BWW Interview: Shan Ako Talks LES MISERABLES
Shan Ako was starring as Éponine in the West End's Les Misérables before theatres were closed down. Now, everyone can enjoy her performance in the filmed version of last year's staged concert, so we caught up with her to hear all about her favourite music, how she found her own Éponine, and her super-positive pre-show ritual.
How are you doing during these crazy times?
I'm doing well, thank you! It was the sudden stop that was surprising. I'm always really grateful for being well, but at the same time it's a bit sad that we can't work and perform. I just want to go back to that room and that vibe, feel that atmosphere again. But it's all for a good reason.
Music has always been a big part of your life - what do you listen to?
I love this question. I listen to a range of genres, from gospel to soul to reggae.
Do you have a favourite song?
That's a tough one. I don't know. It depends on what mood I'm in. If I'm in a relaxing mood, Gregory Porter. I love a bit of Beyoncé too, if I'm in that mood. Then, India Arie... It's really tough - in this day and age, there's so much you love! And sometimes I'm learning songs too, so I'd learn songs that I'm really enjoying, but once I've learnt it and done the cover, I'd move on to another song.
What about theatre? Did you grow up going to shows?
I grew up performing, definitely, but I was never really in theatre - I was more on stage performing as myself. When I went to the BRIT School, I knew that there was a musical theatre strand and I was close to applying to that, but I didn't. It was when my sister started to go into theatre that I did too. She's very much into acting and she started a tour performing Motown songs in a tribute show in theatres around the UK, so I got into putting another character on stage too. I was about 17 or 18.
My first official, proper acting job was with Les Mis. I've always been into performing in general, and when it came down to school productions there was a bit of acting involved too. I played Annie once in a school play, but I'd never thought of it as a thing and I'd never seen myself as an actress. It was always more about the songs for me.
Les Mis also marked your West End debut - how did it feel to do that in such a big show?
I got blessed, very blessed. It was nice to know that people believed in me even though I felt so new into the role. And it was the concert too, so they chose all the stars of Les Mis and I was very new to it, so I thought I would be the odd one out, in a way, since I was also very new to the industry. It was nerve-racking but I felt very supported, the most I've ever felt.
How does singing musical theatre compare to singing other genres?
It's different, this is deeper than just singing and representing yourself and sharing your skills. This is about telling a story, and there's so much more depth to the character than just the song. It goes much deeper - you have to act through it. There are so many more ways to connect to this character, because it's someone other than yourself. It's very interesting, and, since you're portraying someone else, you want to do it properly.
How do you make sure that you stay "in the zone" eight times a week? Do you have any pre-show rituals?
The girls in the dressing room and I have this thing that I've been doing since my early twenties. It's ritual that we call the "Shantra": we say affirmations like "I am happy, I am healthy, I am loved, I am successful". We say that three times, encouraging each other to go forth and have a great show.
We remind ourselves that we're here for a purpose, for a reason, that we're capable of putting on a good show, and we just go ahead and hope that the audience are blessed by what we put on that day. Every day can be slightly different, although you're doing the same show, so it's important to put yourself in that headspace. It's important to ground yourself and go back to the centre and the true meaning of why you're actually there and be grateful for it.
There must be such a positive atmosphere in your dressing room!
I've worked with many different people and I think it's so important to set the scene when you're working together every day, to make it positive, and to make it a safe space for everyone. It gets really personal being there every day pouring your heart out. You get vulnerable and you want to make sure it's a safe space. Getting along is very important to me anyway.
How do you put your own spin on an iconic role like Éponine, and make it feel personal?
The special thing about Éponine is that she's relatable and realistic, she's raw and real. She is your rawest self: you without make-up, you without being glammed up, stripped away of everything that makes somebody glorified. She's that person. She's the nitty gritty of yourself. Once I strip away everything that I was or that I've been taught in terms of being on stage and a pop singer, that's where I found my Éponine.
You have to remember her story; if you can't find anything to relate to her personally, you just have to focus on that. She comes from such a tough background that you can put yourself in her shoes. Her story is not necessarily sad - it's a story of survival, as well as selflessness and love. She represents so many different things. You have to tap into them each night. That's what makes her special.
Do you have a favourite moment in the show?
If I were to take something from Éponine I'd say singing "On My Own" and "A Little Fall of Rain" - they're both wonderful. With "On My Own", you're taken on a journey and it's a beautiful song, while "A Little Fall of Rain" is so heartbreaking from the start.
Other than Éponine, I'd pick "Valjean's Soliloquy" when he talks about the bishop and says "He told me that I have a soul, how does he know?". It's so powerful. When someone can look at you and say that you have a soul and they remind you of that, of who you are, they tell you to believe in yourself and to turn your life around... That's a powerful thing.
Do you have a favourite character besides your own?
I'd say Valjean and Thénardier - he's so funny. Obviously the things he does are crazy and awful, but I love that character in the way he's portrayed in the show. And Mme Thénardier too. I might pick her over him, actually, she's funny.
If you were to take on a male role in another musical, who would you choose?
In Les Mis, it would be Valjean for sure. In another show... I've seen a few and I want to see a lot more, but I would say Aaron Burr from Hamilton. I love Jamie from Everybody's Talking About Jamie. But in general, I'd also love to play Juliet in & Juliet. It's a great musical.
What's been the best part of being in Les Mis so far?
I'd say being able to tell such a timeless, powerful, heartfelt story. Being a part of that. Also having the privilege of being in three different versions! I did the old production in the former Queen's Theatre for three weeks before we did the concert, and then now I'm in the new Sondheim one. Being able to be part of all of them has felt very special - I'll cherish it forever. To be able to tell such a story and be in the show never gets old. Another thing is being part of such great casts, and getting the opportunity to explore and develop my acting skills in such a great show is a privilege.
You can purchase Les Misérables: The Staged Concert here
Shan also has a YouTube channel where she uploads gorgeous covers and vlogs while she's working on her upcoming album - you can find it here
Photo credit: Michael Le Poer Trench