INTERVIEW: Kyra Willis tells us what audiences can expect from her new musical The Feeling

Kyra Willis is perhaps one of the busiest people in the theatre industry. In September The Other Palace will be playing host to her new musical The Feeling, a piece that Kyra has written and produced, she is also taking to the stage as the character of Jessie.  As well as writing, producing and performing she also runs her own talent agency Monsteers Artistry. We chatted to Kyra about what audiences can expect from The Feeling, how she juggles all the elements of the creative process and why she temporarily left the theatre industry and what ultimately brought her back.

You have a show coming up at The Other Palace called The Feeling. Can you tell us a bit about the show and what audiences can expect? The Feeling is about six friends who are all connected to each other in some way and the show follows the intertwining relationships between them all. Some of the characters are quite neutral as they attempt to keep the peace, whereas others are quite toxic, abrasive and in your face. My character is one of those and I am expecting to not be liked! There is a lot of sarcasm in the show, there’s some romance and also a focus on mental health in the form of alcoholism. We’ve tried to pepper in some natural humour, although the show does focuses on some serious themes. I hope the audience will relate to what they see in terms of it representing a type of relationship that they might have been in. Whether that is a toxic relationship or a one-sided friendship. The show is a representation of when a person gets to a point of feeling physically and emotionally drained. The Feeling is a musical and although we haven’t written the music, we’re doing covers of songs that are arranged in ways that have not been heard before. If people come in there and like the show I will be a little disappointed! I would prefer them to walk away from it thinking; gosh I hope I’m not like that. Ultimately I hope it will give people a platform or a trigger to say, actually I am in an unhealthy situation and I need to make a change or I need some help.

You have written and produced the show and are also starring in it, how have you found balancing all the responsibilities and which do you prefer? The writing element has been the hardest for me because it’s so far outside of my comfort zone. I trained in performing arts so I am really looking forward to being back on the stage and experiencing the audience. It definitely wasn’t my intention to cast myself in The Feeling and I was a bit concerned that people might think that was a touch narcissistic but actually I am a horrible character so I definitely haven’t done it for adoration! The producing side is also quite new for me; I recently produced a concert with Georgia Grace Carling, Patrick Sullivan and Ben Purkiss at the Museum of Comedy and really enjoyed the process. I love the idea of creating something from scratch and watching it develop into a finished product, which is what I have done with The Feeling. I am slightly overwhelmed but very excited because the chemistry within the cast is great, mainly because I look after them at Monsteers. In terms of casting I have actually done things backwards. People normally write something and cast it, but I had an idea in my mind of who the cast was going to be so I based the writing on their strengths and what I know they can bring to the table.  

Having written the script, what is the most challenging element of bringing it to life? The toughest part for me is actually where it is going to be staged. When I was writing it I didn’t know what venue we were going to be in. The stage at The Other Palace is quite small so we can’t have tons of stuff on there. So to mitigate that there is parts of the show that use projection both for context and to allow the actors to get on and off the stage during the scene changes. To accommodate that I had to make some revisions to the script and rewrite things to suit certain timings. Also, I was very critical of the script in terms of whether I liked it or found it funny. In the end I had to ask others to take a look because the more I read it the more I became overtly critical of it. I’m so conscious that because I have written it, I am going to be my own worst enemy. The script definitely represents my humour which means it could potentially be a marmite show. I am very sarcastic and use a lot of innuendo so if people don’t like that it might not be for them.

Did you draw on your own personal experiences when writing the show? Yes, there are definitely elements of me in there, and anyone coming who knows me will know exactly which sections they are because of certain phrases I use. I have also drawn on the experiences of some friends. Certainly on the toxic relationship side, I have seen too many friends go through the same thing over and over again. I have also used elements of my own relationships in there for the more comedic elements. The inspiration was a definite blend of people that have know or met during the course of my life. Some of it is hard to watch, and I found it very emotional because I was effectively reliving painful experiences that happened to people close to me.

Why should people come and see The Feeling? I think people should come and see The Feeling because it’s so important to support new British musicals. I’m also a huge advocate of supporting fringe theatre because without the support and promotion people (rarely) get to go further. I also think it will be an interesting piece for audiences to see because there are so many shows out there that are not representative of real life. I think sometimes it’s important to delve a little bit deeper and really look at that emotional connection and the issues that are facing real people. Mental health for example is a huge issue at the moment which needs to be addressed and focused on. I think if we have the chance to share something that might help somebody recognise something in them and subsequently help them reconcile that, then that can only be a good thing.

You also own talent agency, Monsteers Artistry how do you juggle running a business, writing and performing and doing justice to them all? The Feeling is the only thing I have written and probably will be for some time! Purely because it’s been quite an intense few months. I’ll see how The Feeling is perceived and if people hate it I’ll probably never write again! I started the agency because I have a lot of friends who perform in and around the West End and I remember sitting there listening to stories of how their agents operate and I was quite surprised. So I set up the agency focusing on people who wanted to get themselves back into the industry. In terms of the production side of the agency we’re really committed to creating shows for the actors to go into. So although we have auditions coming in from other places we’re actively trying to keep our performers working. Obviously they are the right cast members for it but we are consciously trying to put on shows that really play to their strengths. We’re really passionate about bucking trends and defying conventions that have been in place within the industry around the perception that you have to look a certain way to play a certain role. Monsteers for me is not just an agency; it’s a really beautiful partnership between me and the actors. It’s like a family, which I think is a connection that a lot of performers don’t get with their agents. Some of our actors are also writers so it gives them a platform to showcase their work which they might not ordinarily get.

Can you tell us about any future projects you have in the pipeline? I am producing another concert in the not too distant future which will be with some West End stars, although I can’t say who at the moment. We’ve also got another couple of productions coming up. I can tell you the working title of one, it’s called Murder By Numbers which is going to be an immersive production, but the title will change because there is a film of the same name. We are also doing a production next year which will be focused on Marilyn Monroe and we have some LGBTQ+ focused pieces coming up as well.

How long have you been in the industry and what made you to choose this career? I am trained in performing arts, I studied drama although school and into my A Levels. I was doing shows in Essex for a while but then I chose to leave the industry completely. My dad was very insistent that I pursue a career that wouldn’t make or break me. He was concerned that I would be out of work for prolonged periods and that people would be negative about me as I am a bigger girl. So I took that on board for a little while because I knew it was born of protection from my dad and I stepped out of the industry and went into advertising, media and consulting. It was after seeing Bat Out of Hell that I thought to myself this is the industry that I’ve always loved and I don’t know why I came away from it. So from then, everything kind of spiralled and I was really inspired that it’s never too late to chase your dreams.

If you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be? I would like to change perception; too many people stop themselves from going for something because they are so worried what people are going to say about their appearance. With the biographical musicals like Tina and On Your Feet for example, you need to cast people that look similar to those they are portraying as they are real people, but with regards to other productions I don’t think size or race should come into it. I believe it should always be about the talent and the connection that an actor has with a part and the reaction they elicit from an audience, and I don’t think the industry is there yet. The other thing I would like to see change is stunt casting. I think there are so many incredibly talented performers out there that lose out on opportunities because of stunt casting. Successful shows don’t have to be stunt casted to ensure longevity. The Lion King is not stunt casted for example and that has been going for over 30 years , neither has the Woman In Black, or The Mousetrap, both are successful long-running shows. Accessible theatre is another thing that would like to change. Theatre is for everyone and I just don’t think it caters for all walks of life, both in terms of accessibility for those with disabilities and the pricing of tickets making it completely unaffordable for some.

What was the last thing you saw at the theatre and what do you wish you had seen but missed? The last thing I saw was Dark Sublime at the Trafalgar studios, I have to say I am not a Sci-Fi fan but actually I really felt immersed in the story and the whole cast were phenomenal. I really wanted to see Admissions and a lot of people told me it was amazing so I am gutted I missed it. I have also never seen The Rocky Horror Show on stage and it’s actually one of my favourite shows!

We then asked Kyra some Dress Circle Antics quickfire questions…

Dream Role – Elphaba

Favourite musical number – Paradise from Bat Out of Hell

Go to audition song – There Are Worse Things I Could Do from Grease

Who would play you in the story of your life – Well obviously someone fabulous – Cate Blanchett

Favourite musical – Rocky Horror Show without a doubt

Tell us something no one knows about you – I once ended up in A&E after being attacked by a goat!

The Feeling will be playing at The Other Palace on Monday 2 and Saturday 7 September 2019

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