PERFORMER, chairman of multiple theatre schools and co-founder of Rotherham Theatrical Student Academy (RTSA), Rachel Marshall has been in the business for three decades. She founded RTSA with her director and choreographer wife, Dee Bennie-Marshall, and is also involved with Rotherham Musical Theatre Company (RMTC) and Wickersley Musical Theatre Company.
Q: How did you first get into musical theatre? Do you have any memories of your first rehearsals, roles or performances?
A: My mum had always been involved with Greasbrough AOS. She used to take me along to rehearsals and I would always help out backstage where I could before I was old enough to perform. My first show was with RMTC (formerly Rotherham Teachers) in 1986 doing Annie Get Your Gun. I loved the rehearsals and was absolutely delighted when the director gave me my own line to say — well, it was actually just one word! I remember the first lead I played with RMTC in The Card, I was so nervous on opening night I literally thought I would not be able to step on stage.
Q: What part if any did you play in school productions? Were you nervous before curtain-up or did you relish the spotlight?
A: I never took part in any school production at all but I vaguely remember helping out backstage, which I think during my school years was all I was really up for.
Q: When, how and why did you decide to make the leap from performer to RTSA chairman? Do you have a preferred role?
A: I never stopped performing even when I became chairman of both RTSA and RMTC, which I did in 2014 and, more latterly, in conjunction with Geoff Fenwick, I have become executive chairman for both those companies plus WMTC. I have continued to perform with RMTC, WMTC and Wakefield West Riding playing numerous roles. I would say I have performed in around 100 productions so it’s difficult to choose a preferred role, but I would say my favourites are Viv Nicholson in Spend Spend Spend, Miss Hannigan in Annie, Ode Mae in Ghost, Delores in Sister Act, and Motormouth in Hairspray.
Q: Who have been your favourite people to work with over the years — have there been some memorable characters?
A:I have worked with some amazing performers over the years and I have learned a lot from some people. Whilst there is a lot of competition for females in musical theatre, there are also people who are willing to help you especially as a new and inexperienced performer. I have worked with some great leading men and also apart from meeting my wife, Dee, I have also made some lifelong friends.
Q: Why are you passionate about community theatre?
A: Aaah so many reasons! The fun you can have, the friends you make, the buzz of actually performing and the satisfaction that you are providing a facility for people to be involved in something they love. My biggest passion though, of course, is RTSA, which Dee and I founded nearly 20 years ago. Giving our members an affordable opportunity to work with professionals such as our director Dee Bennie-Marshall, and our musical director Matt Symonds, plus to work with professional scenery, orchestras, and costumes whilst producing high-quality productions, doing something they love and forging friendships that will last their lifetime is so satisfying — it’s difficult to describe. I firmly believe that being involved in theatre makes a difference to a young persons’ life and sets them up with skills they can use throughout their career, even if their chosen path is not performing.
Q: What have been your most memorable shows at the Civic and why?
A: Not for good reasons, my two most memorable shows at this moment are Sweeny Todd with RTSA when we had to abandon before opening night due to the theatre roof falling down, and Little Shop of Horrors, again with RTSA, where we had to abandon on opening night due to Covid. Both very prominent in my mind at the moment as we await news of when the theatre will definitely open again and how. If I look at positives I think my most memorable show must be 42nd Street in around 2001. The main reason for this is the show was directed by Dee, my brother Dean played the male lead, I played the female lead, our son Rob played the juvenile male lead, and our daughter Kirsty and both my nieces were in the production, plus my mum was on continuity — a real family affair.
Q: What is your fondest memory on stage or in theatre?
A:?My fondest memory happened only four years ago when I got the opportunity to sing with my brother for the first time ever on stage on board the P&O Britannia as part of his show. Prior to this, I had never sung with Dean. It was emotional and it will stick in my memory for a long time.
Q: Have you had any particularly funny experiences or moments on stage or backstage?
A: The funniest thing I can remember was when I played Sweet Sue in Sugar. One of my closest friends Louise was playing Sugar. I was stood at the side of the stage watching the action on stage for about five minutes thinking, ‘I haven't seen that bit before’. Louise was glaring into the wings, the lady doing the continuity was waving ferociously at me — only then after several minutes I realised that I should have been on stage and the script I was watching was purely improvised. I wasn’t the most popular person that night, but even now, some 25 years later, we laugh about it
Q: Coronavirus has caused huge disruption to theatre companies. How are you coping with this and keeping morale up?
A: This has been one of the most difficult things I have had to deal with in my time as chairman, especially as things have continued to be cancelled and plans have had to be remade over and over. From a personal point of view, it’s been a challenge as we have had to rebook shows, costumes, and scenery, which is often difficult due to availability. Just when you think you have everything sorted we have to cancel again and try to reschedule, with many companies trying to do it at the same time whilst staff at most of the suppliers are on furlough. Doing this for one company would be hard enough but I have been doing this for four companies.
We have continued with rehearsals for RTSA using Zoom and have run a weekly quiz for RTSA and have also done a couple of quizzes for the other groups plus live feeds to keep people up-to-date with news, birthday messages and just regular check-ins. We have also offered workshops to RTSA with West End Professionals. Coronavirus is one of the most devastating things the country has had to deal with and I believe our industry has taken one of the heaviest blows. It’s such a difficult time and all we can do is pray that things very soon get back to as normal as possible
Q: What would be your message to someone who thinks they might like to be on the stage but isn't sure how to start.
A: Do it! As soon as everything is back operational get in touch with whichever group you wish to join and see what they are up to next and when they are starting rehearsals. It is such a great hobby both for people on stage and those who work backstage — often leading to a career for some people. We have trained so many people through RTSA who are now working in the West End and also on international professional tours. However, without the backstage help, performers would be unable to perform — so there really is something for everyone.