Interview with Simon Shorten: The Phantom of The Opera
At the time of the interview Simon was appearing in The Phantom of The Opera, about which he says “Phantom is rapidly becoming my favourite show, I’m loving every single minute!“
His early stage appearances began at the Debut School of Performing Arts, and during that time he joined local amateur dramatic groups, where he performed several roles including: Billy in Billy the musical, Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, Freddy Einsford-Hill in My Fair Lady, and the Ringmaster in Barnum.
Simon’s formal training was a BTEC in Performing Arts at Park Lane College Leeds, followed by a degree in Musical Theatre at the Guildford School of Acting, where he not only met his wife, but also graduated with a 1st. During his time at the GSA, Simon performed the lead role of Anatoly Sergievsky in Chess and also had the honour of performing for HM Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Remembrance Day Festival.
Not only has he performed on but also in film and television, where his credits include Emmerdale, Adams Family Tree, and My Parents are Aliens.
At the age of 23 Simon made his West End debut in Les Miserables, covering the role of Jean Valjean and Bamatabois. He has subsequently performed in both 25th Anniversary Concerts of Les Miserables and The Phantom of The Opera.
Simon recently took some time out from his very busy schedule to answer some questions about himself and his career.
You showed an interest in acting at your First school. Can you remember your stage debut?
My very first stage performance was at my first school when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I was one part of a Morecambe and Wise – esque double act who basically narrated the show as two school caretakers, great fun!
Did anyone in particular inspire you to want to be on the stage?
At that time I didn’t really know I wanted to be an actor, I had been to see professional shows such as ‘Joseph’ and yearly pantomimes in Bradford but no-one ever inspired me as much as Colm Wilkinson and Philip Quast in the 10th anniversary Les Mis concert, as indeed it has for a lot of my generation of actors, it blew me away… still does.
At what age did you think about a career in acting?
I started seriously thinking about a career in acting at around the age of 15/16 (I already had the bug but it hadn’t really clicked), until that point I was a very keen sportsman competing at quite a high level in 5 or 6 different sports.
There were never any major opportunities to seriously perform at my middle and upper school as it was very sports focused. I did perform in a lot of school plays and with school choirs but I definitely couldn’t do as much as I wanted because of commitments to various teams and clubs.
Then due to a back injury I didn’t really move very much for about 3-4 months and during that time it hit home that acting would probably be the longer lasting, less injury prone career and if I was totally honest with myself, the career I wanted more. From there I found local amateur groups and of course Debut and from there things progressed and progressed and the rest as they say… is history
Training in drama, singing and dance you were a member of the Debut Theatre School in Shipley, Yorkshire. What are some of your favourite performances from that time?
Gosh.. there were so many… Debut opened so many doors for me with amateur groups around the area. I would have to say my time with the Guiseley Barnstormers was one of the best periods of my early career.
Favourite performances? Pick a number, off the top of my head, one of my big favourites was Barnum, I learned how to unicycle and stilt-walk for that one, such a fun show!
Studying a BTEC in Performing Arts at Park Lane College in Leeds, did you consider doing anything else at this time?
No, at that point I knew all I wanted to do was to be on the stage, I didn’t want to spend another 2 years doing A-levels to then go do theatre so I chose to do a BTEC in a performance specific course instead.
The great thing about the course was that we had to learn all aspects of theatre, it included modules in stage management, costume and makeup design and it really gave me a great respect for what each department does and how important those teams within a production are.
You graduated from the GSA conservatoire with a BA Hons (1st Class) in musical theatre. What was it like training there?
GSA was an absolute blast. I met some of my greatest friends and the people I am closest to today at Guildford, my wife Katy and my best friend Dan all studied together, lived together and Dan was the best man at my wedding so I have lot to thank GSA for socially! lol.
Study was tough, every college has its ups and downs and I had my fair share of both, but the thing about GSA is the support network, from the heads of the school right the way down to the students, there were always friendly ears and a good shoulder to cry on should you need.
I learned a lot during my time there, both about myself as a person and performer and I like to think that it shows in my work and the way I am today, I’ve had to learn a lot of tough lessons and still am learning but I am passionate about what I do and I want do it to the best of my ability. GSA was wonderful in helping me bring out that passion onstage. That may sound cheesy or soppy but I truly believe that every experience in my life has made me the performer I am today, and training at GSA was a huge part of that.
While at the GSA, as part of the GSA singers, you had the honour of performing for HM Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the Remembrance Day Festival in 2005. Can you describe how you felt at such an emotional occasion?
Television coverage of that day doesn’t even come close to showing the kind of atmosphere in the building during the Festival of Remembrance, when you’re stood in the arena with over 5000 members of the Royal British Legion and Armed Forces holding back tears as the poppies are falling (which on screen lasts about 30-40 seconds, but actually lasts about 3 minutes) you can’t even imagine what these people went through and still have to go through to keep us all safe.
My grandfather was Ukranian and fought in WWII when he was 17 and in all honesty I never fully understood or fully respected the fact that if he hadn’t survived I wouldn’t even be here, the Remembrance Festival really hit that home.
You performed the lead role of Anatoly Sergievsky in Chess. What is it about Chess that has made it such a classic?
For me, Chess is a very underestimated musical, its problem is that the writers (ABBA’s Benny and Bjorn) gave whoever is performing the show free reign on the through story and people often make unusual choices and it often doesn’t work. We followed the story as it is written in the libretto and it is a lovely piece with some very nice, intimate, heartfelt moments.
I also feel that if you didn’t know, you wouldn’t believe that this musical which has such epic musical numbers was written by the guys responsible for a show like Mamma Mia! It’s a fantastic credit to them both as writers that they can pull off such a fantastic score and hit songs.
In 2007 you played the roles of Jack, Marigold the cow and understudied the ugly sister ‘Dolce’, in Stephen Fry’s Cinderella at the London Old Vic. You must have had some fun with this show, can you recall any humorous situations?
Believe me there were a lot of practical jokes on and off stage, but alas I am sworn to secrecy by my panto fraternity, what happens at the panto stays at the panto! But the day we stole Prince Charming’s dressing gown and he had to go on stage in his pants was a corker!
You joined the cast of Les Miserables in 2008 at the age of 23. What was it like working on Les Mis, covering the roles of Jean Valjean, Bamatabois and playing Babet?
Absolute dream come true!! As I mentioned I’d seen the tour of Les Mis and the 10th anniversary concert was on constantly in the car and at home on VHS (showing my age), so when I got the call to say that I was going to be covering Valjean I actually put the phone down and quit my job there and then!
Les Mis is one of the best musicals to start a career in, it taught me so much about how the business works and how to build the stamina (Les Mis is one of the busiest shows for an ensemble EVER!!!!) and patience to undergo a year long contract. The Queen’s Theatre is a very enclosed space, it’s hard to have time to yourself so there were obviously tense moments with the cast and crew but that is just one of those things you learn how to deal with and move on.
As for the show itself, what can I say, playing Babet and Bamatabois was soooo much fun, I love playing the bad guy, they are so much more fun, and I can’t even begin to describe the excitement, terror and utter pleasure of playing Valjean, what a role, what a responsibility. I have some incredible memories from this show, working alongside legendary people like Earl Carpenter, Norm Lewis and some great new upcoming talent such as David Thaxton, Samantha Barks and obviously the amazing O2 concert cast have given me some of the best moments of my career so far.
You are now in the cast of The Phantom of The Opera; as swing, understudy to the Auctioneer, Monsieur Reyer and in house understudy to the Phantom. How does working in this classic musical compare to that of Les Mis?
As much as it pains me to say it, Phantom is rapidly becoming my favourite show, I’m loving every single minute!
Being a swing is such an adventure, being on for one person one minute then having to mix 4 to 5 different people the next, then having to cover some amazing parts such as the Auctioneer and Reyer, Passarino and of course the Phantom himself is an absolute honour and pleasure!
Being only 27, I felt a huge amount of pressure taking on the Phantom but the cast and creative team have been so supportive during the rehearsal process I feel really happy and confident with how I am developing my own performance of this iconic role for myself and indeed for fans of the show. I hope people enjoy my take on it.
What is it like backstage at Her Majesty’s Theatre?
Un-believable!!! There is such a great atmosphere in the building, there is always something social going on, bake sales, craft fairs, cabaret events and a couple of pub trips and cast meals here and there, and all involving the crew as well as the cast, its such a great building to work in.
We have an absolute blast on and off stage, obviously onstage we remain professional but we do have a lot of fun and offstage there is a lot of comedy and joking around between scenes. There is a lot of downtime for the ensemble so we can all chat and visit other dressing rooms and the crew room for tea and biscuits and what not (lol) but there is enough space to have time to yourself too, its like a social club with a great show thrown in for good measure.
You recently performed at The Phantom of The Opera 25th Anniversary at the Royal Albert Hall. How would you describe this experience?
Just unbelievable!! What a cast, what an orchestra, what a venue and like the Les Mis concert, a totally once in a lifetime experience. I had some wonderful moments in the show, my wife was in the cast too so it was amazing for us to perform in something so special together.
Looking ahead to the future, who would you most like to star alongside in a play or musical?
Well anything is possible and I will be happy to be working, theatre work is obviously my deepest passion and a lead role would be wonderful and I will be very lucky to receive whatever comes my way.
I would love to cross over into more film and television work, I am a massive film fan and would love to have a crack at something like that, I recently spent the day filming with Tom Hooper, the director of ‘The Kings Speech’ and that has made me want it even more. As for someone to star alongside… I have always wanted to work with Sir Anthony Hopkins and am a huge admirer of Gary Oldman, although I think if I did meet them, I might not be able to string a legible sentence together.
Do you have anyone as a role model that you aspire to be like?
I have a few actually. Will Smith, sounds odd I know but the guy’s drive and work ethic is second to none, he’s dedicated to his family, has worked hard for all he has achieved and no one ever has a bad thing to say about him, I respect that a lot. More predictably, I really admire Hugh Jackman for his ability to switch between film and theatre roles, it reminds me that it can be done if you work hard enough. And lastly, a huge inspiration of mine was the late great Pete Postlethwaite, he’s a fellow proud Yorkshireman who again played both stage and screen. Every role he took was just incredible to watch, such a big loss to the acting world.
Are there any long-term ambitions that you have either on the stage or off it?
Every performer dreams of having a long and varied career either being on stage playing leads or on screen, I don’t believe anyone who says they don’t and it’s the same with me, however long it takes, I know one day I will play a lead role. That may sound cocky but self-belief is half the battle in this business and with every job I take on my confidence grows but I still have a lot to learn and still need to grow as a performer. If I was thrown straight into a lead role, it would be amazing yes but I think I would miss out on the fun, friendships and variety of being an ensemble member in what is still the very early stage of my career.
So I do have ambitions yes, I just understand (and it has taken me almost 4 years as a working professional) that it will happen for me when it happens, until that time I can enjoy learning and growing as both a performer and as a person.
Should fame and fortune come my way that would obviously be fantastic, but so long as I can provide a good home and solid life for my wife and hopefully in the future my children, I will be a happy man.
What do you like to do on your nights off?
I am a very keen cook and have an allotment with my father in law, I love to grow and cook my own veg and make a good meal with my wife, I’ve also recently taken up golf so I often play a round during the day or head up to the range to practice my swing! Other than that, just the norm really, I enjoy resting up, watching a good DVD with my wife Katy if she’s off too maybe with a cheeky glass of wine and some nibbles.
I understand that you have just qualified for a level 5 Professional diploma practitioner in Remedial and Sports Massage. How do you have time to do that and how do you intend to use your skills once qualified?
The course was an intensive weekend course, I had a full weekend (Sat and Sun 9am – 5pm) once a month for a year, I had to take most of that as 3 day holidays but It worked out really well because I could catch up on written work and study for a couple of days before the course. I intend to work freelance until such a time I need to do more constant hours if I’m “resting”. I help people within my theatre with injuries and ailments and I am starting to branch into other West End theatres and sports clubs around my home, I have a portable couch so can move around from place to place, it’s nice for me to have something I know will help support me financially if I ever am out of work.
Any message that you would like to say to your supporters?
You guys are awesome, I can’t thank you enough for all the support and lovely chats we have on Twitter @SiShorten and via my website www.simon-shorten.com etc. I will be setting up a sign-up quarterly newsletter and updating a lot of info very soon so keep your eyes peeled! It’s going to be an exciting year!
Thanks again for all your continued support, apologies if I don’t always reply, can’t write to all of you, don’t have enough hours in the day, hope you understand, Lots of love and Ta for now. Si
Thank you very much Simon for taking time out from your busy schedule. Best wishes for The Phantom of The Opera and the future!
Interviewed by Neil who you can follow on Twitter @LondonTheatre1
Updated 11th October 2014