Every fortnight, I’m going to use this blog to interview an industry professional in an attempt to paint a picture of what their job entails, and how they got to be where they are today. This week, I spoke to West End actress, Sarah Soetaert.
Sarah grew up in Antwerp, where she dreamed of moving to London and becoming a ballerina. Now, she is on stage every night at the Cambridge Theatre, playing bad girl Roxie Hart in Chicago. She told me about the early stages of her career, her unsung heroes of theatre and her plans for the future.
“I came to England when I was 15 to follow my dream and train with the English National Ballet. Once my training had finished and I began looking for work I chanced upon an audition for Cats, and ended up getting the part. I’ve worked in musical theatre ever since, so in a way I just fell into acting and have been ‘learning on the job’ ever since.”
Sarah spent the early part of her career working part time and attending auditions whenever she could. “It was hard”, she says, “to remain focused and positive; but I knew that being on stage was what I really wanted to do.” She found herself auditioning for all sorts of things, and has appeared in commercials as well as stage shows, even spending some time with Disney and Gladiators.
Now that she’s settled as a West End lead, Sarah told me about the huge team of people that the cast rely on in order to perform: “If you’re lucky enough to land a lead role in musical theatre then you’re definitely dependent on your dresser; having a good dresser can mean the difference between being able to give your all to a part and being constantly stressed out and distracted by things.” The dresser is one of those careers in theatre that wouldn’t necessarily cross the mind of a job-hunting arts student, but without which theatre couldn’t function. The same can be said for a reliable agent: “When I first started out I really knew nothing about the way the industry works.. Your agent is absolutely invaluable – putting you up for auditions, negotiating on your behalf, sorting out contracts and generally looking out for your best interests.”
Listening to Sarah talking in such practical terms, it struck me how fragile an actor’s career can be. It’s an old cliche to talk about out-of-work actors selling programmes or ice creams, but it seems that even successful, employed performers aren’t guaranteed much longevity in their work. I asked Sarah about the stage that actors feel that they’ve made it: “I don’t consider myself to be a success yet; but do feel incredibly grateful for, and proud of, some of the things I’ve been able to achieve as an actor.” Having seen Sarah perform as Roxie Hart, it’s clear that there are plenty of other West End roles she could achieve as her career progresses, but it seems she has plenty of other aspirations: “I’ll really feel like I’ve made it when I get that call to be the next Bond Girl!”
Perhaps the step from the West End to Hollywood is a conversation for another day… I finished by asking Sarah if she had any advice for young, aspiring actors. “I think self-belief, conviction, a positive outlook and a thick skin, and a bit of courage are all essential.”
I get the feeling that over the coming months, I’ll be told this a lot – to be successful in this industry, you’ve really got to believe that you’re the best person for the job. I guess this works in the extreme when you’re up on stage performing such an iconic role as Roxie Hart – the audience look to you for a memorable performance, and in order to deliver, you must at least have the courage of your conviction. Sarah sums this feeling up nicely: “As long as you can keep believing in yourself other people will be able to too. Ultimately that’s what acting is all about…”