Katy Harris has been part of the Disney family for over twenty years. Originally from Sussex, she now works as the company’s Senior Show Director and is responsible for creating, writing and developing live entertainment for Disney theme parks around the world.
After studying musical theatre in London at Arts Educational School, Katy joined Disneyland Paris in 1993 to perform to millions of visitors in a production of Beauty and the Beast – humble beginnings as a dancing jelly. Katy joined the team of Disney show directors in 2002 and has since produced shows and parades for Paris, Orlando, Hong Kong, and even for the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing. In 2012 she played a key role in the team responsible for the night-time spectacular, Disney Dreams!, which was recognised by the themed entertainment industry as the world’s best show. Each performance of Disney Dreams! brings together an astounding ballet of projected images, fireworks, fountains, lasers and unforgettable storytelling.
Tell us a bit about your background and attending Arts Educational School in London…and were you raised speaking French or did you learn the language through spending time in Paris working for Disney?
I have been performing since I was a young girl. Like most children, I aspired to sing like my favourite Disney film stars. My first performance saw me star in a pantomime aged 13 alongside Esther Rantzen. It was an unforgettable experience.
I studied musical theatre at the Arts Educational School in London, where I honed my skills before going on to appear as a dancer in West End productions. I joined Disneyland Paris as a performer in 1993, appearing in the Beauty and the Beast show as a dancing jelly. My performance experience led me to join the team of Disney show directors in 2002. I’ve been lucky enough to conceive and direct shows and parades for Disneyland Paris, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Hong Kong Disneyland, Tokyo Disneyland and even a live television show linked to the 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing.
I studied French from junior school until the end of secondary school but between leaving school and joining Disneyland Paris I never spoke a word! Like every other British employee working at Disneyland Paris, I have had to work hard at learning the language and fully immerse myself in another culture. In my role a command of the language is essential in order to collaborate with your peers. I consider my fluency one of my key career achievements and one only made possible by coming to work at Disneyland Paris.
What do you find are the difference directing shows and entertainment between the various Disney parks? Do you approach projects in the same way or does it change from park to park?
I’ve been very fortunate in my career to work at a number of different Disney resorts across the world. Each resort is unique, but my job is to keep the magic and wonder of Disney alive across all of them!
As a show director, one of the challenges I face is how to tell stories to multinational audiences with varying cultural nuances. When you put on a show in somewhere like Paris or Hong Kong you can’t rely on language alone to tell the story. You need to find other solutions. Finding creative new ways to tell classic Disney stories is why I come to work. Whether it be through music, dance or visual storytelling – it’s all my passion. I like to explore new inventive ways to bring the Disney stories and characters alive and am especially interested in putting new technology into my shows.
Although each resort is different, every show at a Disney theme park is produced to a high-standard, offering guests the high-quality entertainment experiences that exceed their expectations and creates lasting memories of their visit.
You have been working for and with Disney for over 20 years, from starting as a performer to now acting as a spokesperson for the company. What are the biggest changes you have witnessed and been a part of in all this time?
Wow, it’s been over 20 years – how time flies!
I think one of the best things about working for Disney is that I get to work with classic, timeless stories. Although my job has certainly changed in the time I’ve been here, I am still working with the same fantastic characters, stories and music that I remember growing up.
The biggest change I have seen in this time is the introduction of mobile phones, digital cameras and the evolution of a society who are used to instant gratification. The resources that our guests now have mean that we have to pay even more attention to detail. These changes have been an advantage in our process for research or for graphics and modifications on artwork for example, but the time taken to develop and produce a show has not really changed.
How does the high-tech element of performing influence how you direct and stage your shows? Have you changed your directorial approach over the years to incorporate 3D lasers, fireworks, stunts, live broadcasting? How do you see the live show entertainment side developing in the future?
From its humble beginnings, Disney has always worked to incorporate the latest technology into its entertainment. I am therefore very fortunate to have access to a range of materials to create and direct my shows at Disneyland Paris.
Technology was fundamental in the creation of the show Disney Dreams! Each performance of Disney Dreams! brings together an astounding compilation of mapped projected images, fireworks, fountains, lasers and unforgettable storytelling. Thanks to our research and development we were able to create transformative imagery on the very ornate architecture of Sleeping Beauty Castle, an effect which is usually limited to flat surfaces or screens. This show received the accolade from the themed entertainment industry as the world’s best show.
I am continuously looking at new ways to develop our shows, parades and entertainment to keep classic Disney stories fresh and alive. Technological innovation will drive future direction and production of my shows – so audiences can expect to see a lot more of it!
What was it like being involved in the Beijing Olympics?
I worked on a live television show that was broadcast from Hong Kong Disneyland as part of coverage of the opening event. Each of the segments was themed and featured the Disney characters and cast members. It was thrilling to be linked live to such a prestigious event.
Casting: How do you select your actors? What do you look for? What makes a great Disney theme park performer? Do your change your approach in terms of French versus English speaking performers?
At Disney, we work hard to attract and retain the best international performers in the industry. I am proud to work with cast members from over one hundred different nationalities.
Disneyland Paris holds regular open auditions in the UK and across Europe to find fresh, new talent. It’s great to see the talent coming through from the UK and we recruit a significant percentage of our cast members from the London auditions – the UK has excellent schools for the performing arts and provides potential cast members with the skill and level of talent required to perform at Disneyland Paris.
The entertainment cast members are required to speak English or French, although we encourage all of our performers to learn French during their contract. The audition process allows us to identify talent and fit the right candidate to the right role within our show or parade cast.
Your workshops and mentoring talent – what drives you and what is the ethos and main focus of your mentoring and teaching message?
When it comes to the performing arts, I believe it’s important to put your heart into everything you do. I’ve always wanted to make audiences happy and create opportunities for escapism. I still get a kick out of working at Disney theme parks, as it allows me to release the inner child in me – something a lot of people don’t get to do in their day jobs. As a child, I remember Disneyland as being the most magical and wonderful place – and that remains true to this day.
In terms of mentoring talent, I think there are two things to take into consideration. While it’s important to defend your ideas, you should be willing to let them go when the time is right. I never try to ‘marry’ an idea.
Secondly, my advice to people is to watch, learn and read. Keep a notebook or a digital collection of your ideas and things that inspire you. And make sure you update it as you go along, because otherwise you’ll forget. I also believe it’s important to maintain your professional network. It takes time, but it’s easy to do – something as simple as sending a postcard or a Christmas card reminds people that you’re thinking of them.
Take us through the creative process of putting together new shows and entertainment material – do you have a team you work with to come up with and implement concepts? How long do these processes take and what are the different stages?
At Disneyland Paris I currently oversee a team of five directors, however we partner with different teams of designers and technical directors for each project. It is a diverse and hard-working group. And together, we work throughout the year on creating, designing and developing new entertainment for our guests.
We start every project with Blue Sky where we brainstorm ideas, research new methods or new characters. We then develop the show concepts – what it is, where it takes place, how do we do it, who is involved and what is the experience we want to offer our guests. This phase leads on to any technical studies, costume and set design, music composition and script writing. Once we have all of these elements we move into production where the project leaps from the paper into reality. This is when we do our auditions and record the music, while creating the scenery and costumes – rehearsals happen until we are ready to open the show.
Our year is divided up into seasonal shows and parades and bespoke entertainment experiences. We put on numerous special events and shows every year in our hotels and Disney Village.
It is a huge challenge to come up with new shows and parades to keep audiences engaged and visitors coming back. However, being able to take part in the creative cycle, from the writing to the directing, is a tremendously satisfying experience.
What are your future ambitions?
When I joined Disney over twenty years ago, I’d never have believed how far I’d progress – directing shows at some of the world’s best entertainment resorts. It has been an amazing experience and I have loved every minute of it!
In terms of future ambitions, I’d like to continue to explore immersive storytelling and find ways to incorporate tomorrow’s technology into our entertainment experiences. So many of today’s youngsters watch live events on mobile devices – even when they’re present at a live event! I’m working on how to bring the two together in a kinetic way. I hope to continue traveling and creating experiences for our parks around the world, including the future Shanghai Disney Resort in China (opening spring 2016).
Who is your inspiration and what do you believe makes an inspirational woman?
I’ve been fortunate to have some great leaders, and I’ve taken inspiration from them. Perhaps it was a method, an attitude a philosophy. The wonderful thing about working with so many diverse teams is that I’m able to take pieces from everywhere and build my own way of working. I think an inspiring woman is one who is open to all new ideas – someone who can guide and facilitate the development of something unique. It’s someone who will defend something that she believes is right. It’s also someone who is aware of the ever-changing world in which we live, and is ready to challenge old methods to bring in fresh new ways of thinking. It’s important that we nurture young talent and support them to go further than we did.
To find out more about Katy and Disney Dreams! please see here