Mark Stefanoff is enjoying success in exotic locations working with some of the biggest names in entertainment, yet he remains genuine, grounded, and sincere.
Kinky Boots won the heart of many Australians and a year ago Stefanoff and I were in Surry Hills chatting about his professional debut in musical theatre. He is back in Australia for a short stay having completed a contract with Princess Cruises and next he will be calling Singapore home.
Stefanoff reflected on the nine-show performance week and Ricky Martin’s mentorship as I extracted some timeless advice for performers at every stage of their career.
Congratulations on your new contract! How did you land the Universal Studios contract?
I auditioned for Universal Studios (Japan) at the same time [as Princess Cruises] and I wanted to do more travel so I chose the cruise ship. After some to-and-fro with the creatives via Skype, I was fortunate enough to land the role… (laughs) Thank you technology!
I submitted my showreel to Universal and was cast in a new show called Turn Tables, a live jukebox-type show where some of the great pop icons like Queen, Beyonce, and Michael Jackson will be explored. I’m excited and terrified to workshop a new live show with a script that is immersive because the show is determined by the audience.
Describe the experience of having your professional debut in musical theatre with Kinky Boots
It was a most wonderful, terrifying, and rewarding experience. That show opened my eyes to the world of musical theatre. It was my first Australian equity show. The challenge was in making sure that the work mattered the same at the end of the 400th performance as it did on day one. If you don’t have a little bit of fear you’re not achieving it the way you should, you get complacent or you think ‘I’m too good for this’ or ‘am I doing this for the right reason’?
It does get hard when you do nine shows a week to make that vulnerability, excitement and joy come out again. [However] … it’s everyone’s first night, it’s everyone’s opening night in the audience so we’ve got to be able to give that energy [which] is exciting and rewarding because night after night you see these people. When I was exhausted then I stepped out on stage and heard the music, I thought to myself ‘I’m so lucky; this is exactly what I need to do right now’.
Some people don’t think that performing qualifies as work, because ‘it’s fun’, how do you feel about this?
I think that even when we are not on stage we are working because our body is our instrument. You’ve got an upkeep of physical appearance, of mental capability, you’ve got basically every single aspect of your day planned out when you are doing a nine-show week. You become the job so you are working 24/7; and even though you love it, it is still work.
At the end of the day you work for yourself. Yes you get contracted by people, yes you have agents and management but you are your product. That’s the most important thing that needs to be protected: you and the work that you are doing. It is easy to jump from thing to thing then look back and think you had no control over your own artistry.
“Protect yourself and protect the work.”
~ Mark Stefanoff
What were the highs and lows of life on the seas?
You are in your own world and it’s like its own suburb floating on water with incredible people, every few days you get a new turnaround [of guests]. It’s a different environment but you forget you’re on a ship sometimes because the theatre is huge! It’s a 1400 seat theatre and night after night the quality of the shows is really fantastic. The audience come back saying “this is Broadway standard, you’d never expect this quality of entertainment on a cruise ship.” And my cast was phenomenal. They’re the highs.
[In contrast]… you can get cabin fever. You question everything about your life. A lot of time on your own can be good or destructive if you don’t use that time to your advantage. Everyone knows everything about everyone. You do feel sometimes that you’ve gone back to high school.
Whilst it’s great to share memories and experiences with so many people, it’s really important to have that time for yourself to reflect and be proud of what you’re doing and be excited where you are. I learned to be independent. I was never afraid to get off the ship on my own and go and explore a country.
Do you miss home when you’re away?
I miss Adelaide all the time. It is one of the biggest hidden gems. We’re not just a bunch of churches and roundabouts! There’s an incredible artist hub here. We host one the biggest fringe festivals and the biggest cabaret festival and the experiences that you can have here are phenomenal. I miss my family and my friends immensely.
When you’re on tour, you become a tour family. You get wrapped up in each other’s lives but then you have to remember there’s still that support network who aren’t gonna go anywhere. And so you’ve got to keep checking in and they’re going to be brutally honest which is why I’ve got them in my life; that’s the whole reason they’re there. When it comes to image, I go to my friends and family because they’re the most real. If something doesn’t look right, they’re going to be honest with me, whether or not I want to hear it!
14 months has been my longest contract with a musical that touring Australia and it made coming home between shows easier than being on the cruise ship. However, I’ve not had a winter in a very long time so it’s really lovely but freezing at the same time (laughs).
How did you decide you wanted to be a professional performer?
I [initially] wanted to be a concert pianist and violinist growing up but my focus changed when I did a musical in high school. It was this new world that I’d never really known and also a community I completely identified with.
I was very fortunate to study with some incredible people. I had a wonderful teacher, Liz Tobias who pushed me to explore musical theatre, jazz, and classical. I had my first singing lesson in Year 12 and took to singing with the newfound goal of auditioning. But more than anything it was the people at Concordia College like Matt Noble who encouraged [me] and this is a testament to them. They believed in me and showed me that I could do it.
In addition to your many talents, describe you passion for photography.
I love photography. It’s a really good way to explore. I started doing headshots for actors and found it interesting to see the array of emotion and vulnerability that I could find from one person in a 45-minute session. Every frame can tell a story. It’s really a beautiful form of theatre. A series of photographs can tell you as much as a two-hour play can. No photo is the same, you can’t recreate the same photo.
You appeared on The Voice a few years ago and had the opportunity to be mentored by superstar Ricky Martin. What did this experience teach you?
No matter how fame can get to you, you can still be one of the most humble and beautiful people in the world. Ricky Martin did not change who he was on screen and off screen, he remained true to who he was. He gave opportunities to all of us that he didn’t need to.
When Ricky sent me to New York and I got all of those wonderful opportunities that was not part of the show, that was unscripted. It’s really encouraging for performers like myself and for people who are wanting to get into this industry to [see] he has a normal life that everyone can connect to.
Media – and social media – are so predominant in our lives and it can be so easy to get someone in their ‘off moment’ and then that can become their image and it can be destructive. We are all human, we can’t be on and perfect 24/7, if we understand and accept that, it makes life real and makes those A-list celebrities just people. At the end of the day they are humans.
A lot of [A-list] people have people working for them and telling them what to wear, what to eat, what to look like, what to post and when you get to meet them and see who they really are, they are different to what the mainstream media have portrayed; sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s quite sad because they are equally beautiful being who they are rather than what a magazine wants them to be.
I never went on a show like The Voice to get famous. My main goal is that if I’ve made one person’s day easier then my job is done. In a show you can get transported for a couple of hours. Maybe what you need right there and then is that message. I want to keep finding that in my work.
“If fame is your main goal, this is self-destructive.”
~ Mark Stefanoff
What advice would you give to hopefuls who are inspired by your career and lifestyle?
Always be prepare for the ‘no’ and don’t expect the ‘yes’ because when you do get the ‘yes’ it makes it that much better. Research and delve into every possible option that you can to further yourself both in a role and out of a role.
What they will teach you in school is how to be a performer but they won’t teach you how to be an unemployed actor, how to deal with the no, and how to just be you. They can’t specify a degree just for one person.
Everyone is different. Remember that. That is your artistry. That’s what makes you special so make sure that you never lose that. It can be as simple as saying ‘I am Jennifer. I am Mark. And I am good enough.’