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“At the end of the day, it’s all about being taken seriously, as an industry, as a degree, as individuals”: In conversation with the production team of ‘Legally Blonde’

Following the news that the Warwick Arts Centre were cancelling all student performances, the Legally Blonde production team, who had been working tirelessly since October 2021 to stage the early-2000s hit rom-com, scrambled to get the show rescheduled. Adapted from Amanda Brown’s 2001 novel that influenced Reese Witherspoon’s famous performance, Legally Blonde the Musical has successfully shown on Broadway, London’s West End and toured internationally since its debut in 2007, and was originally scheduled to reach the Arts Centre stage in Week 5 of this term. Now performing in week 10, we caught up with Tara Noonan (Director), Ellie Stiles (Director), Olivia Baird (Producer), Emily Nicholson (Producer), Em Lawrence (Musical Director) and Hannah Filer (Choreographer) to hear about their experience as an all female team, the importance of student theatre, and how the pandemic has affected the arts.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that the shows we’re doing need to reflect the actors and the members that we have”

– Tara Noonan

Tara Noonan tells me that choosing Legally Blonde was important after performing in very male oriented shows the last few years in Music Theatre Warwick: “I’ve always been of the opinion that the shows we’re doing need to reflect the actors and the members that we have” (about 70% of student theatre is women). “Legally Blonde is a story about a woman’s struggle in the workplace, something that, unfortunately, is still happening today. And I think that it’s brilliant that it addresses the issue, and instead of the woman backing down, she has this brilliant confidence boost and support from other women.”

They told us the surprising (but perhaps actually, not so surprising) news that there had never been a female musical director before this show.

They all nod along in agreement, and Emily Nicholson adds that “after almost two years of Covid, I feel like people are wanting a sense of escapism, and a sense of enjoyment within theatre, and being pulled out of this strange reality that we’ve built for ourselves and instead have a fun night within a world that isn’t technically our own”. 
They told us the surprising (but perhaps actually, not so surprising) news that there had never been a female musical director before this show and I ask what their experience has been as young women in a classically very male space. Em Lawrence answers that “I was very conscious that as a five foot woman I don’t exactly scream intimidating. But when you’ve got to take control, you’ve got to take a job. And I think that’s something that each and every one of us has struggled with and overcome.” Emily builds on this, noting the change in dynamics from university to industry.

This only heightens the importance of opportunities like student theatre.

“It’s so strange because within University we’re in a microcosm of lots of women who are interested in these roles, but the second you step out of this setting it’s a very male dominated industry. As a 22 year old woman sitting across from an all male professional team at the Arts Centre, you feel like, as a young woman, you need to prove that we are capable of putting on professional level shows”. She continues: “being a woman carries a certain level of assumptions about the way that we act, the way that we present ourselves, and our experience levels, so although [Warwick Arts Centre] do provide a supportive environment, we can’t change that kind of stigma that we carry with us”. This only heightens the importance of opportunities like student theatre, as without them these women admitted they wouldn’t have the skills they’d need to continue their craft after university in the same capacity. “I think only through working continuously with the Arts Centre I’ve gained that confidence to go into these professional spaces”.

I ask them who are female directors and producers that inspire them, and everyone has to think for a while. Em answers with Marianne Elliott and a few moments later, Emily replies with “I do think it says something about the industry that we all stopped to think hard, even though we’re female producers and female directors. I think especially with producers, it’s a very silent role…you never see what they do”. She expresses hope for the future though, as she sees more and more women go on to do masters in producing. Tara’s inspiration was Lucy Moss, director of Six, finding faith in their productions coming out of university at the Fringe (she was the youngest female director on Broadway); “they did exactly what we do”. “Some of the most original, experimental and creative pieces I’ve ever seen have been these environments where students are given the freedom to just create”. But moving forward? “For me personally, and as a young director of colour, I’m yet to have a musical theatre female director of colour role models that I can look at and be like, that is where I want to go, this is the industry I want to be in. And I think having those role models in place would really mean something”. 

Having the Edinburgh Festival Fringe cancelled every year has had a massive impact on the society (who are financially self-sufficient) as they rely on funding to come from their improvisation performances at the festival. “We were all wondering whether or not the show was even going to be able to happen – we were in a very, very precarious financial position”, but were determined to not let finances stop their performances after two years of Covid restrictions. Without this income, the team had to resort to other means of funding: “we were lucky enough to receive support from the SU, from the Arts Centre, from the wonderful people at tech crew”. 

Despite all this, they still managed to find a silver lining. “It’s really just made us all consider how lucky and grateful we are to be here, and to be able to do things like this, and to not take it for granted”. Tara adds that “people genuinely realise how much joy and how much escapism and how much creativity it lets them express in their everyday lives”. How else has the pandemic affected the arts for the team? Whilst they did put on online shows throughout the pandemic, it “wasn’t really in front of an audience”, and for Em, it meant that she came into the show with “hesitance…I was so scared” after missing out on opportunities to practice her craft. And yet, Tara tried to find the positive and celebrated the ingenuity of student theatre – “every time a show was cancelled, it transferred to a new form…Zoom theatre emerged, radio plays became more popular, digital theatre became more popular. Everybody started exploring these ways that technology can help us. We even did an entire musical from our bedrooms! It just proved the persistence and the resilience of everyone involved in theatre; we were never going to stop doing this or to keep making the art we love making”.

I asked them about the recent news that in July the government approved a funding cut of 50% for certain arts degrees, with the money being redirected to STEM subjects. “These cuts are really only affecting government funded or government supported universities, which means that you’re going to just see more and more of the class divide with people who can afford to study in London (many institutions in London are supported enough that they won’t be affected). It’s going to increase the disparity that already exists, which is going to disproportionately affect people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, people of colour, and women, which is devastating”. Tara also made the point that by taking away from funding, the government is endorsing a message that arts degrees are less valid: “at the end of the day, it’s all about being taken seriously, as an industry, as a degree, as individuals. And I think that’s why Legally Blonde has such a powerful message, since it is about a woman struggling in an academic environment where she feels inferior. She feels like she is very much out competed by her peers. And she proves to them not by changing, but by being exactly who she is, that she should be taken seriously, she does have values, and she can contribute to the discussions that they’re having…I think everyone is just begging for people to take the arts seriously”.

It was refreshing to see this change reflected offstage.

The team also took this opportunity to congratulate each other and commend other production members for creating such a supportive environment suited to lifting and helping one another, resurrecting that very same message of communality that they had identified in Legally Blonde, in a way that only art can imitate life. It was refreshing to see this change reflected offstage, as well as on the stage, as nowadays it is often easy for productions to hide behind performative displays of ‘representation’ in their casting, but failing to make the change needed in the creative and production processes too. It is in this way specifically, that these women embody the very spirit of Elle Woods.

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