📷 : Michael Shelford
With a busy year in theatre in 2019, Michael Lin started his run in West Side Story at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester in April as Baby John before heading to the Chichester Festival Theatre in summer for their production of Oklahoma!, and finished the year making his West End debut at the Dominion Theatre in White Christmas. For Michael’s first professional role, he toured the UK and Europe with Thriller Live! and amongst his many other roles, has performed at the National Theatre as a puppeteer and ensemble member in Pinocchio. We caught up with Michael about his West End debut in White Christmas, performing at Chichester Festival Theatre and playing Baby John in West Side Story.
You were in the recent production of White Christmas at the Dominion Theatre, what was this show like to be part of?
White Christmas was a great contract to be a part of over the Christmas period. I wasn’t able to make a trip to Leicester Curve the year before, so to be involved in the Christmas movie classic this time round was a treat. Creatively it was fun because we were able to play snippets of different characters building up to when we eventually arrive at the ‘Columbia Inn’ as ensemble members. The music was a pleasure to listen to every night; big band numbers playing swing, sentimental numbers sounded lush and what made it even more of an experience was having the band on stage with you whilst you danced some really fun choreography. Additionally, it was nice to be working with familiar creative team members, cast members and of course getting the chance to meet so many new and insanely talented people. A perfect way to get into the Christmas spirit!
📷 : Johan Persson
How did it feel making your West End debut with the show?
I think I would have been pretty happy making my official West End debut with any show, but if I think back to the shows that really inspired me as a child, Singin’ in The Rain stands out to me. It was that style of MGM Golden Era musical I was familiar with and imagined being a part of if I decided to pursue performing as a profession and I think White Christmas is of a very similar kind. So I’d say I’m pretty chuffed to have White Christmas as my West End debut credit.
How was your time in Oklahoma! at the Chichester Festival Theatre last summer?
I really enjoyed being back at Chichester with Oklahoma! last summer. It felt so nice to be welcomed back to the theatre by familiar faces from production team to backstage crew. The theatre itself is in such a beautiful setting and I knew that the standard of work produced there was top-notch, which is evident in the amount of transfers it has to the West End. So, I was already excited to get back there before the rehearsal process even started. We had a brilliant cast that got on well with each other and meant we organised a load of activities and trips together during the day. The weather definitely made the contract more enjoyable! You could just sit in the park right outside the theatre or play football/frisbee under the sun if you had nothing to do. I thought we’d head to the beach more often but I only made it there by bike once. That was an adventure in itself. Evenings at The Bell pub opposite the theatre guarantees that you’ll come away from the contract with some hilarious stories and memories. The show itself was great fun to be a part of too. The choreography was super energetic and daring (which I loved) and it was nice to be playing a southern American (for the first time in my career) during a time in history I was less knowledgeable about. I also really enjoyed learning my cover part, Ali Hakim. He’s such a brilliantly yet shady character. If you ever did get a little homesick, going back to London was only a short journey. All in all, a great contract.
📷 : Johan Persson
Do you have a favourite moment from your time in the show?
I’d have to say that performing Kansas City was my favourite moment in the show. The number is about Will Parker sharing his experience of Kansas City after he returns with a whopping $50(!) he won at a rope slinging contest. As a farmer, playing that sense of reserved (initially) fascination about the world outside of our home comforts, scoffing at the idea of change then eventually embracing new ideas was really fun. The number was super athletic and took a lot of risks. We were jumping on and off barrels, throwing hats to each other, rolling barrells across the stage and to top it off, Will Parker finished the number with an impressive rope trick. When all these elements came together the result was electric. All the guys up together giving it all. You were dead by the end of it and if you weren’t warm by the time you got on stage, you definitely were after that.
📷 : Johan Persson
You previously performed at Chichester Festival Theatre in Forty Years On, what was it like to be part of this cast?
Forty Years On was super fun to be in. It was my first actor-muso show and I really hope I get the chance to do it again in the future. I used to play the drums as a kid and had lessons once a week during lunch time, but I never had a kit at home. Eventually (and regrettably) I gave up lessons. So it was amazing to be able to get back to playing. In addition, if we weren’t playing band numbers together, the small ensemble of professionals would be singing really complex barbershop or close harmonies, which I love doing. Out of those sequences, we’d then be playing these school children, each with their own unique personalities and relationships with one another. I also managed to get a tap solo which is always a treat. The whole experience was so much fun. We had such a multi-talented bunch of individuals!
📷 : Johan Persson
Can you tell us about playing the role of Baby John in West Side Story at Royal Exchange Manchester?
Playing Baby John in West Side Story was definitely a career highlight for myself. I hadn’t actually seen any full-length versions of the show before but I had seen the movie and was familiar with the story and the iconic music. To be a part of it and unexpectedly play a Jet was a dream come true. What made this even more exceptional was the fact we were doing a version that didn’t have to adhere to the Jerome Robbins choreography. To top it off, the theatre is completely in the round, a 360 stage that had multiple entrances and exits.
In the early stages of the rehearsal period, we all had to take time in exploring and developing our characters through exercises like writing a personal letter that no one would read, asking ourselves whether we’d been in fights or carried weapons before and so on. Baby John, to me, is certainly the youngest in the group; naive in nature but extremely eager and wanting to be up there with the older guys. However he still has a lot to prove. Along his journey though, he battles with his own identity and questions whether his own morals are more important than being part of a gang that involves doing certain things he may regret. I really enjoyed portraying the emotional rollercoaster Baby John experiences.
📷 : Richard Davenport / The Other Richard
What was the choreography like to learn?
The choreography was super enjoyable. Initially, we spent a lot of time trying to develop vocabulary that would be used throughout the show. We’d experiment through task-based exercises, gestural movements or be given the freedom to improvise and then polish or develop certain movements that worked. Sometimes we’d experiment with something and pursue it to no avail. What was interesting was having to let go of our natural habits that we had trained so hard to embody as dancers and trust what was being thrown at us, embracing what felt odd and believing in the process. We’re so used to be having steps just thrown at us to counts and that’s that. I’m not saying there were no technique, counts, elements of contemporary or traditional jazz involved… There was. But it certainly wasn’t what I thought we’d do and I loved that.
What was The Rink at Southwark Playhouse like to perform in?
The Rink was a really special show for me. It was a much smaller cast than I was used to and Southwark Playhouse is an extremely intimate set up; we (I was guilty of anyway) were literally dancing on the feet of audience members who were sat at stage level. The lesser known Kander and Ebb musical focuses on Anna (the owner of a dilapidated skate rink who is selling it off) and her daughter Angel (who returns after years away to try and reconnect with her mother and her past) through a series of flashbacks and minimal forward-moving plot development.
📷 : Darren Bell
Similarly to Chichester (but on a much smaller scale), audiences were much further out than our peripherals if you were facing ‘front’. You were almost playing in the round but not quite. We were also pretty much on stage the whole show subtly changing our characters for an upcoming scene discreetly at the back or busying ourselves as construction workers throughout a scene. So, when you would conventionally go off stage and change costumes or have a few minutes before you’re next needed, we replaced that by doing so on stage. Even dim back lighting wasn’t enough to make you disappear completely which forced us to really be even more engaged with the story and what was happening throughout the show. Most of all, I really enjoyed putting a pair of skates on again. I used to inline/adggressive skate a lot as a kid and even had a brief stint representing Hong Kong in the Asian Games and the China X Games, but I had never put on a pair of skates for a theatre show, never mind tap dancing and spinning props around! To top it off, the dressing room banter was great; us guys and the leading ladies (unfortunately) shared a dressing room with a state of the art cloth and costume rail to divide the room into two. Let’s just say the ladies had to put up with (or enjoyed) a lot of rubbish from the guys.
You were part of the Annie UK Tour in 2015/2016, can you tell us more about this?
The Annie tour was really good fun but definitely had its challenges. Weekly touring can be quite exhausting because apart from having to move digs every week, your day off was usually spent travelling to the next venue. After however many weeks of performing, you would eventually get a week’s break but I think it’s safe to say that people really looked forward to that week off! Being organised is key at the start when you’re looking for digs, otherwise you can end up in some unfortunate accommodations or ones with strange rules that make you question why that person is hosting in the first place, which is the last thing you need when you’re already away from your home comforts and working a pretty tiring schedule. It can get a little claustrophobic at times being in this bubble every day.
On the other hand, touring can be amazing. On this particular tour we were lucky enough to go to Monaco, Ireland and I got to revisit some cities I had fond memories of and make sure I get to those attractions I missed the last time I was in the area. When you’re on tour, you find reasons or activities to do with your cast mates for fun; Tabbogoning in Llandudno, Hiking Arthur’s Seat then visiting the Jazz Club in Edinburgh after a show were ways of keeping spirits lifted whilst you’re away. The kids were so talented and a joy to work with too. However, as Assistant Dance Captain, it did mean a lot of extra rehearsals and notes for each cast of children (we had three teams that worked on rotation and a cast change halfway through the contract). Having a dog around the premises guaranteed to bring you a smile though! The show itself is a classic and a family favourite and is still going today. I’m glad to have been a part of the Annie family.
📷 : Paul Coultas
What do you remember from your time as Dance Captain in the Thriller Live! Tour?
Thriller Live! (UK and Europe Tour) was my very first job and I couldn’t have asked for a better one to start my professional career with. It was a weekly touring show and it was physically exhausting; it’s essentially a Michael Jackson concert, hit after hit that you’re dancing to. If you weren’t on stage because a duet or slower number was happening on stage, you were doing a quick change for the next number. A lot of the time we wouldn’t make it back up to the dressing rooms in the interval… Instead, we would just collapse on our chair or the floor in the quick change village and recover/dry off. Being a Dance Captain on that job was actually a breeze compared to the other jobs I’ve been DC on. Everyone was pretty switched on anyway so it didn’t make the job too troublesome.
No matter how tired you were before a show, the music would pretty much lift you out of that funk and make you appreciate where you were and what you were doing. You can’t argue with how good the music is. I made some really good friends on that contract and have so much love for them. We really got on as a cast as we were all new to the show (cast changes often had some people who had already done the show) and were mostly fresh out of college so we already had that in common. The band were incredible and were also on stage with us so we got to vibe and interact with them during the show. Again, getting to see so many towns in Europe was amazing but it also came with long hours on a coach from city to city, sometimes performing that evening in a huge arena before getting to your hotel bed and leaving the next morning to do the same thing again. However, I wouldn’t have swapped that for anything else. The crowds in Europe were something else; you felt like a rock star and the energy was incredible. I loved having my first job and tour with Thriller.
📷 : Irina Chira
What do you enjoy most about performing in pantomimes?
Pantomimes are generally just so much fun and a laugh. My first two pantomimes I was in the ensemble but the last one I did I was fortunate enough to be a principal part. Both experiences were fun for different reasons but what I like the most is the joy it brings to people. For some children, it’s their first experience of the theatre and what better way to it kick it off than with a traditional British pantomime. Even if it’s not your first theatre trip, as an audience member you’ll be laughing for most of it! Crude jokes, clever jokes and political jokes; it’s all there! You’ll even get to take part in it (onstage if you’re lucky) and witness some strong dance numbers to familiar tracks. It can be so silly and bonkers but fun and moving at the same time. I’ve not even spoken about the onstage antics, pranks or improvisations that can occur too. These moments often make the experience so funny. There is a seriousness about performing in Pantomimes too though, without a doubt, but there tends to be a more relaxed atmosphere in the building and it’s the festive period, so spirits are generally pretty positive.
📷 : Robert Workman
When did you learn puppeteering and can you tell us about being in Pinocchio at the National Theatre?
I learnt puppeteering whilst on the job with Pinocchio. During the audition phases, we did introductory puppetry workshops with pieces of paper and small Bunraku puppets to get an idea of how we’d work and what to expect. Once I got the job though, we then had to do a week of puppetry workshops months before we actually started rehearsals for the show. Only at the workshop did we see some of the prototypes and first drafts of the puppets we’d be using and they were huge! At first they seem quite light and manageable as they’re generally made of polystyrene but once you’ve got the costumes and details on the puppet, it’s suddenly so heavy and makes it physically so much harder. Regardless of the technical hardships, trying to convey the realism of your puppet and embodying the character but not being too distracting as its controller is really difficult but I really enjoyed the challenge.
Working on Pinocchio at the National Theatre was inspiring to say the least. As well as the puppetry element of the show, the choreography was equally as important. Similarly to the puppetry, we had a week of workshops exploring movement and devising choreography based on tasks given to us by our choreographer. For example, as a group, we have to create a short routine as a ladder moves slowly across the stage. We’d then share the work we created in our group to each other. Some exercises were even done individually! The whole experience was just so creative and explorative and it felt like you were contributing towards the show as a team instead of just being told exactly what your counts are and how you’d have to execute it. It was really fun having to embody the shady and dark character of Stromboli and then having to become a naughty and excitable child playing at Pleasure Island before being transformed into a donkey and being absolutely terrified of it. It was such an exciting contract and it was an absolute pleasure working at the National Theatre. I couldn’t be more grateful for what they did for me!
📷 : Manuel Harlan
How did you get into musical theatre?
My mother was the reason I got into musical theatre. Fun fact: my mum attended Laine Theatre Arts which is where I ended up training! Growing up, my siblings and I all took dance lessons from Mum (tap and jazz) and then we went to other dance teachers (some of which were students of my mum) for other styles of dance. Mum was also in charge of the Musical Theatre diploma programme at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts so as kids we were exposed to a lot of musical theatre. We’d either be watching Mum’s university showcases, performing in amateur productions or local pantomimes (usually directed or choreographed by Mum) or seeing professional touring productions of musicals that would come through the university my mum worked at, Hong. My father is a musician and recording engineer so as a family we were involved with the arts. If Dad wasn’t watching a show with us, he was probably on the desk mixing the sound!
📷 : Mandy Lin and Michael Lin @ Ronnie Scott’s Tap Jam
Do you enjoy attending theatre shows and if so, what have you seen recently that you’d recommend?
I do enjoy watching shows when I can. I think it’s important to do so in this industry to keep you inspired or to learn from other brilliant performers. Watching a live story is not only compelling, but on a personal level it’s quite comforting as it’s a reminder of what we used to do as kids back home. Recent musicals I have seen and can recommend would be Come From Away and Girl From the North Country. The last play I saw was Small Island at the National Theatre and that was brilliant.
What are your upcoming plans?
I’m really excited to have recently booked two upcoming roles, one in London and one in Toronto, and I can’t wait to get started on them!
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