From a role in The Lion King to the semi-finals of America’s Got Talent, and over the pond to play Effie in Dreamgirls on the West End, Moya Angela’s power-vocals speak for themselves. But walking on stage to perform what is commonly known as the “biggest sing in theatre” night after night doesn’t come without its unique challenges. Here we talk mental health support for actors, getting through the bad days, and learning to leave a role behind as the curtain falls
What makes 'Dreamgirls' such a special show?
Well, you’ve never heard singing like this in all the West End. If you love beautiful voices, this is the show to go listen to. It’s a story about friendship and heartbreak, and it’s a story about being the underdog and coming out on top. I think everyone can relate to any of those moments.
Your character, Effie, has a tough time. Do you find it hard to separate your emotions from her’s?
Every single time. It’s one of those characters where you have to bring up real moments so they seem authentic on stage. Every time I play her it’s very difficult because I have to go back to a place I don’t want to visit. Any time I sign up for it, I know I’m signing up for a year of extreme discipline and trying not to get in too deep.
How do you manage it?
Have people around you who say: “Hey, snap out of it.” But it takes practice to leave it at the stage door. It’s important to keep honest people around you, people who will keep you grounded. When I feel like I’m falling, I’ll call my mom or sister.
Recently, helplines have been set up specifically to support actors. Do you think that’s necessary?
Absolutely. I love that people are advocating and speaking out about mental health, because just like if I have an injury, if I’m not well up top then I need to seek help. When it comes to support systems or talking about my mental health, I’ve learnt to put it first.
Have you always been open to talking about your mental health?
No, and I still find it difficult sometimes. I try to talk about mental health as much as I can now because it also helps me on my journey of working through it. We have more access to things that can help with mental health than we did before. So not only can we talk about it, but there are people out there as well who can help us with that.
It’s important to keep honest people around you, people who will keep you grounded
Have you ever sought professional support?
I go to therapy every week and it helps a lot. It makes my week easier to manage and helps me to understand myself. I don’t know anything about what’s going on up there – I just know how I’m feeling. So I get a professional to explain what’s going on, and that makes everything better.
Are there any unique pressures in your job?
Absolutely. First of all, I’m in a very competitive field. Before you even get on stage there are so many things you have to do to prove yourself. No matter where you are in your career you still have to go into the audition room and sing in front of people who are there to judge you and tell you whether you’re good enough. Then maybe you don’t get the job and you start to judge yourself. And I’m a black American woman. Jobs are opening up for people of colour, but there was a time where you really had to prove yourself to be looked at differently. These are all the things I’ve had to deal with in the years I’ve been on stage.
Do you ever have days where you’re just not feeling it?
There have been times when I have been going through things and I’ve been crying, but I know I have to be on stage in an hour. I have to be bubbly and young and happy, but I had a bad day and I’m hurt.
How do you pick yourself up?
Yoga is my friend. It really calms my spirit and connects my mind to my body. Some days I can’t get there. Those days I just have to be an actor and act like I’m OK. When you work with people that often though, they can tell when you’re not OK. But I just say: “Hey guys, I’m not OK today but thank you for your support, let’s just go out here and do this.” Then there are days where I have to call up and say, sorry I can’t come to work today.
On those days, are the people you work with understanding?
I think being here in the West End I have a lot more leeway with taking time off for my mental health. At home [on Broadway], we don’t have as many holiday days and we can’t take them individually. We just have to really push through and hopefully make it. So I’m grateful that I’m here, and that we have more time to take care of ourselves so that we can come back stronger.
Jobs are opening up for people of colour but there was a time where you really had to prove yourself to be looked at differently
In 2016, you took part in 'America’s Got Talent'. Do you think TV shows have a responsibility to take care of contestants' emotional wellbeing?
I think they do have a responsibility, absolutely. We are all humans on this earth and it would be nice to know that they are concerned about their contestants. I do feel that there could be more support. But you have to make sure that you have that support in your own life anyway, whether you’re on a TV show or at any other job. I have that support from my fiancé, my family and very close friends.
And do you practise self-care too?
I feel like Asian cultures got it right with massage and aromatherapy. That’s what self-care looks like to me. I’m self-caring myself to Bath on Sunday to spend some time in the spas. It’s knowing when enough is enough. It’s knowing your limit, eating well and living well. There are so many things that are under that list. And I’m still learning what Moya needs to take care of herself – but I put it first now. That’s what self-care is to me.