This week the very talented leads of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ sit down with the Sunday Times to share with us why they auditioned for the musical, give us the inside scoop on rehearsals and talk about the memories they’re going to carry away from what promises to be one of most exceptional productions [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Phantom waits in the wings

The stars of the much awaited Workshop Players’ production have a chat with Smriti Daniel

This week the very talented leads of ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ sit down with the Sunday Times to share with us why they auditioned for the musical, give us the inside scoop on rehearsals and talk about the memories they’re going to carry away from what promises to be one of most exceptional productions they will ever be a part of.  Here are excerpts from our interviews with the four Christines – Dhanushi Wijeyakulasuriya, Dimitri Gunatilake, Devashrie De Silva and Stephanie Siriwardena – and the three Phantoms – Sean Amarasekera, Jehan Aloysius and Manoj Singanayagam.

Unfolding drama: Christine (Stephanie Siriwardena) with Raoul (Dushyanth Weeraman) and the Phantom (Jehan Aloysius). Jehan is also pictured on our cover as the Phantom. Pix by Indika Handuwala

When did we last see you on stage?
Dhanushi: My last big production was the Ladies’ College production of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ back in 2008 -I played Esmeralda. It was directed by Mohamed Adamaly.

Stephanie: Well, the last production I was in was ‘Little Orphan Annie,’ where I played the main role of Annie, but it was ages ago, when I was nine. It was the Elizabeth Moir School’s production of it at the Lionel Wendt.

Dmitri: It was a production done by the past and present boys of St.Peter’s College last December called ‘A Christmas Wish – The Musical’ written and directed by Jehan Bastians and Neidra Williams. I played the role of Natalie and was also the choral director for the production. Devashrie: I was in ‘Music from the Movies’ a concert with the Symphony Orchestra featuring the old girls of Ladies’ College.

Sean: The last play I was in was last year’s comedy “The 39 Steps” (by the Performing Arts Company) where I was most proud of my performance as a ‘Thorn Bush,’ ‘A Waterfall’ and about 20 other zany characters peppered throughout the classic Hitchcock Thriller set on stage performed by a cast of four.
The last musical was 2013’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” by of course, the Workshop Players. I played the role of Caiaphas…which is the first time I, a tenor sang a ‘bass’ role…which led to the realisation that in fact must be a ‘Bari-Tenor’!

Thrilled to be a part of it: Dhanushi Wijeyakulasuriya as Christine

Jehan: Earlier this year, I played Menelaus in Dharmasiri Bandaranayake’s award-winning production of Euripides’s ‘Trojan Women’ at the Bharat Rang Mahotsav Drama Festival in Delhi, India. The production is in the Sinhala language and I’ve been playing the role for 15 years!
Manoj: My last production with the WSP was Oliver in 2006 where I played Fagin. I was also fortunate to take part in WSP’s 20th Anniversary ‘Retro 20’ show in 2012 which featured excerpts from all the WSP productions.

Why did you decide to audition for Phantom? 
Dmitri: I have been waiting for the production to be done here for the longest time. I fell in love with the production and music the first time I watched the movie. It’s been a dream role (I even wanted to name my daughter Daae someday) and as nervous as I was to audition, I just had to be a part of this production.
Dhanushi: I had watched two previous productions of the Workshop Players and thoroughly enjoyed them. For someone from the outside they seemed a very cohesive happy bunch and I always wanted to join in even as a member of the ensemble. Participating in anything before Phantom was out of the question as I was pursuing my degree and rehearsals needed a huge time commitment. I graduated earlier this year and wanted to get involved with whatever the production they were doing. I was thrilled to hear that it was Phantom and due to my singing background decided to audition for the role of Christine.

Phantom : Sean Amarasekera

How will you interpret your role? How has this role challenged you as a performer?
Stephanie: Well, Christine is a very complex character because as fragile and shy as she comes off, she is also an extremely strong woman for many reasons which you will see.I would say that playing Christine has been a journey of self-discovery because, apart from improving my vocal technique, it also helped me find the actress in me as I honestly always thought I smiled way too much to ever act!

Devashrie: It has definitely challenged me so much! Starting with the classical genre and the strong voice techniques you need to put a stellar vocal performance. The famous ‘E’ in the title song was definitely a big hurdle, and it can be quite a task to keep your vocal chords intact in order to get there!

Also characterisation: The character of Christine is a pivotal one requiring heaps of emotion and the ability to transcend, to take yourself to her world- which is quite grey. She is dealing with such contrasting emotions, so it does actually take a toll on you at the end of the day!

Dimitri: Firstly, the characterization of any role stresses me out no end and to add to that Christine’s a bit of a tricky character, the role is not as simple as it seems. A lot of work had to be done alone before we came for rehearsals and different interpretations had to be tried out at each practice to find out what works best to bring out the character and story.

Christines: Devashrie de Silva

With regard to the singing, I’m a mezzo soprano, so though I could actually sing the high notes,I had to train my voice for a couple of months to hit them without a struggle, especially the top E at the end of the theme song, because the singing is an important part of the role of Christine, it’s how the musical is written.
Jehan: I have tried to stay away from being influenced by the often brilliant performances of other actors that are now readily available online and on DVD, so I can create emotions that stem from a place of honesty. I also met and collaborated with international theatre practitioners who are disabled at the ‘Unlimited 2014’ disability arts festival in London earlier this month (where I was lucky enough to also see Phantom on the West End). It’s amazing how the performing arts are allowing these disabled artistes to shine and offer equal access and equal opportunities. Unfortunately, the Phantom lived at a time when ‘deformity’ was met with revulsion and rejection. He too seems to allow his genius to shine through his art.

Sean: ‘Cast vicariously as both victim and villain by the vicissitudes of fate’ the Phantom, despite seeming the antagonist, is actually the protagonist. That is why the audience roots for him by the end…which is crucial to achieve for the piece to work. As a performer it’s been about finding that central core of honesty of the character upon which you layer the theatrical flourish and melodrama inherent in musical theatre but at the end when all the masks are stripped away we get “to find the man behind the monster.”

For any show I’m in, doing obsessive amounts of research has become part of my method to totally immerse myself in the piece.

Dimitri Gunatilake

What is your favourite song in the entire production and why?
Dhanushi: I love singing ‘Think of me’;within the song she transforms from being a diminutive shy girl into an opera star, I love the moment when this switch happens. Stephanie: I must say it’s ‘Wishing you were somehow here again’ because it’s such an emotion filled song which many people, who have ever suffered any type of loss, could relate to.

What does it take to stage such an ambitious production?
Sean: The last six months or so of rehearsals have been a gradual exponential curve of weekly, bi-weekly, weekends and now daily practices…tiring, but so fun and rewarding! You have to be away from your families for long stretches, which is hard. But on the flip-side, you discover a new family which sometimes end up as lifetime bonds of friendship and camaraderie. It takes: Blood. Sweat. Tears. Adrenaline. Sleepless nights and coffee, sore throats and ginger tea…above all a true love for theatre and its magic!

Manoj: Physical and vocal warm ups, acting workshops, blocking, re-blocking, choreography, singing rehearsals, blocking, re-blocking, run-throughs and prayer. Yep, it’s very tough, but also loads of fun and it’s all worth it in the end.

It takes a lot of dedication, hard work and discipline to stage a production of this magnitude. Everyone from the cast, committee, crew and lights and sounds teams have to work as one team. The goal – to make it the best show every night and leave the audience wanting for more!

What do you think will be some of your best memories from being on the cast of the Phantom of the Opera?

Sean: Seeing that imposing chandelier slowly, almost magically rising to the roof of the theatre, as the overture thunders out the Phantom’s theme, making the hair on the back of my neck stand up and giving me goose bumps! Yeah, that’s right up there.

Jehan: Breathing out of a straw on two occasions while being covered in dental gunk and plaster of Paris while the makeup artistes and mask makers made a life cast of my face for the disfigured prosthetic and custom made masks! Never done that before. Did it twice for this show. That’s enough for one lifetime I guess. I’m sure I will have many more exciting memories to come when the set and costumes are completed.

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