Lucy Tops is a singer, songwriter and actress. As a vocalist, she has released several songs and CD’s and performs in the singing duo The Romantix alongside her husband, Alexander Tops. Over the last few years, Lucy has dazzled audiences by starring in several hit productions including Funny Girl, The Rocky Horror Show, Bar None for which she received a Fleur du Cap nomination and Shakespeare in Love which returns to the Fugard Theatre later this year. However, it her latest role in the South African premiere of Joshua Harmon’s critically acclaimed Broadway play, Significant Other, that has audiences seeing her tackle a leading role and making it her own.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I honestly think Walt Disney had a lot to do with it. I remember watching Walt Disney films from a very young age. I think the first one I was given on videotape was Sleeping Beauty and I remember watching that at Christmas time and just loving the music. I think my love from singing developed from going to church with my neighbours at a very young age and loving the songs that they sang. I also have a very specific memory of watching Mariah Carey sing and being like, “Wow.” I’ve just always loved movies and Film and [have] always done lounge performances for my parents and their friends. It’s always just been in me to become different characters and play. When I went to high school and went through puberty and all those things, I became very shy. I just became very uncomfortable in myself. I sort of closed that away. I’ve always loved horse riding and because I went into myself, I would just go and horse ride every day after school because it was something I could do by myself and just sort of figure out what this all meant that I was growing up. I didn’t get it. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like high school. I forced myself to take part in things like soccer and netball. For some reason, high school just didn’t agree with me and then I discovered the Waterfront Theatre School and went to college, studied drama and drama just changed everything for me.
What was your time like at the Waterfront Theatre College?
They are one of the best memories of my life. I made some of the best friends there and it was a very special time for me because I went through a whole change of rediscovery and came out of my shell and surprised myself and I think even my family. I don’t know if they ever knew that I was really going to follow through and do this as a career. It was never actually discussed but they were always very supportive. When I think back to Waterfront, I’m proud that I went there and I’m proud that I went there when Keith Galloway was teaching and Delia [Sainsbury]. They are still mentors to me. I still think about Keith all the time when I’m on stage. I loved that he was very strict and I loved the discipline and sure, there were some students where it didn’t affect them and they went to college and had a completely different experience but I think I just wanted to absorb and I was so fascinated by people who were so comfortable with being out there. I just tried to sponge off them, filter it down and then produce this version of me.
Were you initially wanting to pursue musical theatre or just acting in general?
Acting in general. I could never pick one but I did go there only having dance experience and then did the dancing and learned about that career and was sort of like, “I don’t think I’m cut out for that.” I wasn’t the right body-type. It was very specific back then. I think things are changing now which is quite nice. I was a curvy girl, I had big boobs and the weight never fell off me in college. Just being a dancer wouldn’t have satisfied me. I always loved to sing but I was shy. Then I did drama and drama just changed everything. I could be a character and I always like to be changing it up. It’s very satisfying now doing a play and while rehearsing the play I was performing a Rock show at night and then I perform with my husband in The Romantix and then I also do session singing. I love that everything is so different and I feel like each thing that I do strengthens each thing that I do.
This industry can be very quick to type-cast a performer. During the last few years you’ve really changed things up by balancing a singing career and moving quite effortlessly between musical theatre and straight theatre. Did you have a hard time having to push back against other people’s perceptions of who they wanted you to be as a performer?
Yes. It’s honestly taken 10 years of working and working with different companies, different producers [and] different teams for them to realise that I can do a little bit of everything. In the beginning, you want to get your foot in the door and you also just want to take work. You want to just get started. For me, it just happened to be singing which was the first job that I got which lead to other singing jobs. So then you are signing on and doing these contracts which doesn’t make you available to audition for plays and Film because it’s so time-consuming. Having time constraints is normally a problem in film. Today, I was very lucky to be able to do both. I remember when I started out singing and I was signed to a local label, a fantastic group of people but they were also encouraging me to just stick to one thing. I just never got that and so many people over the years would say that and I’m like, “I don’t know how you can say that.” You need to be able to adapt in any situation and use all of the skills you have and strengthen your weak skills so that on a rainy day, you can do it when necessary. It has been challenging. I think when you are auditioning for people, they do think they know what you are. I think they still do it. I’m still trying. With each job I’m hoping I can nudge the edges of the boxes out a little bit and just go, “Pow” and breakout.
The first time I met you was right around the time that you were auditioning for Significant Other and you were saying that you really wanted to break into straight theatre. I remember finding that so fascinating because you had just done Shakespeare in Love. Now that this play has opened, do you feel like you’ve broken through or do you feel as though there is still more work to be done?
I think there’s always more work to be done. Hopefully this might open some more doors [and] might change people’s perception of me for future projects. I think it will. I just have to keep going. There is always work to be done. I’ve still got lots to learn and I always learn from each person that I work with which is lovely and I think observing is the best way to learn. I’m a big observer.
I’m glad that you mention that because that is actually something that someone remarked to me about your rehearsal process.
I am a very quiet person because I am always listening and always watching. I think I have a lot of patience because, in a rehearsal room, say the director has told me to do it a certain way and then I’ve gone home and worked hard on that and then I come and perform it and they are like, “Do it completely the opposite way.” Maybe because I have been doing so many different kinds of things, to be able to switch like that doesn’t bother me. I think being still and quiet and just letting it all happen just works for me. It’s never worked for me to voice every single thing that I am thinking. I think I’ve just always been like that. If I really feel motivated to speak then I will. Most of the time I am quite happy to not say anything, which can make people feel uncomfortable and I also come across as quite aloof because I’ll daydream as well. If we are rehearsing, I’m watching it like a movie.
What was it that originally attracted you to Significant Other?
I’ve always loved American culture and film. It’s what I was brought up on. My dream came true last year when my husband surprised me with tickets to go to New York for the first time and it was amazing. I still can’t believe that I’ve actually gone. To come back and find out that there is an audition taking place for a Broadway play that is being debuted in South Africa for the first time, “I want to audition for that please!” I didn’t know anything about it and then I found out it was the same writer as Bad Jews so then I knew it was not going to be an easy audition [or] an easy process and it wasn’t. Like I’m sure many of my fellow actors have said with this play, the dialogue and the way it needs to sound natural and yet very specific to the text, we couldn’t change a word. We had to be very specific. It’s been very challenging but it’s been an absolute dream come true. I hope it’s the first of many. I love working with Greg [Karvellas]. He is a lovely director.
Which is going to be so much fun, again!
And your husband, Alex Tops, is joining the cast…
We’ve got a few new cast members. It’s going to keep things interesting. The dynamics are going to be different. It’s going to be fantastic.
What are you most looking forward to in revisiting Shakespeare in Love?
Just having fun again. It was just a pleasure to come and observe. Watching people work [and] watching them perform their craft even in the days where they are feeling tired or sad and they’d go out there and perform stellar performances. I still can’t believe how Roxane [Hayward] would go out there every night. To be able to bring that kind of emotion every single night was pretty impressive to me. I have to pinch myself. This has been a great year but it’s been a long journey to get here. I said to someone else the other day that I feel like I’ve been planting seeds and just watering and waiting and now it’s starting to grow and flower and it feels too good to be true. I’m remaining humble and grateful and never accepting that my work is done.
You’ve had a long career where audiences have gotten to see you playing supporting roles or understudying leading roles and have finally gone on to be a lead in Significant Other. How has that journey been for you?
It’s been awesome. I love being a supporting member in a cast. I love being in an ensemble and part of a team. I don’t need the limelight or to be the star of a show or anything like that. That’s not why I do it but they are always the best characters to play. I’m quite happy that after this play I’ll be jumping straight into Shakespeare in Love where people don’t even know that its me. I like playing and being in make-believe land and wearing different costumes and being in different eras. That is really what it’s about for me. I could do a show where you can’t even see my face and I’d be quite happy with that. There are some performers who are like, “You shouldn’t audition for that role now that you’ve done that.” And I’m like, “Why? I want to.” There is still so much to explore.
Prior to starting this project, did you feel overwhelmed by having to tackle a leading role with such a dense script?
Fortunately, in my past, I’ve put myself into situations which have been really hard. I did a one-woman show and that was an hour of just me and it was hard. That was a good experience for me to have early on. Also, doing Funny Girl and having to go on [as Fanny Brice] was terrifying. Now, I feel like I’ve accomplished a few things that I’m like, “If I can do that, I really can do anything.” You can do anything. You are the only thing that is holding yourself back. Butterflies and nerves are good, they mean you care but I always recognise that feeling now. Then you have the play and you start rehearsing it and you are like, “I don’t know if I’m acting very well.” You check yourself. You go through this every time. Meryl Streep goes through this every single time. You just have to stay focused and always remember the story that you are trying to tell. If you just focus on that, it can change everything. Something Lesoko [Seabe] keeps saying is, “We are not saving lives. We are just entertaining people.” It’s good to care. Obviously you must do your job and you must do it well but to put so much pressure on yourself is not going to help anyone but it’s hard because you want to deliver every night. You just have to keep going. People make mistakes. Just keep going. Breathe.
I wanted to chat with you about The Romantix as well as your singing career. You just had a CD come out!
I did the CD thing and I actually did it myself. I did a few songs through labels and through other people. The more I got to know about the music industry, the more I was like, “This is not for me.” Not the singing, not the hard work, not the travelling, that was fine but the hustling and the games you have to play with people. It was too fake for me and it’s funny because I’m in an industry of being fake but for entertainment, not for real. Slowly but surely I was like, “I don’t know if this is for me anymore. I’m not willing to do what they want me to do.” So [I] very gracefully stepped away from that but still wanted to write and create music and have fortunately met people along the way who want to do the same thing. I have new music that has just come out and is coming out but I don’t need to be top of the pops. I don’t need to be number one on iTunes. It’s just a fulfilling thing for me to do and if more comes from that, fantastic. The Romantix is something that Alex and I created for when we didn’t have work and to try to create work where we could be together and travel together. It was always me lugging off by myself and it was very lonely. He loves to sing and I finally got him to join me. It makes life more enjoyable going on road trips with my buddy and singing all of our favourite songs that we want to do together. Now that we’ve done it and we are both booking other things, we barely have time to do Romantix but it is still there and we are still working on stuff. It makes us happy.
You are about to work together in Shakespeare in Love. Have you worked together before?
We have. In my last year of college we were cast as husband and wife when we were dating and my director said, “You are going to marry that man.” I was like, “Whatever.” And I did! This will be the fifth show we’ve done together. We like working together. It’s good to not always work together but we enjoy it.
At this point in your career, what are your hopes for the next chapter?
The next chapter is going to be a whole change again because I am moving into that phase of my life where I would like to start a family but I would very much like my career to continue as much as I can. There is one person who has inspired me to make me believe that I can do that and that is Vanessa Harris from Kalk Bay Theatre. She just kept going through both her pregnancies. I’m hoping that this trajectory that I’m on will continue and I believe that hard work and good work ethic will take me there. Hopefully the opportunities will keep coming otherwise I’ll just keep creating my own work anyway. Nothing is going to stop me. Alex and I will always be performing. I’ll be performing until maybe I take my last breath onstage. I’m actually looking forward to getting older. As hard as it is to get older as a woman, and I know older women look at me and go, “Ugh. What are you talking about?” But you know what it’s like for you when you are looking at your face every day in a mirror and watching it get older and older but I’m actually looking forward to the older women characters that are out there. There is so much to look forward to even in musical theatre as well.
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Robyn Scott, Vanessa Harris. I’ve got a new one now which is Lesoko [Seabe]. Everything about her character and the way that she holds herself, she is so grateful and so knowledgable. Bianca Flanders is also on that list now. Kate Normington, Michèle Maxwell [and] Diane Wilson. I’ve had the pleasure of working with all of these ladies. That is why they’ve inspired me so much. I also love Anna-Mart van der Merwe. And Delia Sainsbury. Everyone for different reasons.