Print

Backstage with Robin Hood and Maid Marion

By MARRIE STONE

Behind every entertaining performance are the actors who bring their whole selves to their roles. Where they grew up, how they were trained, early experiences that shaped their identities and recent events that impact their daily lives are all present, however subtly, on stage. Endless invisible forces operate behind the scenes in every production, informing how the parts are played and enriching the audience experience. 

Stu News sat down with both Robin Hood and Maid Marion to learn more about the people behind the costumes. Their personal stories were as rich and rewarding as the performances they both delivered. 

Backstage with 1

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Michael J. Ryan and Sohm Kapila star as Robin Hood and Maid Marion in the holiday panto now playing at the Laguna Playhouse

Sohm Kapila plays the role of Maid Marion. The Indian-born actress was raised in Nottingham, England (home of Sherwood Forest). Trained in London with a BA (Hons) in Meisner Acting, Kapila has worked in film, television, theater productions, animation, voice overs, radio and gaming. Recent roles include Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, filming on season two of The Morning Show, guest starring roles on S.W.AT., 911, Grey’s Anatomy, and co-producing the film Ashes on the Highway.

Since moving to Los Angeles five years ago, she’s worked with Apple TV, Netflix, Universal, Paramount, NBC, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox and CBS. This is her first appearance at the Laguna Playhouse.

These conversations have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Stu News: An amazing coincidence to have grown up in Nottingham and be cast as a lead in Robin Hood. Does it feel like a role you were made to play?

Sohm Kapila: Being from Nottingham and having this opportunity come about was pretty cool. I’d grown up learning about Robin Hood and going to Nottingham Castle. He’s everywhere in Nottingham. Maid Marion has always been a role I’ve wanted to play. I’m so glad it worked out.

SN: You’ve been performing since you were young. Are there stand-out acting moments from those early years that stick with you?

SK: This is a funny story. When I met Kris Lythgoe [the playwright and producer], we actually had some history. I’d met his dad, Nigel Lythgoe, 23 years ago when I auditioned for one of the first-ever singing TV competitions called Pop Idol in the U.K. 

I was 15 years old at the time. I got quite far in the competition, making it to the final rounds. But then, of course, they had to check everybody’s identification and make sure no one was below the age of 16. That’s when they found out I was under age. I got kicked out of the competition and Nigel was furious. I was a bit of a rebel back then. So, I’ve got history with the Lythgoe family from 23 years ago. But I’ve come full circle and I’m so pleased to be officially working with the Lythgoes and others. It felt like this role was meant to be. 

SN: Are there other things about Maid Marion that drew you to her?

SK: The way Maid Marion has been written is different from previous Robin Hood scripts I’ve seen. I don’t want to give too much away, but I was excited to bring my energy to her character. 

SN: Many American audiences might not be familiar with the panto style. It’s a distinctly British artform that includes songs, dances, jokes, exaggerated characters and lots of audience participation. Can you talk about the panto experience and its advantages?

SK: Panto really comes together when the audience arrives, because the audience is another character in panto. When you do shows day after day, you realize the audience makes each show different. Depending on the jokes they pick up on, or the ad-libbing that happens, it can be quite funny how the audience becomes their own character. They are the missing ingredient. Without the audience, we have no show. We need them to be involved. 

Panto is the only time kids can scream and shout as loud as they want without being told off. That involvement is key to making panto work. They need to “boo” the sheriff, egg on Robin Hood in a fight, or tell Maid Marion what to do when she’s faced with a dilemma. The kids really get involved. And it’s also ageless. You can have people from ages 2 to 100 sit in a panto audience and be entertained. This is why it’s such a popular tradition in England.

SN: Having been away from live theater for a few years during COVID, it must feel especially wonderful to allow that audience interaction.

SK: Absolutely. It’s been great to get back into work and feel that energy again.

The other thing that’s great about this show is that audience members hopefully can see themselves represented on stage. We’ve got such an inclusive cast of all shapes and sizes, of all ethnicities. From England to America to Cuba to Korea. Our company and creatives are very diverse. 

SN: I assume that was an intentional choice by the casting director to ensure such diversity among the cast. It’s wonderful. 

SK: It’s important – especially in this day and age – to have that diversity. I’m Indian. In the past, I wouldn’t have been offered a role like Maid Marion. It’s great that I’ve been offered a role that has nothing to do with me being Indian. 

One of the reasons I moved to America to pursue my acting career was because I was getting a little bit tired of being stereotyped. A lot of the roles I was playing in England were about being an Indian girl either in an abusive relationship, or in a marriage she doesn’t want to be in. When I came to America, I found there were more opportunities here for someone like me to play other characters and not just the “poor Indian girl” or “we need an Indian girl to do this.”

Being able to play Maid Marion shows how the entertainment world is evolving and becoming more inclusive. Thank goodness for casting directors and companies that care about that.

SN: Are there ways in which your ethnicity might even enrich the role?

SK: I wouldn’t say so, no. To be honest, it hasn’t changed anything I would do or say. What I do bring is my Nottingham-ness. My East Midlands roots. The fact that I was raised in Nottingham, and the fact that I have an English accent, means I’m able to bring my English personality to the role. The cast has been picking up on phrases we use in Nottingham and things we say. Some of that is entwined into the script.

SN: What are the biggest challenges of the role?

SK: When I was first offered the role of Maid Marion last summer, I actually turned it down. I was 30 weeks pregnant with twins [who were born September 19th by C-section]. I wasn’t sure I could do it. 

The challenge for me personally has been being a new mom. Coming back to work can be quite daunting. The Lythgoe company has been so supportive and understanding of my needs as a new mom. It shocked the cast when they found out I’ve got 10-week twins at home. They couldn’t believe it. But they also found it really inspiring. 

I’ve had people message me on Instagram saying, ‘You’re giving us hope that you can still do it all.’ 

Another thing that shocked everyone is that every time we have a 10-minute break, I’m in my dressing room pumping milk. There’s no stopping. It’s go, go, go. That’s definitely been a challenge for me, but I knew it would be. I’m lucky that everybody in the cast is so supportive.

SN: This must be particularly challenging because a panto requires such dynamic participation. Singing, dancing and a lot of energy. 

SK: C-sections require roughly six to eight weeks of recovery. I started rehearsing the show eight weeks after giving birth, so it has been challenging. Of course, we’ve had to work within the boundaries of what I can do. Thankfully I don’t have to do any backflips. I’m leaving those up to the pros. It’s not been too bad.

But, yes, it takes a lot of energy and I’m not getting much sleep. You have to be 100% because kids know if you’re not 100%. They’re the first ones to tell you when something’s not right on stage. Just tackling that has been key. But I’m quite an energetic person, so I’ve been able to handle it quite well.

SN: Working with a female director must be inspirational.

SK: Bonnie Lythgoe is so refreshing. I wish there were more women in those roles. We need more women working as directors, producers, stage managers, crew. That side of entertainment is still heavily male. 

That’s the parallel [between the production crew and the show]. This show is about a female taking charge, as opposed to the male taking charge. It shows equality between the genders. So, it’s refreshing to work with a female director, stage manager, assistant stage manager. The women backstage have been refreshing. There should be more women behind the camera and behind the scenes.

SN: The synergy between cast and crew sounds fun.

SK: Andrew Lynford, who plays the Sheriff of Nottingham, is a spoonful of sugar every single day. He keeps us on our toes. You never know what you’re going to get with the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I loved learning the choreography by Mason Trueblood. The dancers are so amazing. It’s been fun to get back on my feet and relearn dancing after two years off. 

What’s been great about this cast is that we have each other’s backs. It’s more like a family. I mean that. There’s no ego in our show. That’s been great.

SN: Are there other roles you’ve played in the past that help you in this role?

SK: I played this character in NCIS with LL Cool J. I used a lot of weapons in that role. That definitely helps with the Maid Marion role.

SN: It’s good for the little girls in the audience to see strong women on stage, and good for women in the entertainment industry to see you tackling this role as a new mother. It’s a wonderful message all around.

SK: It’s been inspiring for some of my fellow acting buddies back home. Some women are afraid to start families because they think it will take them out of the business. But I’ve found I’ve been offered more roles whilst I was pregnant – and following on – than I’ve ever had in my life. You’d think it would be a time that I wouldn’t. But that’s how the world is changing in good ways, especially for women.

Backstage with 2

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Michael J. Ryan, Daniel Kim and Sohm Kapila star with the company of the Laguna Playhouse and Bonnie Lythgoe Productions’ world premiere of “Robin Hood & Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto”

British actor Michael James Ryan is also making his Laguna Playhouse debut. Ryan left England to pursue an acting education at The American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating in 2016. Past stage credits include Carnoli in Blood Rock (Odyssey Theatre), Rapunzel’s Prince in Into the Woods (Cupcake Theatre) and Garry in Noises Off (Academy Theatre). 

Stu News: It’s wonderful to have a British actor in the role of Robin Hood. Did the part feel tailor-made to your background?

Michael J. Ryan: Being from England, and obviously Robin Hood is set in England, I’m really grateful. But I’m proud to be working with such a diverse cast. There’s clearly been a shift as people realize audiences are more than happy to see diversity on stage. It’s more interesting. It brings more voices to the table. There are more perspectives, and that’s better for everyone. It seems silly that it’s taken this long for people to really start taking a good look at this issue.

SN: It’s nice to see these older productions shaken up. 

MR: Right. Especially when you’re putting on a period piece, there’s a temptation to cast everyone as white actors. We don’t have to do that. It’s much better to have a diverse cast. It makes everything more interesting.

SN: Was acting always part of your life growing up?

MR: I grew up not in the theater, but performing music. I was always a musician. Trombone is my main instrument, but I also dabble in a bit of the piano, the guitar and some singing. So, I grew up with the musical aspect of performance, the theater of music. It felt like a natural progression into musical theater and, eventually, into conventional theater and film acting as well. 

SN: Any standout roles from your past that you’d like to share?

MR: I recently did Into the Woods at the Cupcake Theatre. That was great fun. I met a lot of really good friends. I also met my fiancé. I was playing Rapunzel’s Prince and she was playing Cinderella. I like to say that we crossed storylines.

SN: It’s amazing how these old narratives remain so culturally relevant. Putting a modern-day twist on it makes this production feel very contemporary.

MR: Robin Hood has always contained that element of the wealth inequality in the narrative. It’s not a dissimilar situation in the world today. But in terms of the feminist narrative – I’m not going to give anything away – but the way the story is presented definitely gives Maid Marion’s character more agency than is typical in a traditional telling of the story.

SN: What are the biggest challenges for you in this role?

MR: More than anything, the biggest challenge of this production has been coming off such a long hiatus and straight into a condensed rehearsal schedule and very long and intense days during the rehearsal period. It’s been nice getting back into the theater and flexing those old muscles again. I felt a bit rusty at the start, so it’s been fun and gratifying to get back into it.

SN: The synergy between this cast and crew sounds incredible.

MR: That’s the amazing thing about this cast. Sometimes in the musical theater, a schism can develop between the actors and the dancers and the backstage crew. People get into cliques. The dancers hang out. The actors hang out and vice versa. But with this cast, it’s so much fun because everyone is so friendly. We work so well together. There’s no break between anyone. It really does feel like we’re a big family.

Backstage with 3

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

British actor Michael James Ryan plays the role of Robin Hood

SN: It probably helps that the play is so funny.

MR: Honestly, the other challenge for me is to not laugh because everyone around me is so funny. Robin Hood plays the straight man, the hero. He’s a strong character archetype. Meanwhile, everyone around me are such funny characters. It’s hard to keep a straight face when the Merry Men are being silly and the sheriff is doing one of his improvised bits. 

SN: Did you know the sheriff before taking on this role?

MR: I’d worked with Andrew Lynford as a casting director. In fact, he referred me to Kris Lythgoe for this role.

SN: What would audiences be surprised to learn about you?

MR: My favorite animals are bats. They’re the world’s most misunderstood mammal. They are incredibly vital for the ecosystems, for a lot of foods humans eat, for pest control, for a number of things. 

There’s so much vitriol against them, especially now. They’ve been accused (not necessarily wrongly, but almost certainly wrongly) for causing the pandemic. They don’t get enough credit. 

SN: Now you just need to find ways to marry your two enthusiasms.

MR: I had a thought, which sounds a bit silly, but there’s never been any Disney/Pixar animation film about bats. So, I wrote one. I’m now in the process of working with an artist to get some character designs drawn up because bats have so much character. Every species is so diverse. Some look like dogs or foxes or hamsters. There’s nothing else like them in the world. They need some good press. Maybe a movie like How to Train Your Dragon or Lion King, but featuring bats, could be a good thing.

SN: That’s one of the better quarantine projects I’ve heard. Good luck with that script and with the role of Robin Hood. 

Backstage with 4

Click on photo for a larger image

Courtesy of Laguna Playhouse

Jared Machado and Michael J. Ryan star in “Robin Hood & Maid Marion, A Holiday Panto” now playing at the Laguna Playhouse

Robin Hood & Maid Marion: A Holiday Panto will show at the Laguna Playhouse through December 29. For more information on showtimes and ticket sales, visit their website at www.lagunaplayhouse.com.