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A brand-new family musical opens at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon this month. Combining fun and fantasy, The Magician’s Elephant is based on Kate DiCamillo’s bestselling book and sees West End star Summer Strallen displaying her dark side as the Countess Quintet. What’s On caught up with Summer to find out what audiences can expect...
The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) this month reopens its doors with the world premiere of a brand-new musical production of The Magician’s Elephant.
Based on Kate DiCamillo’s prize-winning novel of the same name, the production is set in the fantastical town of Baltese, a place where nothing out of the ordinary ever happens. Until, that is, a magician one day conjures an elephant out of the sky...
Adapted for the stage by Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler, the production stars West End musical-theatre actor Summer Strallen, whose previous roles include Maria in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Sound Of Music and Dale Tremont in Top Hat. She also starred as Meg Giry in Lloyd Webber’s Phantom Of The Opera sequel, Love Never Dies.
This latest role marks two firsts for Summer. As well as making her RSC debut, it’s also the first time she’s played a villain.
The Countess Quintet is Baltese’s socialite - a narcissist with little empathy for the townsfolk. It’s a role that Summer is really looking forward to sinking her teeth into: “The notion of playing a villain was one of the things that initially interested me. There’s something fulfilling in trying to find the good in a villain; trying to unveil the thing that makes them believe they’re doing right when actually they’re doing something completely wrong. I really do believe everyone is fundamentally good and are sort of taught this fear-based thinking. For me, it’s very interesting to try and find her motivation that isn’t just about Me, Me, Me...”
Having read the book some time ago, Summer was already familiar with the narrative. She believes that it will resonate strongly in the current climate: “Although a children’s book, it does have this socio-political economic undertone. The Countess is definitely in a place of fear that she’ll never have enough, and she really doesn’t care about how other people think. However much fun she is to play, she reminds me of society at the moment, where many people live in fear.”
Unlike her character, Summer is a big advocate for community and the idea of strength in numbers - and that’s what The Magician’s Elephant is fundamentally about.
“It takes this magical moment to occur for Baltese to come to life. It gives the people of the town a licence to express themselves and have faith that there might be something else out there. I really love that. I feel that we’ve lost faith in the mystical and the magic of life. I guess on a personal level I’m this wannabe hippie, wanting to see the magic in every leaf, flower and tree. I have great respect for the omnipresent, so to speak, and that’s what this story is all about. If you have a bit of faith in something, and you all work together, you can actually, potentially, make things happen.”
Like most people, Summer found lockdown difficult and makes no secret of her personal battles with anxiety and depression: “I have to give myself enough time to feel prepared because anxiety comes from lack of preparation, or feeling out of control. I try to make sure I take the relevant steps to be able to do that, and it’s been working so far. The RSC is such a brilliant institution. It’s leaps ahead as far as understanding mental-health issues and has put things in place which are very caring and nurturing.”
During lockdown Summer created The Strallen Collective - an online initiative bringing together actors, musical-theatre performers and dancers to sell online classes and make some sort of income when no external support was available.
“Many of my colleagues have a side hustle for when they’re not acting, such as yoga instructor, wellbeing coach, lifestyle coach or fitness instructor, so I wanted to bring these people together to show their other side. It will continue moving forward but under a different guise. I personally feel I want to bring wellness and mental-health awareness to the forefront. Hopefully my little bit of exposure will help. It definitely needs to be about helping actors best navigate their emotions and mental health.”
Summer isn’t the only member of the Strallen family to work in the industry. Both of her parents worked in theatre, as do her sisters, Zizi, Saskia and Scarlett - all well-known stars of the West End. Summer is the goddaughter of Christopher Biggins and her aunt is Bonnie Langford.
So was performing always on the cards?
“It wasn’t really a choice, in so far as both my parents were working in theatre and my grandmother had a dancing school, so that was a sort of form of babysitting. At that time it was very different - children were looked after differently. They weren’t necessarily given the freedom to be who they are, as they are now. I definitely rebelled against it for a long time, and then, at about 13, I realised I had a talent and decided to pursue it. Part of my mental-health situation is because, for a long time, I didn’t know if I was actually fulfilling my life’s purpose by being in theatre. I now understand why I do it and what it gives to other people. This can be a very isolating job, and you’re not always aware of the positive effects that you have on other people. You don’t necessarily get people coming up to you saying, ‘Oh my God, that made me feel like this...’. Instead they say, ‘That was a very good show’. One of my main purposes now is to make people feel things; to make them feel good.
So with performing at the RSC now ticked off her bucket list, what’s next for Summer Strallen?
“I think I would like to be in a movie with a great director at some point, but most importantly I just want to be happy doing what I’m doing. A movie is the goal and it could happen, but what’s the point if you’re there and not happy?”
The Magician’s Elephant shows at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre from Thursday 14 October until Saturday 1 January
Feature by Patsy Moss
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