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Interview: Hannah Lowther Talks HEATHERS at The Other Palace

The actress discusses TikTok fame and adjusting to life in a West End show

Interview: Hannah Lowther Talks HEATHERS at The Other Palace

Hannah Lowther, the 24-year-old former child star whose viral musical theatre parody videos made a splash on TikTok in the first lockdown, has recently joined the ensemble for The Other Palace production of Heathers, understudying the roles of Heather Chandler and Heather McNamara.

We sat down with her to discuss social media fame, the TikTok musical theatre revolution, and why an 80s cult classic remains relevant today.

Tell us a bit about what inspired you to get into musical theatre, and then to make videos on TikTok during the first lockdown?

I've done theatre my whole life really - the love for it began in dance classes when I was younger and continued in professional productions I was in as a child, like The Sound of Music, Oliver!, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. So, it's been my job from a young age but I never really saw it as a job - I still see some of the leads from those shows out and about, and think "You don't remember me, but back in 2007 I was in the ensemble and you were my idol!".

I finished my training [at Italia Conti and LSMT] the summer before Covid. There wasn't much of a chance for those of us starting to audition as adults and we had to find new ways of finding an income, so eventually I got the job at Tesco. Even before Covid, people were surprised that I'm an actress with three other part-time jobs.

With TikTok, I used to think it was for kids, really, and say "Absolutely not" when the children I taught asked to learn TikTok dances, but I feel like in lockdown everyone got so bored and downloaded it. At Tesco, it was a complete change in dynamic and environment, and it became much harder to keep the passion for musical theatre alive; my first idea for a TikTok came from seeing a packet of Regina kitchen towels and immediately thinking of [the lyric from the Mean Girls musical] "My name is Regina George", and my colleague didn't get it!

But I thought somebody out there would appreciate it, and so created Part One of my "Things in my Tesco job that remind me of my musical theatre career" series. It was good timing for that kind of content as well: with all the discussions about performers having to "retrain in cyber", I was a prime example of performers having to do other jobs.

What's it been like, adjusting from working in Tesco to starring in a West End musical?

Very quick, actually! I had a shift at Tesco on the Friday, found out I got the role in Heathers on Saturday, and started rehearsals on Monday. For the whole rehearsal period, I thought I'd be going back to Tesco - I couldn't quite process that this was my job now. I did learn things at Tesco - as an actress it's always interesting to understand and analyse people at the tills - but I feel like I'm some kind of competition winner who's won a competition to be in Heathers, I'm so happy to be here.

People always comment and ask whether I'd go back to Tesco, and I'd love to say "Never", but you never know with this industry. I want to get rid of the stigma that it's an undesirable job - it's not all I've ever dreamt of, but it's what you do to survive.

Tell us about some of your experiences with becoming famous on TikTok

I think people are shocked that retail workers have a personality and other skills - we're all guilty of it, you go into the shop and just see the workers as a vessel for your coffee and Meal Deal, you don't see past the shop worker. A lot of my coworkers had travelled or were from different countries, but you never learn that as a customer. I sometimes get comments that are a bit entitled in a way, "Get back to work" or "You're not paid to dance" - I think people think, because they pay to shop at Tesco, that they own the people who work there.

It's crazy to me that I'm referred to as a 'TikTok celebrity', I don't feel any different, but there's a responsibility which comes with being on the internet: people see a minute of my day and I have to make sure that minute is what I want people to see. People think they know influencers and celebrities, but it's really just a highlight reel, so being popular online has been eye-opening. But it has opened up so many opportunities - although I do trust my skills and talents, I believe that I wouldn't have got the audition for Heathers without this platform I've built for myself, so I'm nothing but grateful.

@hannahlowther8 ?a??i???@heathersuk @inezbudd a?? Oui - God is good

Any memorable fan interactions?

It's weird, because people know so much about me from watching my videos, I think you have to remember that people know you even if you don't know them. It's strange for people who are used to seeing 'stagey' Hannah with her jazz hands on TikTok to see me at 7am tired at Tesco - it shows them that I can be normal as well! One time a man stared for ages through the window and eventually asked for a selfie, then later added me on Facebook. I think that showed me that I have to be a bit careful, but the majority of interactions aren't too weird.

How do you think TikTok and other social media are changing the world of musical theatre?

It's making musical theatre much more accessible. I'm privileged and have grown up with musical theatre but so many adults have never seen a musical because of where they live, because it's out of their budget, or their schools not having theatre programmes. TikTok brings theatre to a level where everyone's on the same playing field, if they have a phone and wi-fi, through things like the Ratatouille and Bridgerton musicals. It's inspiring how much creativity young people on there have.

I grew up watching YouTube videos about theatre (I watched vlogs by Carrie [Hope Fletcher] when she was in Heathers!), but those were 15 or 20 minutes, and TikTok provides much quicker access. You can even vote for the Brit Awards directly from TikTok this year - I don't feel passionate enough to Google a website to vote for who I want to win, but when I'm already on the app, I'm more likely to vote. TikTok's great at jumping on those kinds of trends.

Charlotte St Martin, the president of the Broadway League, recently attracted some controversy for her comments about understudies and swings not being as "efficient" as the leads. What do you think the general public needs to know about being an understudy?

I eye-rolled when I saw that! I don't have a huge amount of experience, since this is my first professional contract, but understudies have just as much or more work than the leads - they've been saving shows recently. I don't want to toot my own trumpet, but understudies are the people that are relied upon.

You've recently made your debut as Heather McNamara, who sings "Lifeboat", one of the most vulnerable, personal songs in the show's score. What's the experience been like of playing this kind of role in your West End debut?

I saw the show at The Other Palace [during its first London run in 2018], and said straight away I'd like to play the one in the yellow jacket! So the honour to perform as her is incredible. As understudies, we're on every night as a different role, so we don't have as much rehearsal time with the creative team and director, and we don't have much time to think about character choices, but Heather McNamara is closest to me as a person. The biggest thing you can bring to a role is yourself. It's not about making a carbon copy of particular past performers, but making that character who you want them to be.

What do you think the value is of having a show like Heathers in the West End right now?

Even though it's set in 1989, a lot of the topics covered are still so relevant today. I think that's why the young audience are so enthusiastic about the show. There's a vulnerability to the show which is then supported by comedy and happiness. In our show, someone can die and there'll be a joke like "I Love My Dead Gay Son" in the next scene, and though it's dramatic, sometimes that's what people's lives are like - there are dark times followed by really happy times, especially during the pandemic.

Also the fashion statements, the blazers and power suits, that '80s fashion is really in right now. People don't necessarily come to the show for the fashion, but it leaves it open for things like people coming in cosplay. Actually, the week before I got the role I went to see Heathers on tour, and went in a blazer as a nod to the show (a pink blazer though, I didn't want to try too hard!).

Any favourite lines?

"I don't patronise bunny rabbits"! I've heard it 50 times now, but I still laugh.

What advice would you give to an aspiring performer?

Be yourself always! It's the most basic advice, but at any audition or dance class you end up comparing yourself to others, and the most important thing you can bring to the table is yourself. Whether you get the audition or not, you'll then feel you've achieved something.

What's next for you after Heathers?

My contract finishes on 20 February, and then I'm back to auditioning. I'm lucky to have built up a social media following and some brand deals, and I'm looking forward to getting back to classes once I've got more time during the day. Maybe I'll be back at Tesco, but hopefully not!

Heathers is at The Other Palace until 20 February - book tickets here

Photo credit: Pamela Raith

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