South African theatre lovers first met the multi-talented Gary Trainor in 2012 when he and Jesse Briton introduced us to the hilarious parody Potted Potter, by Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, with performances at Theatre on the Bay in Cape Town and the Pieter Toerien Theatre at Montecasino in Johannesburg. When we hopped over for a London theatre getaway last year, we caught up with Trainor to see how his career had evolved.
Naturally, Potted Potter was the starting point of our conversation. How could it not be? Trainor admits it was “the job of a lifetime”. “I got to do an amazing show, but I also got to see so much of the world. I never imagined that I would be in Hong Kong, Singapore, Manilla… We did Australia —five different cities there—, then we did Joburg and Cape Town.” Being part of “a show that was very well received, [that dealt] with cult classic material, and people just loving the silliness” was “really fun,” says Trainor.
“I did tour with Potted Potter again a couple of other times, even went over to America with it,” he continues. “Coming back then, you have to try and make the transition to stay in one place for a little bit.” He found that mental shift difficult, but as a professional performer, he also saw the bigger picture —industry jobs don’t just come looking for you; you have to put yourself out there to be seen.
“I sat in London, trying to find work —I play music, so there is always a way to make money— but then I got a role in I Can't Sing! The X Factor Musical. It was based on the UK version of The X Factor, and it was also a complete parody. Harry Hill was the writer. He and Steve Brian wrote the music, lyrics, and book. It was a lot of fun, actually, but then it died a death as sometimes happens. My role was a small ensemble part, but I was covering one of the principal characters, so I thought ‘this is my toe into the West End proper’. Not that I thought that musicals was where it was going to be at for me, but you try and get any sort of toe in the door wherever you can. Through that, I got to know a casting director who cast me in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. I played Don Kirchner in it —a very serious (yet still funny) part.”
After that initial foray, the talented Trainor’s dedication to his craft led him to the musical sensation School of Rock, in which he was cast as the lead. True to his nature, he viewed this production as an opportunity to enhance his skills; especially as this show was so different to those Trainor had previously been part of. One main difference was that he was performing with a cast predominantly made up of kids —kids who also all played their own band instruments live. This he found truly inspirational, especially as his character Dewy was the only adult who consistently featured throughout the show. “They are phenomenal!” He saw a maturity in the way they performed, but also appreciated the childlike energy they brought to the show, as it helped him channel the “boyish or childish energy necessary for the part of Dewey, because he’s a big man-child”.
There is no question that School of Rock was “the pinnacle” of his career “so far,” Trainor says, though he “absolutely adored” Potted Potter too for the fun it brought with it. But when it comes to the source of his ultimate theatre inspiration, he looks to Stones in His Pockets.
“It was a show that I watched as a teenager, and it made me want to be an actor. It’s a two-hander Irish comedy, very similar to the Potted Potter style of things, except it’s less slapstick. Each actor plays multiple characters, and that was a lot of fun —I toured with that in 2009.”
Is it fair to say that Trainor prefers comedic roles, then? “I quite like a comic angle, though I think tragedy and comedy sit very close to each other”. When it comes to humour, he gravitates towards the darker and dryer side of mirth. “I think my skills still lend themselves very well to drama … But with comedy, it’s nice to make people laugh —you know if you’re doing your job right or not.”
It’s interesting to note that Trainor, who’s clearly found something of a groove in musical theatre, didn’t actively set out to work in the genre. It was his clear understanding of theatre as a profession and a business that brought him to musical theatre and encouraged him go for it when those doors opened for him.
“I want to do everything in the industry, be it film, television, theatre plays, comedy, drama. [Now, following School of Rock] I intend to pursue more film, television, and things like that in 2018, to see what I can get. The dream? The sky’s the limit on the dream. But, practically, you have to make the connections, you have to do the ground work. The thing about working in theatre in the West End, and in musical theatre, is that I’ve become known to certain people, so it is easier to get in the door for other jobs.”
Trainor is, however, also very aware that simply being known or having performed a lead role does not mean you can sit back and regard your future career success as a given. You have to do the work, and play to your strengths as a performer.
“Am I Jean Valjean? No. Would I love to have a go at it? Of course! Would they cast me in it? Probably not. I think it would take a very special job in musical theatre to match Dewey Finn for me, for my character-base, and what I am capable of playing. You still have to be realistic as to what you can do believably.”
So, what would his dream role be, believability and character strengths taken into account?
“Gawd, Doctor Who! I would happily settle for his companion too. Actually, I don’t know if there is a dream role. As I say, I am going to mine every facet of this industry that I can to have the variety. I’m always searching for a challenge, but I just don’t yet know what that challenge will be. School of Rock has been the biggest challenge of my career so far. This was the dream role. If you’d asked me a year and a half ago what I want, I would’ve said, ‘I want Dewey Finn’. I pushed and I pushed, and I tried hard, and I got Dewey Finn. So 2017 was amazing, but who knows what 2018 has to offer. In these jobs you can never relax. You have to constantly raise the bar and find what’s next —the next milestone. That for me is hopefully film and television. I know I’ll need to start nearly from scratch again. I’ve got a certain CV in theatre, and I’ve done some short films and things, but nothing that’s good enough to really showcase ‘this is what I can do’. I am going to have to put in the work.”
With Trainor’s commitment to keep challenging himself as a performer, it seems sure he’ll be swapping stage for screen when chasing that next dream role.
“I think so —for a little bit— with possibly shorter runs of theatre. I’ve now done three and a half years on the West End, non-stop, and it does take a lot of energy to do that. It will be nice to pursue something else. Also, as you get older, you get a bit more discerning about what you do. When you are young and eager, you’ll do anything: ‘Just give me a job, any job! If I have to put on a rabbit costume, yeah I’ll put on a rabbit costume, no problem!’. As you get older, though, you rather want to be a bit more selective.”
Mixing it up a bit —doing less theatre in favour of pursuing television and film opportunities— does not mean Trainor does not appreciate the appeal of the stage.
“I love it! It’s like skydiving! Though I would never jump out of a plane; never in my life jump out of a plane. Some people do that, brilliant, but me; never. Theatre is my skydiving. It’s the adrenaline, it’s the buzz. You live and you breathe in the moment: You can fall on your arse and fail or you can grab it —that’s every night.”
Before saying goodbye to Trainor —and finding ourselves in eager anticipation of his next performance— the question simply had to be asked: How does the theatre scene in London compare to the one he experienced touring with Potted Potter in South Africa.
“I think the theatre scene in London is so huge —I mean, I come from Ireland, so the theatre scene in Ireland would be similar maybe to the likes of South Africa. You’ve got really great theatre, but it’s quite sparse in some places. Whereas London has a population of about 9 million, but every day you have about a 150 000 to maybe 200 000 tourists, maybe more —the tourist industry is huge! So you get a huge crowd from there, but you also get real stalwarts in and around London [in terms of] theatre-going adults … going to the theatre the way you would go to the cinema.”
However, Trainor cautions that such a comparison is actually not a fair reflection of the standard of local theatre or the potential of the Cape Town or wider South African theatre scene. “It takes centuries. You can never compare it to the likes of the West End or Broadway, because they are centuries in the making with the playhouses and things of the past.”
One thing Trainor believes Cape Town’s theatres are getting right is keeping theatre accessible and affordable, as there has been no sharp increase in ticket prices since he and Briton toured South Africa with Potted Potter. In London, it is mainly through ticket deals and lottos that people get in to see the big shows.
“The funny thing is, as actors you rarely get to see shows when you are in shows. When you are not in shows, you are kind of watching the pennies and you don’t want to be spending lots and lots of money. So, when Book of Mormon opened and no one could get tickets for it, they did the lotto and that’s how I got in at £22. That was amazing, considering some ticket prices where a 100 quid or more.”
(For a West End show, £22 is a great special, as you will see non-restricted view tickets starting at around £35 pounds and, depending on the show, going as high as £120. To put that in perspective, reflect that £22 would get you premiere seats in the Artscape Opera House for big productions such as Annie and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.)
With that quick revelation, the inspirational and very dedicated performer that is the ever-evolving Trainor provided much food for thought with regard to Cape Town’s own theatre scene and our tendency to measure its offerings from a quantity instead of quality perspective. It would definitely be wise to keep an eye on what this talented actor does next.
Follow him on Twitter at @garytra!