Heather Manley on life after graduating Drama School
Now that we’re in August, it’s so odd to think that it has been nine months since I graduated drama school. While I’ve been very lucky to be able to document my year so far, I thought I’d share my coffee this week with another graduate and show a change of perspective on what her first year out in the industry has been like.
Heather Manley often spends her time meeting new people by having to explain exactly where Guam is; the “US territory just north of Australia” where she grew up. Heather and I were in the same year level at WAAPA, where we were lucky enough to work closely together on many occasions. She played my lover, my wife, and even my mother. (If you were wondering how someone of her ethnicity managed to birth an albino son like me… don’t worry- so were the audience). Since graduating last year, Heather was part of the return season cast of Rent at the Hayes Theatre, before moving onto the Melbourne and return Sydney season casts of Heathers the Musical. Currently, she is performing in Sydney with Aladdin the Musical, having just celebrated opening night last week. To use the proper industry term, she is “killing it”.
Rehearsing at drama school vs. the ‘real world’
Coming out of WAAPA, Heather describes an apprehension that professionalism in the rehearsal room would equate to a creatively stifling strictness.
“I was scared that I wasn’t going to have fun, and I was worried that I couldn’t make mistakes. At drama school, they caution us with a lot of rules just to prepare us for the real world. Even with Disney, I was a bit nervous that we wouldn’t have the freedom to make choices as an actor.” Instead, she describes how lucky she’s been to have such positive rehearsal processes through all of her experiences. “Everyone has been so lovely. I’ve had so much fun with all three directors I’ve had this year. We have so many laughs in the rehearsal room. Of course there’s that same level of professionalism and respect, but it’s a lot more loose than I thought it would be.”
While drama school often consists of part-time show rehearsals balanced with classes, the professional rehearsal process of regular full days can seem like a whole different kettle of fish. However, because Rent consisted of Heather slotting into a show that’s already been performed, with a very intense rehearsal period, she describes not even having time to lose focus. Even with Aladdin, “the second day of rehearsals started with a calm stretch out, before (the creatives) were like, ‘ok, everyone get up. We’re learning Arabian Nights.’ And we learnt the number in two and a half hours.” They were also told the day before that they had to have the number off book before choreography started, so that they could match movement to cut offs and harmonies. “There was no time for me to ever get bored.”
“It has felt very similar to WAAPA. Even though we usually only had four hours of rehearsal, it kind of feels the same. Because it’s doing what I love, it doesn’t feel like work.”
Taking over existing tracks
Because Rent and Heathers were both return seasons, Heather had very little time to learn previously created roles. While Rent had only a two and a half week rehearsal period before the first audience, Heather describes Heathers (where she ironically didn’t play a character named Heather), as being a little bit more overwhelming at times. Her track consisted of a lot of choreography, a lot of stage time and a lot of set moving; all learnt in a week and a half. “We couldn’t really turn off. Even if I was off-stage, I had to be focussed.”
“I wrote out all my notes, and I found that helped. I was constantly going to my little notebook for help, ‘which locker am I moving? Which exit am I going off of?’ Personally, I find writing things down helps me remember a lot more than typing things out. I would draw mini sketches of the stage, all covered in little arrows and set pieces.” Luckily she managed to escape with only one minor breakdown before first preview; a panic about getting her ‘old lady wig’ on in time.
The long-running show
One of the biggest changes many graduates have to get used to is learning to find the continual joy each night in doing a long-running show. While Aladdin has only just opened, all of the seasons Heather has performed in have already been longer than previous experiences.
“Specifically with Aladdin, I think we’re really lucky because Michael James Scott, our genie, rounds us up every day before the show and he’s just such a ball of positive energy. ‘Woo! Two show day! How’s everyone feelin’?! I can’t wait for the two show day! Guys, we’re gonna have a blast!’ And that really helps. I also think having new energies on stage helps. We had our standby Jafar go on for the first time last week. Even though I don’t interact with him that much, that factor made the show so exciting. And I guess it will be up to us to try and find different things. There are always our marketplace scenes where we can change things up. The other day I was wandering around saying, ‘I lost my chickens! I can’t find them!’”
“Also, with the nature of the show, I have no time to sit down in the first act. And by the end, I realise, ‘oh, it’s Friend Like Me already!’ The show goes by so fast, so I think that really helps. It’s such a fun show to do as well. You can’t help but love it. I’m standing in this pillar every night before I pop out for Friend Like Me, and I can see the Genie from where I am. Just watching him every night makes me so excited for the show.”
Having a Life
Anyone who’s gone to drama school will know that there are far too many times where you give up having a life, yet this doesn’t really seem to stop once you’re in the ‘real world’.
“To be honest, the last month I haven’t really had a life.” At the moment, days off for her have generally consisted of menial adult tasks like “laundry, chores and food prep”. However, Heather talks about the necessity of “finding down time. For instance, I’ll watch my favourite TV show or indulge and take myself out to eat. Because the time is so limited at the moment, it’s the little things that help me get through the week. I’m treating myself to a massage or I’m going to my favourite restaurant, or I’m gonna get me a bucket of ice cream and eat it and not feel guilty about it because I did Friend Like Me ten million times. I guess everyone’s different, but I can update you on the answer in a few months. I try not to talk about work afterwards either. I try to make sure that was work, and at home I’ll just be a normal person.”
Looking after yourself
Drama school often prepares and warns you about the necessity of looking after your body, voice and mind; especially on a long running show. Now that Heather gets to put that in practice, she admits that she can find it difficult at times.
“A couple of the performers that are more seasoned than me know their bodies already. In this industry, I feel like you have to pay attention to your body and be very self-aware. And that’s really hard when you go out and get the thrilling invigoration of the audience. You kind of turn off to everything. You don’t feel pain. If you get hit, you don’t realise it’s hurting until you’re offstage. But a lot of girls have their vitamins and physio balls and I’m over here like, ‘I’ve literally just bought my lunchbox. What do I do?’”
“I feel like drama school does prepare us for it though. They really make sure we know we have to take care of ourselves. While they may have been so insistent about particular techniques, I feel like you really do need it. Even in the shows now, I’m doing certain screams and I do find my voice can get really tired, so you always have to make sure you’re on support. Even that can be hard though, because with the choreography, if you don’t use your core strength, you’ll be falling over all over the place. And it’s so hard to drop my breath low for singing and tighten my abs at the same time to dance. Basically, you just have to have singing and dancing technique. You have to make sure you know the anatomy of why you’re doing what you’re doing or else your body will tire.”
Looking back on drama school
“The last couple of weeks I’ve really been missing WAAPA actually. There’s just that bond we have that’s so important to me. We practically lived with each other for three years, and we’ve seen each other’s best and worst sides. Because everything’s really new to me in the industry, I feel like it’s still been the first layer of getting to know people. But it has just been the first couple of months, so I can really see it happening.”
“I feel like drama school prepared us so well. If anything, they may have warned us a bit too much, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s better to be cautious and over-prepared for your first day of rehearsal than to not. But I learned so much there. I learnt how to tap, and now I’m tapping in a musical! Our WAAPA family is our family and I wouldn’t change a thing.”