Friday 24 November 2017

From tiny dancer to leading lady

Louise Bowden gave up a West End career to teach at the legendary Billie Barry Stage School, and is relishing the challenge

Louise Bowden is glad to be home with new projects. Photo: Mark Condren
Louise Bowden is glad to be home with new projects. Photo: Mark Condren
Liadan Hynes

Liadan Hynes

Even at the height of her career, Louise Bowden was aware of the brutal nature of life as a performer. One day she might be starring as the lead in a West End musical, the next day, production over, she could be out on the street handing out leaflets for a living. "One minute you're on the stage, your poster's outside the theatre. The next minute you're trying to look for work to pay your bills. It doesn't matter how successful you are. I could be 55 and it would still be the same. And I just didn't see myself wanting that life."

Louise has just moved home to Ireland after living in London for 10 years, where she enjoyed a hugely successful career as a musical actress. Moving home was not a hard decision, says the 35-year-old. "I was starting to think about the future; 'Ok, I've secured a lead, I'm in the West End, but when it finishes I'm back to square one again.' As you get older, the waiting for the 'yes man' to say you've got this role is daunting. You begin to realise that you want more than the job. I found myself longing for a real life. Because in West End theatre and with acting [it] can be such a roller-coaster."

Luckily, an offer from her former teacher Lorraine Barry at The Billie Barry Stage School to come work for them appeared. It will be the first time a non-family member has taught dance at the legendary north-Dublin school. For Louise, it is, she says, in a way coming full circle.

She started dance classes there at the age of nine, old for the school, she laughs, which regularly gets pupils starting at the age of three. "I think from the moment I could talk and move I was into it," says Louise, who as a one-year-old growing up in Irishtown would dance to the video of The Beatles Yellow Submarine. "For me it was a calling," she explains. Throughout school she performed up to six nights a week in the Jurys Irish Cabaret in Jurys Hotel Ballsbridge, "learning my craft", she explains.

"It was two separate worlds. I'd go to school in the day, come home, do a bit of homework, then walk up to Jurys for the night. It was very exciting. Make-up, costumes, performance, and then up for school the next day. Really bizarre, when you think of it. I had this double existence as a kid. It's not your average childhood. But I couldn't have asked for a better one."

Her big break came with Mamma Mia's first international tour, which came to the then Point Theatre before heading off around the world. Louise attended an open audition with hundreds of others. "I was nervous, but as a young girl I just had this focus," she smiles. She got the part of a small female lead, travelling the world for two years. It opened up a gateway to the West End of London. "I moved to London after that, got an agent and within three weeks I got my first West End show, in the ensemble of Guys and Dolls. I just had to pinch myself the day I was walking in to get my script," she recalls.

Things escalated quickly, and it wasn't long before she was auditioning for legendary producer Cameron Mackintosh for the role of Mrs Banks in Mary Poppins. "With Cameron he has possibly up to 10 rounds before you get the gig. It was my first lead role. I went in for ensemble, but they gave me a script to read, thinking 'maybe she'll cover Mrs Banks'." It was a deeply nerve-wracking process, she recalls.

"I think when you're being seen for roles, as opposed to ensemble, there's a lot more to lose. You need to visualise yourself in the role, so you're investing in it, knowing the possibility of being let down. As you get older you realise how it affects you," she says.

"When you're younger, you've blinkers on, you're going from role to role, and life things don't matter so much. Personal things like settling down, building a family, having a home. Doing all those things that hopefully one day I'll be able to do," laughs Louise.

"I was just at a wedding there at the weekend, and most of my friends are either married, getting married, or having babies. That's always been put on the back burner for me. And I guess I had a turn around on that in the past few years. I think it's an age thing. You realise you're missing home more. And the normality of settling down in life. Having a firm base. Knowing you have consistency in your life."

The end of a performer's career can be hard, all that dedication and passion suddenly gone. For Louise, the opportunity to get stuck into a role with such potential has been hugely fortuitous. For now, she's working on the school's choir show before moving on to work on The Billie Barry Production show, which will perform for a week in October 2017 in the Gaiety Theatre. There is also her own venture within the school, the launch of adult dance and fitness classes this September. Being a teacher is a selfless role she reflects, different to that of performer, which can be utterly selfish. "I'm still making that transition." It's one she will no doubt handle as gracefully as her famous dance steps.

Adult dance and fitness classes launch this September with the Billie Barry Stage School, at the CYMC Hall, Philipsburgh Avenue, Fairview, Dublin 3. There are classes to suit every ability. For more information call Carla Purdue 087 4106761 or email or

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