Hello lovely readers!
Welcome back to the next instalment of ‘Foot in the Door’. Before we get going with today’s interview, I just wanted to take a mo to thank everyone for their kind words after the first FITD post went live. I was completely blown away by the positive response it received. You guys are the best.
Today’s guest is the outrageously talented Olivia Zacharia. I met Liv in 2016 through the University of Surrey’s Musical Theatre Society and we quickly became friends. She was a music student and I studied theatre (Avril Lavigne, Sk8r Boi style) but our common connection was the wonderful world of MT. Fast-forward four years and many creative projects later, Liv is truly thriving in post-uni life so I knew she would be the perfect person to chat to next.
I hope you enjoy!
Hello my lovely Liv! If you could just start off by introducing yourself in a couple of sentences that would be fab. Give us a little bit of background.
Sure! I’m Olivia. 22 years old. I’m a Musical Director [will be referred to as MD throughout] based in Kent and London. I studied Music at the University of Surrey. Currently, I’m a freelance MD, arranger, composer, all of that jazz…
Oh, hello musical theatre pun. Had to sneak that one in there somewhere.
(Laughs) I know, I know.
So, what made you decide to pursue a Music degree?
Without meaning to sound really cliché, when I was 14/15, I knew I wanted to be a Musical Director which is kind of rare. It’s quite a niche job but because I went to a performing arts school, I was introduced to the role. My head was so focused on that that I knew I wanted to do my degree in Music and then go straight into it. It’s always been, ‘Liv the Musician’, that’s what you’re going to do, you know? So it was just always a thing.
Tell me a little bit more about how you discovered the MD role whilst at school.
Yeah, so I went to a performing arts school in Kent and we did a big show every year. They were doing Honk! [musical about the Ugly Duckling] when I was in Year 9/Year 10 and I was asked if I’d play the piano in the pit. I’ve always loved musicals but it was my first introduction into playing for a musical. Through that, I met the Musical Director who was actually a singing teacher at the school and I then became a rehearsal pianist. After that, I started to learn about Assistant MDing and gradually became aware of the MD role. So that was kind of my introduction to it. I just absolutely fell in love with the job.
How did you prepare for post-university life?
It’s hard with musical directing because you rarely see a job come up online. It’s very much about the network you have and who you know. I’ve always been very aware that that’s the situation. I spent most of my time at uni just trying to build up a network of people so that when I left, I felt really comfortable. If I didn’t have something planned, it would definitely feel like ‘what the hell am I doing?’. I just wanted to make sure I had a secure network. I sat in some pits in the West End and then I got the job at BYMT [Assistant Musical Director role] which I actually did find online…surprisingly (laughs).
You say it’s quite difficult to find music-related jobs online but if you were looking, where is the best place?
Genuinely, Twitter. I actually probably could relate every single piece of work I’ve had back to Twitter. More or less. Probably 90%.
That’s so interesting. I feel as if most people still don’t realise that Twitter can be utilised in terms of finding jobs and connecting with other creatives.
Yeah, absolutely! I remember being introduced to the #OVConnect which is actually where I found my agent. Loads of audition pianist jobs get put on Twitter because they’re usually needed quite last minute, if someone has dropped out. I’ve got a contract next year and I only got that because someone tagged me in a tweet. It’s crazy. Twitter is the one for me.
For the readers who might not know, could you briefly explain what #OVConnect is?
Yeah, sure. It stands for Old Vic Connect and it’s basically a hashtag that The Old Vic [theatre] set up to help new creatives meet each other. If you search the hashtag, it’s usually people saying “Hi I’m XXX and I do XXX. Look at my website here: XXX. Looking to connect with: XXX”. It’s a good way to put yourself out there as a new creative.
As a Theatre grad, I understand the importance of networking in order to secure jobs. How would you go about making those connections?
I mean, it is the sole way in. You’ve kind of gotta be a bit of a people person, which is hard. Everyone suffers with Imposter Syndrome when they’re networking but I think you just need to always say yes. The best way to connect is to find your favourite shows or people whose work you really like. Just message them and ask to go for a coffee. I think you need to make it clear that you’re interested in their work, not them getting you work. “I’m a new grad and I want a job from you,” tends to be less successful. The best way is honestly just emailing people, messaging them on social media seeing if they want to meet up.
Is that how you managed to get some of your work in the West End pits?
Yeah! It was really weird. Here’s a little story-time…
My mum used to work in Sevenoaks and the auntie of the Associate Director of Matilda [the musical] used to shop in my mum’s shop all the time so they became really good friends. Through that connection, I managed to meet Lotte Wakeham and sit in at Sweet Charity at National Youth Music Theatre because she was directing it. I met two really cool MDs, Alex Aitken and Tom Deering and I remember Alex said to me “you should email MDs to get in the pit,” and I didn’t even know that was a thing. I had no idea that you could go to a West End pit. Especially at 15/16. I then messaged so many MDs and genuinely, they were all so lovely. They always responded. I sat in loads of pits and through that I got my name out there. I remember Nick Finlow, who is an absolute GOD MD, he is amazing. After I sat in with him, we kept in contact and he would let me play for him. It was just really lovely.
Say I’m a new Music grad and I want to message an MD to ask about sitting in the pit. What is the most appropriate way to do so?
I would avoid Instagram and Facebook because they’re very personal. That could come across quite unprofessional and also a little bit intrusive. If you’re going to message them on social media because that’s the only way you have to contact them, I think LinkedIn is very appropriate for that. Twitter, maybe. The best way is trying to find their email if you can. I know a lot of MDs put their CVs online so you can find them.
I’ve personally struggled finding direct email addresses for the creatives I’ve wanted to contact as many of them are represented by an agency. How would you approach that situation?
A lot of MDs I’ve emailed have actually been represented by someone so I’ve messaged their agent asking for them to pass the email on.
Do you think networking differs over email to in person? Is is easier to be a little braver over email?
When is the appropriate time, if you’re shadowing someone, to start up a conversation? It can sometimes feel like you’re interrupting them at work!
Normally, if you are shadowing someone they’ll take some time to chat to you and ask what you want to gain from the experience. Every single pit I’ve ever sat in, the MD has always been very accommodating. They’ll also usually introduce you to the whole pit. Sometimes you just kind of have to go for it and it’s really scary but you need to try and make that conversation with someone. I think it’s easier to do it in person, surprisingly, because you can read the situation a bit better. Just go for it! There’s no easy way.
Do you feel like it gets easier, the more you network?
You know what, with every credit that I get, I get a little bit more confident. Also, having an agent really does help because they sing your praises but if you haven’t got an agent, it’s still not the end of the world. You can still make those connections. With every job, it does get easier to sell yourself.
Definitely. Can you tell me a bit more about your work with BYMT (British Youth Music Theatre)?
Of course! So last year, I was offered the role of Assistant Musical Director on a new musical written by Clare Prenton and David Hewson called The Accidental Time Traveller. It’s based on a Scottish children’s book. It was a Christmas themed show which was crazy because we were doing it in August but we had two weeks to put it on. The first three days everyone was meeting each other, playing games, that kind of thing and then on the Wednesday, we cast the show through workshop auditions. It was just such a good experience, working with a team of professional creatives. I met some really lovely people on that show.
It’s no secret that COVID has affected the theatre industry, which we won’t go into today – it’s a heavy topic! How are things generally with you? What have you got planned?
I did have a contract that was supposed to have been this year and obviously that was cancelled. It was Side Show. I think I can say that? Yeah, I think I can. But, it was the big West End revival and it would have been sick.
(*Literally fan-girling so hard*) OH MY GOD THAT IS INSANE!!!!
Yeah, so I had that and then coming up I have a contract next February which I can’t say anything about yet. Obviously I’m still looking for work at the moment just hoping something will come up. I have a BYMT show that has been postponed until next year so hopefully that will happen. Other than that, I’ve been focusing on the YouTube channel.
Yes! Tell me more about the YouTube covers. I still feel very privileged that I was in your first cover!
Essentially it all started because Jen [Paterson, a mutual friend] was looking for a new song for her portfolio and I was in the car…it’s really funny…I was in the car and This World Will Remember Us [song from the musical Bonnie & Clyde] came on. It was the first time I’d really heard it and I was like ‘Oh my god, it sounds just like Ben [Tomalin, another mutual friend] and Gee [me!] singing. I remember I text you saying “Jesus Christ, you literally sound like Laura Osnes!”
I remember receiving that text and thinking ‘is she DRUNK?!’ (laughs). [For the purpose of this interview, Liv is one of my most supportive friends and hypes me up more than anyone else I know. A real gem.]
I wasn’t drunk! So, I messaged Jen saying let’s do this song. Obviously, we then got you and Ben in and filmed it. The plan was always for it to go onto YouTube and for it to be the start of a series but we weren’t sure where exactly it would go. We posted it over ‘Lockdown’ and everyone loved it so much and a couple of weeks later we decided to try more covers.
I love it and I think it’s an amazing creative outlet for people to have during these wild times. Ok, so. Last question. If you could give one piece of advice to recent creative graduates, what would it be?
I think never ever turn down a job unless there is a huge reason why you can’t do it. You don’t know what it will lead to.
And that concludes this instalment of ‘Foot in the Door’. Thank you so much to Liv for giving up her time to chat with me about all of the unreal things she has achieved since graduating (and no doubt will continue to go on achieving). I will link all of Liv’s social media channels, including her YouTube chan with the INSANE covers that some of my other amazingly talented friends have featured on. Honestly, it’s a hard life.
As always, thanks so much for reading. I really hope this helped you gain an insight into another creative pathway that can be explored post-uni whilst busting some networking myths at the same time!
Until the next one,