Georgie Bolwell caught up with Katy Owen, who plays Thumbelina and the Trickster in The Little Matchgirl, a few nights before it came to Theatr Clwyd in Mold.
Georgie Bolwell: Hi Katy, thank you so much for agreeing to answer some questions for Wales Arts Review. Firstly, I’m sure that this is a question you get a lot, but can you tell me a little about how came to be an actor?
Katy Owen: My mother was forty seven when she had me. She thought she was going through the menopause and when she went to see the doctor she had a big surprise. My father was fifty, my sister twenty one and my brother fifteen. As you can imagine, I was terribly spoiled. My mother thought everything I did was marvellous and she told me I was a special miracle. I have since learned otherwise but during my early years this firm belief of hers led me to construct little one woman shows in our living room. I’d put on my swimming bathers and have a tea towel for a beard. Apparently I was hilarious and everyone clapped. My mother forced them. And no one dared disobey my mother. Since then, I haven’t stopped. I do it for her.
That’s a wonderful story, I’m sure there wasn’t much forcing involved on your mother’s part. It’s brilliant that the second leg on The Little Matchgirl’s tour is at Theatr Clwyd. How have you felt coming back to Wales to perform?
Wales (Cardiff) is my birthplace and the place I call home. The older I get, the more patriotic I become. I love Wales, the culture, the history and the humour. So, to come home to perform is always a great pleasure for me as I get to do it very rarely.
I can understand that, I wasn’t born here but I’ve lived here since I was very young and I would find it hard to be away for any long period of time. How has your Welsh background helped you and shaped you as an actor?
My humour as an actor is my most treasured tool. I love to make people laugh. There’s no better feeling and there’s a lot of worth in doing that. My humour is shaped by my roots and a lot of the characters I create and draw inspiration from, belong to my childhood growing up in Cardiff.
How amazing it must be to take that part of your home and bring it to the stage across the country, particularly at a place like the Globe. What has been your experience working with the Globe? How do you feel your time with them has benefited your craft?
Working at the Globe is a baptism of fire and glory for any actor. The sheer nature of that unique space is utterly terrifying and thrilling in equal measure. You are thrown into a huge arena, face to face with a thousand plus people. You can see every expression on their faces and therefore the relationship between actor and audience is more intense than any theatre I’ve ever worked in. They become part of the chemistry of every show. You also have to use your voice and body in the most challenging of ways. You learn to play that huge theatre with dynamism and athleticism, to enable everyone to hear and see you.
I can’t even imagine how invigorating it must feel to have the audience respond to you and your roles in such an environment. What is your approach to taking on a new role?
With any role, I try to remind myself that rehearsals are for finding answers and that I don’t need to plan or decide to much beforehand. I want to be open and playful and make discoveries. So, I tend to sit with the script and just think about that character in that situation and lift from the script the facts that are presented and then let them sit at the back of my mind and just see what comes out.
What about when a role is coming to an end? How does that affect you?
I have been lucky and loved most of the acting roles I have taken on. So when a run comes to an end, I mourn the characters slightly. Particularly the clowns.
You have worked with Emma Rice for a little while at the Globe. What did you enjoy most about Emma’s style as a Director?
Emma is a very freeing director. She allows you to make discoveries and take risks. She watches what you do very closely and refines it. She is also wonderful at structuring a play, suddenly she’ll stick in a huge piece of choreography or underscoring. You may not realise it at the time but when you step back you see you’re part of an epic and surprising thing. Its exciting.
You play multiple roles in this production. Can you tell me a little about them? – do you prefer one role to the other? Do you feel that having more than one role gives you more freedom or restricts you as an actor?
I play Thumbelina and a Trickster in the show. I can’t say I prefer one to the other as they are very different. What I do enjoy is the contrast between the two and the different modes they force me into. Thumbelina involves tricky puppetry and a blend of light and shade, whereas the Trickster is a ridiculous creature and full of comedy and physicality. As an actor it’s great to be challenged.
While the play is light-hearted in spirit, it also carries a significantly weighty message about our modern society’s attitude to the homeless. Indeed, the play’s very title, The Little Match Girl and Other Happier Tales, calls to mind this dichotomy. Did you struggle with the subject matter? Do you feel the play is effective in communicating its message?
We performed at Bristol Old Vic over Christmas and it was strange to take the curtain call to audiences of weeping people. It’s not really what you expect from a ‘Christmas Show’. But I think that’s a wonderful thing, we could see very clearly that a lot of people had been affected by the darker and more political aspects of the show. We raised over £20,000 for St Mungo’s (a homeless charity in Bristol) and that felt very fitting and right.
What is your favourite part of the play overall? What little aspects do you hope that audience members notice?
What I hope audiences enjoy is the energy and ensemble aspect of the show. We work hard and we work together to create something that hopefully will bring laughter and tears.
You can read our review of The Little Match Stick Girl here.