Before theatres around the world closed until further notice, Mark Willshire had been in the cast of Waitress the Musical as Swing and cover Cal and Earl since it opened at the Adelphi Theatre in the West End early last year, and was due to continue in the show which was scheduled for closure this coming July. Mark’s stage career has seen him in many roles including being cover Frank Farmer and Ray Court in The Bodyguard on tour, as well as in the West End and Toronto, playing Joe in 9 to 5 the Musical and leading the cast of Never Forget (The Take That Musical) as Ash Sherwood. Alongside his acting career, Mark runs his own photography business and often uploads to his YouTube channels – Mark Willshire Photography and Mark Willshire Actor & Tog. Taking time to answer our questions, Mark tells us about understudying the roles of Cal and Earl in Waitress the Musical, touring with The Bodyguard and his photography work.
What was it like joining the cast of Waitress the Musical and what did you enjoy most about your time in the show?
I actually joined a little bit later than everyone else but they were all very welcoming. I had a lot of catching up to do as a Swing but it was a great experience and it was great to be in work again. I hadn’t actually worked for just under two years before joining Waitress and that was a tough time for me. I was beginning to doubt the business and the way things run, and think about how hard it was to get into auditions or get far in the audition process and actually get the job. I was getting to a point of wondering if I was going to work in the industry again because I apparently couldn’t get employed, but my past credits and CV speak for themselves. It was just an overall great experience to be in work and I was so lucky to be working again because not everyone gets that.
I loved that it was a great cast and had a great mentality, even with all the different ins and outs of cast members. It was such a good cast to work with, and it’s quite rare that you get both a cast and show that you love at the same time, so just the general experience of the show with the people as well was great.
What did you know about the show before being cast?
I didn’t know much to be honest, I’m not a massive musical theatre nerd so I don’t keep up to date on what’s coming out on Broadway or what may be coming over to the West End. It’s not that I don’t care, I did try once in college to keep up with things but it just wasn’t really my thing, and I hear about what’s opening through friends who are into that.
We opened in February and it was around Christmas time/early December when I first heard about it. I was doing a pantomime in schools around the UK and I was talking to a friend of mine about how I was struggling to get auditions, and she said she couldn’t believe I hadn’t been seen for Waitress and said there were two roles I could potentially play – the husband and the doctor. She then played a little bit of it for me and I really enjoyed it. So all I knew really about Waitress was that it was a show that I could potentially play two parts in!
How was it covering the roles of Cal and Earl, and playing them for the first time?
They are actually both really good parts to play, though I made it no secret that Earl was my favourite! Cal was also fun, and he was the first one I got on for. I hadn’t rehearsed too much, and there were two covers for each role so they shared out the workload as much and as fairly as they could. I’d been rehearsing as Earl and had only been watching Chris McGuigan (the other Cal cover) in rehearsals, and obviously I’d seen Steve Leask in the role. The first day I went on for Cal was a Saturday. On the Friday night, it was looking like the actor playing Old Joe was possibly going to be off the following day, which would mean that Steve would have to play Old Joe, and Chris was also off, so it was looking very, very likely that I would be going on as Cal. I left my house in the morning and got to the theatre at about 10am on the Saturday, just in case I was going on. Then when I got the call, I said I was already there and had been rehearsing everything in my dressing room. I went to see the resident director and we went over loads of stuff and she checked that I was okay with it, and then on I went! I actually had a little cheat sheet with me on stage in my Cal apron with all my cues, so whenever I was supposed to be doing business in the kitchen, I was actually reading my cue sheets to see what I was doing next! It wasn’t that I didn’t know it, it was just that when I was going on for the first time, I wanted to make sure I was doing everything absolutely right for everyone.
The first time going on for Earl was really good fun, and it was the part I’d been waiting to go on for. I remember prepping myself for the scene where he comes in after the wedding and takes Jenna back home and shouts at her. It’s horrible and I’m supposed to come on as Earl and be angry, but I was so happy about being on and actually doing it that I had to stop myself from smiling before going on stage because if you’re angry, you can’t be smiling!
Can you tell us what it was like being Swing in the production?
Absolutely terrifying. The choreography didn’t necessarily worry me, it was more the prop passing as it was very specific and had a massive knock on effect if you weren’t there to pass on your prop. It would effect a lot more than just the person you’re supposed to be handing or taking the prop from, so it was kind of terrifying in that way. Also, there’s a section where two of the boys push Jenna on a sofa, so the first time I did that, I remember being so nervous about it. It was terrifying knowing I had to get it right and push the sofa on at a certain speed and in a certain direction, and it was quite nerve-racking. It always kept you on your toes because once you’ve been on for one track, it’s not as simple as having the next track be the same. Instead of passing on one count, you pass on another count, and it’s a different item, and they come on in different scenes… so that was quite challenging. We also had to know the girls’ tracks just in case we needed to go on for the girls, and that did happen. It was never as simple as copy and paste, so it was quite nerve-racking.
You were part of The Bodyguard for a number of years, what was it like touring with the show and performing at the Dominion Theatre?
Again, that show was a significant period for me because I hadn’t worked for about a year and a half before that, so to get back up and running again on a show was a great feeling. I was an acting swing on the show and covered about five different roles. I actually had one week where I almost went on for every single role I covered, which would have been fun! It was very close but it didn’t happen, I needed to go on as Frank Farmer. It was touch and go whether I was going on for it, but I was second cover and ended up not going on.
It was a great tour. We toured the UK for about a year and a half, with a cast change about a year into it. We went to some great venues and had Christmas in Manchester, which was lovely as I absolutely love it there and it’s one of my most favourite touring venues and cities. I always look out for Manchester and Edinburgh when I get a tour! Then to do six or seven months at the Dominion Theatre was great. It’s a huge theatre and it was really good fun to be part of it. It was technically my second West End job, so it was great to get a West End credit. We then did three and a half months in Toronto which, for me, was possibly the best period of that contract. To be in a city like Toronto for so long, not just a week or two, was fantastic. I actually took the opportunity to do some photography out there. The Bodyguard was a great job and I really enjoyed it.
How was it learning the roles of Frank Farmer and Ray Court?
Both were hard. Frank was a great character to play. It’s an iconic role and if you think of a male role in The Bodyguard, you are always going to think of Kevin Costner. I desperately wanted to get on for that part, but I was second cover. I did end up going on for two and a quarter shows though! One day in Belfast, the actor playing Frank injured his neck about 3/4 into the show, and the first cover was already playing Ray Court, so the resident director made the decision of not wanting to confuse the audience by suddenly having Ray Court as Frank Farmer, so in I came for the last quarter of the show! It was literally the last few scenes so that was fun. There was a lot to learn for that role and that’s why it was hard, but I really enjoyed it.
Ray Court was ridiculously hard to learn, and it was a hard role to cover because he came in for four or five scenes, and every time he did, it was all jargon talk. It was one of those ones that you could absolutely crumble from the text if you faltered because it was really hard to get back into it. That was really tough in that respect.
What was Joe like to play in the UK Tour of 9 to 5 the Musical?
There’s a pattern happening here as I’d been out of work for six or seven months before I’d got the role of Joe. I really enjoyed that part – he’s got four or five scenes and a little song, and it was a really nice part to play. Playing alongside Jackie Clune was fun. What was weird was that Joe was supposed to be in his mid thirties and I was in my late twenties, and then I auditioned for the West End version of it and got cut in the first round of dancing, even though I was the right age for it at that point!
Was there anything that drew you to the role and do you remember how you felt seeing the script for the first time?
Again, I didn’t know much about the show. Obviously I know Dolly Parton and I know the song 9 to 5, but I didn’t know anything else. My agent had seen it previously and said there was a nice little part for me to go up for and that I’d really enjoy it if I got it. I saw the script for the first time at my audition, apart from maybe one scene. I was just thinking about getting a job at that point because, like I say, it had been about seven months since I’d been in a show. I just knew I had to learn the script, diagnose it, get in there and get the job!
You’ve done a few jukebox musicals – Never Forget, Our House and MAMMA MIA! – can you say about the experience in the shows and performing the Take That, Madness and ABBA music?
MAMMA MIA! was my first ever jukebox musical and it was a great job. It was the first year of the international tour and we spent three months in Dublin, three months in Edinburgh and we went to South Africa for nearly two months. We had three days off between performing in Cape Town and Johannesburg, and my twenty-first birthday fell in the middle of those three days, so I got to spend my birthday in Cape Town which was incredible! The ABBA music is iconic. Even people who aren’t into that music know who ABBA are and probably know at least a handful of their songs.
Our House was my second jukebox musical and what a show! When I said before that it’s very rare that you get both a show and cast you love, this was the first time I experienced that. The Madness music is brilliant so I knew a lot of it already. I’d seen the story before because I’d watched a little bit when I was auditioning and I really loved it. It’s a great show and it’s so clever. The direction and vision by Matthew Warchus was incredible. Weirdly, when I did Ghost, that was a show that I loved and a cast that I loved, and that had Matthew Warchus directing again, so I don’t know whether that’s got anything to do with it.
Never Forget was a big show for me because it was my first show being a leading man, and that was something I’d wanted to do for a long, long time. I’d seen the show before because I actually had friends in the previous tours and the version that was at the Savoy Theatre, so I knew exactly what it was about. I love Take That music and I grew up on it as my sister was the only one out of us that had any sort of music player and she was a massive Take That fan, so I grew up on The Beatles with my dad and then Take That with my sister. It was such an incredible experience for me to sing those songs and to be leading it. It was a fun show and I worked with some great people. I really, really enjoyed it.
What do you find the best and worst aspects of touring with a show?
Some of the best aspects are that you get to see the country, or the world if you’re on an international tour, and you get paid for it. Like I said previously, working and being paid in a city like Cape Town on your twenty-first birthday is incredible. Also, you can sometimes spend a lot of time in certain cities if you’re on a tour that is in a venue for around a month. You get to know the cities and now when I travel somewhere, I think about where I can get the best coffee or what places are best to stay in.
The worst aspects are that it’s tiring. I think it’s easier when you’re younger and have no commitments, but when you’re in a relationship or married, it makes it tougher. It can grind you down week in week out, especially if you start the show on a Monday and your only day off is on Sunday, which is usually spent travelling to the next venue. Sometimes you could be doing a nine-hour drive from Southampton to Aberdeen on Sunday, for example, so it can be tough in those respects. You can also turn up to some places that are horrible, or turn up to a venue where they only have one dressing room and you have to share with everyone, which can also be fun, but tough as well. I remember in one venue, the boys dressing room was also the quick change and wigs area during the show which was chaotic and not fun!
Where does your love of acting come from and how did you get into musical theatre?
I think it all started when I was about seven. I had always sung and danced around the house, and if we had family gatherings/parties, I would always be up on the dance floor. My auntie came to my mum one day and said the dance school my cousin went to needed more boys for the show that they were doing, and she asked if I’d be interested in joining. I said yes, and that was a whole six months experience leading up to the performances. I loved it so much and I told my parents at the end that I wanted to do lessons. The lessons continued until I went off to college, but I was around twelve when I realised that that was what I wanted to do. I was fourteen when I knew I wanted to go away and train professionally, and the rest is history!
What are some of your favourite theatre shows you have watched?
The last few shows I remember being blown away by all involved Mark Rylance. I think he’s incredible to watch on stage. His performance in Jerusalem was unbelievably good. It had a great ensemble cast, but Mark Rylance was another level. I had a £10 day ticket and I was sat up in the third tier, in a box at the side. The show was three hours long and had two intervals, and I was sat mesmerised by his performance that whole time. Then I saw him in La Bete and he came out and his opening was a thirty-minute monologue. I also saw him in Nice Fish and he was incredible in that as well.
As a keen photographer, what encouraged you to start your own photography business and can you tell us more about it?
I’ve always loved photography, even as a child. I was helping a friend out who wanted to start a headshot business and she’d asked if I could go to her house and let her take headshots. During that session, I was asking loads of questions about the camera and photography, so she gave me the camera and I had a go at it. I loved it so much that I went out that day on the way to work and bought my very first camera.
The information and knowledge you have to know is overwhelming at first, so I knew I wanted to learn it completely on manual so I could control everything. It takes a long time to get used to being in manual mode, it’s not easy, and I still struggle sometimes even this far down the line. I taught myself through books, YouTube videos and talking to other photographers and asking them questions.
I wanted to have photography as a side business that was hopefully going to make me money when I was out of work as an actor. I’d tried other jobs such as leafleting, bar work and teaching, but I just didn’t enjoy any of them. I decided to really give photography a go in 2011. It can be hard balancing my photography with my acting because sometimes one has to take priority over the other for various reasons.
A lot of actor-photographers in the industry decide to buy a camera from Jessops and charge people £150 for headshots, but have no idea what they are doing. Then, six or seven months down the line, they give up. That’s why, for me, photography is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s not a business to come out of acting, I’m never going to say I’ve had enough of acting and I’m giving it up just to do photography because I want to be doing both for as long as I can.
What do you enjoy most about photoshoots and what do you think makes a good image?
Enjoying things on photoshoots can change depending on what you are shooting, but generally I enjoy being creative and having a chat with people at the same time. It’s really good fun to meet people and shoot them and discover what they can look like. For example, I might be shooting someone and giving them directions or talking about what we’re going to get before the shoot, and they might say they’re not a smiley person or they’re not one of those people who do serious, moody or cool photos. That, to me, is a challenge in my head and I say I’m going to prove them wrong. It’s not that they don’t or can’t take them types of photos, it’s just that they’re not used to it, and I think the more you do it, the more you get used to it and the better you get at doing it. So, to shoot images of people doing things that they say they wouldn’t usually do, and then have them see the photos and say they’re really great is always fun.
What makes a good image is a broad answer for me and what I shoot. I want to know that the lighting’s great, that we’re telling a story with the eyes, and we’re getting all the technical aspects of it right. It’s hard to say what makes a good image when people shoot different things, but lighting and story really are the big factors that make a good image for me.
What advice would you give someone starting out in photography?
It depends what they are doing it for. If they are doing it for fun, then I would say just get out there and shoot. Try different things, meet different people and explore different areas/genres/styles of photography. If someone’s starting out as a business, I would say get yourself to at least a basic point of knowledge and to an image’s final look before you start going out there and charging. Also, get out there and do a lot of free shoots and build up relationships to build up your portfolio. Mainly, for both of them, just have fun. It’s a long game, be patient, it takes time for you to hone a style and to hone your craft.
Some might call themselves a photographer if they buy a proper camera and stick it on auto. I personally wouldn’t call myself a photographer if I was asking a machine to do everything, and all I was doing was sticking my eye into the viewfinder and taking an image. That would be a hobbyist, an enthusiast or an amateur. Get onto a manual and do it properly, haha!
Can you say about your YouTube channels – Mark Willshire Photography and Mark Willshire Actor & Tog – and what plans do you have for them?
I started up my original photography channel because, to expand as a business and photographer, I wanted to start working with brands and companies. Not because I wanted free stuff or to be an influencer, but because sometimes you get heavy discounts on equipment, which can be helpful when you’re an actor out of work. Equipment can be very expensive (that’s not to say you have to have expensive equipment to produce good results), so to be able to work with brands and have them say they’ll give 50% off their products if I tag them on social media, and maybe do a review on YouTube, it makes things a lot easier. That’s why I set up my photography YouTube channel, and also because I wanted to help other people. I’ve had a lot of people messaging me on Instagram asking for tips or recommendations, so I thought if I could help people at the same time on my channel then that’s great. At the start of my journey as a photographer, I didn’t have a lot of help, and sometimes you can get photographers who tell you to learn yourself, so I didn’t want to be like that at all.
In respect of my Mark Willshire Actor & Tog channel, that stemmed from the fans of Waitress who were so loyal that they followed my photography channel. I guess some of them didn’t necessarily want to watch photography, and they were asking me to do videos about me, or A Day in the Life of a Swing in Waitress, and all of them sort of videos. I knew I could use it to promote my photography as well, as I wanted everywhere to point towards my photography and help that grow, and it has helped.
I actually remember that I had a camcorder when I was in my early teens and I used to do vlogging. It obviously wasn’t for an online platform, it was just for fun, but I used to do fake interview shows and fake adverts. In 2007, I used to play golf, and I made a little golf video with my friend and I remember how much I enjoyed doing it. That’s why I’m doing all of these YouTube videos now because I obviously enjoyed it previously. It was also something to give back to the fans who’d been nice to me. I found it really fun recording all that stuff and getting ideas, and, as I said, I wanted it to raise awareness of my photography to boost the business.
With regards to plans for them, I have a whole list of ideas that I want to do. Ironically, at the moment, I haven’t had the time to do it because I’ve been building my new photography website so that’s taken up a lot of time. I’ve been doing a lot of other stuff in lockdown, but I will get round to recording new videos for both of my channels. I’m always open to any of my subscribers or Instagram followers giving me ideas. I’m going to try and do a variety of videos on my Actor & Tog channel, I want to maybe do some singing videos and maybe a series of “Get to Know Me” where I tell people about my favourite food, movies or film scores… all that sort of stuff.
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