Interview with Rebecca Trehearn, star of Show Boat and Floyd Collins

Rebecca Trehearn is one of British musical theatre's shining stars, having recently performed in productions around the country and in London's West End. After excelling in roles in the UK premiere of Dogfight and the Donmar Warehouse's City of Angels, she was most recently seen in the Sheffield Crucible's critically acclaimed production of Show Boat which transferred to the New London Theatre in the West End.

Rebecca has since taken on a new challenge in the London revival of Adam Guettel and Tina Landau's much loved musical Floyd Collins which is being presented at Wilton's Music Hall for a limited run this autumn. We caught up with her mid-rehearsal for the epic musical to find out more about her character and the experience of working on such a demanding and moving piece.

DOH: Rebecca, you've just come straight from the incredible production of Show Boat in the West End and you're in rehearsal for a completely different musical. How do you process that shift?

RT: I'm not entirely sure I've done it yet – I was doubling up, rehearsing Floyd Collins in the day and performing Show Boat at night. I can't tell you how nice the feeling is to be able to focus on this this week. In terms of character it does feel like a weight off my shoulders. Julie was so heavy, each time she was on stage she was having such a miserable time – Nelly is so light of spirit, it really does feel like medicine or something to get to play somebody who is almost a polar opposite to Julie in the sense that she's completely open and filter-less, she's completely truthful and doesn't know how else to be.

DOH: Is it very different as an actor preparing for a role in a traditional West End space to somewhere like Wilton's Music Hall?

RT: It is although it wasn't especially traditional because we had the thrust set up. It would have been a real shame to lose that connection with the audience. I think this is going to be similar, we're going to be out there amongst the audience in a little thrust. In some senses it'll feel quite similar. Wilton's is just the most incredible atmospheric space, and it's so old. The New London is modern, there's a very different feel to the buildings.

DOH: Both Show Boat and Floyd Collins deal with very specific communities in America throughout the last century – have you found any surprising similarities between the characters?

RT: Obviously there are similarities in the accent, although this is much harsher in a way. They're very different people in a way – the Collins family are poor and ill educated and scraping along. I think probably Julie in her early life came from a similar background. At heart there are probably some similarities – but I don't know yet is the honest answer – I'll figure it out!

DOH: Public fascination with small-town America seems to be in vogue in popular culture – how do you explore this world but make sure you never parody it?

RT: It feels like a folk tale or a fable and that's really reflected in the music. We want to honour that feeling without it becoming a parody because it's very easy to slip into that 'hicksville' type thing – and we're working very hard to avoid that. To create this feeling of community – when I was reading the script I realised I was probably on stage for longer than I thought I would be, and just that, creating the ways people are shifting and how the conversations can flip from one to another, there's something quite filmic about it.

Rebecca Trehearn performing "Bill"

DOH: Does the piece also speak to America of 2016?

RT: I think it does. Floyd Collins' story at the time between the two World Wars was one of the biggest news stories. It was at a time when radio was just coming into existence and these people poor as they were would have had access to radio. It was one of the first news stories to be twisted; reporters were out there to sell papers so they wrote absolute garbage at the time and just making things up. That was something that was born then and very much continues now, so there are certainly echoes in that sense. You look at the election at the moment, you know the truth is buried in there somewhere amongst the hyperbole. It's remarkable how much you can mislead people, and I think a lot of people have been mislead.

DOH: What initially grabbed you about the show and your character?

RT: I listened to the music, read the script and just fell in love with it really. I like a challenge and Adam's music is difficult but so beautiful, and very different to Show Boat. I found Nellie fascinating, she doesn't keep her distance from people, there's something very childlike about her but she's not stupid. It's very interesting to unpick her actually and decide what exactly is 'wrong' with her if you want to call it that. Harmonically and melodically his score is so complex. Tom is an incredible musical director, and he's being very specific and pushing us to do exactly what is on the page. In the same way that Sondheim does – Adam has done so much of the work for you and if you perform it exactly how he has written it it opens up. But because I'd listened to the CD a lot there was a lot that I had learned wrong. It's just such a joy to work on. “How Glory Goes” is beautiful and it always makes me cry, but I love “The Ballad of Floyd Collins” too because it's so simple. If you had told me it was a period folk song I would have believed you.

DOH: Is that style of music something you've always been comfortable with?

RT: I grew up in Wales and competed in the Eisteddfod so I was familiar with that type of folk singing. I'm a big fan of 70s singer-song writers like Carole King and Joni Mitchell and they're very influenced by folk music. It's been interesting for me to listen to really authentic 1920s folk music and see how that tradition has carried on into music of today. It's storytelling – that's what it's all about and that's why it's so brilliant.

Ashley Robinson, Rebecca Trehearn and Sam Thomas

DOH: You've had quite a remarkable couple of years performing in lots of high profile musicals. Can you pick a particular highlight?

RT: The Donmar was always on my bucket list so that was amazing. The National is of course on it too, and Broadway – but who wouldn't? I'd really love to create a character in a show so those are kind of my bucket list things. It's been a fantastic two years, yes it's been a bit of a whirlwind but long may it continue.

DOH: Looking back on your career slightly, what advice would you have for your younger self just graduating Mountview?

RT: It really is about self belief. You have to be confident and have confidence in your own abilities. It's something that happened when I hit my 30s I think, my insecurities really fell away. It's such a cliché but you really do have to plough your own burrow and try not to be envious of the people doing what you think you should be doing. You really do get back what you put out there. If you're a nice person to work with and you work hard you will get by. Sometimes I think this industry is about survival of the most stubborn...if you hang in there long enough!

DOH: Show Boat was such a fantastic production but sadly was short-lived in the West End. Despite the critical acclaim and fantastic word of mouth, why do you think the commercial West End maybe didn't embrace it the way it should have done?

RT: I have to admit Show Boat wasn't a show that I knew particularly well. My perception of it was probably that it was a dusty museum piece, and then we started to work on it and unpick it and it's terrifyingly relevant thing. Perhaps that perception that it's old fashioned may have put people off, and the fact we were in a theatre that's slightly out of the way and doesn't get much foot-fall probably didn't help and there were no celebs in it, and sadly that counts for something these days. People want to hear music they know and see a face they recognise. I think it's very difficult unless there's something like that to latch onto to get people into into a theatre of that size. That was the heartbreaking thing – when something has been that raved about and you still can't get people through the door, it's quite depressing, but you know that's life. Here I am and I'm glad I got to do it – I'm glad we got to bring it to London.

Ashley Robinson and Rebecca Trehearn in rehearsal

DOH: I know Ashley who is playing Floyd Collins has done a lot of research for the role – have you been similarly researching your character and the period?

RT: I have – last night I was actually googling 1920s clog'll have to come and see the show to find out why! I've been trying to find out more about her, Jonathan the director and I think that these days Nellie would probably be on some form of spectrum. She's put in an asylum for a bit under that umbrella of hysteria, so I'm trying to look into that. Also I'm trying to look into life in 1920s Kentucky as well and the poverty. There's a brilliant book that the musical is based on, although there's not a great deal about Nellie as a person it really goes into detail on the time and the people. You do feel a certain sense of responsibility – there are certain liberties with the piece because you have to. But at the same time you feel obliged to find out as much as you can and be as true to their story as you can be. Thankfully the internet is amazing so we're very lucky in that sense – a lot of the work has been done for you. We're very lucky to have Ashley playing Floyd – it's completely invaluable.

DOH: Finally, why should audiences not miss Floyd Collins this autumn?

RT: It's surprisingly life affirming, it's very moving as a portrait of a family and a community. It has a lot to say about today in the way the media was working back then, and it has one of the most beautiful sores I have ever heard. It's just stunning. And Wilton's is gorgeous!

Floyd Collins runs at Wilton's Music Hall in east London from 21 September 2016.

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