During the last four years Mila De Biaggi has taken the musical theatre scene by storm with her dazzling performances. From Penny in Dirty Dancing, to Victoria: the white cat in Cats, Singing in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard and now Mrs. Potipher in Pieter Toerien’s Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat currently playing at Theatre on The Bay in Cape Town. Mila has toured all over the world from South Korea, to The Philippines to New Zealand and more, performing with the above mentioned shows.
What makes this interview even more exciting is that Mila and I went to middle school together! It was wonderful to catch up with her after all these years and hear about her incredible career.
Was there a single moment where you thought, “Ok, I’m going to do this as a career now,” or was it always the case of wanting to do this?
I always knew that this is what I wanted to do. I loved dancing. I loved acting and I loved singing but obviously, when I was growing up I focused more on the dancing aspect. I did drama as well. I’ve always loved being able to, cause for me, being in this profession, being able to dance, to act, to sing is a way of expressing yourself without talking per say. You get to express yourself in all different ways. I just knew when I did my first musical, Dirty Dancing, that it was exactly what I wanted to do. When I went to New York for the first time we went to go see the show A Chorus Line and I will never forget that day because when I walked out of that theatre, I said to myself, this is what I want to do because it has everything all in one. I love being able to dance and to sing and to act and to do it all together. I’m still very open to doing other things like being on film, I want to explore all the aspects of the arts as much as I can. I’ve always known this is what I wanted to do and I’m so grateful that I get to do what I love and what I’m so passionate about.
I think one of my biggest memories of you is when I went to see a friend dance in the eistedford and you watch the same dance like maybe twenty times in a row….
I didn’t know you were dancing that day but I watched her, I watched everyone else, it was a dance about a painter and everyone came out and wore suspenders and they all looked super cute and their hair was all beautiful and then you came out and you transformed yourself into this Italian, nerd-type thing with these giant glasses and huge hair and you made it so funny and you did something so different to the 19 other girls in front of you and I think that’s when I realized its not just; oh she’s this incredible dancer…she’s an incredible performer.
Performing is my everything. I love challenging myself and for that piece you go ‘ok I have a choice here, am I going to do what everybody else is going to do?’ Not because you are trying to find a way to be better than other people but I want to try challenge myself even in an acting sense. What other way can I interpret this piece? I can easily play the same but that’s not challenging myself or growing as a performer so I wanted to try something completely different and I knew that maybe there could have been a possibility that it wasn’t going to work because that was the character that everyone else was doing but I wanted to do it that way. I’m very pedantic about making sure that I challenge myself. I think it’s very important as a performer to keep on challenging yourself because that’s how you grow and to take risks because you only learn from doing that. Let me throw myself in the deep end, just have some fun and explore a new angle on this character to try find how else this character could be played.
I think at that age, everybody is very worried about what people think about them looks wise, and you threw away the choice that would have been safe vanity wise and just played this extremely ballsy character.
And that’s why I wish for young children who want to go into this profession, we often get so stuck on what’s going on now in society that you feel like you have to fit into a certain mould or you have to be a certain weight, you know with Facebook and all of these social media things, it can become so toxic because you start losing who you are as a person. You always have to make sure that you stay true to who you are and now is the time to explore, to take risks, especially as a performer if you want to take on roles and different characters. Challenge yourself, see what more you can do. See how far you can take a character. When I did Dirty Dancing and I played Penny, lots of people have played the character. I didn’t go and watch the movie again when I got the role because it’s so important that you can connect with the character on a personal level. How can you relate to that character personally and create your own backstory with that character? There’s so much that goes into it that it’s truthful so that when you go on stage you are not just performing, you are giving an honest, truthful performance. It’s real because that is your chance to tell that person’s story. For example, that character I played in the Eistedford or Penny, when I play a character I want to tell their story as truthfully and honestly as I can because that’s my chance. I need to be able to do that the best I can. It’s about really exploring and really challenging yourself and going in to the character and connecting with it so that you can perform it at your best and that the story is told. That is number one. You are telling a story. And it’s not about what people think of you, it’s not about how you look. That all needs to shift because thats not why we do this. Theatre is actually a place where you can escape society and escape the mould and you can put on a character, you can be silly, you can be whoever you want. That is your safe zone. That is where you can just let go and be free.
I also wanted to talk about because as a musical theatre performer, and this is not to box you into a certain mould, but I think people don’t really understand what goes into maintaining a lifestyle so that you can sustain these performances. In a way, you are sort of an athlete as well and so I’m wondering if you can talk about how you have to shape your life so that you are able to perform 8 times a week.
It’s intense. I definitely think we are like athletes. We do 8 shows a week. The show I’m doing now Joseph, we do 3 shows on a Saturday. It’s intense and your body is put under a lot of pressure and a lot of stress. It is vital that you take care of yourself outside of work and that you make sure that what you are eating is looking after your body because if you don’t take care of your body 1) in your future, you have to look after your future because otherwise you are not going to last long and 2) you want to be able to be strong in every single show because you have new audiences every single night and you want to be able to give your full performance every single night and be consistent. I eat very well. I don’t call it a diet, I get very upset when people go on these diets and all of these things. It’s a lifestyle change. It’s about making that change and saying ‘I want to eat these foods because it makes me feel good.’ I eat high protein, lots of veggies, good carbs. I never deprive my body, I feed it what it needs. I make sure that I am eating consistently throughout the day so that my energy levels are always up and so that my body is fueled so I can give the energy I need to give for the performances. From doing that you feel good. You don’t get as sick as other people may. With my training, I’m very particular about it because I’m always looking to grow and to challenge myself. It’s funny because I always say that people get so stuck in everybody trying to compete with each other. It’s not about that. It’s actually about competing with yourself and how can you grow and become the best version of yourself. We should actually be encouraging each other to grow and flourish and do what they want to do because there is so much work out there for all of us. The right work will come for everyone. I’m always trying new things. I’m a Switch trainer. I absolutely love Switch. Steve Uria is such an inspiration for me. He changed my life when I started working with him. His energy, his drive, his passion is so inspiring and also the way that switch works, I’ve never seen such an improvement in my body and also with my dancing with partner work. I try to do that at least 3 times a week. It’s like a release. For me it’s like therapy. If I go to gym or I go on a run it’s a release for me. I enjoy exercise. I don’t do it to burn or lose weight, that’s not my focus. I do it because it makes me feel really good and I’m improving my craft. That’s what I’m always striving to do: to be better and to become stronger. That’s my focus. I also try to do yoga because it’s very good for your mind and to center yourself and in terms of also getting the stretch. I also do my ballet. I make sure that I do my classes and pilates is also very good. I try to mix it up and do different things so my body is always being challenged and maintain so that I can walk into the show and my body is balanced because often in a show maybe you are doing 8 dances on the one side so we need to make sure that your body is balanced. You need to make sure that you are constantly on top of your game so that you don’t get badly injured and that’s all maintenance. You can’t just do the show because your body starts getting used to it. Also making that shift in your mind that you are making a lifestyle change. It’s not about other people, it’s about yourself. There’s nothing stopping you but yourself. If you are wanting to achieve something go for it and don’t be afraid. It’s not about what we look like on the outside. You want to feel good on the inside. Rest is also important. I also make sure that I am not over training. Do not over train because then you are doing the opposite. You want to make sure that you are really balancing your life. You have your maintenance before the show so that your body is ready but that you are also getting enough rest and recovery time so that your body heals and repairs. You are just making sure that you are really nurturing and taking care number 1. I’m pedantic about it.
I also wanted to ask you about Dirty Dancing, which was your first professional show and you went on tour with it and then eventually ended up in the West End in London joining the cast. I wanted to know what is one thing that you remember from your debut? What’s the one thing that you always want to remember?
Oh, you know even just talking about it, my heart! I met the most amazing people there, that was…I remember getting on that plane and thinking ‘is this actually happening? I’ve dreamed of this my whole life.’ I remember the first time I got onto that stage. I was a swing in the show and covered Penny and the first performance I did I went on for one of the ensemble members and we start at the back and the sliders open and the audience can’t see you but we can see the audience. I remember standing there with the cast members looking out onto the audience and my heart was like…I can’t even explain to you how amazing that feeling was standing there and here I am on the West End. I was so grateful. It was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had and I worked with the most amazing people as well. This incredible choreographer Drew McOnie, I did the Adele workshop with him, there were only 6 of us and we performed in front of producers from Broadway and the West End at the end of the week and that was also insanely amazing but being on that stage and working with that team, the creative team and with the cast was honestly a dream come true. I was so proud of South Africa as well because we do the exact same show. When I got there the stage was the same and just to know that we are doing the exact same show that they have on Broadway and in London makes you feel really proud because we all strive to be at that level. I was just really proud of what we South Africans are doing and it’s just absolutely incredible. It was definitely a time of my life that I will cherish forever.
In another interview it actually came up that the work produced now is at such an incredible level it’s starting a conversation that South African work is actually world class theatre….
…but I think a lot of people think that for something to be good it had to have come from somewhere else and someone else mentioned this too.
Yes and that was the biggest thing for me when I was in London. The performers are magnificent and coming from doing the show with my South African friends I wanted to cry because I feel like we are on the same level and the producers love working with South Africans because they say we work incredibly hard. When they come to South Africa and audition us, the shows need to be the exact same standard as London, New York etc. The only difference is that we are the touring companies. I did Cats the musical and that was a cast full of British, Australians and South Africans. There were 5 South Africans playing really top roles in the show and it makes you proud of what we are producing. The mindset that it needs to come from somewhere else isn’t true. I think it’s happened already. Everyone who is coming to see theatre now is seeing that South Africans are on par, hopefully, we are getting it on the same level. We are hungry and we want to grow and just get better and better and I think that’s a beautiful mentality to have and something that should never be lost. I think thats one thing that South African’s have and I know that I strive to always grow as a performer. You will always have something to learn.
And I do think that South African’s have something unique to bring to the table because we are such a diverse country and we are so cultural that there is this ability that South African’s have to elevate character or performances to another level.
We take that character and explore it and are not afraid to just add our own flavour. That was so important. When I studied in Israel that was also a huge highlight for me as well. I remember the one teacher ask me to do one of their dance pieces with this French girl and she said, “Watch Mila and (this French girl) do the same piece.” So there I was, I did the piece and I didn’t move. She moved, leaped around the whole place and she said “Why didn’t you move?” and I said, “Because I am scared. Because it has to be right.” And she said “What is right? There is no right. You are unique, you are different. Your body can do something maybe she can’t do but embrace what you have that is different and try find what you can do and bring that out. Be unique. Embrace that. You don’t all need to be carbon cut outs.” That is what is so important, not to get stuck in the whole ‘I need to look a certain way. I need to be a certain way.’ Don’t be afraid to be who you are and just explore and go for it.’ Find that thing that makes you unique as a performer.
When I was in school we had a teacher who would say just because you don’t get cast in something it doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, sometimes you aren’t right enough.
And for most people who are auditioning now, no one is your competition because you are completely different than the person next to you.
I think it’s difficult in this industry because you often get caught up in it which makes me so sad because it shouldn’t be this way. When we go for auditions, it can come down to the point where your hair colour is not right. If you fit the role, then you get the role. If you don’t, trust that it’s not personal and that there is something out there that is right for you. Don’t question your ability because ultimately you want to be doing shows that are right for you anyway. If that show doesn’t fit then that’s ok but there is so much out there. There is work. It’s hard but at the same time you want to be doing roles that are right for you and that will challenge you. Yes this is work, but it’s also my passion. I want to always be growing and if I go to an audition and don’t get the job, I trust that it was not right for me at the time and that something else will come along that will be right for me. You just have to trust.
That’s certainly how I like to think of it. I go to a lot of commercial auditions and It’s very hostile and you are auditioning with models and actors and no one wants to look at each other and everyone is trying to psych each other out before…
It’s like Smash!
It is! and at the end of the day they are just going to take someone who literally has X hair and fits the part.
But don’t you look at people in auditions and learn? It’s a great way to learn by watching how other people audition. When I was doing auditions in London, I was like ‘yes this is fantastic. I would love to get the job.’ But I want to see how people audition. What can I learn from it? And you know what? At the end of the day, if you go in there and you literally give it your all, go for it. Stop putting your energy onto everyone else. Focus on yourself, go in there and give it your best shot. Don’t hold back. Bring what you can bring to the table. But the people that stand out and get the job are, and I can’t say this enough, are embracing who they are. If you watch ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ everyone does the same routine but they all do it so differently because they bring their own self to the routine. That is what we all need to start focusing on. How can you interpret the piece and how can you make it your own? Just making that mind shift was the same when I auditioned for the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company in Israel. My first audition was my first international audition and I was freaked out. So many dancers from all over the world were auditioning for this top company and I got through to the end and then I got cut in the last round. I was so nervous and I thought I gave them my full performance. Then I performed in our end of program performance and they came up to me and said ‘why didn’t you do that in your audition?’ and I told them I didn’t know what they were talking about. They said ‘you didn’t do what you just did on stage. You didn’t do that in the audition.’ I didn’t understand and I told them that the stage was my home and that’s where I felt most comfortable and they said ‘that’s what you need to do in an audition. You on stage, brought yourself, your emotions, you brought everything. You performed from your heart and your soul. That’s what you need to do in an audition.’ Rami Be’er, the director of the company, when he auditions he doesn’t look for carbon cut outs. He looks to see what makes you different. Not that you now have to go find and make you different but as a performer dance from an honest place. Be yourself. Dance from a truthful place. Perform from your heart and soul. That’s how you should always be performing and when I heard that, that was also a big shift for me.
I just think you almost learn these lessons the further into your career you go. Nobody wants to share this with you when you are training or when you are starting out and even if it is shared with you in the beginning, are you really receptive to that?
I cannot strive enough how much I wish people would hear this and understand it because for me it was the biggest turning point. If I’m scared or if I’m nervous, to try and use my nerves in a positive way. Because often you do get nervous and it’s terrifying and you go into a room in an audition and you feel like you are standing there naked. You are literally baring your soul and it’s daunting, it’s scary, but to try find a way to channel your nerves in a positive way so that it doesn’t effect you, even when you are performing. We all get nervous. I’ve experimented with myself in Eistedford days, I would find different ways of how I would go on stage to see what worked for me and my routine and how I could calm my nerves down so that when I get onto that stage I’m able to calm down and give my best. Because you have one shot. That’s it. It’s all about being open to putting yourself in that uncomfortable zone where you try new things and you go and you see what works for you individually. For me breathing is key. My friends will laugh when we are on stage and I am nervous, I breathe. There are certain things I do if I am more nervous that I’ll bank on because I know it will calm me and seattle me when I’m on stage or in an audition room. It’s just about finding your groove and finding what works for you.
It’s almost a big mental game as well.
Because you walk into these rooms and it does appear to be so hostile but they don’t want you to come in and fail or fall on your face. They want you to be the right fit so they can go home.
My two musical theatre coaches, my mentors, Anton Luitingh and Duane Alexander, they said to me ‘when you walk into an audition room, the panel is there rooting for you to be what they are looking for. They want you to succeed. They want to see who you are.’ That’s why I say it’s about channelling your nerves to try find a positive light. That’s why I also do yoga because it’s good for your mind to find that quiet space. Another thing that they said to me is, we have two choices. On the West End, I had Anton’s voice in my head because I was a swing and the one night I got to my dressing room and on my desk I had a piece of paper and had to go on for three different girls in the same night. I couldn’t believe it and in Dirty Dancing, the tracks aren’t all the same. It’s all partner work. So I had to go from one partner dance to another. I had Anton’s voice in my head and he always used to say ‘you either sink or you swim. What’s it going to be?’ I always carry that with me. When I go into an audition room what am I going to do? Do I sink or do I swim? What do I have to lose? If I learn a dance routine and I do a back bend and I fall? I fall but at least I know that I have given my all in that audition and in that show. If I’m a swing and I have to go on and I’m given that chance, I would rather go for it then not because then why are we even doing this? Why are we working so hard to just give 50%? If you fall, you fall and you get up and you carry on going. That’s worst case scenario. You want to feel satisfied. This is a tough profession but give it 150% don’t give it 50%. I always say that if this ever turns into a ”job” then I wont do it because this is my future and a lot of people don’t get to do what they love and we are so lucky that we get to do what we love.
I also wanted to ask you the three shows that you’ve done over the last few years, Cats, Dirty Dancing and Singing in the Rain. Also Joseph actually…
And Sunset Boulevard.
And Sunset but the four that you toured with, you were with the show for a while. I wanted to know about the challenges of doing a long run and how you always keep it fresh? Especially when you are travelling.
It’s so much fun! In a show like Cats, we did that show for 9 months. We toured South Korea for 9 months and we did 14 different cities. Travelling helps because you are in a new city every time, which is a new atmosphere, a new stage, a new setting. What I loved about Cats, in that show, the audience has come into our space. This is like our playground because it’s a junkyard. A lot of that show is improvised, which as an actor is so rewarding. I had never been as challenged as I was in that show. We each had our own individual characters. We all had three different adjectives that we could play on but nobody knew each other’s adjectives and based on your adjectives that’s how you would move and act with other characters. Because you are a cat, you are being given the freedom to explore. Often you have to change it up because you want to keep it fresh, I think in Joseph we have done over 200 shows. Challenge yourself in a show, interact with different people if you can, as a character. Just keep it fresh in your mind. Add to your story. The cast becomes a family and in Cats, we just had the best time. I can’t explain it but we found ways on stage to keep it fresh so it’s not like we were doing the same thing every night. When you start a show you are just getting into it but the more you do it, the more you find out and get to experiment. You always want to keep on going. You never want the piece to stay the same. Like with Singing in the Rain where I played the Cyd Charisse character, I had 6 boys moving me from chair to chair. A lot of partner work and it can turn into the same thing every night so I was like ‘these poor boys!’ They are amazing, they are so strong and I love partner work so what can I do to help them bring something different so that its not the same? I would try different things every night with my character, sometimes I’d speak to them in french. I would say to them ‘let’s explore.’ What more can we add to the scene to keep it alive? We’ve got to just keep on upping our game. That’s what I try to do for different shows.
Do you have any dream roles?
I do! Chicago is my dream show. A Chorus Line is a show I am dying to do! But Chicago is definitely my dream show. And funnily enough, like playing Penny, when I was small I watched the movie and thought I would really love to do this play and play this character one day. So that was amazing and Cats as well, playing Victoria, I remember I went to see the show in London and I wrote it down, I do this every time, I write down my hopes and desires and what I am working towards and Victoria, when I saw that show, I said I would love to play Vicki she’s such an amazing character and I got to. But top on my list is Chicago, Roxie Hart.
It’s interesting that it’s Roxie because when I was researching for this, I read an article where they compared you to Amra-Faye Wright…
She is my idol!
Didn’t she come a performance?
She came to see Singing in the Rain. I almost died! That just shows you it can happen. If you really want something, there is nothing stopping you. Just go for it. When I met her I couldn’t get a sentence together. She is just the most, she’s so humble and she’s beautiful. Speaking to her was so inspiring and as a performer, that’s what you strive for. That is what I would love to do one day. That’s the dream. When they put that in the article I was finished! I couldn’t believe it. I need time! I have so much to grow and so much to learn. It is surprising because Velma is a more feisty character, it’s like in Joseph now I’m playing Mrs Potiphar, who is also very sexy and sassy and feisty. Same as Penny, same as Cyd Charisse. What I like about Roxie is the challenge of playing a character who is quite innocent but then she also becomes quite feisty and there’s that side to her that comes out in the end but as an actress I think that would be a nice challenge. Like Victoria was completely different than Penny. I love being able to challenge myself in a different way so it would be Roxie but Velma…
You could maybe have you and whoever is playing the other character in rep and you could switch every night. I’m busy making Pieter Toerien so much money right now! Call me!
He’s amazing. I am so grateful to him because working with him was my first job, my first show and he is the most unbelievable man. He really really is. As a producer, what he brings to South Africa is, we are all so lucky. Dirty Dancing was with him and Hazel Feldman and to work with both of them was really, I am so grateful to both of them. That is how I started and to have that support and to have shows that are coming to South Africa and that are touring the world because they are bringing them here. We are so lucky.
I agree. When I went to New York for the first time and saw a Broadway show I had no idea what Broadway was and that’s because we are very cut off here, and so for quality work to finally come here and to be produced mainly by South Africans is incredible.
And that’s because of Pieter and Hazel. And it’s growing and I’m so excited for young performers. There wasn’t a lot of stuff when we were growing up and now it’s all coming and the audiences are coming and young kids who are inspiring to do this!
They now have something to strive for.
Yes. And more is going to come. I mean if it’s grown this much since we were growing up imagine what is coming next.
Besides for Amra, who are some other South Africa women in the arts that you admire?
There are so many! I have to say Amra is definitely my number one. Angela Killian, I did Sunset Boulevard with her. The most unbelievable performer and person I’ve ever met. I learned so much from her. She’s so beautiful and humble and just the most incredible performer. I feel like as you’ve asked me this I’ve gone blank.
Kate Normington is another one. In Singing in the Rain I worked with Anne Power who played Dora. Unbelievable performer. Do I have to pick just one?
You can pick as many or as few as you want.
Can I send some to you?
Yes! (She did) Here is Mila’s list:
My top South African Performing Artists, who I most admire and wish to emulate are: Angela Kilian – Singer/ Actress, Musical theatre, Amra – Faye Wright – Chicago!! International Broadway Star, Charlize Theron – Actress South African international Star, Kate Notmington – Singer/ Actress and musical Theatre, Zola – International Recording Artist. Phyllis Spira – South African Ballet Dancer. There are so many more amazing South African artists whose work ethic, talent and persona I highly respect and value. Many of whom I have had the pleasure of working with and who have been a strong positive influence in my career. These include: Anne Power, Mark Richardson, Bethany Dickson, Genna Galloway, Taryn- Lee Hudson, Thembeka Mnguni, James Borthwick, Malcolm Terry, Anton Luitingh, Duane Alexander.
You can currently catch Mila in Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat performing at Theatre on the Bay until November 5th 2016. Tickets can be booked online and range from R125.00- R350.00. You can keep up with Mila’s career on her official Facebook page.
Special thanks to Mila De Biaggi.
More work by Justin Munitz can be found at http://headshotscapetown.co.za/