Watching Fiona Stephenson on stage, it’s hard to believe she never sang, danced or acted before coming to Queenstown.
Stephenson, 33, recently won the female theatrical performer of the year award for her Roxie in Showbiz Queenstown’s Chicago in May and was also an outstanding ‘Amy Winehouse’ in Margaret O’Hanlon’s Twenty Seven in August.
In past years, Stephenson’s had several other major roles in Showbiz and O’Hanlon musicals.
Yet until moving here seven years ago, the native Englishwoman says she’d never been on stage.
“I was always loud but I never sang, danced, acted, nothing – my mum and dad think it’s hilarious. But I’ve always been quite a mimic – as a kid I could parrot people’s accents.”
Working originally as a horse trekking guide, Stephenson auditioned for Showbiz’s Grease in 2008 as she wanted to meet new people.
“I thought it can’t be that hard, I’ll give it a whirl.”
Stephenson landed the role of Marty, one of the Pink Ladies: “I’m always a tart or a whore, but a nice one. I just got a lucky break, really, and then I got addicted.”
Stephenson’s been helped by singing coaches O’Hanlon and Sue Patterson and dancing instructor Anna Stuart but has never taken acting lessons.
“I find it quite easy to just pretend I’m someone else.”
A fulltime teaching job at Queenstown Primary helps: “Whatever you’re teaching, if you don’t keep them entertained they’ll walk all over you.”
In 2009 Stephenson played various chorus roles in Showbiz’s Les Miserables then the following year played Nancy in its production of Oliver!
The Nancy role is stage girlfriend of the nasty Bill Sikes – played by David Oakley – who eventually kills her.
Things were happier behind the scenes – Stephenson and Oakley have been partners ever since.
Between performing in two O’Hanlon musicals, Stephenson played the role of The Baroness in Showbiz’s The Sound of Music last year.
Then, as soon as she knew Chicago was on this year’s bill, Stephenson went gunning for the lead as murderess Roxie.
“Half my friends were training for Chicago but although I love my friends to bits, my cut-throat edge came out.
“It’s like, I’m getting that part, I really really want it.”
Stephenson took additional singing and dancing lessons to help win the part.
Ironically, once again Stephenson played opposite her partner – Oakley was Roxie’s downtrodden husband Amos.
Despite Stephenson’s rapidly-growing stage experience, she still suffers terrible first-night nerves: “I always feel sick, I always think I can’t remember anything, I can’t remember my dance moves.
“But as soon as you walk on stage and the first line gets out of your mouth, you’re fine.
“Your brain’s learnt it all, your body’s learnt it all, and it just comes,” Stephenson says.
Does she ever fluff her lines?
“God, yeah, massively, all the time.
“My worst ones were in Chicago, I forgot a whole line,” Stephenson recalls.
“I knew it was going to look crappy in the middle of a song so I just thought, I’m going to have to make something up really convincing so I just slapped my leg, looked at the audience and I went ‘la-la-la, la-la-la’.
“It was really crappy but apparently no one [in the audience] noticed – if you do it confidently, no one knows.”
Stephenson believes she’d never have got into musicals had she stayed in England: “You wouldn’t have this opportunity to work with professional directors and to get these amazing parts.
“In England you have your professional companies and then your amateur stuff is really amateur – it’d be like your uncle messing up his lines. But here the amateur stuff is bordering on professional.”
And it’s amateurs like Stephenson who keep the bar so high.