The NBCA celebrates the achievements of its choristers who are doing incredible things outside Choir life. From sport, to music, to performance and creativity, the talents of the NBCA’s choristers are never-ending. James, from the Performing Choir, has spent the greater part of 2019 and this year travelling around the country performing as Michael in the stage production Billy Elliot The Musical. James spared some time between rehearsals and performances to answer a few questions for the NBCA. James gives a wonderful insight into performing outside the NBCA, what it takes to audition for a massive production and the skills NBCA has equipped him with to take on the role of Michael.
Firstly, tell us about your audition for the role of Michael in Billy Elliot?
“The first auditions were with groups of boys at a Melbourne dance studio in September 2018. We played drama games and danced with the choreographer Tom Hodgson. This seems like a long time ago now. Mum had submitted my application for the role of Michael, Billy’s best friend. There were three rounds of auditions over six months. We sang songs from the show together and by ourselves trying out our Geordie accents and began learning some of the choreography. After the second round of auditions in December 2018, a group of boys were asked to train for the final round of auditions which were in Sydney in March 2019. This was when I got to know some of the boys from Melbourne, who play Billy and Michael in the show. We learnt some of the tap dance routine for the song Expressing Yourself, which Billy and Michael tap dance together in Act 1. It is great fun to dance once you know it, but quite complicated to learn. We flew to Sydney for the final round of auditions in March 2019.”
Did you find the audition process difficult or nerve-wracking? How did the skills you’ve learnt at Choir assist you in the rehearsal process?
“This was my first audition experience. At times I was nervous, however everyone was friendly and once I got to know the boys at training we became used to working together. This helped me feel more relaxed so I could enjoy the auditions more. The skills from training with the NBCA have helped me better understand getting a large group together to prepare for a performance. So many things are the same for NBCA and rehearsing with the Billy Elliot cast, such as standing still and being patient for long periods at a time, listening to instructions, and being confident to sing together with the group and really listening carefully to the music.”
What was your reaction when you discovered you secured the role?
“My family had just sat down for dinner together, outside on our veranda. A bottle of passionfruit fizzy drink was put out on the table, which we don’t usually have. My brother and sister guessed something was up and I asked our parents if there was any news about my audition. They smiled and said yes! I had been offered the role of Michael. I think I was in shock, surprised and really happy, but I didn’t say anything for at least five minutes. My sister Lucy was very excited, she screamed and hugged me. It took a while to sink in.”
You’ve been travelling around Australia with the production. Can you describe the performances and how they have made you feel as a performer?
“The show is such an amazing experience and I still feel very lucky to be part of it and get to work with so many great people. The singing and harmonies are beautiful to listen to. It is also loud, and angry and fast-moving. For my part, I’ve performed Michael more than 30 times now, every time feels different. The audience is always really positive. I get to perform Michael alongside four different Billys who all play the role in similar but also different ways, which makes the show so great. I think I have developed and improved as a performer. We continue to rehearse in each new city and are always learning on the job. I don’t get as nervous before a show now and am able to think quickly if needed, like taking a step backwards so Billy doesn’t roll off the stage! I handle lots of props in one scene with Billy, so you are always thinking on your feet. Come and see the show and you will see what I mean.”
What have been some of your memorable moments or memories from the production so far?
“Just before opening in Sydney we were really fortunate to meet the boys who played Billy and Michael from the first production of Billy Elliot in Australia 10 years ago. They talked about some of their experiences in the show. They were really encouraging and supportive and gave us lots of good advice, and even told us about some performances when things didn’t go quite as planned which I won’t share, but to say this helped give us ‘new’ Michaels and Billys extra confidence to perform for a live audience. Some footage from this meeting has been posted on the Billy Elliot Facebook site. Other memorable experiences are everyday things working with the cast, like sharing the same silly joke standing side stage, just before we start. Michael has lots of great lines that are very funny and I really enjoy hearing the audiences laugh. There is a boxing scene in the show where we do some physical comedy, this is great fun performing on stage, especially working with Robert Grubb who is really supportive of everyone in the cast. I always love the end of another show, standing on stage waving to the audience.”
You’ve had to travel with your mum for the production. Have you enjoyed this? Has it brought you both closer together?
“Yes, I’ve travelled mostly with my Mum and sometimes with my Dad when he was working in Sydney. Mum and I are already close, however being the youngest in the family we did get to do more things together just the two of us that would not happen as often back home. On my days off in Sydney we would get up early and take a Ferry ride on the harbour, visit EB games for more Pokémon cards, then go to a park for a picnic and kick a ball together. I thought I would become homesick when I was away. I like being at home, going to school and choir and being with family. Knowing there was so much interstate travel was first challenging for me, however, Sydney rehearsals with the directors and meeting the boys was such an amazing experience it made being away from home a lot easier.”
Can you tell us about the Billy Elliot story and Michael’s character, especially for those who may not know?
“The story is about a boy, Billy, who finds out that he wants to learn to dance, but he does not have the support from his family to do this. His mum has passed away and he lives with his father, brother and Grandma who has dementia. The musical is set in the ‘80s in a mining district in England, when the Prime Minister, Maggie Thatcher was closing down the mines. This story is also about the effect of this on a small-town community. Billy quits boxing and takes up ballet lessons. I play the role of Billy’s best friend, who Billy comes to for advice. Michael is a fun character to play, he has some great lines and is also kind and thoughtful. It is an uplifting story, with some sad and funny scenes and lots of amazing dancing and singing. There is some strong language in the show which fits with the time and characters and I do get to curse in a Geordie accent!”
What advice can you give to other boys who wish to audition for roles like Billy Elliot?
“When I began auditioning, the Billy team were looking for boys they could train to do the show, so we were not expected to be able to dance, act or sing to the standard we do now. I began preparing for the audition by learning about the story and listening to the songs. Interestingly we were asked not to learn or listen to the songs too much so we did not get stuck singing a certain way, this was important information. Going through the audition process we needed to be adaptable and ready to learn and listen well. Of course I had lots of butterflies, but trusting myself and believing the butterflies keep you on your toes, helps. I still practised dancing at home, mostly working on my technical skills and building up stamina rather than memorising choreography. I also practised singing and dancing at the same time; the trick is remembering to breathe! The best advice I can give anyone auditioning is to do what Billy’s mum says in her letter to Billy during the show: ‘Always be yourself’. This helps everyone auditioning you and also helps with the butterflies.
Billy Elliot: The Musical has now ended. For further details about the production, visit www.billyelliotthemusical.com.au .