"More places are actively looking for ways to lift up women now, but don’t wait for them! Ask!"
kaylajames.com | @kaylajames | @legupalliance
Select credits include:
Josie Pye in Anne of Green Gables, Sophie U/S in Mamma Mia (Charlottetown Festival), Tess/Polly U/S in Crazy For You, Antonia in Man of La Mancha, Lorraine/Peggy U/S in 42nd Street (Stratford Festival), Rapunzel in Snarl’d the Panto (Port Hope Festival), Spamalot, Beauty and the Beast, The Wizard of Oz (Citadel Theatre)
What is the creative work that gets you most excited to wake up every morning?
K: As long as I can remember, my answer would’ve been heading to rehearsal for a musical I get to be in. More and more, I’m finding myself so lit up to be on the other side of the table, assisting and learning, getting to watch the actors work. It’s teaching me things I didn’t know I didn’t know, if that makes sense. Although, I still get so excited to be onstage. It’s my greatest joy in this life.
What is something you love about yourself?
K: I was asked this in a different interview recently and rambled uncomfortable for far too long. I struggle so much with this question. Intellectually, I know that there is plenty to love. But I was raised in the era of Kate Moss and diet coke. See, even now I’m trying to change the subject. I love my freckles when they come out in the summer. I love the fact that I deeply believe in the good in people even if it means I get screwed over and don’t see it coming. I love that most of the time, I can find happiness and optimism in life. Why is that so hard.
Congratulations on starting your not-for-profit organization, Leg Up Alliance! Can you give us an overview of what Leg Up Alliance is? What inspired you to start this program and why did you feel it was important to start it now?
K: Leg Up Alliance has been a dream of mine for a long time, a place on the internet that you can go when the rest of instagram is making you feel bad. The number of times I’ve opened my phone to see a casting announcement of something I didn’t yet know I hadn’t booked and here is the press release of all your friends who did! It takes a toll. I wanted to create the kind of content I wished for when I was starting out. We talk about taxes, your health, reading reviews, body image, going to the dentist! All sorts of things that might help someone starting out when things seem really tough. We also run a mentorship program where we connect emerging artists to a mentor and provide a template for them to work through in meetings. So far, it’s been going well! I have big dreams for this little idea! I wanted to start it now because I felt selfish. I was always so worried about myself and my own career, which just sets you up to feel disappointed. I wanted to work on something bigger than me that could bring me a sense of fulfilment even if I never work again, which I’m basically always worrying about.
"The people who are comfortable in their own skin just show up differently in the space."
You are teaching at Sheridan and also running Leg Up Alliance, which has you working with emerging artists on a daily basis. When did you discover your passion for working with the next generation of artists? Is there anything that has surprised you, good or bad, about working with these artists? What is the biggest thing you have learned?
K: David Connolly brought me onto the Footloose team at Theatre Sheridan in 2017 and that was my first time working with the students there. The way he lead that room was amazing and I fell in love with the energy and enthusiasm of the emerging artists. I also became aware of how many of them were still in the dark about the day to day of being a professional musical theatre artist in Canada, which is a whole other thing to contend with once you nail the whole “be an amazing musical theatre performer” part. I’ve learned so much, but the biggest thing is that the industry actually NEEDS you to be yourself. People always say that but it never made sense to me before I watched it from the other side. The people who are comfortable in their own skin just show up differently in the space. At professional levels, everyone is good, everyone deserves a job, so the thing that sets you apart is being YOU; complex, contradictory, brilliant. That is way more interesting than any version of yourself you could invent anyway.
"I had surgery to remove the papillary carcinoma 3 days after we closed Singin’. I had 8 weeks between musicals, so my recovery was on a clock."
I know you are very open about your experience battling cancer, so I was hoping you would elaborate on the ways in which battling cancer has shaped you?
K: During the Footloose rehearsal process at Sheridan, I was leaving for appointments to check a lump that was forming in my throat. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer a few weeks later at 8:30am before driving to a rehearsal for Singin’ in the Rain where I was playing Kathy Selden. I had surgery to remove the papillary carcinoma 3 days after we closed Singin’. I had 8 weeks between musicals, so my recovery was on a clock. At the time, I did a lot of what I called “Mental gymnastics” where I just convinced myself I was fine, I would be fine, there are no options but being fine. I guess I learned how much strength I had within me that I didn’t know was there. Then I would cry when a cashier asked me about the HUGE SCAR on my throat. The point is, I wanted to feel like I beat cancer or I am better than I was before, but the truth is I feel the same as I always did just with a daily reminder on my throat of what can go wrong. I wanted to be strong all the time, but I wasn’t and I’m still not. Our business requires so much of our bodies and our health, it was so shocking to have that challenged. I was super lucky, it was caught early and I didn’t have to do radiation. PLEASE check your necks, it’s way more common than you think.
"I booked a workshop of a musical that I had auditioned for before the surgery. In the audition I sang a high D, but I couldn’t sing it anymore."
I know many of us get sucked into the misconception that our talents and abilities define us as people, so I can’t imagine how you were feeling before undergoing vocal cord surgery. What was going through your head during this time? How did you take care of your health amid performance? What kept you pushing forward?
K: First of all, I googled thyroidectomy and vocal chord damage. People wake up not being able to ever talk properly again because they have to cut around vocal nerves to get the thyroid out. So I freaked out, of course. Then I got smarter, I googled studies on the topic and found one for 2015 of singers who had thyroidectomy. All of them recovered their full ability to sing between 3 months and 2 years. So I held onto that. I would even tell doctors about the study.
The problem was I only had 8 weeks! I promised myself I wouldn’t so much as hum one note for a month because I knew it would upset me. My chords felt like ropes at that time. And if I vocalized I could feel them trying to stretch through the scar tissue and it felt awful. But I just kept quiet, and waited. I also saw Aaron Low who is a Speech Pathologist and I highly recommend if you are having any vocal issues at all. I just never gave myself an option that it wouldn’t come back. But I am very good at pushing stuff down, honestly I think I was in a state of shock to some degree. When I came back to do Lucky Stiff, I had a belty track and I just worked up to it, not pushing too hard any given day, but pushing every day. Now 2 years later, I can say I think my high soprano is 98% back but for a long time I couldn’t sing a high C which was super scary as that had never been a problem before. I booked a workshop of a musical that I had auditioned for before the surgery. In the audition I sang a high D, but I couldn’t sing it anymore. In the workshop, they asked for it and I had to say, I can’t sing that anymore post surgery, I’m working on it but I can’t stretch my chords that thin anymore. I was so upset to admit that defeat and the MD just said “Oh no problem, here sing this instead”. Literally wasn’t a big deal at all. I’m only human.
As a woman in this profession, it is an unwritten rule that one must choose between a successful career and a family. What are your thoughts on this subject?
K: I always figured I would have to quit the business to have kids. But now, more and more people are having families and taking them on contract. I am so inspired by Heather McGuigan and Galen Johnson, Laura Mae Nason and Gerrad Everard, and so many more who are setting new precedents for having a family and still taking that job you want to do. Also, the theatres seem more and more willing to let babies come into the green room if needed. It seems like there might be a tide turning. Just like your company mandate, we need to hold space for these women who are having the babies. Make sure they don’t get edged out just because they have to take some time off. Now, I’m looking forward to figuring out how to raise a weird little theatre baby who lives all over the country and has a mom and dad that never stop singing. It’s different than the way many of us were raised, but I’m no longer unsure as to whether it’s possible, thanks to the families who are blazing that trail.
If you could say something to yourself at 22 years old, what would it be?
K: Take better care of your body. Go to the dentist, get your eyes checked, go to physio and do the exercises. The injuries that happened when I was in my early 20s still relapse because I ignored them. Especially because we ask so much of our bodies doing 8 shows a week, we have to spend way more energy than most people taking care of them. I didn’t take care of myself because of a lack of money a lot of the time. But there are ways around a lot of that, dental schools, maybe your parents have massage coverage you didn’t know about, looking up physio exercises of ankles on youtube.
"Don’t be afraid to ask for help."
What is a piece of advice you would offer a young woman entering this industry?
K: Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I think men are more conditioned to “climb the ladder”. The business used to feel like an Old Boys Club, where, hopefully without realizing it, men were lifting up other men over and over again. I think more places are actively looking for ways to lift up women now, but don’t wait for them! Ask! Do you need an assistant? Are they casting understudies, because I would love to be considered! Can I ask you some questions about which receipts I should keep? Take up space and ask for what you need.