There isn’t a theatre in the world that means as much to Norman Bowman as the Webster Memorial in Arbroath.
Tonight he’ll be standing on its virtual stage from his home in Buckinghamshire, performing for the Webster Memorial Theatre’s Big Night In.
With theatres completely dark since March of last year, the opportunity to sing online for his alma mater will take him back to the place where he first stood in front of an audience.
“With this concert being the first event at the Webster since all of this craziness, I was so glad to be asked. I have nothing but love and affection for that place.
“It’s the strangest thing when I stand on that stage. I feel like a 16-year-old again and remember that buzz of taking mental snapshots and saying ‘remember this forever.’ I’ve played in some incredible theatres since, but those memories are special.
“Who knows, before the end of the year, we might be able to do something in person.”
Norman says the tale of how he stood on the stage for the first time is as well-trodden as the Webster boards, but essentially after being caught stealing, appearing in court and being written up in the local paper (the shame), he considered running away.
Theatre saved the young Norman
Instead, a friend convinced him to go along to a local theatre group and he was hooked, making his way from the back line of the chorus to leading man over a few years.
“Actually make a life doing it seemed quite far-fetched, but I went off to London for auditions at drama colleges, got into one, and I was off. I have to say though, the training in amateur societies is amazing.
“Even when you become a professional, you can see the fine line between amateur and professional in terms of talent. Sometimes the only difference is being paid.”
Following graduation in 1997, Norman walked into his first professional job with Les Misérables and since then has ticked off many of the leading men roles in musical theatre, with favourites including silent movie supremo Mack Sennett in Mack and Mabel, Tony in West Side Story, and Sky Masterston opposite Patrick Swayze’s Nathan Detroit in Guys and Dolls.
It’s the strangest thing when I stand on that stage. I feel like a 16-year-old again. I’ve played in some incredible theatres since, but those memories are special.”
There have also been straight acting roles including Holby City, Poldark, the Spanish Princess, and even turns in Macbeth and King Lear.
No matter how talented, there has been little work for theatre performers this year. In a world where job security is never top of the list, it’s been a year when even the most successful have had to look elsewhere to put food on the table.
With the usual “resting actor” roles such as hospitality also shut down, it has taken some smart thinking. For Norman, however, the thought process about what else he could do began before lockdown.
Lightbulb moment in Belfast
“I was in Belfast doing Kiss me Kate in 2019, which was my last stage production, and I had this lightbulb moment about becoming a celebrant. It used a lot of the skills that I already had.
“Then lockdown happened. I realised that if there was ever an opportunity to try and do something else without any interruption, that was it. I did my training and began. I lobe it.
“It took me a long time to get any help from HMRC, and I have to say that for three to four months I had to swallow my pride and live off the charity of others.
He adds that many of his friends in the profession are still looking for work.
“There are some extraordinary West End performers working with Amazon and Ocado just now. One phenomenal West End leading lady, Anna-Jane Casey, delivered shopping to a songwriter that she had been working with not long before.”
Norman says he finds himself at a strange crossroads. where he absolutely hopes that the arts come back as strongly but he doesn’t have quite the same motivation to throw himself in as fully.
I was in Belfast doing Kiss me Kate in 2019, and I had this lightbulb moment about becoming a celebrant. It used a lot of the skills that I already had.”
“I love performing and I always will, but the business has changed a lot. Everything has its pros and cons, but when it comes to doing a year’s contract in a musical, there are a lot of sacrifices. You might be lucky if you get to have a holiday at the same time as your kids are off school, you might not.
“I know some people will say it’s a small price to pay, and I get that but over the years I’ve found I’m less willing to make that sacrifice.
“My kids are 14 and soon they’ll rather do their own thing. I want to be around as much as I can. I want to afford to take them places and do things, and I want to enjoy life.”
The age of 50 seemed to be the turning point for Norman. The role of celebrant has been a revelation to him, being able to provide a service for families at funerals. He says the celebrant and the atmosphere he or she creates is vital to providing a proper goodbye.
“When I say it’s my first proper job, I don’t see it that way. I love it. This year I also have nine weddings in the diary, which will be joyful thing to do.”
Life as a romantic lead
Norman says that he’s made peace with the fact that the juvenile romantic lead days are behind him.
“I can’t go up for the parts I used to. I’m 52 in August. I’ve made a living out of being a romantic lead and I could still do them, but the choice definitely narrows. But I’m content. I’m not hungry to play anything. If I can combine my new role with performing, that will be the best possible way forward for me.”
For Webster Memorial Theatre’s Big Night In, ANGUSalive has organised a line-up of talent for the free Facebook Live event. With Norman headlining, the other performers including Danny Laverty, Violet Thomson, and Maggie Findlay.
Tune in here at ANGUSalive Webster Memorial Theatre and Venues tonight (Saturday, May 15) at 7.30pm on Saturday, May 15.