Ian Parsons Interview
How long did you have to learn and rehearse the show?
All told we had 3 weeks of rehearsal in a studio, 1 week of rehearsal on the set (set up in a soundstage at a film studio in Teddington), and 1 week of technical rehearsals at the Edinburgh Playhouse before our first performance.
Were the director and choreographer particularly demanding about some parts or aspects of the show over others? If so, which ones and why?
Chrissie Cartwright (our director) was not only responsible for recreating the original dramatic direction from Trevor Nunn, but also in teaching us every single step of Gillian Lynne’s choreography, which is a huge job when you consider how dance-centric the show is. The show is very much one fluid piece from start to finish, and I can’t think of any particular parts that were given more importance over others. In terms of amount of time spent on any one given part, it was most definitely the Jellicle Ball. The main reason for this is to teach it early, so that the cast has the time to work up the stamina for it, because let me tell you; it is an absolute killer. I come from a heavy ballet background, and I have never done anything as physical and cardiovascular as the Jellicle Ball.
How did you prepare yourself to play a cat?
During rehearsals, we did some “cat work” preparation in which we would spend maybe 15-20 minutes “as cats”. It was not just a free for all however. Chrissie would direct the organised chaos of everyone crawling around the floor to react to different imaginary things, and also to draw in characters from the beginning. For instance: “Munkustrap, I want you to begin to gather everyone up, and organise them” and from that simple instruction, little stories would evolve. Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser would start to make a ruckus about something, and Munk would get angry with them, which in turn made Bill-Bailey and Carbuckety break down into hysterics. All improvised, and all without dialogue, but it was amazing to see what things came out of these sessions, and what you learned about moving freely as a cat.
What were you told about the personality, relationships, and story of your character?
I could go into detail about any one of the characters that I cover, being a swing, but I feel like our approach has to be totally different to any of the other actors. As a swing, you often don’t have the time to really get in and explore what each of the characters are all about. You know their three words and general personality, but how are you going to make them seem that way? How is my Coricopat going to be completely different from my Alonzo and my Carbuckety, etc..? Well, since I didn’t have the time to really get into each character/explore their relationship with others, etc… I approached it from a very physical point of view. If I can make Alonzo and Coricopat LOOK different, then I will have done my job. I cannot go out one night and walk across the stage as Coricopat in exactly the same way as I did the night before as Alonzo. They’ve all developed their own physicality that I try and get into, and the rest of the character comes from that way of moving.
How do you interpret and play him?
Oh, I believe I went into a little too much detail above! :-)
What do you do to prepare before a show and how long does it take?
The first question is: Who am I on for? Will the makeup take an hour (Coricopat) or half that (Admetus)? Then you ask what extra things do I need to do to prepare for this particular character? Do I need to go over some synchronising issues and lifts with Tantomile (for Coricopat)? Do I need to go over the fight with Munkustrap for safety (Macavity)? Or do I need to spend some extra time doing ballet barre to get my legs turned out and remember what 5th position feels like (Carbuckety)?
Depending on all these answers, I decide how early I get to the theatre, but no later than an hour before warm up, which is 90 minutes before curtain. Have a bite to eat (something that won’t make me want to vomit half way through the opening), start makeup (but leaving my mouth undone so I can brush my teeth at the half :) ), and then head down to warm up. We then do 20 minutes of a physical warm up that either the Dance Captain or myself gives the company, and then the Musical Director for that evening gives us a 10 minute vocal warm up.
We then do “Parish Notes” where the company manager gives whatever announcements he needs to give (who is on and off), maybe hands out payslips, and tells us roughly how busy the show will be audience wise. We then have a few show notes from the resident director or the dance captain (or indeed myself if I’ve just watched!), and if someone is making a debut in a role, then we have a few traffic and safety things that we run through to make sure everything runs smoothly.
By this point it should be almost the half hour call, so we all disperse to finish getting ready. I then brush my teeth, put my mouth on, then get my wig and mic done. Then it’s back to the dressing room for costume, by which time it is around the 5 minute call, when I head down to the stage. I do some last minute warming up and also run through in my head the traffic and spacing for the opening number for whoever I am that evening (If I didn’t do that track the show before). Then off we go!
Which part of the show do you find the most difficult and which is the most enjoyable?
For me, the opening number (Jellicle Songs…) is the most difficult. You’re not really warm at that point, and there is the most singing and moving at the same in the entire show. It’s a very “puffy” number to get through. It’s a very physically and mentally demanding stretch from the top of the show until the end of “Rum Tum Tugger”, because you don’t really stop moving. “Remark the Cat” is the first time in the show where you really get to stop and catch your breath!
The most enjoyable is the end of the Ball. When everyone comes forward and dances in unison, when the music really slows down at the end. We call it “Ecstasy”. Despite the fact that you are drowning in sweat and can barely breathe, that’s the moment that I think; “Wow, I’m in Cats!” It’s a pretty cool moment, I have to say.
What are the best and worst aspects of performing in CATS?
Best: Being part of such an iconic piece of musical theatre history.
Worst: The preparation (wigs, makeup, etc...). Which we were all excited about at first, but after a long period of time, sometimes you want to be playing a human again!
What is your favourite memory of your time in the show?
This may be cheating, since it was not really part of the tour per se; but performing at the Olivier Awards on stage at the Royal Opera House. Specifically when we ran forward for “Ecstasy”. I remember distinctly looking out into the auditorium of THE Royal Opera House, being in CATS, and having an 80 piece orchestra onstage behind us. It was a phenomenal feeling.
What are the most memorably criticisms or comments you've heard about the show?
It always seems to be that many people ask what the show is about or what the story is. I think the beauty is there is as much or as little story as you want there to be. Chrissie Cartwright (our director) took an hour and a half to tell us the story at the beginning of rehearsals. She told all the subtext and all the character relations, and it was really eye opening. I think the more you see CATS, the more you see. Literally.
How does it feel to have been part of such a ground-breaking, successful show?
I remember seeing CATS at the New London Theatre when I was about 10 years old on a visit from Canada with my parents. Ever since I saw it then, I wanted to be in it one day. I owned the VHS of the 1998 film, and I think I ran it into the ground, I watched it so many times. It was really a dream come true when I got the chance to audition let alone when I got the job. It's something that all ex-CATS look back on with very deep pride, I think. You always see the show in a very special light, far more than any other show I have ever been a part of. It really is magical.