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BWW Interview: Jon Robyns and Alice Fearn Talk WEST END MUSICAL DRIVE-IN

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BWW Interview: Jon Robyns and Alice Fearn Talk WEST END MUSICAL DRIVE-IN

From the producers of West End Musical Brunch comes West End Musical Drive-In: the live, socially distanced musical theatre concert that brings the stars directly to your cars. The performance will be projected onto a big screen, and sound delivered via car radio.

Kicking off this exciting series on 25 July are Alice Fearn, Jon Robyns and Kerry Ellis. Pre-lockdown, Robyns was starring as Jean Valjean in the West End production of Les Miserables, and Fearn as Beverley, Annette and others in the West End's Come From Away. They tell us what they've been up to, and give us a hint of what we can expect from this new drive-in concert series.

How does it feel to be involved in the inaugural West End Musical Drive-In?

Jon: I'm excited and honoured to be asked to perform at the very first West End Musical Drive-In. I think it's an innovative, considerate and fun way to watch live performance at a time when many have been without it.

Alice: Quite an honour. What I'm loving is people's creativity during this time. With theatre being completely dark at the minute, it's great to see people inventing ways to still keep in alive in any way they can.

Tell us about the process: when did you first hear about the project, did you have any reservations about how it would work, and what is the prep like?

Jon: I was approached by the organisers of West End Musical Brunch, who were already thinking outside the box about how best to bring the West End to audiences in creative ways. One of their directors enquired if I'd be willing to take part and I had no hesitation in accepting. We'll be performing some of the West End's best songs, so the prep has been totally joyous.

Alice: At first, I imagined the scene from the Grease movie where they watch a film in the drive-in format and presumed it would be something similar! However, we will be up on the stage performing live and on a screen. Any chance to get back on stage for me is an instant yes, so it wasn't hard to make that decision.

Can you give us a little teaser of what audiences can expect in terms of songs and other performance elements?

Jon: Audience members can tune their car radios into a bespoke FM radio frequency, so the sound quality will be as if you were right next to stage. Our performances are going to be projected onto a large video screen, so it'll have a real summer festival feel to it. As for the set list, we'll be performing songs from a host of different musicals, so all your favourites. There is limited availability left, but there will be other dates and other West End stars announcing soon.

Alice: There will obviously be a social distancing aspect for us performers to keep everything safe. We will be singing all of your favourite musical theatre classics, but keeping the audience guessing on song choice and keeping it fresh. You should definitely get a bit of everything with the West End Musical Drive-In.

You must be so excited to be performing live (in the flesh!) again. Has it been hard not getting to connect with audiences and other castmates/production team since March?

Jon: Yes. But my current cast are a close bunch, so the Zoom quizzes and WhatsApp groups are at a good level of turnover. I am missing performing and can't wait to get back on stage and entertain.

Alice: Really hard. Sometimes you just think it's a holiday and feel quite calm, then you realise you haven't been on stage interacting with people for some time and the anxiety can really kick in. Not seeing audiences' live reactions is incredibly hard and I long for it to return. There is nothing like seeing and hearing an appreciative audience.

BWW Interview: Jon Robyns and Alice Fearn Talk WEST END MUSICAL DRIVE-INAnd what have you been up to during the lockdown period?

Jon: There's been a fair amount of binge watching. Disney+ has taken most of the brunt of that. We've been home schooling the kids too. My parents were teachers, so I've always known how hard they work, but I've never had more respect for their actual day-to-day challenges. We'd all be lost without them.

Alice: I started off cooking then got considerably bored of that (I'm no chef). Then I turned to gardening and honestly the garden has never looked better. I've even managed to not kill most of the plants I've planted, so I'm definitely improving.

How do you think this drive-in performance will feel compared with pre-lockdown shows? Are you planning to project your performance a bit differently?

Jon: I'm not planning for it to be any different. I'll learn the material, then see what the vibe is as we go. It's more spontaneous and fun that way. I'm sure the audiences will be every bit as supportive and vibrant as they've always been. Musical theatre fans are the most caring and involved performing arts fans there are. I'm looking forward to seeing everybody.

Alice: Not really. It's a bit more concert-like than a theatre show, so I just have to think of that really. It's going to be great fun!

What have you learned from the lockdown period, and the way people have brilliantly pivoted to e.g. digital shows, that you might apply going forward? Are you interested in exploring alternative forms of theatre, or new ways of reaching fans?

Jon: I'm always interested in evolving what we do as artists. Social media, YouTube and streaming services are becoming more and more important, and this period has shown that. I applaud any producers, directors or artists who have been pushing the boundaries of how to connect to each other, especially the West End Musical team.

Alice: I will say that performing online has some benefits. Suddenly live shows (if filmed well) can be shown to a greater audience. People from far and away can watch these performances when they may not have been able to before. It's nothing like seeing something live, of course, but it truly is the next best thing if there is no other way.

Do you have plans for shows coming out of lockdown?

Jon: There are a few ideas in the pipeline. I've got some gigs coming up in the autumn, both online and in live venues. It's going to be a great time to see people, because we've all been through this together and will appreciate more than ever sharing stories, songs and being able to build the industry and community back up together.

Alice: I'm putting on some live online streamed shows called Intermissions from 17 July 17 to 7 August, which does just that [read our review here!]. Every Friday night, you can watch them live or, upon purchasing the ticket, you will have access all weekend to the show. We're interviewing guests, singing live with musicians, and showcasing up-and-coming talent just out of drama schools. Really showing multiple aspects of the live performance industry while also raising some money for charity along the way. And what's great is we can have people from all over the world tuning in to them, which is really special and I'm really happy we can provide that.

Are you worried about theatre - and in particular freelancers - getting through this tough period? What more can we do in support?

Jon: I think staying positive, and being innovative with projects just like West End Musical Drive-In, is the best way to combat the feeling of hopelessness and emptiness we've had. We've always relied on each other, artists and audiences, to make what we love. We can't do it without audiences, and I would never want to. Making people feel and think is my job. I can't think of anything better.

Alice: Incredibly. I think I'm really worried about what brilliant productions, theatres and performers we will lose along the way. To keep your head above water at this time is almost impossible. There is no work, and in some cases no help from the Government in any way. Luckily, the arts funding package recently announced has given everyone some light, but essentially so many people and theatres will still hang in the balance. We have no ability to earn in the only sector we know how to, and it looks like we will be the last industry to reopen due to social distancing rules.

To help, I would ask the public and our audiences to embrace everything everyone is doing online and things like this. Keep the business alive in any way you can. And then, once shows come back, be there. Be there in that audience cheering, crying and applauding louder that you ever have. We will need your support then and now.

To keep us all positive, can you share the musical theatre song that always cheers you up?

Jon: At the moment, again thanks to Disney+, it's "Lost in the Woods" from Frozen 2. Loving that 80s pastiche!

Alice: YES. It has to be "You Will Be Found" from Dear Evan Hansen. If you aren't uplifted listening to that song, then I don't think you're listening properly.

And finally, what would you say to encourage audiences to come along to the drive-in show?

Jon: That the performances will be top drawer, the venue will be safe, and the experience will be fun. A brilliant family day out.

Alice: It is one of the very few chances you will get this year to see live performances. Events like this will be few and far between, so get your ticket while you can.

West End Musical Drive-In starts on 25 July at Troubadour Meridian Water

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From This Author Kerrie Nicholson