“Having just finished White Christmas as Judy Haynes then coming to this show, it’s a similar vein (style/genre). And it’s my favourite kind of musical to perform.”
Having made her professional debut touring the US, Louise followed that by joining Mamma Mia on an international tour. Subsequent roles in Guys and Dolls, Into The Woods, Mary Poppins, We Will Rock You, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Ragtime and White Christmas have established Louise Bowden as a leading West End actress.
Earlier this week I chatted with Louise about her career and of course Singin’ In The Rain. Enjoy!
You were born in Dublin. What was it like growing up there?
I have fond memories of growing up. I had a very happy childhood, which was very freeing and very adventurous. My mum and dad were so caring. I’m one of five, with a brother and three sisters. I’m the eldest of them all. So an extremely full and loud house growing up. My parents encouraged us to follow our passions but were never pushy. I had an interest in the arts and music from a very young age, from as far back as I can remember, doing impressions and mimicking things that I saw on TV. I can remember watching the film One-Eyed Jacks starring Marlon Brando, copying his voice and facial expressions, much to the amusement of my parents!
How old were you when you did impressions?
I think I was just over one, and doing little impressions like that. We lived with my grandparents before my mum and dad got a house. And I would come down and watch Yellow Submarine by the Beatles on the telly every single morning. I was hooked!
Were your parents involved in the performing arts at all?
Well my dad’s father was in a group called the Harmonichords in the 30s and 40s. They were quite famous in Ireland, touring all around the country, but they used to get their instruments imported from Germany, so when the war happened that was kaput and that finished them. My grandmother always went to ballet school, was in amateur dramatics as a young girl, and continued dancing through her adult life, not as a professional, but it’s definitely a musical family. My brother studied classical piano in Belgium! He’s a doctor now, but it was initially what he wanted to do. Music has a huge part to play in my family!
Can you tell us about your training at the Maura Bissett School of Ballet?
I have such fond memories about my time there. My gran was always the instigator. She was never pushy but she was always the one who said, “Would you like to join ballet school, would you like to enter this talent competition?” And at that point I said yeah, so off I went to the Maura Bissett School of Ballet. I was five years old and immediately loved it, had the flare for the lines, and placement. I loved the elegance and strength of ballet even at that age. With ballet I enjoyed moving through the music rather than moving to actual counts in a sense. And in that way it was a lovely interpretation. I stayed with that school for quite a long time, working up through all the IDTA grades. I also got a place to study with a Russian teacher who’d audition kids in Dublin for intense training with her. Although I greatly improved with her, it was through pure fear! She taught by picking on you rather than encouraging you which looking back was a huge complement, but at the age of 10, I only saw that she didn’t like me. Tough love didn’t work for me.
You went to the Billie Barry Stage School. What can you tell us about your time there and how it prepared you for the future?
My time there was amazing. I joined quite late. I was about nine when I joined there. They teach you tap, drama, singing, jazz and performance. It was a wonderful time because I got to do all the things that I loved. We did pantos, TV performances, musicals, school showcases! They nurture talent so well and there are so many wonderful talented performers that come out of there, and are based here in London and around the world, that have done very well. They put emphasis on nurturing people’s passions, no matter what their passions are, whether it’s dancing or singing or acting. It’s very encouraging. A great school to be a part of, it’s wonderful for kids to have a focus at that age.
At the age of nine you performed in Coppélia at the Point Depot in Dublin, with the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet which included Rudolf Nureyev. What can you remember of this?
I can remember my mum and dad were there with me to be my chaperone. Again my Gran read about it in the newspaper, and said, “Would you like to go for this?”, and bribed me with a pair of shoes. I’ve always had this sort of thing inside me that I call my ‘yes and no man’. The battle to put yourself in the position to achieve something great (yes) and the flip side (no) to take the easy way out and not take the chance! Yes always wins over, the feeling of regret “what if I‘d gone to that audition” is far greater than the nerves felt in the audition! So that side of me has always been the ambitious pushy side. So I went for it anyway, and Dennis Nahat was the director choreographer of that piece, he was at the audition, a few of us were chosen and it was an incredible experience. The Point Depot is a five minute walk from my doorstep, so I used to walk across Liffey Bridge to the theatre. The technical rehearsals were on stage. Nureyev hadn’t joined us for most of the rehearsal because obviously he had created this ballet many, many times. I think he was also quite unwell at that point, in 1990. Instead of playing the love interest, he was playing the Toymaker. I remember being a little bit scared of him. He was quite a presence. And at that time he would have been ill. As a kid of nine I was in awe of him but also terrified of him. I remember rehearsing on the stage and it was time for him to enter, there would be a voice over the speaker, “Will you get the kids off the stage, clear them out.” It was that kind of feeling and that kind of presence. Getting his autograph was also terrifying. We were given a pair of block ballet shoes from the company that had been worn during the run that we did at the Point, which was wonderful, I still have them. And he signed the bottom, the sole part of them and the back of a Marlborough cigarette box. That was another quick, quick, get him to sign something. My dad smoked at the time and we tore off the back of the cigarette box and he signed it and then we were ushered out of the door and that was it. But it’s a wonderful, wonderful memory, such an amazing experience. I remember looking at books when I was a kid, of Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet School, so for me it was a dream come true.
What was your first professional role?
I suppose when I was 15/16, and still in school I was professionally doing work at the same time with a show that was travelling in America. I was grateful to be let out of school for a lot of the time. When I came back I’d have to make up the work or study while travelling. In America we toured with Jury’s Irish Cabaret which had been running for 30 years at that time. I think it’s one of the longest running cabarets in Europe. It was very much with traditional Irish orientation, but with the success of Riverdance, a new injection of modern dance was introduced to it as well. We toured America, in the spring and the fall and we’d go to the likes of the MGM Grand in Vegas, John Hancock in Boston, LA, and all over the place, from the big cities to the smaller towns, to the dry counties where there wasn’t a drink in sight. And yeah, it was an amazing experience and a great way to learn stage craft at such a young age as well. We majored in Dublin for six months of the year and I was lead dancer and lead singer in that. I performed with that from the age of 15 till I was 22. So, I guess that was my first professional role.
You were on an international tour with Mamma Mia!, playing the part of Ali and First cover Sophie. What are some of your favourite memories of the tour?
It was definitely my first big stage musical that was associated with London and the West End. That came about when I was doing a show called ‘On Eagle’s Wing’ which went to America and was also at the Odyssey Arena, Belfast. It was a new show that they were trying to get off the ground. It was a pretty big arena tour and I was doing that at the time. I saw that they were auditioning for the Mamma Mia! International Tour, and they were coming to the Point Theatre Dublin, now called the O2. So I went for the audition and flew over several times to London for recalls and eventually got the job. I toured with that for two years. I was playing Ali/cover Sophie and we went all over South Africa, Germany, Belgium, Austria, France, and UK dates as well. I had to constantly pinch myself. I’m very grateful for what I do, because it is an amazing career. And if it can take you away to places like that, there’s just no better thing.
You made your West End debut in Guys and Dolls. What did you enjoy most about this show?
I think it was the choreography, Rob Ashford’s choreography. It was the Donmar Warehouse Michael Grandage production at the Piccadilly Theatre and I think it was 2005. The cast had previously included Ewan McGregor, Patrick Swayze, Jane Krakowski. Our cast had Norman Bowman and Don Johnson from Miami Vice. It was a pleasure to do every night, so nerve-wracking too because the Havana scene comes out of nowhere, and it was a full-on routine. Knackered afterwards! It was a hugely talented company.
You played the role of Florinda and cover Cinderella in Sondheim’s Into The Woods at the Royal Opera House. What do you like best about Sondheim’s music?
It was brilliant. That was an incredible job. I was very lucky to finish Guys and Dolls and go straight into that, literally a day later, thanks to Mr Neil Rutherford, the casting director for both. Sondheim for me defines musical drama, really. He marries poetic drama and music together in a fictional world and has the ability to create a universe for his characters to battle through. A dream for any Musical Theatre actor! There’s always expression and description in his writing and his imagination. Such depth and grit, yet also touching. He’s a master of his art in my eyes. I just adore Sondheim, the drama, the poetry, and the music just marry so well together as a performance story.
Cameron Mackintosh cast you as Mrs Banks in the first UK Tour of Mary Poppins. What can you tell us about the audition process and some of your favourite memories from the show?
The audition process was incredible. I hadn’t played a lead role before this. So at the time I remember I went in for my first audition actually as a chorus member/ensemble. I think I sang for them and they may have seen Mrs Banks in how I performed and from then on followed about 10 auditions. They wanted to get it right of course and I was quite young as well to be playing Mrs Banks. I think the tenth audition was at Cameron’s offices with Sir Richard Eyre the director, and also some of the creators. I got a yes and that was just the most incredible feeling because after 10 auditions it could easily be between myself and someone else, but luck was on my side obviously. That was an incredible experience. I learnt so much and it really opened my eyes too. Mrs Banks sings, she doesn’t dance. It’s all acting, more of a play for her. The Banks family are the heart of the story and Winifred and her husband have to show the journey of the show. And that was such a lovely challenge. I absolutely adored the role and still do to this day. I would love to go back and play it again. It’s just such a beautiful show. Cameron’s shows are always wonderful with exceptional attention to detail, whether it be authentic props or costumes. I would come on stage and be reading from a 1910/1912 book, you know, everything was just sourced and presented and real and it just helps your performance to be as real and as truthful as possible as well. That was just a wonderful show, I was very lucky.
Your next major role was Meat in We Will Rock You at the Dominion Theatre. What did you enjoy most about performing in the show?
I remember the first time I saw that show was before I ever auditioned for it. It was when I first moved to London. I’m a massive Queen fan and my family are massive Queen fans as well. Their music is timeless and incredibly powerful. But the show itself is like a rock concert. You have the band on stage and they’ve all played with rock legends. They’ve all played with the greatest musicians and bands alive, so to be amongst that calibre of musician and performer is incredible. The vocal skills on stage are outrageous. Every night you’re just in awe of every cast member belting to the high heavens and meeting Brian May and Roger Taylor who performed with us at one show, it’s an incredible Queen experience, and to have done it is amazing. I had to sing a song called “No One But You” that was written for Freddy Mercury by Brian May, it was an incredible honour. You hope you do it justice because it’s obviously very important to him. But the show was incredible. Innuendo is my favourite because it rises from the depths of underneath the Dominion Theatre. It has hairs standing on your arms when you’re in the dressing room before you go on. In a lot of shows, the parts that I have played have had that 20 minutes wait time before you get on the stage, everyone else is on the stage and it creates this real adrenalin rush.
What is your favourite Queen song?
I do love ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’. I remember listening to that at home when I was young with my mum and dad and there was just something about it. I remember not really understanding what it was about, not knowing that it was him speaking about his inevitable death. Not knowing what it was about, I got the feeling that there was something powerful and quite sad about it, and that still stays with me. But definitely from doing the show Innuendo, the overture is definitely one of my favourites, that rousing sound is incredible.
In 2011, having been part of a national tour of Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, you returned home to Dublin, starring as Judy Haynes at the Grand Canal Theatre, in White Christmas. How would you describe this experience?
I was tired after those four weeks I can tell you. I had so many people to see, friends, family, oh my gosh, it was just wonderful because the Grand Canal like the Dublin O2 is literally five minutes from my home, so it’s literally playing to my home crowd. And the Grand Canal’s a pretty new theatre, so when it was built, my dad said, “You know, do you think you’ll come home and play there?” and I said “Gosh, I hope so.” And there I was for four weeks playing Judy Haynes in White Christmas at that very theatre. And I would walk over the bridge to work every day. And the whole community knew I was part of this. I just couldn’t believe how welcoming people were. They really felt that it was their Irish girl who had come home to perform. They were really congratulatory and very, very supportive of my success. It was such a wonderful time. I had people coming to see the show every single night. I had people to meet every single day. So by the time I’d finished I was absolutely exhausted. I’d been away for so long and done many shows in London and abroad but I think no matter how well you do here when you go home with something, that’s when your friends and family realise, when they actually get to see it. They wouldn’t necessarily get to come over here to theatre land very often. It’s such a wonderful thing to get to come home and perform there, it really is.
In the summer of 2012, the wettest summer on record in the UK, you were performing in the Open Air in Regent’s Park. Can you tell us about it?
To be in Regent’s Park is another great honour, we were in Rep so we did Ragtime and we also did Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yes, the wettest summer recorded in the UK, it was unbelievable. It was such hard work. The shows were incredible. When you’ve got constant rain and constant stopping/starting happening, everyone has to adapt. You had to adapt the choreography. You had to adapt the costumes. The stage crew were constantly trying to find ways of securing the stage and making sure it was safe, all that backstage stuff was a performance in itself. Being in a park is wonderful. We started rehearsing in March. So you’re at the beginning of spring/summer and then you finish in September. I remember standing back behind the set in daylight and I think it was an evening show. I was standing at the back of the stairs ready to go on and you could see the sun. Then months down the line you’re standing ready to go on and you could see the moon. It’s such a different experience. You’re dealing with the elements, with the rain, with animals, and with nature, such as birds flying straight across the stage. But they can add to it as well enhance a moment, make it unique that can’t happen in a four walled theatre. It adds magic. Sometimes even a plane going across at a certain moment can add magic to a scene. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to be a part of. And I’m so grateful to Tim Sheader and Matthew Dunster who gave me my first Regent’s Park and Shakespeare experience.
Ragtime was incredible. We used Ragtime to tell the story of how we got here, how we got to this point in time, in a world where there’s prejudice, destruction, love, hate, tolerance, intolerance, racism etc. We went from being in modern clothes, present day, all the way through to period clothes. The music of Ragtime is just exceptional, it is absolutely incredible to sing, it was quite operatic and quite classical. And your vocal range was increased tenfold doing that show. So the summer of 2012 was with two wonderful shows, an amazing experience, apart from the constant rain. Although I think I’ll have to get used to that again!
You have recently joined the cast of Singin’ In The Rain at the Palace Theatre in the West End, playing the role of Kathy Selden. What can you tell us about your character?
Well we’re in rehearsals at the moment and I’m thoroughly enjoying every minute of it. I’ve known about the show since September, so I’ve had a while to get to grips with the character. She’s a chorus girl and she wants to be an actress. I find her very warm, strong, funny, cheeky, but yet very innocent. She meets Don Lockwood, a famous silent movie actor, and I think she’s the first girl he has ever met who hasn’t fallen for his charms directly. I think there is instant chemistry whether she realises it or not. They have this push and pull kind of relationship at first before they fall in love, and that is such a wonderful thing to play. At first she has her guard up, she’s being cheeky, she’s playing him at his own game. But in true Hollywood land style they fall in love. It’s is that old-fashioned love story of miscommunication, misunderstanding, the chase through song and dance, eventually coming together and realising that they’re both for each other and they are each other’s “Lucky Star” as the song says. I’ve gone from Regent’s Park in the rain to Singin’ In The Rain. I’m also working with Stephane Anelli, who I worked with in Regent’s Park. So we’ve laughed several times saying, “This is really sweet, we’re doing another show in the rain.”
What has it been like in rehearsals, being part of a cast change?
You know what, it’s really wonderful. We’ve been in rehearsals for three weeks, and I’ve had my first week of boot camp, it was just myself and Stephane learning all the routines and coming home very sore and brainfried. The last 3 weeks have been wonderful because we’ve actually been able to be on stage, on set. Normally you’re in a rehearsal room trying to imagine the scenario, and then the next layer is going into the theatre. But we’ve been able to kind of overstep that and go in Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, finding our track, finding our marks instantly. So that’s been incredible. They have put us through our paces and we’re at a really good stage at the moment. This week we’re going to start piecing the first half together and start running that. It’s such a blanket cast change, which is quite nice, a great new energy. So there’s myself and Stephane Anelli playing Cosmo and you have Lina Lamont which is Jennifer Ellison, and we have nearly a whole new ensemble apart from a few original cast members who are staying. So it’s quite nice because you don’t feel like you’re the only one, everyone is learning together and there’s that new infusion of energy and focus, which really lends itself to a good rehearsal period.
How will you add your own style to the part of Kathy Selden?
It’s not something I think about. I don’t go in thinking I’m going to play it like this. I like to have a fresh canvas. For me it’s just how it comes out naturally during the rehearsal process. A collaboration of mine and the director’s ideas. I don’t like to preconceive ideas of a character before rehearsals because things are found during that time and lots change. I find that truly exciting and I adore the challenge of discovering my Kathy.
Do you prefer to be a part of a more traditional ‘song and dance’ musical?
Yes, definitely, I love this kind of musical. This has always been my love and you get to marry all three, singing, dancing and acting together and that old school musical for me, that genre of that period, that kind of stylised acting, dancing and singing is where I feel most comfortable. Having just finished White Christmas as Judy Haynes and then coming to this show, it’s a similar vein (style/genre). And it’s my favourite kind of musical to perform.
With regard to your own vocal range – how do the different roles you have performed affect your vocal chords?
Each role requires a different technique and different abilities, a different range. When it was We Will Rock You, it was belting out rock sounds, which you have to sing into your voice and make sure you’re placing right. When it was Ragtime, Into The Woods, Mrs Banks a more classical traditional MT sound. Whether you’re rehearsing dancing or singing, each form deserves their own time and practise. During rehearsals your voice gets used to singing it in, it is a muscle, that needs exercise. So each time you do a different show and a different technique and a different vocal range, it’s just about singing it into your voice and making sure that it’s there, it’s ready, and you’re doing it correctly. So for Singin’ In The Rain it’s a classical sound, but it’s a relaxed classical sound. And again, it’s singing the songs into your voice and making sure you get the sound and the technique right. Every time you do a show it’s pretty much that, getting your voice in that place and in that genre and that sound.
You have various styles of dance on your CV – do you have one that you prefer?
Again for me it’s using the traditional musical style. That Irving Berlin style of musical, the same with Singin’ In The Rain, it’s that lovely classical style where they marry ballet and tap together, that’s my favourite thing to do, that old-fashioned style. It’s elegant with lovely style and placement.
You have only just joined the cast of Singin’ In The Rain, and certainly not wanting to wish away your time in the show… but I have read that you would love at some time in your career to play the role of Roxie Hart in the musical Chicago. What attracts you to that role and the musical?
I’ve always loved the musical, it has such a relaxed style. In order to do it you have to have such control. It’s making it look easy, making it look flawless, fluid and effortless. But actually you’re sweating beads to hold that toe and hold that position and hold that arm and it is that feeling that attracts me to that show and that part. It’s very sexy. She’s very strong and very cheeky, very manipulative. They’re all things that are wonderfully exciting to play. The music and the role itself have always attracted me. Unfortunately it’s closed but hopefully at some point it will happen again.
On Broadway and in the West End, along with other musicals, Chicago has had its fair share of celebrities playing a major role, which is referred to as stunt casting. What do you think about this?
That’s a question you get asked a lot when you’re not a major celebrity. Yes, there is a culture of celebrity within Musical Theatre. But there are many, many talented celebrities in our industry. You have celebrities that have trained before they were famous, have then become celebrities and come back to theatre. Then you’ve celebrities who may have won a reality TV show, may not have had much experience and come into the theatre after that. For me you have to embrace it all because it brings different elements to a show. You have to move with the times. If anything, it probably brings people to the theatre that may not haven necessarily been interested before. So that can only be a good thing in my eyes. So hopefully people will come back and see another show.
Away from the stage, what do you like to do to chill out?
Away from the stage I do like to keep fit. I do like to go for a run. I live quite near to some lovely nature. I love movies and I love going to the theatre. I love plays. I love watching amazing acting on the stage. I also love going out to dinner and possibly a glass of wine with my other half. But I do love going to the theatre.
The new cast for Singin’ In The Rain perform on 18th February. Why should everyone buy tickets to be there?
This show started in Chichester and now it’s been in the West End for a year, to critical acclaim. And I’ve seen it twice now and I’m sure I’ll see it again before we open, to familiarise myself. It’s an old-fashioned feel-good show. I sat in the dress circle the last time, and the laughter and the enjoyment from the audience is overwhelming. The spectacle of the rain coming down when Adam is dancing in the title song, and those in the front few rows getting wet, it is a great experience and a fun night out. It’s a show for all ages, all types of people. It’s Musical Theatre at its best! And yeah, you’ll laugh your head off, it’s very, very, very funny!
Have you any message for those that follow your career?
To all the wonderfully crazy people interested in following my career, I’d like to say a huge thank you. You’re the people who keep me going. I really appreciate the support, kind words and encouragement! It’s always nice to have people that wish you well and are happy to see you up there. So I’m 100% grateful to anyone who’s following me. Please come visit and say hi at the Palace Theatre stage door and follow me on Twitter @lolybowden .
Many thanks Louise for a wonderful interview and best wishes for Singin’ In The Rain and your future success!
Interviewed by Neil Cheesman who you can follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1
Wednesday 6th February 2013