FollowSpot Productions, —the creative team behind the hit shows such as Bon Soir, Au Revoir, and Calient— is set to heat up the Cape Town winter with their latest music cabaret show, You Should Be Dancing, at Kalk Bay Theatre. We caught up with singer-songwriter Liam McDermott to talk with him about his FollowSpot journey. He will again be part of their latest theatre party, which promises to be a vibrant collection of fun and fantastic dance music and moves.
Asking McDermott to share his creative origin story, the self-taught muso shyly downplays it, ‘It all actually happened by chance’. ‘My then girlfriend was working at the Kalk Bay Theatre Restaurant and I needed a job. When she said they were looking for a waiter that’s pretty much how it all started —random.’
He admits to always being 'very into singing and guitar playing', so landing the job as one of Kalk Bay Theatre's charming waiters was the catalyst for McDermott’s love of music to morph into a true performance dream. When an Eskom power outage left the upstairs restaurant dark and without any background music for ambiance, McDermott seized the opportunity and asked Ash Searle (Kalk Bay Theatre co-owner, performer, and director), if he would want some live music.
'The show downstairs was running on the generator; we couldn't use that for the restaurant. I had a free gig before work at some café, so my guitar was in the car, and we had a full restaurant, but no music. I just said to Ash, “I can totally play some music”. I don’t know why I said that, but I thought it would be cool. So they let me play and said I wasn’t too bad.’
‘Wasn’t too bad’ may be a bit of an understatement, especially when you take into consideration Searle’s recount of that evening; a telling that includes a moment that saw McDermott’s vocals leaving the restaurant patrons completely silent and in awe.
‘I don’t know, I think it was just that people went quiet because it doesn’t usually happen that there is live music before the show’, McDermott tries to explain the patrons' reaction to his impromptu performance. (Having seen McDermott perform a few times now since that evening, Theatre Scene Cape Town definitely subscribes to the Searle-version —but that’s just a personal side note.)
After that night, the theatre gods (and also the FollowSpot production team) smiled upon this new young talent that was hiding behind the theatre bar all that time. Next, as with any good origin story, there was that big phone-call moment...
‘I was actually sitting on the beach with my friend saying, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life, I need to do music or something, but I don’t know”. Then Ash called and said, “Would you like to be in Au Revoir?”, which at the time was three weeks away or something like that. I had seen them rehearse and I was working upstairs during the Bette Midler tribute with Lucy Tops who is super inspiring, so I was immediately, like, “YES! Yes please!” the minute they said I could come on stage.’
Since then, McDermott has been in four Follow Spot productions (Au Revoir, Elton & Friends, Caliente, and Alchemy of Rock), as well as having done two very successful National Arts Festival tours with them —the last one seeing him perform 21 shows over 10 days. Now, show number five is coming up for McDermott, with You Should Be Dancing on stage at Kalk Bay Theatre from 14 August to 8 September 2018. This time around Vanessa Harris (Kalk Bay Theatre co-owner, choreographer, and director) has decided to let him try out a few dance moves too.
McDermott describes the You Should Be Dancing preparation process as challenging but fun. ‘It’s really like family vibes. Everyone gets along really well, which always makes the creation of a show a great experience’. Prodding McDermott to reveal more about his rumoured dancing, he cautions, ‘They’re the dancers, I am definitely not a dancer, so I am mainly one of the vocalists in this… but they are making me do a few moves that’s quite difficult.’
Theatre lovers who saw McDermott in Caliente will recall that in that show Harris and Searle nudged him into the acting arena with a comedy skit, so slowly but surely they're revealing to their audiences (and to the very bashful McDermott too) that there is more depth to him as performer than merely an everyday vocalist.
‘I think they just try me out with different things’, McDermott is quick to qualify, though he does admit that he would be interested in exploring the acting side of a theatre career. ‘It was super fun [in Caliente], really fun. It was nice to be on stage doing something more than singing, even just to make a joke, so that was awesome. Doing that also helped me out as a singer. It taught me that being on stage you need to think about how you present yourself.’
From a young man sitting on a beach, not knowing how to turn his music passion into a career, McDermott's FollowSpot journey has definitely empowered him and changed his perspective. ‘You’ve got to make it happen’, he affirms.
‘I still can’t believe how people enjoy my performances —it’s a weird one. I still get so shy when people are so nice about it all; I am surprised every time. Sometimes I think I’m having a bad night, but then there will be someone going, “That was a good one!”, and that always makes you feel good.’
When asked who inspires him, McDermott immediately starts talking about the FollowSpot team and singles out Harris as an ‘unstoppable’ creative force, and Searle as his ‘boss-bro’ idol —the two of them having become his entertainment industry guides and mentors.
'I don't know if I am anything, but what I've become is definitely because of and thanks to them. They’re a great influence and make me do things I would never have tried by myself; things I end up really enjoying. Then I end up pursuing those new thing a little bit more than I would have on my own and end up doing more interesting things with my performances. I often thank them for it, because of the opportunity they gave me. They’re phenomenal! Just working with them —they’re really great!’
So, then what’s the best piece of advice his mentors have given him to date? ‘Stand still, don’t shake; plant your feet.’ McDermott explains that it actually comes down to them having taught him how to read a situation when he is on stage. ‘At the beginning every time I sang I would sway, because I was super nervous. The moment they told me to plant my feet I immediately felt centred.’
He shares that having a guitar in his hands also helps with the nerves. ‘It’s like a mask you can hide behind. However, when Vanessa and Ash got me away from the guitar, doing performances with just a microphone, I realised I could actually move around and have a bit more fun gettin' jiggy.’
‘He’s got the moves’, Harris confirms as she joins the conversation, ‘he just likes to hide them’. ‘But I’ve been kicked out of the Disco set for You Should Be Dancing,' McDermott jokes. Listening to their playful banter it’s clear that testing out different combinations of performers and strengths is more an indication of how FollowSpot goes about in putting together a show than a commentary on McDermott’s talents and capabilities.
Harris elaborates on that perspective in a You Should Be Dancing context. ‘There’s four of us that are singer-dancers with more of a musical theatre background, one who’s a dancer, and Liam who’s a singer. We’re teaching Nicole [van den Berg] to do a bit of the harmonies, and we’re teaching Liam to do a bit of the dancing. They’re the two ends of the spectrum, as opposed to the four others who tend to more jacks-of-all-trade.’ ‘I’ll get there one day’, McDermott commits. But Harris keenly puts on her mentor hat, ‘No, don’t be a jack, rather be a real master of singing.’
‘Liam has always had the right vocals,’ Harris continues, ‘I think he’s got a really unique sound’. ‘His performance style is very fresh and youthful. Though he’s not apologetic as a performer, he’s not arrogant either —he’s the opposite. He's easy to watch and really likeable.’
‘When we started with Liam it was very much, “Just do a vocal”. I think You Should Be Dancing is the show that’s probably going to stretch him the most in terms of an aspect of performance that he hasn’t been stretched in, like serious choreography. It’s just a whole new level of ridiculous.’
In FollowSpot Kalk Bay Theatre show terms, 'ridiculous' actually means 'amazing' and 'very entertaining' when seen as part of the complete production-product. ‘I’ve actually never been so excited for a show before,’ Liam adds, ‘I think this is almost like an end-of-year show feel.’
‘Yes,’ agrees Harris, ‘it’s a little more like our end of year shows in that it’s 50% to 60% singing…’. ‘And then it’s incredible dancing,’ Liam enthusiastically interjects, ‘I get so excited when there’s dancing in the shows’.
Asking McDermott to give a hint as to his favourite part of You Should Be Dancing, he shares some inspiration (apart from the dancing that already has him looking forward to the show) to entice patrons to book their tickets:
‘The harmonies in the beginning are pretty amazing. And there’s quite a cool rendition of “Umbrella”. But all in all it’s just going to be super, super fun stuff.’
You can see You Should Be Dancing at Kalk Bay Theatre until 8 September 2018, with tickets available online at www.kalkbaytheatre.co.za. Remember to book a table at the theatre restaurant too, after all, that's where McDermott's FollowSpot adventure started!
Photos are used with the permission of Canned Rice Productions. The photos remain their property. Permission must be obtained from Canned Rice Productions before using these photos in any capacity that goes beyond the sharing of this online article.