Alumni Spotlight: Sha Dessi

Sha Dessi graduated from our BA in Musical Theatre in 2021. Shortly after, she was cast as Éponine in Les Misérables on the West End. Her performance in this role won her a nomination for the Stage 25 Awards 2022 from Sir Cameron Mackintosh. We caught up with Sha about her time at Mountview, her journey to her first professional role and her advice for drama school applicants. 

How did you get into Musical Theatre? 

I got into Musical Theatre by accident. When I was a child, I was on a play date with a friend but her mum had forgotten that she had an audition for a pantomime that day. Her mum said if I wanted, I could go and dance for a couple of hours at the audition as well. We both auditioned and were cast in the panto together. Every year after that I auditioned for the panto, then moved onto community theatre as well, before eventually deciding I wanted it to be my career. 

Why did you choose to study at Mountview? 

Meeting Stephen Jameson, who was the Principal while I studied there, made me choose Mountview. At the second-round auditions, he came in to say thank you to all of us for giving Mountview our time, even though it was a stressful and difficult process to put yourself forward for auditions. It put me at ease and made me feel it was the place for me. 

What are your highlights from your time at Mountview? 

Sha Dessi in ‘Rent’ 2021 | Photo by Robin Savage

My favourite project was The Secret Garden in my second year. It was the first full musical we did: working on a show and a role for more than just one scene was a really special experience. Playing Mary in The Secret Garden was also my favourite role during training. Having a chance to play a kid, who is so far removed from who I actually am, was really fun. 

In the third year of training you would normally have ‘panel week’, where you perform for a group of casting directors. This couldn’t happen because of the pandemic, so instead we had a workshop with the casting team from Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, where they advised us on our song choices and performance styles. This workshop led to me being invited to a first-round audition for Les Mis.  I wouldn’t have my current role without Mountview and that workshop.  

How did you find professional auditions? 

At first, it was difficult to adjust. Throughout training, you are prepared for being told ‘no’ at auditions, but I don’t think I realised just how many people would say no! I came to understand it’s not always personal: it’s about the project, it’s about your fit with the role and with other members of the cast. It was difficult to wrap my head around it, but I learnt to just do the audition and then stop thinking about it, instead of becoming invested in every one.

How did you feel when you were cast as Éponine?  

I got the call on the day of the ‘Best of the West End’ concert by the Mountview third years, which took place after our formal training had finished. I was waiting for the bus when my agent called with the news. I fell to the floor crying and confused all the strangers at the bus stop! More than anything, I felt disbelief that this would be my job.

What has your experience working on Les Mis been like? 

It was quite difficult for the first couple of months. Not only was it my first job, but it was also my first time out of education. Until now, I’ve had someone telling me what to do and what to learn, but it was a big transition to become fully responsible for myself. I also used to worry about really simple things like forgetting my lines. I would be backstage before each of my scenes worrying about what my first word was. Now, I know it’s in me and I can just enjoy myself.

I love performing in Les Mis with a group of other Mountview graduates (including Gerard Carey, Richard Carson, Jessie Hart and Jon Robyns). They know it’s my first professional role and are always there to support me. On my first day, they immediately introduced themselves to me and wanted to hear about my time at Mountview. As they trained in the old Wood Green building, they all wanted to hear about the Peckham building too! It’s lovely being with people who trained at the same school: it gives the show a real family feel. 

What did it mean to you to be selected for the Stage 25?

Sha Dessi in ‘Kipps’ 2021 | Photo by Pamela Raith

It’s completely surreal and I almost have no words to describe it. I had no idea I was nominated for the awards and only found out 12 hours before the article was published. Looking at that list and seeing the achievements of the other people, it’s unbelievable that I’m on there too. I’m a fan of these people, I’ve seen their work, I’ve auditioned for them and I’ve looked up to them.  

Cameron Mackintosh nominated me. I’m glad that I’ve made a good enough impression with my work on Les Mis that he thinks I deserve to be on the list amongst these people. I can’t believe that Cameron even knows who I am, let alone that he thinks I’m worthy of this award. Les Mis is a warm and close family and having had the opportunity to form a good relationship with Cameron, as well as with everyone else involved with the show, makes this nomination mean even more to me. 

What advice would you give people applying to drama school?

What worked for me was choosing audition material that I knew inside-out. Often in auditions, the panel might ask you to perform something again, but in a different style or context. You don’t want to feel scared when they challenge you in this way or regret that you didn’t pick something you know better. You don’t need to go into your audition juggling and balancing something on your head: you need to go in with something you know you can smash, no matter what the panel asks of you. 

How do you relax outside of rehearsals and performances? 

Sha Dessi in ‘New York’ 2020 | Photo by Robin Savage

 My priorities are getting some exercise and fresh air in and meeting up with my friends. I’m also enjoying going to the cinema more, particularly now that I have the mornings off before shows. 

You need to have a life outside of work, just like with any other profession. It can be particularly difficult in theatre because it’s your passion and you want to give it your all, but having other things you value helps you maintain some perspective, particularly when you’re auditioning. 

Who has been your biggest mentor in your Musical Theatre journey? 

This sounds so cheesy, but it’s my dad! He has always pushed me to put myself forward for things that I care about. Before I went to drama school, I was having doubts about this career path because I knew how hard it can be to get a job, but he always encouraged me to follow my dreams. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to go for it if he hadn’t been there for me. 

What would be your dream project or role? 

I would love to be part of a completely new piece and go through the whole journey of developing a musical, taking it from the workshop stage to performances at the Fringe or in a small theatre, before hopefully transferring to the West End. I’d love to see the evolution of a new piece and experience the challenges of working on a show from the start.


Feature photo: Les Misérables, the Sondheim Theatre (Johan Persson)