BWW Interviews: Leah Hocking, Billy Elliot's Mrs. Wilkinson
Have you ever had a dream? To be an astronaut? A painter? A singer? For Billy Elliot, the title character of the hit Elton John musical that plays the Fabulous Fox Theatre March 13 – 18, his dream is to dance, which creates plenty of tension for his blue-collar, northern England family. Based on the movie of the same name, Billy Elliot shows us that sometimes your passions are something you never imagined yourself doing and once you discover them nothing should stop you from pursuing those goals. Helping Billy achieve his dream is his dance teacher, Mrs. Wilkinson, who pushes him to be his best. Playing the role in this production is veteran Broadway actress Leah Hocking who sat down with me to talk about her experience with following her own dreams of being an actor.
BWW: Hi, Leah! How are you?
Leah Hocking: Great!
Great, thanks! We're looking forward to the show coming to Atlanta!
And I am really looking forward to seeing the Fox Theatre; I have never been there before.
Can we start by hearing a little bit about how you got started in the theatre?
I was four years old when I did my first show. It was what I always wanted to do growing up and there was never any question in my mind that I would be an actor. I went to Northern Michigan University and Ohio State and I interned at Milwaukee Rep. and then moved to New York. When I got there it took me awhile to get steady work. After about 5 years, after I had done some Off-Broadway and some summer stock, I had about twenty dollars to my name and was going to restaurants, applying for jobs and not getting any bites because I had such a bad attitude about the whole thing. I just did not want to do the job. No one was hiring me! Then, I got a phone call from Forbidden Broadway and they asked if I wanted to be the understudy. That was 1990 and I have worked ever since.
If you met someone who's never seen or heard of Billy Elliot, how would you describe this show?
It's a story about a little boy finding and following his passion. It's also about the relationship between him and his dance teacher, the way that relationship develops, and the way his relationship changes and develops with his father. It's really a coming of age story.
I understand you were part of the show on Broadway as well. What are the biggest differences for you from doing Billy Elliot there and on the road?
I played the dead mom in the original Broadway company and understudied Mrs. Wilkinson. We took a long time to rehearse the show because we were rehearsing three Billys. It was an arduous process because you basically had to rehearse everything three times. Also, in the Broadway production the original creative team was there the whole time. This was the third production they put up, always tweaking and refining. The tour was directed by one of their associates, Justin Martin, who came at it with a fresh perspective, but he was still trained by the original team.
Did you ever have the chance to work with Elton John?
No, he only came to the opening. After he finished writing the show, his work was done and he moved on to other projects.
How has it been working with such a large cast of children? I imagine in a role like Ms. Wilkinson you may take on the teacher/mother role offstage too?
You know, it's interesting. My daughter is on tour with me, she is 10. She is actually training to be in the show. So, I am a mother and most of these kids have a mother or a parent or a guardian with them. So, they don't need that from me. It is an interesting dynamic. You develop all these relationships offstage. It's like I have 20 little friends.
That has to be great for you to have your daughter on tour with you.
This whole thing was sort of born of tragedy. I was doing the show on Broadway and my husband got very ill, he had ALS, so I took a leave of absence in April 2010 and he died at the end of May 2010. I was supposed to go back to the show but decided to stay home because I thought it was better for me to be home with my daughter. About a year and a half later they called out of the blue and asked if I wanted to do this tour. I decided it was time to move forward, for both of us. But I had never toured, and she was enrolled in school so we had to figure it out. Because she is training to do the show she tutors with the company so it all has worked out really well. We have the dog and the nanny, our own little entourage. But it's hard. This touring thing is not for the faint of heart.
As you mentioned, many of the lead children's roles alternate each night. I am curious how that is for you in terms of playing off different actors. Is it challenging? Exciting? Rewarding?
It's great. I love it because I can't get too settled into things. I like the spontaneity and that's great. I really enjoy switching things up every show. It is so helpful to keep it fresh and alive. They are all great, and the boys are so different so you develop completely different relationships with each one of them.
So, when you were growing up, did you have a Mrs. Wilkinson in your life? Not just in the dance teacher sense but someone who recognized your talent and inspired you to follow your dream?
Actually, every single one of my chorus teachers from grade school through high school. My grade school chorus teacher, Mrs. Wilson, then my middle school chorus teacher Mrs. Green and then Alan Clement, my High School chorus teacher. Singing was always my gift, so they fostered that. We did a lot of musicals in Middle School and High School and so that is what I did. I did a lot of community theatre too. I just learned from that. Then I went to college and studied acting.
That's interesting; did you study acting to develop those skills further?
My professors kind of forced me to not study musical theatre because that was easy for me. I got such a well-rounded education that way. But in terms of dance, I am kind of a slacker, I never took enough dance to be a dancer-schmancer. I move really well so I can fake it.
And now you get to teach dance in the show.
Yeah, I am a really good actor.
I saw the original Broadway production and for me, this was such an emotional show, because it struck a chord (as it probably does for many people). If you could give advice to a young person who may read this and have a dream of their own, what would it be?
I always had this weird thing inside of me. I don't know if it was hubris or confidence, but I always knew deep down inside that I was good at it. So, no matter what obstacles you come up against because you always do - especially in this business you get rejected every day, you are the one that keeps going. You are the one that knows you are good. Of course, we all need reassurance, but somewhere deep down in your soul you know you are good at it and can keep going no matter what other people say.
That is important, since people so many people second-guess themselves.
Especially in this business, well, any business. But then there are those unfortunate people who have hubris but aren't good. And you don't want to be that either.
What about other musicals or plays? Do you have a role you would like to play one day?
People ask me that all the time, and I don't think it has been written yet. I don't have any burning desire to do anything in particular. There are a couple roles that have passed me by that I won't get to play. I love Tennessee Williams and would love to do some Shakespeare again someday. It is difficult for us musical theatre actors to be taken seriously in the dramatic world, even though I trained there.
What has been your favorite part of being part of Billy Elliot?
Favorite is really hard for me. In this role you get to do everything. And you do it all in the first act so you get to hang out and chill for the second act. Plus, it is a really great role, so well crafted. The whole show is so well crafted. To me it is so rare to do a piece of theatre where it all works. That, to me is thrilling. And to bring a piece of theatre to an audience and have it appreciated like that, it is just great.
I forgot to ask about the accent. Has that been fun or a challenge?
I have this weird affinity for British accents and dialects. They come easy for me and I love it. So it has been really fun. We have had to modify it a little bit to help the audience understand better, though.
What has been your favorite city so far on the tour?
I really liked Philadelphia a lot and D.C. was great too. Philadelphia was most surprising. It is kind of the perfect city, clean and a little bit slower, but lots of history and right between New York and D.C.
Is there anything else you think our readers should know?
I can't stress enough how universal this show is. There really, truly is something for everybody. I have lots of friends who don't like musicals and they come and see this and they love it. And those who do like musicals love it too.
NETworks Presentations, LLC brings the multi-award-winning Billy Elliot the Musical to Atlanta's Fox Theatre from March 13-18, 2012, as part of the Fifth Third Bank Broadway in Atlanta 2011-12 season. Based on the international smash-hit film and featuring music by Elton John, book and lyrics by Lee Hall, choreography by Peter Darling and direction by Stephen Daldry, Billy Elliot the Musical has earned critical acclaim on Broadway including 10 Tony Awards.
Tickets can be purchased through authorized ticket sellers at the Fox Theatre Box Office, Ticketmaster outlets, online at www.broadwayinatlanta.com or by phone at 1-800-982-2787. Orders for groups of 15 or more may be placed by calling 404-881-2000.
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PHOTO CREDIT: KYLE FROMAN