Gabriela García


📷 : Jennie Scott

Last year, Gabriela García was cast as Maria in the reimagined production of West Side Story at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, and was set to reprise her leading role in this year’s production at the Royal Exchange, having started rehearsals a couple of days before theatres shut until further notice. In summer 2019, Gabriela was part of Lunatic 19s – A Deportational Road Trip, a two-hander new play telling the story of Gabriela’s character Gracie, an immigrant set for deportation. Amongst her many musical theatre roles, Gabriela starred as Nina in In The Heights at King’s Cross Theatre and the following year, was cast in Strictly Ballroom in the West End as Vanessa and Cover Fran. Talking with us, Gabriela chats about playing Maria in West Side Story, her time in Strictly Ballroom and being cast in In The Heights.

How did it feel being cast in the reimagined production of West Side Story at the Royal Exchange in Manchester?

Well, here’s a funny story. When I got the call that the team wanted to see me for Maria, I said to my agent ‘what?! I can’t sing Maria, I’m an Anita’, my agent then said the casting director would see me as Anita but only if I went in for Maria and tried that material first… I remember going into the audition feeling already a bit defeated, even though I had practiced the material intensely, I still didn’t manage to feel confident in producing an operatic sound. It was an 11am audition and the musical supervisor asked me to sing a Top C! Both the musical supervisor and the casting director made the room feel like it was a safe space for me to crack in, I actually remember they both just cheered me on and asked me to ‘have a go’ – don’t know how I was able to hit that Top C… I then did three more rounds of auditions trying other songs and scenes that Maria does and I ended up falling in love with the character. As I said before, I always saw myself as an Anita, I guess I liked her feistiness and the fact that she got to dance but I got to inject my own feistiness to Maria and even a few dance moves here and there 😃.

I was extremely lucky I had a creative team that believed in me more than I believed in myself and that helped me get the confidence I needed to explore that different side of my voice.

Even though the idea of playing Maria was incredibly exciting, it was also very daunting so I focused on learning, taking one day at a time.


What is Maria like to play and how was it preparing for your role?

I had four months to vocally prepare for this role before rehearsals. I had to make sure I felt comfortable with my vocals so that I could really focus on telling the story and not have to think so much about my vocal technique while performing it.

It’s an incredibly hard role to do eight shows a week, not only vocally from singing up there and then having to shout and cry so much, it is also emotionally exhausting. I had to take so much care of myself, but I loved it, I found a discipline I really enjoyed.

Maybe a year would be too exhausting, but for a short run it was so worth it.

West Side Story ©The Other Richard

📷 : West Side Story – Royal Exchange Manchester

Why do you think West Side Story appeals to audiences?

First of all, Leonard Bernstein’s music is a masterpiece. Sadly, violence and knife crime are still very present in today’s world and we need to keep telling this tragedy so the audience can experience a mirror of the world and hopefully inspire change. Shakespeare tried to say it all those years ago and still, here we are now.


What were you most looking forward to for reprising your role and how were rehearsals going?

Well, we got two days of rehearsals and they were amazing – getting to revisit that score again, and being at the Exchange again! It’s an incredible venue full of great energy and, of course, getting to meet the new cast albeit briefly, I am sure we will meet again! I know the theatre is doing everything they can to reschedule the show once this world crisis is over.


Last year you played Gracie in the world premiere of Lunatic 19s – A Deportational Road Trip, can you tell us more about this?

It was such an incredible opportunity to get to tell Gracie’s and other immigrants’ stories. I had to do so much research into what ICE was doing to immigrants and what a deportation journey was really like and I was naively shocked to learn how many Gracies are out there right now fighting for a decent place to live.


📷 : West Side Story – Royal Exchange Manchester

How was the experience performing in a play rather than a musical?

I learnt so much from my cast mate Devon Anderson and director Jonathan Martin. We really threw ourselves into the material and we made the rehearsal room a really inspiring playground to try new things. Doing a two-hander was hard – for an hour and a half I didn’t get to exit the stage so it was very intense to focus and not drop the ball.

It was a really nice change from musicals, it’s a different discipline and it was so nice to be able to drink after a show and not worry about hitting certain notes with my voice!


You performed as Vanessa and Cover Fran in Strictly Ballroom at West End’s Piccadilly Theatre, how was this?

Amazing! I got to do an Australian accent! I learnt so much from Drew McOnie and the incredible cast around me. Every day at warm up I would look around and I would be like whoooaa, she’s incredible and he’s incredible. Everyone inspired me to better my craft.

It was a hard show, almost every day I would have to ice something and really take care of my body – I still have a lot of scars from all the sequence scratches!

West Side Story ©The Other Richard

📷 : West Side Story – Royal Exchange Manchester

What was the choreography like to learn and had you performed this style of dance previously?

No, I felt like an imposter! I had never done ballroom dancing before and I LOVED it! Your body is in bits every night, the pain doesn’t get any better but it was worth it, I felt really strong and healthy during that show.


Was there anything that drew you to the production of In The Heights and how was it being part of the cast?

Drew me? Drew McOnie? 🤪🤣 Well, In The Heights was my dream show! The reason why I decided to choose this as a career. I watched the show three times on Broadway and I sang Breathe to get into ArtsEd. It’s such a cool show and I feel like I had the best of both worlds because I got to dance the shit out of it with Yolanda and then sing the shit out of it with Nina 😍. Oh, and I got to meet one of my idols! – Lin-Manuel Miranda, I cried so much, it was truly a dream come true.


You toured with Ghost the Musical, what was this like to do and how was it covering the roles of Molly and Mrs Santiago?

I never got to go on! For either of them, a whole year and never got to go on… the job of an understudy is so hard. I loved doing this show and, again, I learnt a lot from my castmates. Having to practice Molly’s songs for a year inevitably helped me improve my voice, but also for a whole year you worry about going out after the show in case your time finally arrives to go on and you are not at your best, so living on the edge for a year is no fun, however I loved being a part of that show.


How does it feel to be nominated for awards for your work?

It’s pretty cool to be recognised, however I need to remind myself awards are subjective, although it is a lovely way to celebrate each other’s work.


When did your professional theatre career start and can you tell us about your training?

My first professional job was while I was at ArtsEd doing my BA in Musical Theatre and I got to be ensemble in a Pantomine in Kings Lynn in my second year. I was so excited! I learnt a lot from the experience and actually a dream come true – it was the first time I got paid to do something I loved and my parents came over for me from México 😃.


📷 : Johan Persson – In The Heights

We understand you moved to England when you were sixteen, was there anything that encouraged you to start a career here and do you remember how you felt leaving Mexico?

I was so homesick – I reckon it took me about six months to adjust… but I LOVE the UK and I am lucky because my grandpa was Spanish so it was easy for me to work here. I still miss Mexico, but also, when I’m in Mexico, I miss London so I guess I have two homes now 😃.


What do you enjoy most about performing at concerts?

I had my debut in my country this year actually! I got to sing with a seventy-piece orchestra some Leonard Bernstein songs, Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. I was sooo nervous but it was an incredible experience, I learnt a lot and it was such a gift to be able to perform for my family and friends and in the theatres I grew up going to and dreaming I would perform there one day!

Looking back, I am now even more thankful that I got to experience that this year before the crisis started.


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