INTERVIEW: Shona White

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With starring roles in Chess, Wicked, Les Miserables, Shout, Mamma Mia and Rocky Horror, Shona White is one of the most highly acclaimed Scottish stars in Theatreland. Shona generously agreed to answer some questions about her stellar career for Glasgow Theatre Blog. 

Did your interest in performing start at an early age?

Yes I started singing solos at school services and in my village church when I was wee.

At what point did you decide to pursue performing as a career?

I used to get The Stage delivered and it made me want to go to Sylvia Young’s but my parents thankfully wanted me to get a good education in Scotland first. I did my Highers then moved down to London to go to Italia Conti when I was 17.

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Shona as Eponine in Les Miserables

You went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music; what ambitions did you have when you left there, and since you’ve achieved a huge amount in your career, how have they changed?

Well my first ambition was to be in Les Miserables and I actually left RAM early as I got into my dream show towards the end of my training. (I still got my diploma but unfortunately had to sacrifice the cap and gown ceremony as I was touring with the show).

I then had to rethink my ambitions as I had achieved the big one so early on in my career. Things change constantly and different shows come and go so I guess my goals have changed with them along the way. My next show was Merrily We Roll Along at The Donmar Warehouse directed by Michael Grandage, where I rubbed shoulders with Sam Mendes and Stephen Sondheim which I will never forget.There are still plenty of dream roles on my list but after Eponine the next dream role that came along was definitely Elphaba in Wicked which has become one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre.

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Merrily We Roll Along

The roles you’ve been lucky enough to play have been diverse; can you explain how you go about preparing for a role?

The practical side of the preparation is to learn my lines, music and lyrics but I find this needs to come hand in hand with setting the show in rehearsals. It helps to be familiar with the material before I start so I can have a framework to build on but I tend to cement my learning as I’m getting the part into my body physically in the space as well as vocally and mentally.

It is important to research the character and find as much information as possible from the existing material to have a background as a starting point. Relationships to other characters is also important so I can see how my character fits into the story.

With roles that require vocal stamina I try to sing the part into my body as a lot of performing it will become muscle memory and the voice, being a muscle, needs to be trained just like any other muscles in our body. By the same token with a big singing role I also try to rest my voice as much as possible when it is not required so it has time to recover before it’s next workout. Rehearsal periods are tough but necessary to build up stamina and put together all the relevant components.

I also think about what the character looks like physically and sometimes become a bit obsessed by this subconsciously and it can cross over into my everyday life. I was constantly wearing 60’s clothes when I was in Shout, In Mamma Mia I got blonder and blonder and more tanned by the day and wore turquoise obsessively. Thank goodness Wicked didn’t manifest itself in the same way. It might have been a bit hard to explain the green face in Sainsbury’s!

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A glimpse of the turquoise Mamma Mia outfit!

What’s been your favourite role to play so far?

It’s a close call between Elphaba in Wicked and Florence Vassy in Chess.

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As Chess’ Florence Vassy

What’s the moment in your career you’re most proud of?

I think performing the end of Defying Gravity in Wicked the night my Mum and Dad were watching the show and seeing how proud and emotional they were afterwards.

I’ve interviewed many Scottish performers for this series, and something that rather a lot have in common is Wicked; you’ve played the ultimate role in the show, Elphaba; tell us what it’s like playing such an iconic part.

Yes a lot of us Scots have been in Wicked. I love this fact!

What can I say? Elphaba is the most iconic female musical theatre role we’ve seen for years. It was a huge challenge to get my teeth into and an incredible thrill to play. I love the journey she goes on through the show and the music is so powerful. My favourite song to sing was definitely No Good Deed.

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As Elphaba

Craig Revel Horwood’s new production of Chess has been very well received, especially your performance as Florence Vassy; what was it like taking the performance to Toronto? Did the audience reaction differ to the UK?

It was an amazing experience taking the show to Toronto. It’s a fantastic city and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. I hope to to perform there again one day. We were made very welcome by the people there. I don’t think they’d witnessed anything quite like Craig and Sarah’s incredible actor musician interpretation of the show. The arrangements were wonderful and the cast were amazing playing,singing and dancing simultaneously. If I had a pound for the amount of people who thought the music was on a CD I’d be a very rich girl!

Your album I’ll Bring You a Song, is fantastically diverse; tell us how you selected the songs.

It was nigh on impossible as there are so many great songs to be sung. I will just have to keep doing more so I can get through them all! My producers had a big hand in choosing the tracks thank goodness as otherwise I don’t know how I would have narrowed it down. We tried to make it as varied as possible and include a lot of new writing which I am huge fan of as well as songs people would be familiar with. I also really wanted a Scottish song on there too to reflect my roots.

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Part of the series is to give advice to aspiring performers in Scotland; what would you say to someone contemplating a career on stage?

I’d say it is very important to get a solid education first. I am very grateful my parents made me do this. It is a highly competitive industry with a lot of ups and downs so really make sure it is the route for you. If it is your passion and you believe you have a real talent then work hard and follow your dreams…

Is there any production past or present you wish you could have been involved in?

Not that I can think of offhand but I have a list of parts I’d love to play which I won’t bore you with now. I would love to play Ellen in Miss Saigon which is rumoured to be having a revival very soon.

What do you do to relax when you’re not working?

I like to spend time with my nearest and dearest, watch movies and I love cooking. I am a huge Come Dine With Me fan and would love to be on it one day.

Finally, tell us what’s next for Shona White in 2013 and beyond?

I have just recorded a Friday Night is Music Night with the BBC Concert Orchestra singing alongside Hadley Fraser. Available on BBC iplayer here until 12th April.

I have a few projects in the pipeline including solo concerts and a new show involving the other two Shonas in the industry (One Scottish, one Irish so both Celtic).

I am also now a voice-over artist so maybe you’ll hear me randomly on adverts or perhaps singing on the next Brave movie… You never know.

Besides that I am waiting for the next amazing theatrical role I can throw myself into. Watch this space.

For more information on Shona visit www.shonawhite.com

Follow Shona on Twitter @singinghaggis

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