Katie Brayben: West End Leading Lady
I enter through the stage door and head down the concrete stairs to dressing room one of the Aldwych theatre in London’s West End.
I knock and wait as a radiant Katie Brayben greets me in a toweling dressing gown, fresh from a full body massage. I’m offered a liquorish tea and we both settle down on her sofa for a chat about a year that, in Katie’s words, has been an “absolute whirlwind”.
In December of last year Katie began rehearsing the part of Carole in ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’ and, since then, she has met the lady herself, performed to over a thousand people every night, won the award for Best Actress in a Musical at the Olivier Awards, and gained herself a whole host of fabulous reviews.
“It’s been a mad, mad time but I’m starting to feel more settled now. The audiences are great, the cast is great, I’m having a great time!”
The role of Carole King is huge. Katie performs eight shows a week, each containing sixteen songs and countless scenes and costume changes. I ask her how on earth she manages to maintain her energy and give her all every night. “I wouldn’t say I’m a monk but I have to look after myself for this role. I’m not going out much, not having much to drink, no dairy before singing… I warm myself up every day and rest all day Sunday. I don’t think there’s a secret to it, I just take it one show at a time. The hard thing is not always being able to be the best version of myself for my family or friends outside of work.
“It’s a sacrifice. But it’s a good enough sacrifice for a role like this. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity”.
Katie has always dreamed of performing, but didn’t realise that her path would lead to musical theatre. She tells me about watching videos of three musicals on repeat, but never having the opportunity to see shows live on stage. “My parents are musicians so we went to see a lot of live music, but musical theatre wasn’t really in our vocabulary”. She remembers playing out imaginative scenarios in her room and singing songs to boys in her mirror, until eventually she joined a drama club and played little orphan Annie alongside like-minded girls and loved it. “I loved the family feel – everybody watching in the wings and supporting each other – I loved that we all got to create something together. It really resonated with me.
“After the show was over, I was bereft! I remember crying in the bathtub and my mother telling me – ‘Well, if this is what drama does to you then you’re not going back!’ – and that made me cry even more!”
Katie is grateful for the fantastic drama and singing tuition she had at school, but explains that she never realised there was such a thing as a vocational drama school. In her world there was only university where she would study theatre. That she happened upon two drama schools while filling out her UCAS form, and ending up with a place at Rose Bruford studying Actor-Musicianship, is down to luck (or fate?). After studying she landed an agent and since then has been “plodding along, the way we all do”.
Fast forward to 2015, and Katie has not only won an Oliver Award, but also opened the awards show with a solo performance. She recalls how just the year before she watched it on TV at home and was chuffed that she recognised someone in the audience. “I wasn’t nervous about losing, I was just thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m here’”. She didn’t plan a speech, and believes it’s ‘luck’ that all those events came together at the right time – the right show, the right part, the nomination, the award. She might call it luck, but I know just by looking at her that there is a hard working lady behind the humble façade.
Katie is a strong, positive woman. A feminist. I ask her if she thinks this type of career is more difficult for a girl or woman to achieve. “It is harder. There are fewer roles for us. Roles like this rarely exist.
“I think there needs to be less gender-specific roles. We need to shake things up a bit”.
We talk about women in the industry feeling the need to conform to a certain look or size, and Katie explains that she feels there is a lot of ageism towards women in theatre, and that the roles ‘thin out’ as you get older. “The truth of it is: whatever makes you different, or however you’re made, or whatever your genetic make-up is, it’s those things that make you the performer you are, those are your unique qualities. We’re not helped by the images we see or the descriptions of characters that we are submitted for. We are absolutely surrounded by certain prejudices.
“We have to be the change that we want to see. You want to play a certain role? Make it known. We need to open up people’s perceptions a little bit”.
We discuss feminism and the need for it to be broadcast as equality. Katie tells me that, in her world, she is surrounded by feminists – particularly the men in her life. “It’s about everyone being on an equal footing and dispelling some of those gender myths that we’ve all grown up with. I often have to step back and ask myself why I’ve done a certain thing. We have to question it. Is it cultural? Is it something I’ve grown to believe a woman should do? And that’s just the western world. We need to be aware of the dark heart of abuse happening all over. We have to start on our own doorstep and question everything”.
Our time is running out as Katie starts to prepare herself for another busy show at the Aldwych. She is tired, but she radiates her her joy in singing Carole King’s beautiful songs and getting to tell a story every night. This is a woman who truly loves what she does. Katie’s favorite saying in life is ‘Everything I am, I’m not’. She explains: “Don’t put yourself in a box. Sometimes I’m happy and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I’m cruel and sometimes I’m kind. For me, it’s about going with the flow of life.
“Other people will try and put you in a box. Don’t put yourself in one”.
With a laugh, we say our goodbyes and I leave this perky and positive leading lady to wow another audience. Over a thousand people on their feet every night showering her with applause is no coincidence: this woman has a heart of gold.
30 Second CV
Name: Katie Brayben
Current Title/Company: Carole King in ‘Beautiful – The Carole King Musical’
Educational Background: Rose Bruford, Actor Musicianship
Tea or coffee: Coffee (though herbal tea at the moment!)
Wine or cocktails: Wine
Morning or night: Night
Favorite book: 1984
Favorite singer: Donny Hathaway
I wish I knew how to: Surf
Best advice you’ve ever received: “Don’t touch that it’s hot!”
Woman you’d most like to have lunch with and what you’d order: Woman? Women! Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Naomi Klein, JK Rowling, Nina Simone. We’d order something to share… Tapas!