Interview – Nicole Raquel Dennis

Interview – Nicole Raquel Dennis

I recently had THE loveliest chat with Nicole Raquel Dennis. She’s currently 1st cover Effie in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre and has also recently appeared in The Book of Mormon in the West End.

She’s also such a genuine, lovely human being and it was a pleasure to interview someone so down to earth. I hope you enjoy our chat!

What was your journey like leading up to being in Dreamgirls?

After I left sixth form when I was 18, I auditioned for drama schools and didn’t get in anywhere. I auditioned for three or four years straight but just didn’t get in anywhere, so I thought “I guess I’m gonna have to get a normal job!” But then I went to the open Dreamgirls call, and I was in that casting process for about ten months…then I didn’t get it.

(I literally gasped “ten months?!”)

Yeah, it was long!

I was working an office job as well so it was fine, but ten months was a very long time. But it was amazing because I’d never done a big West End audition before, and for a lead part, so it was an amazing experience. I didn’t get it, but it was the same casting team that cast Disney, and they said “We’re casting Disney as well, do you want to audition?” So I was like…of course!

So then I auditioned for Disney and got my first job, which was called Mickey and the Magician at Disneyland Paris. It was a dream job – the best first job for me. I think if I was thrown straight into a West End show then I wouldn’t have been ready. I was definitely not ready for Dreamgirls at 21.

I was in Paris for around ten months and then, because it was the same people who cast The Book of Mormon, they got in contact with me and so I auditioned for that, got it, then left Disney to do that. Then because it was also Sonia Friedman Productions, I ended up auditioning for Dreamgirls again and got in. I actually left Mormon early as well to do go into that, so it’s been non-stop!

Did you feel the pressure to get into a drama school and enter the industry that way?

When I’d go to workshops and things, I was always told you have to go to drama school to get into the industry. I was never told you could make it with another path. And I think that’s the worst thing to have when you’re 18 – to be told that there’s only one way into an industry that’s already the hardest thing. When you’re young, I feel like you’re never told to celebrate how unique you are, and a lot of drama schools do mould people to be more similar, rather than celebrating you as an individual.

So that’s why I’m really vocal on Twitter about celebrating yourself and making sure you stand out, because I didn’t have that when I was younger. I didn’t have anyone I looked up to that didn’t go down that route [of drama school], and I didn’t have anyone to talk to about that. I kind of had to discover it on my own, so I want to be there for people who are going through the same thing.

One of the reasons I love New York and their theatre culture so much is that they always have open casting calls, and it’s very rare here to have open calls for West End shows. It’s a shame because there are so many talented people out there who don’t have the opportunity to go to drama school, or don’t have the money or resources to go, and they’re just sitting there undiscovered – they could be the lead in the West End but would never know. I really want to get rid of the stigma around people who haven’t trained.

When did you first go on for Effie and what was that like?

February 21st [2018] – that date will never leave my head! It was very surreal. The day before, we’d had a dress run – it was meant to be a normal rehearsal but then they said we were gonna have a dress run just in case we were on the next day. I was swung off in the evening to watch the show and then at ten o’clock the next morning, I got a call and I was like okay…this is it, it’s actually happening!

I sent a message out to everyone on Facebook and Twitter and then just left my phone. It went by so quickly but it was the best day of my entire life.

When I’m not on for Effie I’m in the show every night in the ensemble, and I went back to my ensemble track that evening. It was really humbling actually doing the matinee as Effie and then straight back to ensemble in the evening. It was nice because, when you’re on as Effie you don’t see anyone as your paths don’t cross with the ensemble. I’d actually missed being with the cast! So it was lovely going back to that.

There are three Effie’s so I never thought I’d get to go on this year, as there didn’t seem like there would be a window for me to go on. I’ve played Effie seven or eight times since, but even just to get a second show I was so over the moon. Every time I find out I’m going on you just get this adrenaline you can’t describe – nothing will ever compare to that feeling.

What is it like playing a character like Effie that goes through such a huge transformation throughout the show?

It’s massive. She starts off as an 18 year old girl, and by the end she’s in her thirties. I’m known as the “Baby Effie” as I’m the youngest Effie in the cast. I relate so much to Act One Effie as she’s so young, whereas the other Effies are more Act Two Effies. Getting into her character for Act Two was a big struggle for me, and it was tough but it’s so so satisfying at the end.

Do you have a favourite number to sing as Effie?

I love I Am Changing – I think it’s the most beautiful song. It’s the first time you see Effie after her big meltdown and so to see her rise up again is just so inspirational. I also love the duet between Effie and C.C when they first see each other again – vocally it’s just such a joy to sing.

You also got to perform as Effie at West End Live this year, what was that like?

I wasn’t expecting it at all, and then I got told I was doing it and the matinee as Effie that day as well! It was a dream come true because I went to West End Live year after year, and had always queued up at 8:00 in the morning to get to the front row, so it was such a full circle moment for me. It was ridiculous – I’ve never seen that many people! It was insane. We were so hyped and the atmosphere was so amazing. I’m very very lucky to have done that.

What have you learnt so far from your time in Dreamgirls – both artistically as a performer and personally?

When I’m onstage as Effie, I’ve really learnt to pace myself. When it was the dress rehearsal, I was so excited and felt like I needed to go full out for every single number. It got to the end of Act One and my voice had blown out completely. So the other Effies have all taught me to pace myself and I think that’s the best advice I’ve ever had.

Personally, I’ve learnt that life’s too short to get worked up about the tiniest things. We literally dress up and sing songs as our job! I think a lot of the time we’re so serious about everything and we’re so hard on ourselves when we make mistakes, but we’re all human. I’ve also learnt not to be so apologetic.

The cast of Dreamgirls seem to be a really close unit. Has that helped?

Definitely, the cast is mental. I’ve been very very lucky with the three shows I’ve done so far to have really loving casts. We’re together all the time and it really is a bubble. Especially in a show like this where it’s very emotionally heavy, you have no choice but to depend on each other a lot of the time. I’ve been very lucky with this cast – they’re my rocks, especially the girls in my dressing room. They’re literally the funniest, most entertaining girls I’ve ever been around.

I love the videos you’ve posted on your Instagram singing a cappella with your fellow cast members, Ashford Campbell and Ashlee Irish. Is that a style you’d like to explore more?

My two boys! I would love to do more of it. Whenever we get a chance to, it’s usually on double show days, we love to just sit down and have a jam. I love a cappella and such close harmonies. We’ve all got such different voices as well so it’s fun. For all three of us, our roots and our base was gospel, but we definitely love singing songs from musicals together too.

(I then mentioned the video she posted of them singing an iconic moment from Mean Girls the musical, where Janis belts “It’s fiiiiiiiiine.” If you know, you know…)

Oh my god, (*Nicole then leant closer into the microphone*) this is a PSA…I want to play Janis! I would love to be in that show here.

Do you have any other dream roles?

This is so cliché to say but Effie really was a dream role for me, from a very young age – about 10 years old. I watched a bootleg of Dreamgirls and it literally changed my whole life. So as that’s always been a dream role I haven’t really focused on other stuff I’d like to do…but I’d love to do Mean Girls! I’d love to do Spring Awakening and Bare, I’d also love to do Porgy and Bess when I’m older.

There’s so much I want to do and I don’t really want to put myself into a box so I’d love to do gender blind roles one day. As long as I’m telling a story I think that’s the main thing for me.

You’ve recently teased that you may have a solo concert coming up. What can we expect?

I’m not allowed to say anything yet but I’ve been hinting loads of things…I’m planning a solo concert at the moment. Whereabouts and who’s singing with me will all be revealed later on but it’s very exciting. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a very long time, and it feels like a really important time in my life to do it.

Dreamgirls is closing in January ahead of its UK tour. For Londoners who may not be able to see the show at its regional venues, why should people catch the show while it’s still in the West End?

So many reasons! I’m not being biased at all, but it’s the best show in the West End. The costumes are so detailed and so visually stunning – they tell their own story alone. The music is sublime, the voices are everything, the story is just so relatable, and you leave feeling something. Our show always leaves people with a message in their head or some sort of dream in their heart. It’s an incredible show – come and see it!

You’re refreshingly honest on your social media platforms talking about mental health and the highs and lows of working in an industry that’s infamously unpredictable. What do you think we can do, as creatives and as individuals, do help support each other?

I think we have to talk. People don’t talk enough; people don’t open up as much and I struggled with that a lot. Also to not disconnect from people – as a community, we all need to stick together. It’s such a small community and the second we start shutting down and closing off, is the second we lose ourselves and get sucked into the industry, and our whole lives become this industry when that’s not the case at all. We have to really think about ourselves as people before anything else.

I really want to start up a support group for people in the industry where people can talk, because there’s not a lot of that. Obviously you talk to the people you’re in a show with, but to talk to someone you’ve never met, maybe, you might open up and say things you’ve never said before.

I also think not feeling apologetic for feeling a certain way and to take the time you need to heal. I don’t know how they do it, but I feel like leads always have to put up a front and appear like they’re this perfect person who doesn’t go through anything. I think it’s time we break that stigma completely – so many times that lead will have gone through a bad day and no one will ever know about it.

I really loved the reaction to Patti Murin’s decision to call out of a performance of Frozen on Broadway because of her anxiety.

I’m so happy she spoke up about it because she could have not said anything and just called off the show, go back the next day, and act like nothing happened. But the fact that she spoke up about it gave so many people out there the thought that they’re not alone. So many people just think they need to get on with it, suffer in silence and then go home and cry for hours, and no one will know about what’s going on. When I saw her post, I was literally just like “Oh my God. Finally someone from a higher status is talking about what needs to be talked about.”

I’ve always opened my arms to people who need to talk about things. I think it’s so hard, especially for people coming up into the industry going through drama school. As I didn’t go to drama school I don’t really know what happens, but a lot of my friends have and it’s tough. So to have people in the industry to talk to I think is so important.

I’d never want to put up a barrier where people feel like they can’t talk to me, just because I’m in a show. Tomorrow, everything could switch and you could be in a show and I could not be and want someone to talk to, and I’d hope it would be the same if the roles were reversed.

Finally, as my blog is called Rose’s Supposes, if you could do one thing to make the world a little bit rosier, what would it be?

I’d love for schools to focus more on diversity in theatre and for the government to support theatre in schools. Growing up, we’re told theatre is only one way and one colour. I had to do my own research to find people that were like me in the industry. So I’d love for there to be more education on diversity in theatre, and it would make the world a bit more rosy!

I really hope this interview conveys what a lovely person Nicole is, and the huge heart she clearly has. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for her.

If you’d like to follow her on social media, written below are Nicole’s Twitter and Instagram handles.

Twitter: @NicoleRaquel_D

Instagram: @nicoleraquel_d

Olivia Rose 🌹

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