by Rory Shafford
On Monday 15th July 2019, I made my professional Musical Theatre debut in the Rogers and Hammerstein classic, ‘Oklahoma!’ at Chichester Festival Theatre – a sentence I would have never believed when commencing college 3 years ago!
When I was younger, watching ‘The X Factor’ on a Saturday evening was crucial part of my family’s regime; one of the few times we’d all be in the living room at the same time during the week. It was from observing the contestants and backing dancers on the show that inspired me to start attending dance classes (with ‘Chico’ as my regretful idol). After months of trial and error, attending as many dance classes as I could, I started to consider dancing as a potential career.
I was sat down by my dance teachers (second parents to me) who enlightened me on the industry I wanted to become a part of and made it clear that I should consider broadening my horizons. This would consist of undertaking Ballet classes, Tap classes, and even singing lessons for the purpose of potential college auditions. Ultimately, the best way I could achieve all of these was through the ‘Urdang Youth Academy’! On a monthly basis, my parents would drive me up to London (a big day trip from my home town in Dorset) so I was able to participate in the classes Urdang had to offer as a part of their Sunday School scheme. This would consist of: Ballet Classes, Technical Jazz Classes and Musical Theatre Workshops. The ‘Urdang Youth Academy’ was the most perfect experience for me as not only was I fitting in a wide variety of invaluable training, but I was also getting a taste as to what it would be like as a full time student at The Urdang Academy. I visited other colleges, but I never had the same connection with that of Urdang’s and I was lucky enough to be accepted onto their 3 Year Diploma course in January 2016!
In the blink of an eye, I was in my 3rd year, during which I was cast in ‘The Wedding Singer’ as my 3rd Year Musical where I was lucky enough to work with choreographer, Jane McMurtrie. Jane informed me of her position as Associate Choreographer on the upcoming production of ‘Oklahoma!’ for Chichester Festival Theatre and made it clear she’d love for me to audition. When the chance came around a few weeks later, I couldn’t help but feel overly nervous from the added pressure of making Jane proud and proving to the remainder of the creative team the reasoning behind her getting me to audition. I knew I would have to prepare, so I researched the show and familiarised myself with the creative team, before my 1st round dance call!
I sensed Matt Cole (Choreographer) and Jane were trying to punish us based on the difficulty of the audition! The standard of dancers Matt, Jane and the creative team were looking for was made clear through the challenge of the routine and we were told that this audition would give them an understanding as to who was capable of matching the fitness levels of the musical’s choreography. I was ecstatic to receive my recall later the same week, where I would get to sing for the incredible Jeremy Sams and fantastic Nigel Lilley. The welcoming environment they created in the audition room helped my nerves tremendously and I left smiling ear to ear!
On Thursday 14th March 2019, I received my first professional Musical Theatre job offer – a day I will never forget! I was brimming with excitement to get going, (and, let’s face it millennials, the best part of accepting a new job is typing it into your Instagram bio) but I had to wait what felt like an eternity for rehearsals to begin on Monday 3rd June! Our rehearsal process in London was physically challenging, to say the least, however, meeting and working with such wonderful people more than made up for the aches and pains I was faced with every morning. Nevertheless, this didn’t stop me from looking forward to going to work each day – something not many people can say. We concluded our final week of rehearsals in Chichester after settling in to my lovely digs. Next up was tech week; which I loved, because, when I wasn’t working on stage I was able to rest and recover in so many different locations at the theatre, whether that be in my beautiful dressing room, or outside on the fields in the glorious summer weather. However, tech week eventually came to an end, meaning we were soon to be performing to a paying audience for our 1st Preview, aka, my professional debut!
Remember the nerves I mentioned when attending my final audition, if you were to multiply that by 10000000000000000% - that’s how nervous I felt when standing in the wing, preparing to somersault onto the stage. Despite the nerves, I’d also never been more excited and ready for my family to witness the show we’d created.
My professional musical theatre debut in ‘Oklahoma!’ at Chichester Festival Theatre could not have been more perfect, finishing with me nearly bursting into tears of joy and pride when completing my bow and receiving a standing ovation. I can’t thank the cast and creatives enough for making this opportunity not only the best show I have ever performed in, but the best experience of my life so far!