Amra-Faye Wright is an award-winning actress best known for portraying Velma Kelly in Chicago the Musical, both on Broadway, London’s West End and in international tours. She trained extensively as a classical and jazz dancer and began her career performing in the Spectacular Musical Revues at Sun City. She spent the following years developing her skills in many musical genres and obtained a diploma in Contemporary Music at Allenby College in Johannesburg, which has resulted in a versatile and eclectic performance style. After starring in Viva Sun City at Sun City Theatre, Amra-Faye left for Monte Carlo where she performed as lead artist in the world famous Cabaret du Casino for two years. Her gift for story-telling led her to write, and perform her first one-woman revue, Rouge Pulp, which enjoyed a sellout season and prompted her to write Drinks on Me and It’s Not Where I Start. In 2005, she was awarded the Naledi Theatre Award and the Fleur du Cap Theatre Award for her performance in the South African production of Chicago.
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in the arts?
I wasn’t going to pursue a career in the arts. I had a lot of different interests growing up but I trained as a ballet dancer in East London. We happened to have a really good ballet instructor living in East London and I got some excellent training with her. I had hoped to maybe become a ballet dancer but it wasn’t first and foremost in my mind. I had a lot of other interests and did school concerts and shows and was very involved in producing my own bits and pieces in East London. I was going to study art. That was my first choice of career but then I applied to be an exchange student and that sent me over here to America for a year and that just opened up the world to me to other possibilities. Theatre wasn’t on my agenda. When I got back, I married a farmer and I lived on a farm for six years, so there was no such thing as show business in my mind at that point. I did teach ballet in East London for a long time. My marriage broke down and a friend suggested I go audition for Sun City since I had this training and I wasn’t doing anything with it. I got the job and off I went and I was there for six years. That, I felt, was my show business career done and dusted. I wasn’t planning to do anything more with it. I certainly wasn’t singing or acting although I did do a few things here and there in South Africa but nothing really to speak of. I married again, had another child and just did a few corporates and that was the end of that until I started producing some more one-woman shows. My husband got transferred to England and on one of my trips over there, I had a meeting with someone who I thought could help me perhaps get an agent. He took one look at my book of pictures and he said, “I’m going to send you on an audition for Chicago.” I didn’t have an agent, nobody knew me but I happened to be in the right place at the right time to get an audition and I got the lead role immediately and that was the start of my musical theatre career.
It’s almost unheard of to go on your first big audition and land the principle role.
I know. I’ve thought about this for many years however I think once in a lifetime, if you are lucky, a role comes along that you are perfect for. The role just sits so well with who I am, so I was lucky to have found that.
Do you remember what that initial audition process was like?
Yes, very well. It was your usual audition process where there were about 60 people. For Chicago, it is first a dance audition to see who can get the Fosse style and who can’t. There is a whole weeding out system from that. We ended up with a corps of people and they just kept eliminating and eliminating and we kept going back again and again until there were about a dozen of us and then it got intense. Then we had to do the readings and they were getting specific about who was a Roxie and who was a Velma. I didn’t for one minute think that I would get that far in the audition and then to get the role of Velma immediately was just a bizarre situation.
What was that first year like performing the role?
I had done Chorus Line in South Africa and I had done Grease and a few other things so I wasn’t a complete beginner. The process in England, at that stage, was very new to me and the process of putting a show together in that manner was new. I think we had about six weeks rehearsal and it was super intense from a dance point of view to making sure we got the Fosse style down. You know the Fosse style, every detail has to be just so. I had obviously sung at Sun City quite a bit in those few years but I started training intensely. I started going to acting classes and vocal lessons and so on. Things I should have done years ago. I was pretty much a late started with everything.
Did you ever imagine during that first audition, that you would then go on to become Chicago’s longest running Velma?
No. I started off with the UK tour. I thought I would just do the tour, maybe I would get asked to do a stint in the West End but I certainly didn’t think it would end up being a career of doing this show. After that, I got a taste for musical theatre and I really wanted to do a lot of other things. After the tour, a year went by where I did a few other regional things in England and then Hazel Feldman wanted to bring the show out to South Africa and she wanted me to come out and do the show, which I did. When we were in Cape Town, the producers here in America had never been to Cape Town. They decided to come and see the wine country and they decided to come and see the show and that was when they saw me for the first time and then they decided to take me from there back to the West End and then to Broadway. For the next five years, I went back and forth from the West End to Broadway doing the same show. Again, right place, right time. The producers saw me and plucked me out of there and that was lucky for me.
After performing the role for so many years, how do you ensure that you still stay inspired?
It’s a discipline and I work very hard at it. It’s not always easy but there are some contracts that are easier than others depending on who’s in the show at the time. They are constantly changing the roles of Roxie and Billy Flynn and so on, so it’s exciting for me to be able to have new people coming in and out of the show because they come with their point of view and I react to that. I think that has helped to kept it alive and fresh for me but for myself, for my own personal work ethic, I have to do a ballet barre every day. I have to make sure I have my body physically well to get enough sleep, to eat well and so on. Those are the things I know I have to do in order to keep the show at the level that makes me feel I can continue to do it. The minute I start to slack, I have to take myself in hand and go, “Wait. This is not good.” It’s a slippery slide down so I have to go to classes again to get me back into the place where I know my head is in the right place. That is what it is. It’s all up here. If my frame of mind is in the right place, I can do anything. The other thing is that it’s the show itself. I could never do a long-running show if it was anything other than Chicago. This particular role, as I say, is a very good role for me. I find it easy to do. The challenges are maintaining it at the same level all the time and knowing everyone else who goes to work does the same thing every day but I have to maintain that at the highest possible level. That’s the challenge.
You’ve performed the role all over the world, have you noticed a difference in the various audience responses?
Culturally there are always going to be people responding to different things. I know in Europe, particularly, they love the physical comedy and they find that hysterically funny and it always surprises us when we do cartwheel splits and they are on their feet laughing. In Japan, the audiences are very respectful and they are quiet as a mouse until the end and then they explode with applause. Audiences in South Africa find different things funny and as actors on stage, we are doing our lines and then there’ll be a laugh from the audience on a certain line and we’ll go, “Oh. So that’s funny? Didn’t expect that.” It’s always interesting because there is a collective consciousness that the audience takes on and it happens from show to show. Even here, there is a different feel from show to show from every single audience. Sometimes they’re quiet and conservative and we know that they are probably not getting the jokes or they are and they are just very quiet about it. Other audiences are more raucous. The feeling we get back from the audience every day shouldn’t make a difference but it does. We know when we are reaching an audience on a certain level and we hone in on that which is just fun.
Not only did you perform the role in Japan, but you also performed it in Japanese which you learned specifically for the role…
I did. I can’t speak Japanese but I can do the show in Japanese. I learned it phonetically. It took me about three months and it was just repetition every day, all day. Wherever I was going, I was repeating in mind the sounds and words. When I got to Japan, I had intonation training because intonation is everything in Japanese speak. Saying the same words in a different way could mean a totally different thing. That was intense and I was terrified. I don’t think I’ve ever been that scared because in Japan, there is no room for error. There is no, “I did something wrong. Haha.” There was no room for that at all. The pressure was far more than what I ever want to handle again.
I watched a behind the scenes video of you demonstrating your Japanese and it is so impressive. It looked like the most natural thing!
I’m glad to hear that. I worked hard to make that happen because I was the only Westerner in the entire company. It was a company of Japanese actors. I stood out like a sore thumb and they really did work with me on that. I was proud to have done it but I’ll never do it again.
You recently performed the role back in South Africa. What was it like to return?
It was nostalgic for sure. When Hazel first said to me, “Hey, I want you to come back and do the show again. Would you?” I said I’d love to because this is where my journey began and to go back and pay homage to South Africa’s audiences and theatre community, doing the same role that sent me on this journey, was very meaningful and special to me. It meant everything. I was very pleased to be able to have the option to do that.
What has playing Velma Kelly taught you?
I think it works both ways. I’ve learned a lot from playing a strong woman on stage and I’ve also learned how to play someone who is that strong. I always go back to when I saw Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. That was a huge lesson. She played this woman who everyone was afraid of but she never raised her voice. She was just intense about what she wanted. She was quiet, spoke softly but everyone was terrified and they knew who she was and what she was standing for. I thought that was something I should work on and figure out how to bring that in. That is just an example of what I’m saying here. As the years have gone by and my life experience has increased and things have happened to me, I’ve brought those experiences into the role. I’m certainly not a murderess. Not so much the character of Velma but the experience of playing Velma all these years has given me a lot in my life that I am grateful for.
What has been the biggest highlight for you?
Because I’ve been playing the role for 17/18 years, there have been a couple of low periods over the years where I thought, “I’ve got to get out of this show and start doing something else.” Even though I have done other things in between, I’ve thought to myself, “Maybe I should say goodbye to Chicago and move on entirely.” But I didn’t because obviously there have been reasons why I wanted to continue this. In my private life, I’ve either needed to financially continue or there have been people that I’ve been taking care of in South Africa that I wanted to continue doing so. So I’ve stayed and over the years I’ve wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing but where I am right now, I know it was the best thing for me to have done exactly that. I’ve made a career out of one role and now I realise what it has taken for me to do that and I’m proud of that.
Do you feel as though your South African identity lends itself to your performing career?
Oh yes. I absolutely do. I have a very good work ethic and I’m proud to say that that is definitely from South Africa. My South African sensibility gives me a sense of humour that is slightly off from what I’ve seen around here and I think that makes me slightly different. Those are also things that I’m grateful for. Funny enough, in England, they always wanted me to be more English. They wanted me to fit in. “Don’t be so blonde with the hair. Don’t be so different.” I always tried to fit in there. As soon as I came to America, they embraced the fact that I was different and they said, “Don’t change that. Hold onto that.” That was good for me. I liked being able to use that.
After performing the role for so many years and doing numerous interviews about the show, is there anything that you haven’t been asked that you wish you had been?
I was asked a question just two days ago in an interview from a British radio program and it was the first time I’ve ever been asked… My father, John Ball, was an ultra-distance runner. He ran across America in 1972 from Los Angeles to New York. I never speak about it really because people just look at me weirdly and think, “What is she talking about?” He knew about it and he said to me, “Do you think that the kind of stamina that your father had to have to run across America is something that is in your genes that has enabled you to continue doing a long-running show like this?” I’ve always thought that. I’ve known that. I know I come from those kinds of genes but no one has ever asked me that before. That tickled me and I went home and told my husband about it and said, “This is just so lovely. It makes me feel very good.”
Who are some South African women in the arts that inspire you?
Fiona Ramsay. Instead of saying inspire me but certainly people I look up to in the arts are people like Hazel Feldman who has done so much for the arts. Mark Hawkins, who continues to do amazing work with his company Moving Into Dance. They do such great outreach work. Steven Stead is doing amazing stuff. Duane Alexander and Anton Luitingh have got a wonderful school and they are doing great work there. And I hear the Fugard Theatre is doing fabulous work.
Special thanks to Amra-Faye Wright.
All photos were taken at the Ambassador Theatre in New York City on June 10th 2019.