A love story, where good battles evil, it’s two hours of speed, spectacle and daredevil stunts, where performers sing, act and dance... all while on roller skates.
It may look effortless on stage but it takes a lot of training and hard work, says cast member, 27-year-old Kelsey Cobban, a native of Rathfarnham, Co Dublin. “I auditioned for the part soon after I graduated from the Bird College of Performing Arts, got it and joined 11 other Starlight virgins in skate school.”
An aggressive boot camp, she spent close to three months learning to skate from scratch, studying the show’s choreography and picking up the German language phonetically along the way.
“It was really hard work. There was a lot of falling over, with quite a lot of bruises and minor injuries. But eventually I got the hang of it and after a while it felt just like putting your shoes on.”
Skate school takes place from 10am to 6pm, six days a week, and for the first six weeks the sole focus is on learning how to skate, Starlight-style.
“We started the day by taping up our toes,” Kelsey says, “because the leather in the skates cause blisters and various other cuts on your feet. In the rehearsal room we started by doing basic exercises and working on the more intricate foot work. As we got better we started skating on the set, doing speed skating and circus tricks.”
Initially, it’s just skate instructor Michal Fraley and his assistant working with the team. But later the choreographer and dance instructor join in and afternoon rehearsals are spent working on choreography.
“It’s about orchestrating skating and dancing,” says associate director Mykal Rand.
“Skating in train and skating in formation without tripping each other up. Each character has a different style so that has to be learned and you also have to learn a totally different way of breathing. You have to learn to take a deep breath really quickly so you have enough air to sing and skate. It’s comparable to trying to sing while running on a treadmill. So you need to build up stamina,” he says.
Though performers need not have any skate experience prior to working on Starlight Express the audition process is driven towards finding those who will be able to take the rigorous training.
“They really push you,” Kelsey recalls. “The audition was about three hours long — they wanted to see, physically, how much you could put your body through.”
There’s a probationary period during skate school and if the director feels the dancer isn’t ready to go on stage at the end of training, an understudy will fill in.
Skates are designed specifically for the show and the pair Kelsey got on her very first day of skate school is the same pair she wears today. “They are a bit worn out,” she says. “But you have to get them to mould around your feet. After that, wearing a different pair just feels like walking in another person’s shoes. Uncomfortable.”
There is a skate technician who looks after anything that goes wrong with the gear and protective clothing, like elbow and knee pads, are woven into their costumes.
Kelsey says you sweat more than you would in a normal show and the cast keep plenty of water and sports drinks at the side of the stage and in their dressing room to stay hydrated. There is a sports masseur on tour with them, who they can consult if they feel uncomfortable or get injured.
“A repeat strain injury, hamstring niggles, they’re the main injuries people pick up. But there are also broken fingers, dislocated shoulders. One guy snapped his fibula and his tibia in half.”
If performers have a regular complaint the sports masseur can make suggestions as to how it can be fixed, by bending their knees in a different way, for example.
Has being in the show changed her body? “Your quad muscles get quite defined and also your backside gets defined and strong. I feel leaner doing this job, everything gets quite toned. It’s like going to the gym performing in this show every night.”
While there is a rigorous warm-up in place an hour and a half before curtain up, the actors are advised to warm down after as well. But, as Kelsey says: “We’ve been very lax about that on this tour. It’s like any other job — you just want to get home to your bed… or your pint.”
* Starlight Express, is at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre runs until February 23.