Earlier this year, it was announced that Aaron Shales would be making his professional and West End debut as Swing and second cover May in & Juliet at the Shaftesbury Theatre. Having joined the cast at the end of March, Aaron made his Swing debut performing in the show last week. Whilst training at SLP College, Aaron performed at MOVE IT and in shows including Legally Blonde and Bad Girls (which was also his final show), and he graduated in 2021 during the pandemic. Before starting his run in the West End, Aaron told us about being Swing in & Juliet, covering the role of May and graduating from SLP College.
How did it feel booking your role in the West End musical & Juliet and what drew you to the production?
It felt like the best, euphoric but completely unexplainable feeling in the world! But mostly it felt surreal. I just couldn’t believe that little old me who had graduated five months prior to getting the job offer and always worked so hard but thought that I most likely wouldn’t be good enough had just gotten a dream of a show to make my professional debut in! And for the debut to also be a West End debut, it was just so crazy to me! Parts of it only started to sink in when I went backstage at the Shaftesbury Theatre for the first time to try on some costumes, as well as the start of rehearsals and actually standing on the stage. But I feel like it won’t fully sink in until I get to go on for the first time and perform my heart out for an audience!
How has it been rehearsing for the show and meeting the rest of the cast for the first time?
It’s been a lot! However, it has been so great for me as a Swing as usually, swings would learn mostly from the sides in the rehearsal room but some of us swings were able to be put straight into and rehearse often in one of our tracks immediately, which is fantastic, and also slightly puts me at ease to approach the remainder of my tracks!
It has also been so wonderful to get this experience for the first time and to learn from an amazing creative team as well as an amazing cast of so many different individuals that are always so caring and helpful, especially when I’m a deer in headlights sometimes with this being my first job!
What is it like having the show as your West End and professional debut?
I’ll probably write the word surreal far too many times in this article but it’s very much how I’ve felt about this experience right from receiving the job offer to present day! At the same time though, now coming to the end of rehearsals and about to open, this job feels very right. I can honestly say, and from an unbiased perspective, this show is outstanding firstly, but most importantly, the stories and themes that are presented throughout this production are so important right now and several mean so much to me personally and I can’t wait to share some of these stories through my performance and feel validated to be Aaron Shales, a professional performer on a West End stage.
What do you think the experience will be like covering the role of May?
I think it will be a dream come true for me. Growing up and constantly feeling very “different” to the general society’s expectations of who we should be as people used to feel upsetting. I feel May’s story within the show really reflects this, and it’s why before auditioning for the show, the role really resonated with me. It feels like a part of my life is on a West End stage. Which makes me feel so emotional but so proud of our industry.
To see how times are moving forward, especially in the world of theatre (which is hugely encouraging progress generally), by pushing boundaries and telling stories of people who are like me and so many others that are considered “different” and maybe sometimes don’t feel worthy enough, means the world to me. These gorgeous stories deserve to be told onstage and deserve to inspire like I know the character of May does to so many people out there, and like May did for me also. If I, a queer person of colour, alongside Alex Thomas-Smith and Benjamin Terry, two gorgeously talented people (and can I just say, three people of colour playing May is just glorious in itself), can inspire and encourage anyone out there to be themselves, love themselves and express who they are to the world through May, then that would mean the absolute world to me.
So, to cut a long story short, haha, I cannot wait for the day I get to tell May’s story.
As well as being cover May, you are also a Swing, what is it like to do?
As I mentioned earlier, the swing rehearsal process for us five new swings was very beneficial as we have been able to step straight into one of our tracks alongside the new ensemble members!
So, I think with already cementing a track down early on, it hugely calmed my nerves when I reminded myself that there’s a lot more tracks coming my way! However, I love learning choreography and songs I’m not in so it just feels like more fun to be able to do more! Even though there’s been a day here and there where my brain goes into overload, I pride myself on my work ethic and how my brain works and I’m excited to jump on for my tracks! I keep saying to the cast how desperate I am to be on all the time, I’ll probably nag them that much they’ll just give in and let me on for them all the time (hopefully… only joking, hahah).
What are you most looking forward to for the run at Shaftesbury Theatre?
To bask in the fact that this gorgeous theatre, that is a bloody West End theatre, is my new home for the next year, and also being around absolutely wonderful people and a beautiful production getting to witness and tell so many beautiful stories.
You graduated last year from SLP College, what was it like graduating during the pandemic?
It was a mixed bag of emotions truthfully. Usually, my friends and family know me to be in happy mode 24/7 but lockdowns really affected me when it took away large parts of my training as I just felt I was not going to be ready to graduate in 2021. However, when we got back to training, I realised that the pandemic had affected so many other people in such horrible ways and I was so grateful that we got to be back in the building to finish my third year, and was also so grateful to my college to how they accommodated such intense training to really make us soon-to-be graduates at the time feel prepared to step into the industry.
Was there anything that encouraged you to train there and how was your time attending?
Initially, I really wanted to train in London for three years as it seems to some, including myself at 18, that the London schools were the only place to receive validated training. However, after visiting SLP College, the intimate feel to the college felt very warm and comforting, and it reflected exactly that when I started my training. Across all three years was the number of the amount of students in a single year at some of the big London colleges, and I used to feel worried that at a big London school I would just be a number. Now I don’t know that to be true, but it did make me think.
Everyone in SLP knew each other, teachers and students alike, and we were a family. I felt I received so much individual attention across all lessons, and I had great creatives to gain knowledge and experience from. I really can’t express how much I loved waking up every morning and going to college for every minute of my training.
And to top it off, the college was just under a 15-minute drive from me, so I still got my mum’s tea each night, haha!
Can you tell us about some of the shows you performed in whilst there?
Luckily, in my second year, I was able to audition for the current third year musical at the time, which is my favourite ever show, Legally Blonde! And I got to work with Anthony Williams, the director, and musical director of the last national tour, as our Head of Singing, James McCullagh was the musical director of the tour. It was the best experience as Anthony and I bonded instantly and he really took the time to understand me as a person and let me express myself within the show. I was so grateful to be a part of that cast and show.
Within my own year, in second year our musical was Thoroughly Modern Millie and our final show was Bad Girls. We never got to perform the former as the country went into lockdown the week before our scheduled performances of the show. However, these two shows did teach me a lot about myself as an actor. The male roles within these shows did not necessarily relate to me as a person, but I wanted to prove to not just my tutors and peers, but most specifically, myself, that acting is pretending to be someone else, and if I can act, I can play the stereotypical leading male roles confidently. And by third year, I felt so proud of myself that I had bagged the male lead in Bad Girls (that in context, is not a nice character in the slightest) through an external casting and direction, playing something so far from me as a person. It showed to me that I don’t have to put myself into a box of what I can portray in the industry, and I’m so ready to act my heart out!
You’ve previously attended MOVE IT with the college, do you have any stand-out memories from the event?
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I only got to attend MOVE IT once in my first year in 2019. I performed a Rock of Ages number with my college on the Showcase Stage and it felt amazing to perform with students from all years at my college, as well as performing alongside so many other talented performers in training from the college. The event really opened my eyes to how competitive this industry is but it most definitely pushed me to work even harder to get to where I wanted to be in my career.
In second year, I was part of a gorgeous commercial dance piece, Dirty Disco, choreographed by Stuart Hayes, who became such a mentor and inspiration to me whilst in training. Of course, due to the pandemic, we were never able to perform the piece at MOVE IT, or on any stage for that matter, however, I used to set goals every so often throughout the years of my training, and one was to get into a Stuart Hayes piece, and to even have had that goal achieved meant so much to me. The piece has finally reached the MOVE IT stage this year with Masters College, who gloriously did it justice!
Where does your love of performing come from and is it something you always wanted to do?
So cliché, haha, but since I can remember, I have always loved to sing, dance and act. My older sister took dance classes from a young age and when she used to come home and practice, I remember standing behind her and copying and being absolutely in awe of what she used to do. For a long time, I used to pretend to be someone I wasn’t, and performing meant you could be anyone you wanted to be, and potentially even be more myself, and then I just couldn’t stay still, haha.
This then led to me trying to copy every detail of choreography in music videos on the telly and that was how I learned to dance. I didn’t take a dance lesson until I was 16 as I did feel scared of how it would be perceived. But yet, I would jump at the chance to be part of any performing-related after school clubs or school shows because it seemed quite “normal” for everyone to do that at school, and looking back, I wish I could’ve fought the supposed expectations and started dancing so much sooner, but I believe that everything does happen for a reason.
There were times when I questioned if I was genuinely good enough to progress into this career, and even those stupid career talks you have at school, where a faculty member who’s never met you before tells you it’s impractical, that you’re too academic for the performing arts and you should stick to maths. That’s what I got in high school anyway. And, to be honest, for a good year, I believed it, until I realised that I want a career that I love to wake up to every day.
Do you have any favourite theatre shows to watch and which would you like to see that you haven’t done so as yet?
I am currently desperate to see Cabaret, Frozen and Moulin Rouge in town, they are at the top of my list! Oh, as well as Dreamgirls, Beyoncé is, of course, who I worship and after falling in love with the film many moons ago I was desperate to see its West End run a few years back but never got the chance, so I am praying I see the tour!
And even though I have already seen the last tour of Legally Blonde, it is my favourite show of ALL time (just squeezing in that Laura Bell Bundy is a bleeding icon and also someone I worship… she was also in the Dreamgirls film – even better, hahahah) and so I am so excited for the Regent’s Park Open Air production of Legally Blonde, especially as that cast is chef’s kiss, and also opening night is my birthday if anyone fancies treating me. Xo
How do you like to spend your time away from your career?
In all honesty, I love performing, and when I’m not at my job, I think I want to be there, haha! Especially, I think, as a swing to not be on every day, it makes me itch to be on constantly as I just want to perform my little heart out and feel that adrenaline rush!
But when I do have spare time, I like to see friends, go on walks, watch TV, listen to music etc. Currently though, I am up to my ears in swing work so that is taking priority at the moment!
Have you been given any advice over the years that has stuck with you and what advice would you give someone starting out?
In my third year, one of the members of our Board of Advisors at SLP College, John Rigby, came in and did some private singing lessons and looked through our rep. He understood the reasoning of the musicals I wanted to be in and roles I wanted to play, but he felt that the songs in my rep almost limited me to those shows, and not much more, putting me in a box. And, as I mentioned earlier, for a long time, I wanted to prove my acting ability, and show that I didn’t have to always play the same type of roles. And so John told me to just sing songs that I genuinely want to sing, of course they need to suit my voice and be appropriate for an audition if needed, but don’t limit yourself to a certain type of song or character song and just sing! It really opened my eyes and since beginning auditioning, that’s exactly what I’ve done, and it’s genuinely made me feel much more confident with my rep and in singing rounds.
If I were to give advice to someone wanting to progress into this industry, I would say, be kind, be determined and be yourself. It sounds so simple and obvious but I feel like it’s very much what the industry is always on the look for.
I think being kind is quite a standard thing, not just in performing, but in society generally. But I think being yourself and being determined really makes your mark in this industry. The arts are really pushing the boundaries and encouraging a lot of diversity currently, of course there is still a way to go, but a lot of things out there are striving for individuality at the minute. And with determination alongside that, you may feel different to the world, or on a smaller scale, to everyone else in an audition room, but be determined to prove the talent that you’ve got. There may be many a no, but there’s one yes out there that can make up for a thousand no’s. So keep pushing on, because if you would have told me back in first year that I would have booked my first performing job, no matter what it was, five months following graduation, I wouldn’t have believed it. But I knew in third year that I had found myself and I was so determined to take risks and show the industry what I had.
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