Interview: Helen Woolf | Living North

Interview: Helen Woolf

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Wicked
As the marvellous, magical, mystifying musical Wicked flies into the North East for a 23-day run at the Sunderland Empire, we catch up with star of the stage Helen Woolf, who plays Glinda the Good

What was it like for you to take on the (now iconic) role of Glinda?
I was fortunate because I’d understudied it, so I’ve witnessed a lot of people’s performances. What I wanted to do the most was to try not to imitate what anyone else has done. The thing about Glinda, I find, is that you have to play her with absolute sincerity in order for her to be funny; so when she has those funny moments – for example, when she’s in Shiz [the university in the show] she says: “oh something’s wrong, I didn’t get my way!” – she means that! And it’s only funny if you play it with sincerity. So I think everyone that plays the part naturally brings a bit of themselves to the role. That’s what I love about her. So I don’t feel under any pressure to be the same as anyone else, I just think playing her truthfully is the way to go about it.

So it’s not a conscious decision to try and step away from what other people have done before?
It’s just natural. That’s the thing they encourage when you’re in the creative process, they want you to bring an element of yourself to her – it’s no coincidence that I’ve been cast as Glinda, I am pretty similar to her really! Well I’m not, I’m absolutely a jeans-and-t-shirt kind of girl, but there’s obviously bits of her that they see in you as a person.

Did you feel that connection to the character as well? 
Definitely! When I got the job, people were like: “well, I’m absolutely not surprised!”

What’s your typical day like on tour?
Say, on a one-show day? I’m probably up about 9.30am, have a little bit of breakfast, then we go to the gym – I’m being really good at the minute and I’m trying to go to the gym every single day. I do lots of different classes on rotation, from weights to stretching to cycle, just trying to keep it fresh. The one thing I’m not very good at is being in a routine – I mean, I like being in a routine, but I like different things within that routine. So gym, have a light lunch, then probably come into town and do a bit shopping, then have a nap! I always have to get 20 minutes in somewhere, especially if I’m getting up early, like 9.30am (I know for most people that’s probably a lie-in!) And then just come in for warm up and do the show.

Do you have a favourite song to perform?
Probably Thank Goodness, at the top of Act Two. I think Glinda goes on this huge emotional journey in the space of six minutes – so she goes from having this engagement with Fiyero that’s going fine and dandy, and then slowly the realisation creeps in that actually this isn’t what she had planned, and I think, for the first time, you see her break down. It’s weird, but it’s an enjoyable thing to play! With a lot of the Glinda stuff she is very bubbly and chirpy, so when you get those moments to take it to that sadder level, I quite enjoy that! 

You could say you see the biggest journey from Glinda.
Exactly! The hardest part to play is actually at the top of the show, because when I first enter I am Glinda the Good with the people of the mob, and I’m delivering the news that the Wicked Witch is dead. The, three minutes later, I’m straight back into the bubbly, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed girl at Shiz University. So that’s quite a hard shift to make. It’s quite tough remembering that you’re the person you see at the end of the show right at the start, it’s like full circle. 

What’s that transition like backstage?
Chaos! No, it’s not really. For a lot of the show, as much is choreographed offstage as it is onstage. So when I do my change, there’s literally a team of two wiggies, stage management, two dressers – literally, the second I go off it’s like a finely-rehearsed dance routine; I know I have to put my hands out and someone takes my dress off, then step out, jacket on, my shoes are being changed, I’m getting my wig changed all at the same time… You practise it for about five days before you go live. You’d never do it without having practised it. But it’s great, they’re so good. Touch wood, it’s never gone wrong…!

The show must be such a team effort. 
It’s huge, it’s such an absolute monster. Unsurprisingly, there’s about 15 trucks that have to take everything from the show around. There’s so much stuff. I’m proud to be part of this show in that, a lot of shows when they come from the West End tend to be scaled-down versions, but this is everything you’d see in the West End, no expense spared. That’s what I love. I think that really helps that extra level of magic in our show and the sense of spectacle. It’s about 100 people, I think, that we tour, so it’s crazy. And it’s non-stop. We’re the lucky ones, we come in at about 6 o’clock, but the wiggies work about 12 hours a day.

What’s special about taking the show on tour? 
Every venue you go to sort of feels like you’re starting over again. And in every venue the audience react differently, they laugh at different things. It’s really interesting the regional changes. But, essentially, at the end of every show we get a standing ovation, which is amazing.

The show has a huge fanbase. What do you think it is about Wicked that continues to prove so popular? 
Our fans are so loyal. When I was in London, we’d see the same faces come back day after day – maybe six shows a week. Which is lovely. I think you can never stop looking at the layers within the show. On the surface level: yes, it’s beautiful, yes, you’ve got two strong female leads. But then you can delve that level deeper and there’s political elements of Madame Morrible and the Wizard playing with myself and Elphaba, and that relates to how we believe what we’re told in the media and stuff like that. Every time you see it you’ll spot something new. Every ensemble member even has their own little journey within the show – no two people wear the same costumes, there’s so many stories that I just think it’s never-ending in terms of where you can find something new, which is great. It’s so clever. It’s amazing. 

If you weren’t an actress, but you were still involved in theatre, what would you like to be doing? 
Oh, that’s interesting! I definitely wouldn’t want to be a Company Manager, because it’s a nightmare! My blood pressure wouldn’t cope with it, for a start. I think maybe I’d like to do wigs and make up, I think that would be really great. 

Do you get much time to socialise as a cast?
Yeah! At about 10.20pm the curtain comes down, so most nights people go to the pub and chill. I’ve had to restrain myself from doing that for a while because of the size of the job – I take that very seriously, so I’m not going to go out and get sozzled on a Saturday night anymore (unfortunately!). But as a company we do lots of events together, like organised dinners, playing bowls, there’s quiz nights happening, so it’s lovely – it’s very social. We’ve all got very close, very quickly. I’m living with Nicky [Bentley, standby for Elphaba] at the minute, so that’s really nice. She makes popcorn every single night and it’s killing me because it’s so delicious! I’m just sitting there and gobbling it! But me and Amy [Ross, who plays the role of Elphaba] were lucky because we just hit it off straight away, which is really nice. And so important.

How do you like to spend your free time? 
Bit of Netflix. I was watching Love Island, which was great. Just relaxing, reading books, Netlfix, that sort of thing. 

What are you reading right now?
How To Stop Time by Matt Haig. I’m halfway through it. I’ve put it on hold at the minute because I’m going on holiday soon, so I’m going to save it for then.

Wicked will be at the Sunderland Empire between 6th–29th September. 
For more information, visit: www.atgtickets.com

Published in: August 2018

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