Tales From The Red Carpet: An Olivier Awards interview with West End Wonder Woman Emma De Souza

Emma De Souza (left): The Woman who makes the Oliviers tick

With just over 48 hours to go until the 2015 Olivier Awards, we meet the amazing woman who keeps Awards Day running like clockwork. From Kids Week to West End Live, Emma De Souza truly is the West End’s Wonder Woman.

The stunning Royal Opera House: Red Carpet awaits the most famous feet in Theatreland. [Image: Sarah Jeynes]
London’s stunning Royal Opera House: The Red Carpet awaits the most famous feet in Theatreland. [Image: Sarah Jeynes]

Hi Emma. Thanks for meeting us at such a busy time. Tell us all about your role in the Olivier Awards!

My title is Producer of Red Carpet and Media – in a nutshell that means everything that happens around The Olivier Awards that doesn’t happen on the stage or as part of the voting process.

Emma De Souza (left) - the West End's answer to Wonder Woman with Kim Wilde.
Emma De Souza (left) with Kim Wilde. “I think I have an amazing job!”

I manage the red carpet, the press, and liaise with the Society of London Theatre (SOLT)’s Chief Executive/Olivier Awards producer Julian Bird, on who we will be asking to present, and with agents on who will be hosting. Each year we try to do something new – this year it’s a pop-up space in Covent Garden where we’ve created an Olivier Awards Exhibition. My role ensures that everything runs like clockwork on the day; so people are arriving, they’re getting styled, and even before that, we have all the events in build-up to the Awards like the announcement of the nominations. We hold an event for the nominees, and of course there’s the Audience Award so I’ve been working very closely with ITV’s This Morning on that. http://www.olivierawards.com/video/view/item273583/2015-this-morning-audience-award/

How does The Audience Award work?

The award was set up to enable long-running shows to benefit from the buzz around the Oliviers – last year’s winner was Les Miserables. To be eligible, the show must be running by the date of that year’s ceremony and to have been running for at least a year, so a show in that year’s other categories (eg Best New Musical) wouldn’t be included. It doesn’t just cover musicals – shows like The Mousetrap, Stomp, War Horse would all be eligible for The Audience Award.

Cameron Mackintosh presents the 2014 Award to the young actors of Les Miserables! [Image:: Richard Davenport]
Cameron Mackintosh presents the 2014 Audience Award to the young actors of Les Miserables [Image: Richard Davenport]

Who gets to choose the nominees for the main Awards?

There’s a cycle and cut-off date based on the date of the next year’s ceremony. We have three panels comprising industry experts and members of the public who go and see literally everything. We have a Theatre Panel that go to see every play and musical, a Dance & Opera Panel, and we also have an Affiliate Panel. To be eligible, a show has to be linked to a SOLT member who must then nominate their show to be considered for inclusion. At the end of the year, the Panels meet and compile a “long list” and asterisk their recommendations for inclusion on the “short list”. The short list is then sent out to all SOLT members (comprising London’s Theatre owners and producers) and they can vote on the short list, which is then announced electronically and at the Nominations event. That list then goes back out to SOLT members who vote for their preferred winner in each category.

It’s exciting to hear that members of the public can be panellists! How are they chosen?

The search for Olivier panellists starts in January. You just have to demonstrate a real commitment to, love for and interest in theatre – then if you’re lucky enough you’ll be selected for interview! There are a whole range of different people chosen – it’s an amazing opportunity to go and see an awful lot of Theatre! If someone is interested, they should visit www.olivierawards.com in late December/early January and they’ll find details about how to be on the Public Panel. We also run a competition, often in the Radio Times, to be on the Theatre Panel.

Has anyone ever turned down their Olivier Award?

Not that I’m aware of – certainly not in my time on The Awards. Sometimes a winner may not have been able to accept their award in person because they’re filming or performing, but it’s a real honour to receive an Olivier. What’s wonderful is how much The Oliviers mean to the industry. I can often get tied up in all the detail and planning, so it’s really touching to be at the Nominees Lunch and to see that it really matters to people: that to be nominated is a real honour. It’s lovely.

Dame Helen Mirren covets her 2014 Little Larry...
Dame Helen Mirren covets her “Little Larry”…

Any idea which individual has won the most Olivier Awards?

I’m not 100% sure who has won most, although I know Dame Judi Dench has won a lot! One statistic that was amazing last year was that the producer, Sonia Friedman won in every possible category; Best New Musical, Best Musical Revival, Best New Play and Best Revival. It’s quite an incredible achievement for one producer to win across all of those “big four” categories. There are some fascinating Oliviers facts at http://www.olivierawards.com/about/facts-and-trivia/

Has anything ever gone wrong on Awards Night?

It’s always a little like flying by the seat of your pants, because it’s all completely live. It does give me a heart attack when people arrive late. There are so many things that can go wrong – the first year I worked we misplaced a presenter – but honestly, it staggers me how much goes right! The more I’ve done it, the less scary it becomes, but it’s still full on. What amazes me is that often, the really big stars like Helen Mirren and Judi Dench are the loveliest. They are just so secure in who they are, and so delightful to work with.

Do you ever have any anxiety dreams coming up to Awards night?

I do…and not just me! Hannah, one of my team told me she had a dream that she’d slept right through the whole thing and woken up the day after The Awards and completely forgotten to come! Apparently I’d left hundreds of messages getting more and more irate!

One of my team dreamt she'd slept through the whole thing!
One of my team dreamt she’d slept right through the whole thing!

I do wake up very early running through mental checklists. My normal anxiety is about where the hell my dress is! I end up not really stopping on the day of The Awards – last year someone had very kindly taken my dress to a dressing room, but the Royal Opera House is a rabbit warren and I got completely lost backstage just as I was supposed to be opening the red carpet. I just thought “I haven’t changed!”, meanwhile my phone was constantly ringing to tell me that high profile people were arriving who need escorting on to the red carpet. I finally found the dress, had to get changed in a disabled toilet and legged it to the red carpet! That’s not a dream…but it does still give me nightmares. This year I’m determined that my dress is going nowhere! It’s just makes me laugh that I spend all my time ensuring that everyone else has hours and hours to get ready and I just get changed in the loo!

Who is your favourite ever Olivier Award winner?

On a personal level, it was so lovely when Jonny Lee Miller won, because I went to school with him. He was in the Boys school and I was in the Girls, but we did drama together there at the same time. He asked me out the day after my braces came off, so I really was chuffed to bits when he won, and that was lovely because it was so personal. And my other favourite was when the four girls playing Matilda won because they were just so incredibly excited to even be there.

Jonny Lee Miller "asked me out the day after my braces came off"...
Jonny Lee Miller “asked me out the day after my braces came off”…

What is Awards Day like for you?

I live quite far out of town, so I’m very lucky that on the eve of the awards I get to stay at the Rosewood, London. I have a huge checklist – and that’s before all the unexpected things happen – starting with checking on the styling suite, before heading on to the Opera House. There I check on the setup for the Press Room. Often, because Julian Bird is so busy on the day, I’ll field questions. I’m backstage most of the time so I never really get to see The Awards, so I’ll try to catch some of the Dress Rehearsal. My day can be mad – I mean one year I had to suddenly look for dress shoes for a presenter and then track down another dress because of a wardrobe catastrophe. This year, the fire in Holborn has really affected the roads around the Royal Opera House, so the challenge is just going to be just getting people to where they need to be on time. I have various key meetings during the day to sign things off, such as the red carpet. Oh…and eating! I always forget to eat with so much running around – we’ve worked it out that I probably run about 5 miles, and that doesn’t normally finish until around 4am the next morning. The Post Awards Party is in the Opera House which does help. By about midnight I am a broken woman! My top tip would be to wear sensible shoes – but vanity and sensible shoes don’t really go together so you can guess how my feet end up!

What do you love most about your role?

I think I have an amazing job! My full time role is Head of Media and Marketing for SOLT. I love the Oliviers for the glamour, but I love the other things I do throughout the year equally. I feel passionate about theatre, so to be paid to shout about it, to raise the profile and to make it more accessible is a dream come true. I’m really proud of what I’ve achieved there – things like Kids Week in the West End www.kidsweek.co.uk and https://www.facebook.com/kidsweeklondon where kids go for free…and West End Live!, http://www.westendlive.co.uk/ the free outdoor event that we produce in Trafalgar Square every summer, and I love the people I work with.

Kids Week - finding the next generation of Theatregoers and Award Winners
Kids Week – finding the next generation of Theatregoers and Award Winners

I have an amazing team and none of what I do would be possible without them. I’ve been very lucky to have found a job where I’ve worked my way up from the very bottom to do something so exciting.

If you hadn’t gone into Theatre is there something else you may have done?

Well my parents were both doctors, so I wonder what might have happened if I’d gone down the medical route? I did History with Film and Media at University, so possibly television…or perhaps working with Historic Royal Palaces. I still think I would have ended up doing something with events – I really enjoy having a clipboard! And then as I hard as I’m working at the moment, I do sometimes think I’d like to just have a little bit more time to spend with my kids – they would love that. They are like “Oh, mummy, when are the Oliviers going to finish?”

The Red Carpet:
The Red Carpet: Photographers await the arrival of this year’s Olivier Nominees. [Image: Sarah Jeynes]

What advice would you give to young people wanting to work for SOLT?

I think if anybody wants a career in Theatre, they need to go to see lots of it! You can buy cheaper seats through tkts www.tkts.co.uk or Mousetrap Theatre http://www.mousetrap.org.uk/ which offers some amazing deals for young theatregoers. Get involved – do stuff at University, or at College. Put on your own plays – that’s a great way to learn. There’s a careers event at the Royal Opera House in November called Theatrecraft http://www.theatrecraft.org/ – it’s also about being enthusiastic…don’t think anything’s going to be handed to you on a plate! Take the initiative. I’ve got a lovely young woman working with me out on the Olivier Awards – she was helping out at the last Theatrecraft, and I was so impressed with her that I said “Look, I’ve got a job – do you want to come and help me on the Oliviers?” So…throw yourself into things – if you have an opportunity, make the most of it. Be punctual, be polite, and be enthusiastic! Have a great CV and a great covering letter – make sure you adapt it and say why your skills and your personality would be a great fit for that job!

One final question…I believe when you were a child you appeared in Evita! Is this true?

Yes, it’s true! When I was seven…I did ask my mum for photos but all she said was “Oh gosh darling…it was the 1970s!” That was at the Prince Edward Theatre with Elaine Paige, and Stephanie Lawrence and David Essex. There were very few photos sadly. I actually did the show from the age of 7 right up until I turned 11 – I was just at a normal school outside London…Andrew Lloyd Webber had decided that he didn’t want children from a normal stage school, and so they targeted schools that were within an hour of London. I was cast as one of the little rich girls. They’d come along, pick us up from school and then after the show we’d be take back. It was done on a rota system, so we’d be on for 6 weeks and then off for twelve. I look back now and think “what an unbelievable experience”….although it put me off smoking for life, because all the chaperones smoked like chimneys in the car!

Evita: "Oh gosh, darling... It was the 1970s!"
Evita: “Oh gosh, darling… It was the 1970s!”

But it was an amazing, amazing experience to be backstage at that age, and I think that was one of the things which motivated me to start Kids Week, to allow others to have that experience, to get on stage and to understand the workings behind the show, because it was a magical experience that I was so lucky to have.

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The Olivier Awards 2015 with MasterCard will take place on Sunday 12 April, as the illustrious event once again returns to the stunning surroundings of Covent Garden’s iconic Royal Opera House for an incredible evening of celebration, award-giving and unbelievable live performances. This year comedian, presenter and acclaimed, award-winning actor Lenny Henry will host.

This year’s radio partner is the hugely popular Magic FM and, building on last year’s collaboration, ITV continues as the award’s television partner enabling theatre fans to tune into the very best moments from the ceremony shortly after proceedings come to a close with a highlights programme on the channel at 22:15, or catch up on ITV Player.

To follow all the action on the night, make sure to follow the Olivier Awards and Official London Theatre on Twitter and check the Official London Theatre website, the awards’ official news channel, for coverage throughout the evening.

You can also watch a live stream of events from the ceremony at the Covent Garden Piazza event.