Interview – Rebecca Trehearn [RAGS] [Hope Mill Theatre]

Hope Aria’s 2019 Season at Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester, opens on 2 March 2019 with the anticipated UK premiere of the new version of Joseph Stein, Charles Strouse and Stephen Schwartz‘ powerful and heart-warming musical, RAGS, directed by Bronagh Lagan.

With just over two weeks to go, we caught up with Olivier Award-winner, Rebecca Trehearn, who is about to take on the central role of Rebecca in the brand new production.

Rags is not a musical that many people will be familiar with. Could you tell us a little bit about the show and the character of Rebecca?

Rags tells the story of the experiences of a group of immigrants to America at the turn of the century. The primary focus is on Rebecca, an immigrant fresh off the boat at Ellis Island when we meet her. She has fled her native Russia with her nine year old son David, having witnessed her husband’s murder in a pogrom. She is deeply fearful for her and her son’s future, but possesses a deep resilience and a courage borne of her determination to create a better life for her child. The central conflict and much of the charm of the show, to my mind, comes from the cultural melting pot our characters become a part of. Rebecca finds herself living and working alongside her friend Bella, whose extended family take Rebecca and David in when they realise how useful her skills as a seamstress will prove to them. There she meets an assortment of immigrants from all corners of the world; Italy, Germany, Ireland, some long naturalised and others struggling to assimilate, some welcoming and some not. It’s a fascinating world to delve into.

There are just over two weeks before the show begins previews. How has the rehearsal process been and what have been the biggest challenges so far?

The rehearsal process has been very enjoyable so far! The piece comes with many challenges, not least the question of accents. I certainly felt very strongly that we had to do our best to honour where our characters were from, accent wise. It’s been quite a careful balancing act to find ways to delineate between the Russian characters who have been in America for several years, those who have just arrived and those who have been there since childhood, without going so accent-heavy with the new arrivals that it became comical. ‘Children Of Ze Vind’ doesn’t exactly sing well…!

Were you familiar with the musical before you began working on the production?

Yes and no! Yes, in the sense that I was familiar with some of the songs and had seen a production of the show when I was a student; no, in that the production I saw and most of the original score bears precious little resemblance to the production we are working on now. The show was heavily rewritten for a production at Goodspeed Opera House last year and we are very fortunate to have Stephen Schwartz, the show’s original lyricist, with us in rehearsal. Script and score are still changing on a daily basis, which is challenging but exciting too.

The original Broadway production closed after just 4 performances and 18 previews, yet still received 5 Tony Award nominations. Why do you think it struggled?

It’s difficult to say, having not seen the original production! As I understand it, the original script had a much wider scope in terms of the range of stories it was trying to tell, and perhaps it could be argued that in trying to fit in so many characters, the overall effect was a little diluted. The version we are working with has culled many characters and has honed in with laser focus on Rebecca’s story, giving us a far more connected group of people than in the original production and, I think, making it much easier to empathise with and care for them as a collective.

Why do think it is so rarely seen? Is it a difficult piece to stage?

It certainly has its difficulties, as does any show, but I believe the primary reason has been that the show’s creators were not happy with the production as it stood and were determined to rewrite it to their satisfaction before they would allow it to be professionally staged again. I’m delighted that they reached the point that they were happy for us to take a crack at it!

Hope Mill Theatre is a very intimate venue. Is Rags a piece that requires a smaller or more intimate space?

Rags is a show of huge contrasts in scale; we open the show on a ship arriving into Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty and take in a huge range of locations, from the busy street markets of the Lower East Side, to Coney Island, to a show within a show, to huge street protests, to name only a few. Obviously as a small company in a small venue we’ve had to get creative in suggesting some locations, but where Hope Mill really comes into its own is in the scenes set in the tenement building our Russian characters are crammed into. They are living and working in uncomfortably cramped quarters and that is where an intimate space very much works in our favour.

What do you hope audiences will take away from the show?

I hope that primarily, they have a great night out! Rags has such a beautiful score and a book with real wit and heart, so I would hope it’s a given that our audiences are entertained. However, I sincerely hope that they might also leave with a little more empathy for the plight of refugees than they arrived with. I find it deeply depressing that Rags could just as easily have been written about refugees today. The difficulties, racism and abuse our characters face may as well have been lifted from today’s headlines. I’d consider it a job well done if we changed a few minds and hearts along the way.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you first get into acting and when did you realise acting was the career you wanted to pursue?

I grew up in Rhyl, on the North Wales coast. Singing is very much a part of one’s cultural heritage in Wales and so I started young; I was competing as a singer in the Eisteddfods by the age of 8, joined my local am-dram youth group aged 9 and was working professionally at the age of 10. I think I pretty much knew back then that it was the career I wanted to pursue and I guess I never looked back.

Who have been your main influences and role models?

The teachers I had early on were amongst my biggest influences; my primary school teacher Glenys Thomas, who first noticed I could sing and took me under her wing for a while, before passing me on to Gwen and Rhys Parry-Jones, pillars of the local community who took it upon themselves to train children for the Eisteddfods, free of charge. They were astonishingly generous with their time and I have so many fond memories of working with them. Juan Vitti, who ran the youth am-dram group I was a part of for years was a wonderful man who taught me a huge amount about every aspect of working in theatre. He gave me endless opportunities to learn my craft in his productions and was the first person who made me believe I could act as well as sing. In terms of role models, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand were certainly performers I idolised growing up!

What have been your favourite roles to date?

That’s like asking me to pick my favourite child! Getting to play Molly in Ghost meant a great deal to me personally, I had an absolute ball playing Charity last year, Nellie in Floyd Collins was a joy to inhabit and Julie in Showboat was a really special experience, but I find I tend to fall in love in some way with pretty much every character I play.

Do you get to see much theatre? What have been your most recent theatre highlights?

Not as much as I would like. The trouble with working in theatre is that when you can afford to see shows, it’s usually because you’re working and inevitably, your working hours clash. A few recent highlights that spring to mind are Sweat at the Donmar, The Jungle and A Monster Calls. There’s so much I want to see at the moment, it’s just finding the time and the cash!

What was the last album you bought/downloaded?

I’m an Apple music sellout, so it’s been a while since I bought or downloaded anything! I recently introduced the other half to Is Your Love Big Enough by Lianne La Havas and was reminded of how much I love that album.

What’s next for Rebecca Trehearn?

God knows. Unemployment and possible destitution?! Joking…. ish.

RAGS runs at Hope Mill Theatre from 2 March to 6 April 2019.

For more information, and to book tickets, please Click Here.

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