📷 : Phil Sharp
With Avenue Q touring the UK from January last year, Lawrence Smith could be seen as Princeton and Rod until the run ended at Mercury Theatre, Colchester in October. Prior to this, Lawrence was nominated for Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in a Musical at the 2018 Offie Awards for his portrayal of Morrie in Brass at the Union Theatre. This year, Lawrence has workshopped numerous productions including The Throwaways with Lambert Jackson at The Other Palace, and he is set to head to the venue again in September as part of the line-up for A Musical Marathon for Macmillan Cancer Support. Chatting with us, we found out from Lawrence about touring with Avenue Q, his first professional job with All The Angels and workshopping The Throwaways.
What was it like performing as Princeton/Rod in Avenue Q and how long did it take to learn puppetry?
It was all a bit bonkers, to be honest! From the first day of rehearsals to our first public performance, we had about three weeks to put the whole show together. Three weeks isn’t a lot of time to learn the script, the songs, the movement, the backstage routes, etc at the best of times, so imagine chucking puppetry into that mix!
I won’t lie, it did take quite a long time to figure out the puppetry. I have recordings of our early rehearsals and I cringe at my puppet technique – those poor puppets must’ve been like “what is this guy DOING to me?!”. It was a long tour, so I think I got the hang of it eventually. There were some days I wanted to set the damn things on fire, but you just had to lean into the pain and get used to them being damp with sweat. Yum.
What did you know about the roles before auditioning and how did you prepare for the two characters?
I obsessed over the cast recording when I was younger (a super healthy thing for a child to be listening to…) so to suddenly be up there on a stage and singing the actual songs was a constantly humbling experience – “if thirteen-year-old Lawrence could see me now”, that type of thing.
I was originally seen for one of the ensemble roles, so had to learn audition material for about five different characters – practicing all the voices got me some funny looks on the tube. Princeton and Rod are so different from each other, so it was fun to develop their own individual mannerisms and quirks as the tour went on. I pride myself on the fact that I only walked on stage once in the whole tour with the wrong puppet on my arm, but that’s a story for another time…
📷 : Avenue Q
Do you have any funny moments from your time in the show?
It’s weird, you’d think that there would be loads of funny moments because the show’s a hilarious comedy, but I think because you’re in it you have to be so focused on what you’re doing – not to mention you’re in a lot of pain because of the puppets!
That’s not to say that I didn’t make mistakes – hoo baby did I do some absolute howlers. I tripped on a step once at the end of a really sweet scene and landed flat on my/Princeton’s face (a friend of mine watched that particular performance and thought it was intentional; the bruises on my legs suggested otherwise).
One member of the audience in Belfast had a super distinctive laugh. During a scene, they let out this corker of a laugh which led to the show stopping for a couple of minutes as the audience – and us on stage – all burst out laughing. I could see members of the cast and crew assemble in the wings as they thought something had gone wrong for the show to stop. That’s a really lovely memory of the tour for me, actually – in those minutes, everyone in that room lost their marbles en masse and had a right giggle.
What do you enjoy most about touring the UK with a show?
It was so interesting performing this particular show in different venues – the style and humour of it is not to everyone’s liking! There were some folks who were die-hard fans of the show and knew exactly what to expect. Then there were some folks who thought it was a family show and found out within about forty-five seconds that they’d made a huge mistake bringing their child, nana and Book Group with them.
Sometimes there were crowds who you felt were a little reluctant to accept the show, but when they leaned into it and allowed themselves to relax, it felt like a wee victory for us. From the stage, you could feel a collective shift in the room – they started out a little perplexed at why there’s a guy up there with a puppet on his arm singing about college degrees, then by the final scene of Act One, there would be audible sniffles in the audiences as two of the puppets end their relationship. It’s a testament to the writing of the show that this j*urney (I hate that word) feels earned.
How was it performing at the Union Theatre in their production of Brass?
A total joy! I went into the project knowing next to nothing about Brass and ended up falling in love with the whole darn thing. It was one of those stunning wee moments of alchemy – a cracking piece, a cast of absolute stunners and, best of all, I got to toot the ol’ trumpet.
Performing the show on the centenary of the First World War was an absolute honour. Musical theatre can get a bad reputation for being cheesy and fluffy, but Brass is an example of a show that tells a beautiful story centred on real humans where the music and the narrative perfectly serve one another. Maybe because the subject matter was so sombre and serious – a group of young men sent to the trenches and the families they left behind back home – it meant that the cast bonded beautifully off-stage. The giggles we’d have on that show – oh, I really miss it.
Your role as Morrie led to a nomination for Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in a Musical at the 2018 Offie Awards, how did it feel being nominated for your work?
Hold on to your hats, folks, I’m about to say something so humble it’s going to make you go cross-eyed – it would be hard to do that role and for it to NOT be recognised somehow; Benjamin Till created such a stunning wee character. Even though he wasn’t a major player, Morrie had a narrative arc that seemed to resonate with folks and I’m forever honoured I got to walk in his shoes for a bit. If I’m honest, I think the main reason I was nominated was a sympathy vote for my attempt to pass as a fifteen year old…!
Listen, awards are bizarre and subjective and ultimately just shiny bookends, but if it meant that more people had the show on their radar and therefore came to see it and share the story with us, then that’s pretty cool.
📷 : Marc Brenner
You recently workshopped The Throwaways at The Other Palace, what was this like to be part of?
I met Dylan Wynford, the writer of the piece, when we did a show together a couple of years back. If I was really pushed into it, I guess I could describe him as my ‘friend’, though, ‘work acquaintance’ is probably closer to the truth. He won’t be reading this, will he? Anyway.
It’s great fun to be involved with projects when they’re in their infancy, to be able to trace the steps of how certain aspects of the piece come into existence. There’s something freeing about this, where you’re not having to adhere to implied interpretations of classic characters; you get to bring a little bit of yourself and your sensibilities as a performer to the whole process.
(I do, however, think I lost my gloves one day in rehearsal, so if anyone sees them lying around the Studio space of The Other Palace, give me a shout.)
National Theatre of Scotland workshopped Big Noise, can you tell us more about this?
This one was a total treat! The Big Noise is a fantastic programme that runs in an area of Stirling where primary school kids are provided orchestral instruments and musical tuition; in the process, they’re equipped with confidence, ambition and transferable skills that they can take into life outside of school and beyond. Coincidentally, my family live in Stirling and when I was in high school, I was enlisted by my music teacher to do a trumpet demonstration for the kids when the Big Noise was first set up there.
Fast forward twelve or so years, and National Theatre of Scotland have teamed up with Dundee Rep to potentially write a musical about the project. The whole experience was a joy – an amazing group of actor/musicians, an incredible creative team and material that I’ve been humming to myself since the workshop. We did a brief sharing to members of the community and the reaction from them was a truly wonderful thing. There was something really special about working in Scotland on a Scottish piece with an almost exclusively Scottish team – I very rarely feel homesick, but this project has definitely made me want to do more work back home.
What can you say about P.S I’m a Terrible a Person?
Another cracker of a piece! Honestly, just based on the three workshops I’ve done this year, the UK musical theatre scene is bursting with creativity! Francesca Forristal and Jordan Clarke have written an absolute winner of a show and I was truly honoured to be a part of it. The piece is centred around a person’s experience with their mental health, specifically their eating disorder. For many years now, I’ve lived with an eating disorder and all the complications that it brings, so I must admit that I was hesitant to take part in the workshop – but I’m so glad I did it. Along with their firecracker director Ali James, Francesca and Jordan have created a show with so much heart, honesty and humour. It was one of the most supportive and creative rooms I’ve ever been in, with a group of actors who had each other’s back from the get-go.
Having performed at Shakespeare’s Globe in All The Angels, did you have a favourite part of performing there?
All The Angels was my first professional job and I couldn’t have been luckier. To be able to originate a role, understudy a lead and sing classical music every night was, frankly, a stupidly lovely job. Before musical theatre came into my life, I studied classical singing at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, so when the casting came along of a ‘young male actor who can sing tenor repertoire’, it felt like a beautiful collision of my skillsets. We performed during the winter season at the Globe, so every night, the audience would come in from the cold of the Southbank and into the wee warm candlelit toy-box of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. That whole experience, top to bottom, was a highlight for me, I can’t pick out a favourite part.
📷 : Marc Brenner
Was there anything that inspired your career?
I was a super shy child, but the moment you stuck on Frank Sinatra or the Dixie Chicks, I’d be singing and dancing around the kitchen table. I was quietly obsessed with shows like ER and The West Wing – I went through phases of wanting to be a doctor or a press secretary, until I realised that what I actually wanted was to PLAY them on telly.
I’ve always been fascinated with pop culture – I think it’s because, growing up in the Highlands of Scotland, the rest of the world felt very far away; so TV/music/films have always been a way for me to feel connected to others.
Switching to the musical theatre course at the Royal Academy of Music, after my classical studies at both RCS and RAM, was like putting on the comfiest pair of shoes – during my classical singing days, even though the shoes were lovely, they weren’t the right fit for me; in musical theatre, the shoes were great and I could finally start to run at my own pace. Does this metaphor even make sense?
Essentially, Audra McDonald is who I want to be when I grow up.
Can you tell us about some of the commercials you’ve worked on?
Listen, as a general rule, I hate nepotism. People getting work purely via who they know and not based on their talent/experience/capabilities drives me NUTS. Saying that, every commercial I’ve worked on has been through my boyfriend who is a commercials director (I hate myself for typing that, too, don’t worry).
Being on a set really does feel like a different world from working in the theatre – most notably, there seem to be more men called Dave wearing North Face jackets.
You’ve worked on a few concerts including Bernstein’s Mass, what do you enjoy most about this part of your career?
I mean, any chance to perform Bernstein at the Royal Festival Hall is pretty groovy. I’m very fortunate that I get to mix the classical and the musical theatre side of things. The two art forms are too frequently divorced from one another, but when they come together in a cohesive and classy way, it can be pretty amazing.
The sheer scale of that piece was something I hadn’t experienced in a while – to stand on a stage with a Tony Award winner, to sing under the baton of a world-renowned conductor and perform this incredible piece was wild. Plus, I got to have a wee chat with Bernstein’s son after the performance, so, my heart and brain exploded a little.
Any concert work that comes along, sign me up!
You’ve been announced for A Musical Marathon for Macmillan at The Other Palace in September, what are you looking forward to for the event?
I get to sing with my pals. A weird thing about the whole acting biz is that you form such intense relationships with people over a short bursts of time and then the project ends and you all move on. It can be fantastic for that time that you’re all together and then you can feel weirdly bereft when you go your separate ways. So, any chance to get together and sing with friends, old and new, is a total joy.
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