Onstage Acts – Julie Atherton on the musical theatre course which backs new writing

Julie Atherton performed her show

Julie Atherton will curate the contemporary musical theatre summer course OnStage Acts with collaborator Paul Spicer

After great success last year, West End performers Paul Spicer and Julie Atherton are bringing back Onstage Acts, a summer course exploring contemporary musical theatre (running from 27 to 31 July and featuring masterclasses from theatre practitioners who work in all areas of the industry). The programme is presented by Spicer’s production company, Stage Acts Productions.

Onstage Acts, developed as an opportunity to re-focus and absorb ideas from those at the top of their game, is open to musical theatre performers both professional and in education, and allows students to work closely with artists, composers, tutors, casting directors, agents and producers. Curators Spicer and Atherton, plus MD Susanna Squires, hope to inspire each individual to become the best that they can be at this very specific style of performance, while also providing opportunities to make contacts and expand professional networks.

The ever-versatile Julie Atherton has regularly performed in the West End, making her debut in the lead role of Sophie in Mamma Mia! She also originated the role of Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut in the original London production of Avenue Q at the Noel Coward and Gielgud Theatres. Among her extensive other credits are tours of Fame and Sister Act, as well as regional stagings of Just So (Chichester) and The Hired Man (Leicester Curve). In 2003 she also headlined and co-created the Notes From New York series with regular collaborator, actor and producer Paul Spicer. The series originally focused on presenting the work of contemporary American musical theatre composers in the West End, but the season also went on to incorporate the work of British composers. 

Atherton’s recent credits include the title role in Thérèse Raquin, which transferred to the Park Theatre following a sell-out run at the Finborough, and Janet in the original London production of The Rocky Horror Show sequel Shock Treatment at the King’s Head Theatre. She will next be seen in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change at the new London studio space Above the Arts (1–19 July). Her third album, Rush of Life, was released at the end of 2014.

Tal Fox reports…

Onstage FB BANNER PINKHow did Onstage Acts come about and how did you get involved?

Paul Spicer and I have been working together for many years. We used to do masterclasses together all the time and we always gravitated towards new musical theatre. We realised there weren’t many opportunities for that kind of material to be heard (although there are outlets within drama schools). We wanted to promote new writing within the genre as much as we could.

Paul did all the ground work for the first course, he was brilliant with that. We really enjoyed it last year, it was a rewarding, intensive week. We got a lot out of it too, so we decided we would have to do it again. It was really emotional saying goodbye to everyone at the end of the week because we got so close. It’s not like a teacher/student relationship, we’re all working on material together. It was really refreshing working with people who were so keen. Some people were already in the business and just needed a little refresher.

How did last year’s project influence the planning for this year?

It went so well that we thought we’d probably keep the structure similar, although we learnt about not trying to cram too much in. It was still fantastic how it worked in 2014, everyone was impressive, worked really hard and had such good fun in the process.

What’s it like collaborating with Paul?

He’s ridiculous, I love him to death. He’s my fake husband. We just bounce off each other really well. Most of the time we know what the other one is thinking.

Your next project is I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change, how is the preparation for that going?

I’m really excited about that. We haven’t started rehearsals yet but we’ve all had little sessions with the MD. I got my script today and I’m really looking forward to working on that.

also originated the role of Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut in the original London production of Avenue Q

Julie Atherton originated the role of Kate Monster/Lucy the Slut in the original London production of Avenue Q

Are you looking forward to reuniting with your Avenue Q co-star Simon Lipkin?

Yeah, I haven’t worked with him since then. I hope he’s improved… We’ll see. That’s a joke!

You are quite a big fan of new work, what specifically draws you towards it?

The fact that it’s new and hasn’t been done. I’m a person who gets bored quite quickly and when everybody goes on about something, it annoys me. It took me ages to read the Harry Potter books because everyone was talking about them. Reviving old shows is obviously wonderful, but I feel that musical theatre needs to move forward, because it seems as if every other genre like film, art and music are constantly doing that.

When big money is involved and big businesses get involved with art, it gets turned into a formula, it becomes very safe, and we know what we’re going to get and we know the way it works. I call them the McDonald’s shows. The businessmen are happy because it’s very safe. Unfortunately, safe isn’t art, formula isn’t art and structure isn’t art, we need to break those moulds. There need to be more organisations like Perfect Pitch who can get the funding to take some risks and try material out on a small scale first. Then, hopefully, there may be an opportunity to do something on a bigger scale.

I just think it’s so important because we’ve just got the same show on in every theatre but with a different name. Or something from a flop of a film they made into a musical. Let’s look for new concepts and new music, just something different. Art just needs lots of talented people expressing themselves, not money people getting involved and making it formulaic and safe.

So this course would be a great way for people to show off their talents?

Exactly, all the exciting stuff is happening on the Fringe at the moment. This is a great opportunity for the people who come on the course to get seen by people who do things on the Fringe. It’s really important to have courses like this running where people can be showcased without having to go to drama school.

If you had to sum it up to someone to sell the course, what would you say?

When I started out I would have really enjoyed doing a course like this. It’s great, even if you are in the middle of your career and just need a refresher. It’s really difficult being an actor because you’re constantly being told ‘no’, your self-esteem is on the floor most of the time, and sometimes you just need that little break. You just need someone to tell you why you’re not getting the break, or you can rethink things alongside other people who are going through the same thing. Having a showcase at the end of the course is great too. A girl from the last course is now in Ghost – she did really well out of it. It’s nice to work intensively with a group of people for a week – it feels like a proper performing job, it’s good to keep that momentum going. Sometimes the spark can go out if you’re waiting for too long.

Award-winning producer and casting director Danielle Tarento and Katie Brayben, 2015 Best Actress in a Musical at the Oliviers for Beautiful – The Carole King Musical, will join the Onstage Acts faculty this summer. That must be exciting.

Katie Brayben isn’t just a singer, but is an excellent actress as well, and that’s so important in musical theatre – it’s often overlooked. I think acting skills come first and foremost. Danielle is a multi award-winning producer and casting director and a fantastic person to get advice from.

What has been the absolute highlight of your career so far?

That’s so difficult! It depends on what scale but work-wise I really enjoyed Thérèse Raquin. It’s really hard to change people’s perceptions and I had been known for comedy, so that was a completely different character. It was hard work, but really exciting, and I loved it. It’s nice to tackle a challenging female role because there aren’t many of those around. The men normally get those roles and the women are expected to just look pretty.

Do you have a dream role you would love to play one day?

No, I don’t think it has been written yet. Obviously there are roles that I would have loved to have played but they’re done now and they’re on their 76th cast member so it would never be the same. I like to work with creatives rather than do the McDonald’s bit. The thing is with long-running shows, they’re watered down creatively. It becomes more of a factory, a product rather than a creation, and I feel frustrated with that. Some people love it, but I find it frustrating when you’re meant to do it like the person before. I like creating. You have freedom as an actor to play the role how you want to play it.

Anything else you want to tell us about the course?

Be prepared to have a lot of fun. You absolutely won’t regret it if you do it. You’re collaborating with a fantastic bunch of people and working hard, which is basically what you want to do when you’re an actor.

* Course fees are £150 for the week’s tuition. Only 30 places are available. To apply, visit www.onstageacts.com or email info@stageactsuk.com to register your interest and request an application form.

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