FROM DANCE TO THEATRE – Erica relishes the stage

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A versatile performer who can feel equally at ease with dancing, her first and lifelong passion, and acting, her relatively newfound talent, Erica McGrail was awarded Best Actress trophy at last Drama Festival.

Not new to the Drama Festival, having played a Welsh barmaid in Dylan Thomas’s play Return Journey, a role that had her speak in a popular Welsh accent without affectation, and Gila in Harold Pinter’s chilling and political play One for The Road, Erica admits that the role of Bernadette in Sam Steiner’s lemony dramedy surely was her most challenging character so far. And she relishes the challenge. “I auditioned for it because I was curious, and when I read the script I was intrigued by the characters, the themes, the language and the story.” For her, it is important to really understand one’s character and give it layers, depth and complexity. “It’s all about finding the subtleties that can help an actor visualise and bring their character to life.”

So it was up to her performing talents to engage the audiences for a full hour, with virtually no set, no props and only one co-protagonist keeping the action rolling. Erica and Tim Seed carried it off as the seasoned performers they both are, never stalling or disappointing the audience in their delivery of a strictly word-counted dystopian message way chillier than a sip of the proverbial lemonade.

“Since the action goes back and forth in time and may appear disjointed, I drew a chronological flow chart to help me remember what scene came next. It was a demanding role, but a fulfilling one, and although I am usually able to switch off from the current character when off stage, I still carry Bernadette in my heart, and I jokingly slip some of her lines and mannerisms in my conversation. Being about a society ruled by a words budget, the play taught me – and I hope to have put that message across to the audience – about alternative non-verbal communication, the importance and significance of facial expression and body language, abbreviation and of course literally measuring one’s words.”

In fact, Erica enjoyed the ride so much that she is already rehearsing with director Daniel Strain-Webber and a six-strong cast for a production to be staged this autumn: “I don’t want to give too much away, but it touches on current themes and my part will be completely different from Bernadette’s.” She praises Daniel as a director who knows how to maximise each actor’s strengths, and to guide them to find their own way towards their own interpretation, instead of burdening them with the struggle of second-guessing the director’s abstract vision.

Not acting her age or nationality seems to be one of Erica’s fortes, besides being a multiple award-winning dancer – and the proof is in her success as a Norwegian grandma in the theatrical adaptation of Roald Dahl ‘The Witches’: it wasn’t just about pulling off the white-haired wrinkly-faced cardigan-clad look offered by costume and make-up, but also the mannerism and posture.

The beauty of acting is in fact pretending to be someone you are not and actually becoming that someone, she says: “I am not myself for a while when I get in character, and I can experience someone else’s life and feelings, speaking and gesturing in a way different to my own. So drama becomes an escape and actors can always learn valuable lessons from the characters played.”

As a teacher, she claims that her job, like others, sometimes requires her to put up a ‘persona’ and a performance to inspire and motivate her students. She truly believes that drama is a crucial subject to teach as part of the school curriculum as it improves student’s confidence and self-esteem or, said with a pun, ‘it builds character’. “Drama at any level on your résumé introduces you as a creative, articulate, imaginative applicant with refined public speaking ability, good memory and presentation, and at ease in a team: drama carries a lot of transferrable skills applicable to other subjects and careers.”

Erica is a fan of physical theatre, and would like to see more of it in Gibraltar. And of course, she’d love to watch a locally produced musical, ‘with special effects, revolving sets and elaborate costumes’, but she acknowledges the practical difficulties to it and yet wishes the audiences were more exposed to professional theatre.

However, she is pleased that Gibraltar is doing ‘exceptionally well’ with dance and exporting high-standard dancers, while amateur theatre is stepping in the right direction with its inspiring youngsters to carry on the tradition and pepper it with innovation. Regrettably, drama season is too short in Gibraltar, after amateur productions concentrate in just one week and aren’t encored during the year, with only a few further productions dotted in the rest of the calendar.

While dance has been integral part of Erica’s life since longer than she can remember, drama came in later. “They demand a different set of skills, but not that different, since they are both telling a story, though with different means, movement the first, speech the second. The journey is similar, and the dancer needs to remember the choreography as much as the actor needs to do with lines.”

She has been performing since a young age and has competed internationally, bringing home to Gibraltar a wealth of medals. She grew up learning ballet, jazz and contemporary and completed her RAD ballet exams and ISTD Modern Theatre Dance exams achieving promising results. Later, she developed a passion for musical theatre after having experienced it for the first time at a summer school at the Royal Academy of Dance. “I loved the integration of dance, singing and acting and so I decided to pursue that career and auditioned for a prestigious vocational performing arts school called Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom, Surrey.” She completed my Trinity Diploma in Professional Musical Theatre in 2012 and decided to further her academic studies to achieve a BA (Hons) in Theatre Studies at the Guildford School of Acting.

One year later, she completed her PGCE in Secondary Drama and now teaches Dance and Drama at Westside School: “I am passionate about what I do. Teaching is an avenue through which I can inspire, empower and share my passion for performance with others. It is a career that will allow me to engage with younger minds and share my knowledge with them. I also continue to develop my own skills as a performer to improve my practice, so I bring my own personal experiences into the classroom. I also teach dance and musical theatre after working hours and I find these classes greatly satisfying: how rewarding it is to witness the student’s excitement for dance and musical theatre! Cards and gifts from the students at the end of term simply saying ‘Thank You’ make my hard work worth it, and I will always treasure these mementos.”