You studied composition before joining the Musical Theatre course at the Academy. What inspired you to make that move?
I went to university as a classical singer, but ended up majoring in composition. When I was finishing my course, I was seriously considering doing a Master’s in composition but I was torn because I loved performing too. If I’m honest, back then I didn’t know where I would fit in the industry as a female composer – I could only name about three at the time and we certainly hadn’t been taught about more than a couple, so I didn’t know where I would start with actually getting a job at the end of it. I had been heavily involved in the musical theatre society and had put on a lot of really cool shows – it was one of the highlights of my time at university. A couple of my friends had gone on to do the Academy course and it appealed to me as I could see myself doing it as a career. I auditioned and got in and it just felt like the right next step. It was such a nice audition process too – they were so welcoming and I felt nurtured, even then. I was a bit like a rabbit in the headlights, but I knew that I loved singing and performing.
When you finished the course, did you know what kind of path you wanted to follow? How did you start to build your career?
When I left, I went straight into auditioning for a whole range of roles in musicals. As you get more experience, you start to work out where you sit. You keep working to improve your skills, of course, but you also have to be realistic about the sort of things you can do. After a few jobs, I realised that I loved singing in a more singer-songwriter folky style – there’s not a whole lot of that within musical theatre but those roles did exist in theatre, in plays that had some singing or folk singing, so I started to audition for those too. One of my first 'breaks' was in The Human Comedy at the Young Vic, which is a through-sung ‘rock opera’, although it’s more folky than rocky. I played the piano as part of that role, and after that I would be asked every now and then to play instruments on stage. I also got a part in War Horse, which was amazing – it was my first West End gig and I got to use my physical abilities doing the puppetry.
I’d always kept up my song writing on the side and I started collaborating with my best mate Alex Young, who also studied on the Musical Theatre course at the Academy. We were both in the industry and loving it, but we were also feeling a little bit disappointed in the lack of female roles that felt like us – roles that weren’t just living for the love of a man or being heartbroken or wanting to get married. We wanted to see roles where women are challenging, where women are complex and intelligent and have agency, so we thought ‘why don’t we start writing them?’. We wrote a piece of theatre that included songs and entered it into a competition. We won, and that set me on a completely different path.
Tell us about your collaboration with Alex.
Alex is my main collaborator in creating what the world would call a musical, but really, we’re just telling stories. That will invariably involve music because that’s our background, but we try to keep labels out of the picture for as long as possible.
That first project we worked on was called Here and it started its journey as a piece about a Dadaist German collage artist who escaped from the Nazis, found his way to Cumbria and ended his days working on a farm there. The show was constructed as lots of snippets of his life, patched together in a slightly chaotic order – like a collage. We worked with Leicester Curve and Mercury Musical Development and Music Theatre Network in its development and we learnt a lot from the process.
Since that first show we’ve started writing a couple more. One has the working title F***** in Marrakech and it’s in development with the support of Concord Theatricals. We’re currently in the studio recording a concept album of the show which is really exciting.
What do the other strands of your career look like?
I’m always up for working with nice people on any project that interests me and perhaps shifts boundaries, whether that’s as a musical director, composer or musical dramaturge.
I first started to get into musical directing in around 2016, when I got a job with physical theatre company Frantic Assembly. They were working with Karl Hyde from Underworld, who was writing the music for a new show called Fatherland. My role as musical director was to coach the singers, as well as arranging the vocal parts and overseeing the music for Karl when he wasn’t able to be there.
Through that job, I soon found myself working in other similar niche roles as musical dramaturge, where I basically worked with music artists looking to write songs for theatre to help them make those songs work within a piece of theatre. I worked with Kele from Bloc Party on a show called Leave to Remain at the Lyric Hammersmith. My main role was music producer for stage but I also created a lot of the vocal arrangements alongside the musical supervisor.
But mainly, of course, I’m a composer! I write a lot for theatre and contemporary dance, and I’ve even tiptoed into film recently.
You’re passionate about increasing representation of female composers within the industry. Could you tell us more about your work in that area?
That’s right – I’ve founded a platform for female and non-binary composers writing for UK theatre called Modulate to help balance the representation a bit. The statistics are terrible – in 2019 only 15% of composers writing for London theatres were female or non-binary, and if you take popstars out of that, it plummets to 3%.
Before the pandemic hit, I had started meeting with some gatekeepers of theatre to ask them what stopped them reaching out to new voices. I discovered there are two main issues – engaging new voices, because people tend to work with people they already know; and the other was that they didn’t seem to know of any female or non-binary composers, and when they did find them, they were already busy or didn’t have enough experience for their requirements. It’s a catch-22 situation – experience comes with doing, so if new voices aren’t getting access to the jobs how can they get the experience? We need mentorships and project shadowing so that people can get experience and credits, and we can start to bridge the gap.
I’ve started collating names and experience into a database, to develop into a resource that people across the industry can use. At the moment, it’s great for connecting people via recommendations, and I’m hoping it’ll grow from there once I’ve got some more funding behind it. I just want people to open their minds to new voices.
Do you have any advice for students and graduates who are just starting out and trying to build a career in the creative arts?
Be a person people will want to work with again. The longer you’re in the industry, the smaller it gets and the more you get work by word of mouth. Casting directors will remember you if you’ve done a great audition, even if you didn’t get the part. Your selling point is to be yourself, so know who you are, know your worth and be a good person.
Find out more: katemarlais.com/