called me back.

Screen Shot 2017-06-10 at 22.03.57What did you do to sustain yourself, creatively and emotionally, during that time?

It’s not an easy life – I was lucky to start with, but after drama school (Central School of Speech & Drama) of course it was a bit tough, the phone didn’t ring. You have to live the reality of being an actor, never knowing exactly when the next job is going to be.

I was young and naive and I just didn’t believe that it wasn’t going to happen.

What sustained me emotionally was knitting!

You’ve managed to build a career by doing some strong and unusual projects. What’s most important to you when you’re choosing to audition?

Having the ability to be heard in the room. So far, I’ve mostly done work that was devised, or at least partly devised, where my was input was welcomed. I think that for me it’s important. I don’t want to be told: “take three steps to the right and turn on the left diagonal”.

So with La Strada how did the process develop? Was it organic?

Yes, I think, so far, it’s the show that I’ve had the most input into. I think we all did, we came into the rehearsal room and there was no script. We had the film as a base and Mike Akers the writer brought the skeleton of a script based on the film. But so much of it became about improvisation and discussion.

We would meet up and rehearse a scene, the first two or three hours would just be Sally [Cookson, director], Mike, Stuart Goodwin (who plays Zampanò) and myself, sat around a table discussing: What works? What doesn’t work? What is the relationship between the characters? What do we want to take from the original? Is it still relevant and pertinent today? What is the message we want to convey in the show?

It was fantastic how strong the conversations became, being proved wrong, and being proved right, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s very empowering as an actor to be in the room and to know that your ideas matter. That’s what’s fantastic about Sally, she hires actors who feed her.

Do you feel like as an actor you’re seeing enough of that sort of collaboration in the industry?

Yes, actually, more and more. Maybe it’s just the kind of show that I go and see, but I notice that actors are less and less required to simply be amazing at speaking words. Can you play an instrument? Can you dance? What can you bring to the table – specifically to you – that will make this more interesting to see on stage, that will enhance the story? I see, and I hope, that it’s getting stronger and stronger.

Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina and Stuart Goodwin as Zampano in La Strada

Audrey Brisson as Gelsomina and Stuart Goodwin as Zampano in La Strada

Would you like to tell us a little about the show as it is and about your character?

We’ve stayed relatively faithful to the story of the show,  it is the story of Zampanò who buys this girl from her family and she becomes his assistant. He is a one-man show and it’s the story of their dysfunctional relationship, how they affect one another and the people that they meet on this journey.

What’s fantastic about the film is that you have the opportunity of portraying the bleakness of the post-war world through landscape, so we’ve had to be quite imaginative with our set.

My character, Gelsomina, is this young and naive girl who grew up with her mother and sisters – the men were absent post the Second World War. She’s connected to nature, to the sea, to music in general.

She might appear odd at times but she connects to the world differently. The story is about how she gains some control, realises her self-worth.

Is that state of being something you can relate to?

Erm…am I odd, do you mean?

I wasn’t going to put it quite like that…

Well I find myself hilarious, but nobody else does – perhaps that makes me slightly odd!

Well, as long as you can entertain yourself!

I’m my best audience! It’s really interesting because my whole family – we are all musicians in one way or another – are very much moved by music, on stage, in shows etc.

Audrey Brisson and cast of La Strada Credit Robert Day

Audrey Brisson and the cast of La Strada. Picture: Robert Day

In La Strada, Benji Bower’s music is a character on its own, It enhances the story, the emotion and everything. I am very much in connection, in tune with that kind of music, but I don’t listen to music enough in my life.

My father, when I was young, was desperate for me to listen to music. When a song came on the radio he’d always ask me: “Audrey, who’s singing?”

The first time he asked me, it had been Madonna, and some time after that, it was Peter Gabriel. And from then on if it was a woman singing, I’d say ‘Madonna’, or if it was a man I’d say ‘Peter Gabriel’ – it’s still the game.

With such a physically demanding show, how do you and your cast answer that demand and keep yourselves in peak condition?

A small group of us have been doing Shaun T’s T25 – we’re on week four now! On some days the biggest challenge is the heat, so we drink lots of water. Eating healthy and getting enough sleep is important too.

Quick fire round:

Weirdest audition you’ve ever had?

I had to take a piece of paper, and without folding it, pretend it was a bird and make it fly around the room. I got the job, but I remember at the time thinking: ’This is the strangest thing!”

Favourite costume or prop?

My favourite costume was in The Cast of the Flying Lovers of Vitebsk with Kneehigh (which is coming back this summer, by the way) I had three truly stunning dresses.

I also appeared in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in Kensington Gardens. I was a hedgehog, and I had the best huge woollen coat. I mean it was in the middle of the summer and it was horrendous to wear, but it was beautiful.

Hardest lines you’ve ever had to learn?

LA STRADATricky one. The Romeo and Juliet was a challenge, just because English is my second language anyway, and then understanding the different depths of Shakespeare was not the easiest thing in the world.

I remember in other shows, though, sometimes you have these lines that for one reason or another just become tongue twisters.

Best advice you’ve ever had from a mentor?

Keep it simple.

Favourite cabaret acts?

The guy in La Clique, with the tennis racket. He was fabulous: Captain Frodo [aka The Incredible Rubberman]!

What makes you laugh the most?

Apart from me?!

You’re right, we’ve already answered that. Do you find you laugh more at slapstick, or wit, or a combination?

I think, wit.

Would you rather perform and never see any theatre, or see theatre and never perform?

Oooooh! I think I’d rather perform – not in an egotistical way – but when you perform, you also get to see theatre. So in a sense I’d do both.

Tickets for La Strada at The Other Palace are available HERE.

Readers may also be interested in:

La Strada – The Other Palace – Review

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