Becoming Sally Bowles

Sally Bowles is an iconic character
Paula Mandl will take on the iconic Sally Bowles in I Am A Camera

Ask any actor and they’ll tell you: Acting is more than learning lines and playing dress ups.

While the idea of stepping into someone else’s shoes for a while may sound glamorous, it’s actually a heck of a lot of hard work.

Actor Paula Mandl (The Graduate) is a perfect example of this hard work in action. This June, Paula will bring to life Sally Bowles – best known from the film and Broadway musical Cabaret. But before Cabaret, Sally existed in Christopher Isherwood’s book, The Berlin Stories and the play adaptation I Am A Camera, in which Paula will appear.

For Paula, one of the most intriguing aspects of becoming Sally Bowles has been separating fact from fiction.

“Isherwood is the author of the book, and he refers to himself in first person throughout the book,” said Paula. “He’s a real person and he’d always said that Sally Bowles was fashioned from English actress Jean Ross, who he knew when he was living in Berlin.

“However, right up until her death Jean hadn’t seen Cabaret, she hadn’t seen the movies, and she flatly denied that it was her.”

While the prospect of playing a character who may or may not have really existed is a little intimidating, Paula said she’s more concerned about the audience’s expectation for her to mirror Liza Minelli’s version of Sally Bowles.

“They’re expecting it to be that kind of glitzy, glamourous role, but it’s not; there’s more to her than that. I think she’s quite vulnerable and insecure,” Paula said.

“People might expect some sort of big cabaret, burlesque-y character when, in reality, she’s still finding her feet. I think of her more as this insecure little girl from England with a fake-it-‘til-you-make-it attitude.

“On the same token, that era – Berlin in the 1930s – makes Sally’s overt sexuality quite confronting because she’s just unapologetic about it, she doesn’t care that that’s who she is.”

Finding Sally’s authentic voice has been a new challenge for Paula, too.

“I’ve called on a German friend to help me with my accent and some of the dialogue,” she said. “There’s a difference between Fräulein and Fraulein depending on where the accent is and I thought ‘Oh my god, I would be saying that wrong!’. I think it’s only two or three lines in German, but I have to get that right!

“I’ll also have to adopt a posh English accent for Sally because she is English in Berlin. I can’t just do my Aussie thing; I have to actually try with an accent, which I haven’t had to in any other role – oh, Mrs Robinson [in The Graduate] but American is quite easy. Adding an accent is another layer that makes it interesting.”

On top of all that, Paula has been busy learning more about the global events that would have shaped the lives of expats living in Berlin in the 1930s.

“They don’t completely gloss over what’s happening with the Nazis. That’s all happening at the time and Christopher and Sally being English and living in Berlin at that time, that’s a whole aspect you don’t really consider, but it must have been quite a big part of their life, and for everyone’s attitudes.”

So yes, there’ll be beautiful costumes and plenty of lines to learn, but they’re a small part of the bigger picture for actors breathing life into characters on a page.

Full Throttle Theatre Company will present I Am A Camera at the Courthouse Theatre on 19 – 29 June 2019. For times and tickets, click here.

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