Since graduating from Arts Educational Schools last year, Amara Okereke joined the West End cast of Les Misérables as Cosette which led her to win the 2018 Stage Debut Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Now Amara can be seen in Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of Oklahoma! portraying the role of Laurey until the run ends next month on 7th September. Sitting down with Amara, we talk about her award-winning run in Les Misérables, performing at Live at Zédel and playing Laurey in Oklahoma!.
How long were you rehearsing for your role in Oklahoma! and how was it coming to Chichester for the first time?
We did four weeks of rehearsals in London, one week in Chichester and then we had one week of tech. It’s brilliant in Chichester, I’ve loved being here. I didn’t know what to expect as I’ve gotten used to London which is very different as this is a much smaller town, but I think I much prefer it! The weather’s been fantastic and this is a gorgeous space to work in, the stage and rehearsal space are brilliant. I’m in a position where I don’t want to leave now and it’s a lovely place to spend the summer. I’m really enjoying it so far.
When did you find out you’d booked the role and what were the auditions like?
I found out quite a while ago, I think it was in November. It was quite a nice and easy audition process, I just had one round and I came in and met the director, musical director and casting director. We sat in the room and discussed the piece and they’d sent me some material beforehand and we just basically workshopped and played around with it. I was in there for about forty-five/fifty minutes and then I found out a couple of days later that I’d got the role.
What’s the choreography been like to learn?
The choreography is absolutely fantastic, it’s a huge highlight of the show and, because the show is really high energy, the choreography has to compare to that, it’s really fun to do. My favourite part of the show is the Dream Ballet, it’s about nine minutes long and it doesn’t stop. The wonderful thing about this choreography is that it’s all intentioned and everything has a reason so it’s an absolute joy to do because I know exactly why I’m doing it and nothing is frivolous. I’m really enjoying doing the choreography and I love dancing so it’s nice that I get to do a bit of dancing in the show.
How did you feel on opening night and what was the atmosphere like backstage?
I was really, really, really nervous but because it’s such a fun, high energy show, it’s really good for putting your nerves in the right place so the nerves become excitement and energy. It meant we hit the ground running when we started the show because we all had this energy we wanted to release. The audience was fantastic and it was really unforgettable. It was a great night, I really enjoyed it.
What are you enjoying about playing Laurey?
Laurey is this classic teenager who is a little bit moody and can go from up here to down here in a matter of five seconds. She doesn’t quite know herself yet but thinks she has quite a good understanding of herself so makes a lot of mistakes and is still figuring out how to go about life. I think she’s very playful so it’s quite nice to lock into that youthfulness of her, I think that’s what makes me enjoy playing her. It’s just the idea of being young, innocent, kind of reckless, unknowing and naïve, it’s just fun and a really playful character.
The show and your portrayal of Laurey are receiving great reviews, how does this feel?
I haven’t read any reviews in detail but I’ve done a little skim read to see what star ratings we’ve been given, as I couldn’t help myself, and they’ve been really, really positive. It’s nice to know that people have enjoyed my performance and audiences have enjoyed the show but I think even if there weren’t great reviews, this company all know we’ve created something joyous and we all enjoy it so I don’t think it makes a huge difference. It’s wonderful to know and it’s really nice that people enjoy it but the audiences have been fantastic and they seem to be having the time of their lives so that alone is brilliant and then the reviews on top of that are kind of the cherry on top of the cake.
What was it like playing the role of Cosette in Les Misérables?
That was amazing and I think probably the best year of my life. I was very lucky in that I auditioned for the show when I was still in drama school and then went straight from drama school into Les Mis. I had no idea what to expect, it’s one of the greatest, most iconic musicals of all time and it was overwhelmingly exciting to be a part of that. I got to sing the way I love to sing and play the way I love to play and again, Cosette’s a young, naïve character and you get that playfulness which is always nice to lock into. It’s a really fantastic company to work with and they really look after you, which is nice. I loved it. There’s a huge fan base that comes with the show who love everyone involved and they’re really supportive. It was a great year, I really enjoyed it.
Do you remember how you felt when booking the role and how was it having the show as your West End debut?
I remember the time I found out I’d gotten the role of Cosette, I had a call from the head of my drama school who then told me and the first thing I did was hang up straightaway and ring my mum and just burst into tears, I couldn’t get the words out! She knew exactly why I rang her and we were just crying and laughing at the same time because it almost felt ridiculous like ‘why have they picked me’! It was so overwhelming and brilliant.
Making my West End debut was just a fantastic feeling, I loved every minute of that job and it’s one of those things you never expect. They prepare you for years of unemployment in drama school and then this came along and it’s the one thing I didn’t expect after three years of drama school. It was shocking, exciting, emotional and brilliant. It was a great feeling.
Do you have plans to watch the new productions when they open and how did you feel performing your last show?
I have plans for seeing the new productions, absolutely. I think it’s really exciting that this iconic show is still going to be this iconic show but it’s going to be shifted and changed and experimented on. My boyfriend is going to be in the concert over the summer so I’ll definitely be going to see that and I have a few other friends in it as well. I’m definitely going to see the new version and find out what’s changed and what’s stayed.
Performing the last show was draining. I’d cried maybe two days prior to that anyway and I didn’t think I had any more tears left! I think it was quite difficult because I was leaving a little bit earlier than everybody else to do Oklahoma! and I just couldn’t believe it, you get really close to people in a show for a whole year and these people had really looked after me. It was so emotionally draining and it was just an exhausting evening. It was fantastic though and the response from the audience was fantastic and people were so kind and caring. It was a really lovely, bittersweet evening but it was very, very sad.
How did it feel winning the 2018 Stage Debut Award for Best Actress in a Musical?
Again, another surprise, it felt like a year of surprises that year! I didn’t expect to be nominated first and foremost. I think The Stage Debut Awards is a fantastic event and it’s really nice to bring new up and coming actors and creatives to the forefront and give them some recognition because it’s really hard to start out in this industry. I think it’s fantastic for this big newspaper to come along and give that little boost to people. I didn’t think that they would come and see Les Misérables because I’m sure everyone who works there has seen it so many times already and it’s been running for so long so I just didn’t expect to be nominated. It was a really nice feeling of recognition and to work really hard and then for someone to turn around and say they appreciate it is sometimes all you need in this industry.
It was quite an eventful evening. I’d met the other girls who were nominated in the same category as me and they were all so lovely and unbelievably talented. It was Ruthie Henshall (who played Fantine in Les Mis) presenting the award. I assumed I wouldn’t win so I did not plan anything to say, which was a really silly thing to do. I remember walking up to the podium and being really nervous. My mum was screaming as she was so excited and I think seeing her reaction was the nicest thing because she’s worked so hard to let me do the things I do and she’s given up everything for me to be happy, so I was beaming from ear to ear seeing the pure joy from her. I got up on the podium and I don’t remember what I said, I think I thanked my mum and my agent but stumbled a few times! It was a really weird but exciting feeling and it’s so nice to be appreciated.
How different is it performing at the Festival Theatre opposed to in the West End?
Oddly enough it’s not that different in terms of you’re really well looked after in both places. Chichester Festival Theatre has a reputation of putting on fantastic shows and people really want to see these shows and so it sells really nicely and same with the Queen’s Theatre with Les Misérables, it has the Les Mis name so it’s always sold out, so they’re similar in that aspect. The difference is probably the physical space. The Queen’s Theatre is much older and not that huge, I was shocked when I first came to Chichester and saw the size of my dressing room – every dressing room has a shower in it! The West End has its name but good theatre is good theatre wherever you go. Les Misérables and Oklahoma! are both fantastic and iconic shows that people love. Both are absolutely brilliant.
You’ve performed at Live at Zédel, what’s this venue like to perform at and do you have plans to return in the future?
I did a Rodgers and Hammerstein concert where we sang a collection of songs written by them. It’s a beautiful space, it’s got an old jazz club kind of vibe, I think it was a dance club decades ago and they kept that interior design. It’s quite an intimate space and it was really lovely to perform at. Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote some of the greatest songs of all time so when you’re asked if you want to sing some of their songs, of course you’re going to say yes! I definitely would love to return there and do another one, it was good fun and I enjoyed it.
Was there anything in particular that drew you to a musical theatre career?
I started doing ballet classes from the age of about four and that led to dance which I loved. I remember the first time I did the annual showcase when I was about five and I cried my eyes out when it finished because I didn’t want to go back to normal stuff, I wanted to do it again. I loved it so much that my dance teacher got me into competitions which involved singing sections and I was told I should go and do singing lessons as I had a nice voice. We found a fantastic singing teacher back home and she’s still a big part of my family today and has become like an auntie or second mum.
I liked singing songs from musicals so we started doing more of that and I had to learn how to act through song. I then found an acting school that I really liked but this was all still a hobby as I didn’t really know anyone that had gone into this industry as a job – both my parents are doctors and that’s the world I knew. I loved school and was very academic, I loved science and maths and I thought I was going to be a doctor so picked my GCSEs all on that basis. I did a few shows with National Youth Music Theatre, but it was still just a hobby, it was fun and I really enjoyed it. I did West Side Story with them in 2013 and that was the show where I realised I didn’t want to do anything else, it had to be performing. I’d already picked Biology, Chemistry, Maths and Religious Studies for A-levels but then realised it’s not at all I what I wanted to do. I told my mum first that I didn’t want to be a doctor and that I wanted to go into acting and I think she had been waiting for me to turn around and say that. I told my dad and he said he didn’t know how to make a job out of it but if it made me happy then I should do it.
We did some research and I auditioned for drama schools. I trained for three years and ended up where I am now which is very exciting and very lucky, it wasn’t ever anything I thought I was going to do as a job. It wasn’t until I was about seventeen that I thought if this makes me happy, I don’t think I can do anything else.
Can you tell us about your theatre training?
I went to Arts Educational Schools in Chiswick and I trained in musical theatre. What’s great about ArtsEd is that it’s triple threat training, so they don’t just teach you how to be in musicals, they teach you how to be an actor, singer and dancer and their main goal is for you to excel in all three. They have a work ethic that I felt matched mine and you need to make sure you’re the hardest-working person in the room, the industry is based on luck and being in the right place at the right time, so the only thing you can rely on and control is your hard work, so that should be your main priority.
It was really tough, it’s a lot of work and it’s not easy at all but it’s so worth it in the end. You see the graduates that ArtsEd brings out and they’re constantly working and people love to work with them because they put their everything into what they do. Sometimes when you’re at drama school, you start thinking ‘why am I putting myself through this’, but it’s not until you leave that you realise you needed to learn certain things and learn about yourself to work the best you can so that’s why they made you do the exercises and that’s why you were crying for an hour at the end of class. At drama school, you learn who you are as a person and what makes you unique and if you hold onto your uniqueness, you will get through the three years no matter how difficult it is.