Theatre Changes Lives
Spotlight on Lucy Magee by Lauren Noble
I first met Lucy Magee in 2017 and quite by accident. As a drama teacher who also happened to be in the midst of phase two of building up a performing arts department in Dubai, I suddenly found myself facing the overwhelming realisation that my GCSE students needed a live theatrical experience to deconstruct for their final exams. The problem? There weren't any! Literally. None. I was preparing the auditions for our very first full-length school production, grappling with an entirely new pedagogy in the classroom and teaching 700 secondary students every week... and then there were no live performances for a cohort who had never done a stitch of academic drama before I arrived! Catastrophe loomed just offstage until (in what I can only assume was the intervention of Dionysus) I was told all about a UAE production of The Woman in Black. I immediately contacted the box office for Popular Productions to request an booking for their matinee performance at the Madinat Theatre and had a wonderful conversation about the significance of theatre before booking our tickets and reconfirming our attendance once we'd sorted our daytrip plans at school. Sitting in the second row of the theatre a few weeks later, one petrified student on my left and another who had sunk so far into her seat that I could only see her eyes over the top of her playbill, I suddenly noticed the name on the production page. Oh. My. Goodness.
This entire time I had been speaking to Lucy Magee who was also known by her stage name, Lucy Hunter-James and was the founder and co-producer of Popular Productions!
Now, that is awkward! Thank goodness for dim lighting before a show. And the jump scares. Because no one has an opportunity for awkwardness when you're visiting Eel Marsh House and are genuinely afraid for your life, I can promise you that! The Dubai production of The Woman in Black is, to date, one of the most best pieces I have ever witnessed on stage. I was so inspired that my Facebook update that day was a sweeping statement that I would direct and design the production myself one day. What a find Popular Productions had turned out to be. I just knew that I had to get Lucy to do a workshop with my students who were so new to the potential of the performing arts. We decided on a bespoke workshop around the idea of acing an audition. I still re-watch the footage of my dramallamas doing circle time with Lucy whenever I feel nostalgic: all their inhibitions lowered as they completely invest themselves into every suggestion she makes. At the end of her 'West End Workshop' the students gathered near to where I was seated making finals changes to the script for Timehop. Lucy had ten minutes for questions about the industry that she was so passionate about and the students did not disappoint! One of them questioned her use of body language on stage and how emotion might be displayed on the body. Lucy got up to explain that an overreliance on vocality to display emotion was inconsequential because the entire physicality of the performer should be included in every decision we make. She spoke of a recent role where she was unable to speak and as she mentioned it I noticed her right hand tense as she depicted what her character would have to do.
It reminded me forcibly of the X-Men. When Jean Grey wields elements of the heightened Phoenix Force or when Scarlet Witch channels Chaos Magic through her hands!
And in that exact moment I knew what she was about to say before the students did. I watched the anticipation on their faces as she beckoned them closer and lowered her voice before revealing her secret: "It was me. I was the woman in black!" Their reaction was priceless. Wide eyed in shock. Quite a bit of cheering. A few blank stares. A few more open mouths. Though, to be fair, I think I might have been gaping at her as well!
It's 2021. Four years have passed since The Woman in Black. We've seen the closure of The Madinat Theatre, a gradual shift towards a more structured arts and culture ethos in the UAE and we are still living in the midst of a pandemic which has crippled much of our industry all over the world. I am also no longer a teacher. I've launched my own performing arts company and one of my favourite platforms is co|laboratory in conversation, a series curated for creatives by creatives to shine a spotlight on inspirational arts practices and practitioners on a global stage. And I know exactly who has to be my very first #colabinconvo interview...
I sip my coffee and consciously prepare myself for what I know will be a labyrinthine journey through the performing arts with Lucy at the helm. Anyone who has been paying enough attention should realise that this woman is a powerhouse of theatrical experience with an amazingly diverse skill set that extends quite far beyond her original wheelhouse. I'm pulled up short when she visibly steels herself before my first question, revealing that her on stage persona and her off stage personality are quite different. One exudes confidence and revels in the limelight, the other... well... not so much! Her candour is charming. Let's start with the simple stuff then, shall we?
Growing up in Oxfordshire, Lucy says that her first memory of performance actually took place during dance classes when she was around five years old. She distinctly recalls being awarded a gold medal but acknowledges that, despite excelling on the dancefloor, she became far more famous for her ridiculous facial expressions and very loud voice. She attributes her love of different genres to her Mum and Dad's eclectic taste in music but also mentions that her passion for performance might just be inherited. Her ancestral records uncovered images of her great-grandfather performing at the Birmingham Hippodrome where he even shared the stage with Charlie Chaplin! It took a few years until Lucy's interest in dance started to wane in favour of acting and singing. When the competitive side of dance began to overwhelm her interactions with others, Lucy turned to her parents' music collection which exposed her to a way that her loud voice might be rather useful for telling stories through song. At that time, the drama program at her school was not very good so, despite her love of acting, Lucy chose to pursue music instead. And that's where she met Diana, a wonderful woman who was so much more than a music teacher.
She was my mentor. When I became completely disillusioned by life it was Diana who reminded me that she believed in me. Every child needs someone who believes in them as much as Diana believed in me.
Diana's constant encouragement gave Lucy the confidence to pursue her studies in the arts so, when BTEC was offered for the very first time in England, Lucy opted to continue down the path that was already partly laid before her feet. She relished the opportunity to learn using a practical approach to the industry and it was here that she encountered someone who was to become another influential teacher in her life: Alan, who had worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company! Lucy's most powerful memory occurred when she was rehearsing Paulina's Act 3: Scene 2 speech from A Winters Tale and she found herself miles away from connecting with the text. Alan grabbed her hands and held them as if she was bound by rope, asking her to say her lines whilst fighting hard to get out of his grip. Her heightened awareness of how the action of fighting against him changed her breathing patterns, her tone of voice and her entire physicality was the lightning-bolt moment for her acting. It suddenly made sense in a way that it hadn't before. "Alan saw something in me that no one else had. And ensured that I saw it too."
I'm always intrigued by the impact that arts education has on us once we're old enough to acknowledge how those threads have woven themselves, sometimes unconsciously, into our stories. My face actually hurts from smiling when Lucy tells me that across the entirety of her educational career - which includes her phenomenal and intensive university experience at Rose Bruford Drama School in London - it was the time she spent with her two favourite teachers which was most influential in shaping her pathway into music and theatre. Waves of nostalgia will always accompany my own memories of those kinds of breakthrough moments in my classroom. Lucy's stories about Diana and Alan make me run through a series of snapshots inside my mind at hyperspeed: the shy kid getting cast in the lead role, the quiet kid who learns how to use their voice, the energetic kid that finds a way to focus the chaos into the emotion of a scene, and the parents who cannot find the words to express how they feel to see their kid up on a stage in front of a full house. This is why arts education matters.
Lucy's years in London were, as she describes them, "a baptism of fire!" And she loved every moment. Her education involved unlearning what she thought she knew about dance, playing roles in the chorus or as the lead, studying acting in ways she had never even considered, and landing all the singing roles once people heard that "loud voice" again. She acknowledges that there wasn't enough attention paid to business side of the performing arts and what it takes to drive your career forward and - perhaps because of such an oversight - there are actually very few of her graduating class who are still working in the industry.
"Young performers have no idea what it was like to have to print out headshots which had to be in monochrome and were completely unfiltered. You had to hustle hard for paid work in London!"
Soon, though, she began to tread the boards more than she was treading the streets of London in search of work. The work started happening. And then the work started traveling. And soon Lucy found herself on a maiden world voyage visiting 86 cities over the course of 6 months where she had to learn many, many different roles for different shows. "Some of the guests on the ship joined us for all 6 months and no one wants to keep watching the same show every evening!" I marvel at her stories and how passionate she is about experiencing the culture of the places she visits, connecting with the people and learning about the history. She has many stand out moments but describes working on Bluebeard's Castle at the Merlin International Theatre in Budapest as a defining one, challenging her own sensibilities by experiencing such diverse perspectives during the creative process. She makes me laugh uproariously when describing a rather massive microphone mishap which resulted in a very awkward sequence involving her co-stars who could not contain their laughter once they hopped on stage... but I won't reveal where or when that happened, for fear of reprisals!
Lucy's favourite moment in any process is when the realisation hits. "Every first rehearsal is your new family. And this little theatre family will never be the exact same family again. It makes each ensemble so special." One member of Lucy's theatrical family is John Payton, who she met on her second visit to Budapest where she starred opposite him in the European tour of They’re Playing Our Song. Lucy approached him about branching out on their own, asking him if he was willing to risk it all to create their own work and be in control of their own destiny. "It was time to make the brave step of doing it on our own." It's been 17 years since that discussion took place and the award-winning Popular Productions has enjoyed a whirlwind journey since 2004 which smashed box office records in the UK and the Middle East! Their company effectively opened a corridor of opportunity between two continents for performers, designers and arts practitioners to find a relationship between local and international theatre-making. Their impact on the theatrical landscape in the UAE was particularly profound given that they were one of very few companies working in the professional performing arts industry in Dubai in 2006 when they produced both Look Back in Anger and I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change. Lucy relays a few stories but my favourite must be the one where a certain individual in a rather powerful position walked into one of the studio spaces mid-rehearsal to show someone around. Completely unperturbed by their presence, he proceeded to engage in a complete tour of the space whilst the professional theatre company in the form of Maria and The Mother Superior were attempting to polish that scene. We share a few stories about the shocking theatre etiquette we've both experienced and agree that, though it may be better than someone shouting across the theatre, it hasn't changed enough in performing arts spaces and should be taught more explicitly.
Lucy begins to roll through a series of memories of the 54 plays across multiple genres which have been produced by Popular Productions. You can hear the pride in her voice as she mentions each title. From The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) and High School Musical, to Oliver! and The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. We arrive once more at the role which she describes as her most treasured: Maria from The Sound of Music, which has been revived six times in different locations with Popular Productions. I can feel how integral this role has been for Lucy as she acknowledges how her own life lessons have impacted her perception of the character and how privileged she feels to be able to have the opportunity to revisit Maria in so many different ways across the years.
I have Maria's dialogue and songs on call, in my mind, at any given moment. I have never been bored with her because every time I play the character I learn something more about her, and myself.
This wave of nostalgia brings us to a point in the story which is an indication of what happens to theatre companies when theatre spaces begin to close down. It's happening right now in South Africa so this conversation hits home for me. Lucy was devastated when the Madinat Theatre closed down and I can understand way. It could very easily be considered their Dubai home, a sacred space of learning and growing as an international company who had found their feet within the walls of that proscenium arch. Popular Productions were running shows for over three week stints and selling out. Their performances filled the theatre, bringing immense footfall to Souk Madinat, and both the press and public had learned to associate the company name with excellence. And from the expectant buzz around what the next show might be - suddenly - it was all gone. Devastating doesn't quite cover it.
But creatives are resourceful folks, right? So Lucy sprung into action, spurred on by her wonderfully supportive husband and son, and established a new brand which complemented the amazing work she was already doing with Popular Productions. Her new venture would encompass the ability to expand the boundaries of artistry to reveal a plethora of multidimensional opportunities for performance. And that is how West End Worldwide was born! Finding an eclectic mix of immersive movie experiences and theatrical acts, to bespoke cosplay events and even cross-discipline living artwork displays... West End Worldwide literally exploded onto the scene in record time which I am slowly learning is the only gear Lucy Magee knows.
As a self-acknowledging nerd, the show reel that was forming in my mind as she discussed her past projects and hopes for the future was clearly too much for my brain. The handwriting in my journal begins to get messier as she describes the fun they've had during their immersive theatre shows for the likes of Grease, Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman. The Assassin's Creed sequence at Insomnia has to be seen to be believed. Gamers, did you ever consider how much theatricality there actually is in the world's we frequent digitally? I thought I did, but then I saw this highlights reel and sat staring at my laptop screen for a full 60 seconds before refreshing the video to watch again (and again, and again!) The blending of art forms has been something I have advocated for since my days as a teacher, not only as a holistic educational model but because of how effectively creatives across various industries can bounce concepts off one another in a bid to elevate our own practice. West End Worldwide is living, breathing proof that blending art forms not only works in collaborative practice but is the way of the future in our industries.
We have time for one more question, so I ask her what the performing arts scene of the UAE is in need of right now. She does not hesitate in the slightest: an organisation which advocates for the rights and responsibilities of artists. She wants to see a union which will uphold the quality of artistry in the region and provide arts practitioners with support for something which should be able to function as their livelihood and not as an after-hours activity on top of "proper work". Lucy wants the wider community to realise that the arts is just as essential as other careers and that the skills and knowledge of those who have trained within this constantly diversifying industry should be honoured.
"Theatre changes lives. And many of us in this industry can attest to the truth of that." - Lucy Magee
West End Worldwide and Popular Productions want to see more of their own productions out there on international tours. Providing opportunities for scriptwriters, designers, performers, composers, character actors, singers, musicians, cosplayers, technicians and so many other creative careers to engage in blurring the boundaries and pushing the envelope. I cannot even express in words how excited that makes me! I am so eager to see where West End Worldwide goes next... all I ask is that I am allowed to borrow an Ezio Auditore or Evie Frye costume for the next Insomnia or Middle East Film and Comic Con?
© Lauren Noble for co|laboratory | 2021
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