Lauren McKenna’s theatre story begins as many of them do – at a young age she auditioned for an amateur musical, was cast in a leading role, and only had eyes for the stage from then on. Where her narrative diverges from the norm is in the massive success she has enjoyed over the last year, with star turns in the nationally touring hit Heathers (for which she won the Best Newcomer accolade at the Sydney Theatre Awards), and the leading role in Hairspray, the Big Fat Arena Spectacular.
For the past few months, McKenna has not stopped moving. Most professional actors would find it tiring enough to play one character in a national tour of a musical, but beginning with her double-casting as Ms. Fleming/Martha in the Hayes Theatre Co production of Heathers the Musical last year, McKenna has conquered an impressive schedule that has seen her on stages around the country on alternating dates in the continuation of the Heathers tour and as Tracy Turnblad, a big sing of a gig that has required McKenna to brush up on her dancing skills and assume the role of mentor to hundreds of kids filling the mass Hairspray ensemble.
Despite the heavy work load and pressure attached to these two cult-favourite shows, McKenna has maintained an incredibly bubbly attitude, speaking to me with speech full of superlatives and the unmistakable tone of a person with a smile on their face.
“In terms of Hairspray and Heathers, because both shows appeal to such a young audience, it’s actually a really special responsibility playing these roles. It’s definitely something I don’t take lightly, because especially Hairspray has such an amazing, positive message, and being a curvier girl and a little bit different to the norm in music theatre, I don’t really fit the mould of a lot of other roles. To be able to play these characters is really special to me.”
When asked about her busy rehearsal and performance schedule, McKenna confided that balancing two jobs at once is not an uncommon thing for her, but the big difference this year is that she is now supporting herself solely through acting, a goal she has held for many years.
“It’s so exciting! This is the first year that I haven’t had to have a Muggle job, which is kind of an achievement for an actor to say that acting is their main source of income. It’s something that has only happened to me my fifth year out [of theatre study]. It’s so hard to juggle acting and a Muggle job, so it’s nice to have more of a focus. I try to say yes to everything and I get really busy, so it’ll be nice for me this year to have the performing thing to focus on and work really hard on.”
Further to the subject of exciting moments in her career, McKenna cites her Sydney Theatre Award for Best Newcomer for her role in Heathers as a complete surprise and a lovely welcome back to Sydney after many years living in Victoria.
“I was so chuffed! In Heathers I play two roles, sometimes on the same page. I remember reading the script and going, ‘I don’t really know how that’s going to work…’, but Trevor Ashley, our director, is so amazing and had this vision to double the role and it really has been such an incredible gift to me. Winning for those roles was such a flattering honour, especially considering that a lot of people were saying to me that the newcomer award is such a great award because you can only win it once. I was up against so many amazing people in the category and I hadn’t entertained the idea of winning, but it was such a lovely welcome back to Sydney, especially considering that I am already living my dream. Doing that double role was such an amazing challenge for me, […] I felt a bit guilty accepting an award for something that I’m already loving and enjoying so much.”
Not content merely achieving performing goals throughout 2016, McKenna has also harnessed her mentor role in Hairspray, using her passion for youth engagement in the arts to create her own initiative. Titled The Nicest Kids Project (a reference to a song from Hairspray), McKenna is using Hairspray as a platform to create a program that she hopes will help kids across Australia become more connected to the stage and to peers that share the same interests.
“[…] A lot of people from Hairspray, like the producers, have been telling me that there are parents who have come to them and said, ‘This is such an amazing experience for my child, because they don’t necessarily fit into their own school community’, they get bullied or they feel weird because they are into drama or music and singing and dancing, but then they get to come to this huge experience with kids they share common ground with. I wanted to put something out there that can be accessible to kids in the theatre community, to tell them they are not alone, that they have a support system and someone to ask questions of and to mentor them, to be a role model. [The Nicest Kids Project] is just kind of spreading the love and spreading positivity.”
“It’s basically an online club that anyone can join and find solidarity with kids that are into the same thing that they are. I wanted to package it all up in a way that could connect with [Hairspray] but also stretch beyond it. I’m really passionate about helping kids, teaching and mentoring as well as performing, so I thought it was a nice way to tie everything in with the [Hairspray] experience. I was thinking about what an amazing performance opportunity Hairspray is, in terms of getting to put on this huge show with all these kids. It’s a type of project that isn’t happening anywhere else in the world, and I really wanted it to go deeper than just performing… The show itself has such an amazing, positive message about believing in yourself and following your dreams, and equality and positivity, so to go hand in hand with that I wanted to create a supportive online network for all the kids that are in the show.”
McKenna doesn’t know what she will do next, but if her career today is any indication of what is to come, her future will be lived centre stage.
“I haven’t really looked too far ahead in terms of what’s coming up, but when I’m working on a musical I am the happiest I have ever been. I definitely think musical theatre is where my focus will be, but I wouldn’t rule out other projects like straight theatre or film and TV. Music theatre is my absolute passion, and I kind of want to stick to it… There’s definitely some dream roles that I have in mind, but I don’t know what’s coming.”
“When I’m working on a show, it doesn’t feel like working to me. I just absolutely love it, and I live for it.”
McKenna can be seen in Heathers beginning tonight at the Melbourne Arts Centre, and will be appearing in Hairspray in Newcastle in July and Adelaide in October. Touring details for Heathers can be found here, and information regarding Hairspray can be accessed here.