Fra Fee Keeps Up the Act
The Les Mis star on the roadblocks that come with musical theatre and giving back through his new drama initiative for young people
'My agent would be happy if I never did a musical again.'
The speaker is Fra Fee, and the unusual thing about his agent’s comment is that music theatre has actually played a central role in catapulting the 28-year-old from Killyman, Co. Tyrone to the enviable levels of success he’s enjoyed so far in his career as a performer.
Music theatre it was, for instance, which first crystallised Fee’s ambition to tread professional platforms for a living. 'I was age 10, and in my first local community show The Sound of Music,' he recalls. 'I remember writing for the programme 'Fra wants to be an actor when he grows up'. Ultimately I didn’t want to do anything else.'
University (Manchester), then music college (Royal Academy, London) followed, before a breakthrough contract playing Jean Prouvaire in the all-conquering West End production of Les Misérables eventually led to Fee landing the part of Courfeyrac in Tom Hooper’s 2012 film adaptation of the Claude-Michel Schönberg musical, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Russell Crowe, Eddie Redmayne, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman.
More recently Fee scored a major critical success in the title role of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London, and played in a number of Stephen Sondheim shows, including the recent staging of Putting It Together at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast.
With a voice one critic has described as 'so deep, honeyed and flawless that your heart melts', Fee seems perfectly positioned to further develop his already blossoming reputation as a music theatre practitioner. Why, then, his agent’s aversion to that particular career option?
'Unfortunately casting directors really do pigeon-hole,' is Fee’s short answer. He has, clearly, already had personal experience of casting directors going 'a wee bit cold' when he reveals his extensive music theatre experience. Anybody who sings as well as Fee does, the argument runs, surely can’t act outstandingly as well, can they?
For Fee, who very definitely can, and who identifies himself as 'an actor who sings', not vice versa, this must be a particularly irksome prejudice to encounter.
It has not, however, prevented him making major inroads this past year into the realm of ‘serious’, high-brow theatre - first as Romeo in the Gate Theatre production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in Dublin, then as Amiens in the current National Theatre Production of As You Like It, which runs till March 5 in London.
These are major opportunities, and Fee is clearly relishing the opportunity of adding Shakespearian gravitas to his expanding portfolio of talents. 'When the opportunity to audition for Romeo and Juliet came about,' he says, 'I was terrified, I’d never done any Shakespeare before.
'But I loved it, and I love Shakespeare. It’s very liberating, because it’s so interpretable. No two performances of Shakespeare ever seem to be the same, and the language can bring tears to your eyes.'
As a rising young actor, Fee could be forgiven for concentrating totally on his own career development at present, particularly as he is keen to expand his film and television work further, and harbours a long-term ambition of one day living and working in New York City.
And yet he is already giving back to the community that spawned him, in the shape of a new initiative called Theatre Masterclass NI, brainchild of Fee himself and of his sister Claire, producer at Belfast’s Blunt Fringe theatre company.
'Education has always gone hand in hand with what I do,' Fee explains. He already teaches singing and acting at a number of drama schools, and recently became an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, one of his alma maters.
So bringing his accumulated expertise back to Northern Ireland comes naturally to Fee, and in a series of monthly workshops Theatre Masterclass NI will be offering expert instruction from specialist tutors, to emerging actors aiming for a career in the performing arts business.
'I feel as though there’s a real need for it here,' Fee says. 'What I’ve discovered in London is that young performers there are given such amazing opportunities, and are really exposed to the industry quite early. So the talent is utterly phenomenal, even before one gets to drama school.
'I just think it’s a bit unfair for young performers here not to be given a bit of a slice of that before auditioning for drama school. I plan to be at as many of the workshops as possible, and I’m also inviting my friends who are actively working in the industry over to teach.'
Acclaimed actor, director and playwright Dan Gordon is the first guest tutor lined up to deliver a workshop this year
Part of Fee’s motivation in starting his educational initiative in Northern Ireland is undoubtedly the quality of opportunities he himself was given when growing up in the area. 'Christopher Bell, who conducted the Ulster Youth Choir, was a bit of a hero, and championed me,' he comments. 'So I felt as if I was good enough working under him to go and be a singer.'
Another 'pinnacle moment' was working with Youth Opera Northern Ireland, preparing for a series of formative appearances at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.
'When Welsh National Opera toured to Belfast they put on The Beggar’s Opera for young people, then The Mikado and The Elixir of Love. And I loved those experiences, singing the roles of Filch, Ko-Ko and Nemorino. I remember falling in love with the stage doing that. It was the first time that those two worlds - of loving both music and acting - really came together.’
Fee is adamant that there is an abundance of raw theatrical talent waiting to be tapped among Northern Irish actors and singers of the younger generation.
'I think it’s a special type of talent as well,' he adds, 'that just comes from growing up in this country. It’s honest. A lot of acting can be “pretend” and “put on”, but there’s a real earthy authenticity to actors here, and amazing talent. Honest and truthful.'
Dan Gordon leads the first Theatre Masterclass NI of 2016 on January 24, followed by Killian Donnelly on February 21 and Ruth McGill on March 20. Further information and booking details at www.frafee.com, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fra Fee plays Amiens in the National Theatre production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, screening live in selected cinemas on February 25. For further details go to www.ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk