Interview with Ollie Ward

Senior School

After a 10 hour flight and a lack of sleep, nothing could dampen our excitement as Mrs Ward (English Teacher and Year 11 tutor) and I arrived in downtown San Francisco. Having left a soggy February Britain behind us, the warm sunshine and bright blue skies were a welcome change and certainly matched our moods.

We had travelled to California to watch Ollie Ward’s (aka. Oliver Kearney – his stage name) professional debut at the San Francisco opening night of The Last Ship, a musical written by Sting telling the story of the dying shipbuilding industry in the North East of England. Ollie began a US national tour with the show in Los Angeles on 22 January, where the cast were greeted by a star-studded crowd including Dustin Hoffman, Annie Lennox, Pierce Brosnan and Sting’s Police bandmates Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers. 

I met an extremely happy Ollie in an American diner for breakfast where he answered my questions with an unbroken smile throughout!

When were you at the school and who was the Headmaster?

I joined Year 7 in 2008 and left after completing my A Levels in 2015. Ian Galbraith was the Headmaster and Nicholas Weaver arrived when I was in Year 9.

Which House did you belong to and who was your Head of House?

I was in Felaw and the Housemaster/ Head of House was Steve Blunden, what a guy!

What did you do in the co-curricular programme whilst at school?

Oh gosh, this is why I stayed at Ipswich School, as I had intended to go to Suffolk One or Northgate for Sixth Form because I couldn’t do Drama at A Level. The co-curricular provision was what kept me at Ipswich School, the CCF Army was a massive part of my school life from Year 10 onwards culminating with the rank of Corporal in Year 13 and the desire to make the Army my career.

I also threw myself into sport, I played 1st XV rugby alongside singing in Chapel Choir and Show Choir and playing in Orchestra and Big Band.  I played trumpet in Big Band but also got to sing with them in our Festival of Music in 2013; those experiences I still hold dear, even now. What was great about the sports department was that they were really supportive of other co-curricular activities and there were always sports staff at the music competitions cheering me on. I especially appreciated that nobody was at odds with each other, conflicts between activities were solved quickly.

I did go through a period in Year 9, as an angsty teenager, when I didn’t want to sing in Chapel Choir anymore as I just wanted to play rugby all the time; however, I got over that as I had some of the best times of my life singing and touring with Chapel Choir.

I always credit Bev Steensma (our Director of Music) for getting me to where I am now as she encouraged me to sing in the Prep Choir in Year 6 and then recommended that I join Chapel Choir in Year 7.  Others were so supportive of my busy co-curricular life and I definitely would not have been able to cope without it. David Walsh (the Head of Lower School) and Andrew Bradshaw, our Head of Middle School, organised my life for me from Year 7 to Year 12, where Zos Austin, the amazing woman that is, took over! Without their pastoral support, I would not have been able to manage my academic work and my co-curricular stuff. Throughout the Lower School, David Walsh was instrumental in keeping me singing in the Chapel Choir and Andrew Leach’s energy kept me well and truly captivated more widely within the music department.

Tell me about who or what inspired you during your time at school?

I’m sorry, but it is going to be a long, long list! It certainly began in the Prep. Kathy Hauxwell (former Prep teacher) and Andrea Govan (former Prep Deputy Head) directed me in the Year 6 play, Lady Lollipop, as the dancing pig!

Throughout the senior school, every music teacher, sports teacher and member of CCF Army played a part in encouraging me to pursue my many passions and inspired me to be the best I could be.  One person who stands out at the point when I could not decide which direction to take was Nick Weaver. His advice was what led me to choose acting over becoming a soldier or a sports scientist, for which I am really grateful.

During my time at the school though, there is one person who I have to talk about, although she will kill me for it and that is Mrs Ward, teacher of English, my Mum. She became Head of Drama as I joined Year 7 and I was determined not to get too heavily involved in plays because of who she was. I took ensemble parts in Year 7 and 8 productions and then in the Middle School, she did Blood Wedding by Federico García Lorca and Leonardo had to drop out shortly before the show and she forced me to step in to help them out last minute.  I went on and the rush I got was incredible. After that, I threw myself into every show, Guys and Dolls, 39 Steps, We Will Rock You and all the way through, Mum was so supportive, she never pushed me in one direction or another and kept telling me to do what made me happy.  She is so humble and there’s no other woman like her. She’s an absolute genius.

What was your most memorable moment at the school?

Guys and Dolls – that was the moment I realised I could do this for a living.  I was playing alongside Midge Parry and Old Ipswichian Ben Parry (Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain and co-Director of the professional choir London Voices) came to rehearsals and gave us some coaching because he had already played Nathan in the West End.  He is an absolute genius. Everything about the show was fantastic. Marjoke Henrich’s set was stunning. The band was amazing and was organised by Andrew Leach; it consisted mostly of staff and pupils from the school. The stage management team, lighting and sound were exceptional and also all involved students; it was simply like having a professional show within a school.

Ollie with Midge Parry in Guys and Dolls, December 2012. Photo: Mike Kwasniak

What happened next after Ipswich School?

I took a gap year and stayed in Ipswich where I worked in a bar as I had a deferred place at Edinburgh University. I performed in Sweeney Todd with The New Wolsey and then chilled out for a year. Then it occurred to me that if I didn’t try acting as a profession, I may get to 60 and regret it. I applied to a couple of drama schools and attended auditions and then was called to audition at Mountview. I remember coming out and saying to Mum “that’s where I’m going to go.”

It was such a familial environment there.  I was called back several times and then one Saturday morning, I remember looking at my phone and noticing that I had a voicemail. I listened to it expecting a message from O2 only to discover that it was Stephen Jameson, the Principal at Mountview offering me a place. I jumped out of bed, hit my head on the ceiling and fell back onto the bed. And the rest is, as they say, history!

What are you doing currently and what led you here?

So after breakfast, I am heading to the Golden Gate Theatre to rehearse for our opening night in San Francisco. We’ve just spent a month and a half in Los Angeles and will leave here at the end of March to complete the rest of the US tour. To get to this point, whilst I was in the third year at Mountview, we did three shows and a showcase where agents come and see you perform and hopefully offer you a contract. I was really lucky that Curtis Brown, one of the leading agents in the industry, came to see my first show, American Idiot – the Green Day Rock Musical; they offered me a place on their books which was so exciting as they were my dream agent.

When I finished at Mountview in May, I started going to auditions and then went to an audition for The Last Ship in June. I got the call offering me a place on the cast in July but I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone until November. We headed to Los Angeles on the 6th January. I had got equally far with another show, but I am so glad that I chose this one as working with Sting is amazing.

My Dad has always been a huge Police and Sting fan and Dad’s music taste actually provided me with a great platform and inspiration to pursue a career involving music. We have shared this love of Sting’s music since I was 8 years old, so on the first day of rehearsals, I was really starstruck.

What lies ahead for the coming year?

We finish the tour on April 28th, fly back to London and back to the slog of going to auditions, bar work and teaching kids – slightly less glamorous than the press night in LA! Hopefully, I will get another job, but we are actors first and waiters or bar staff second! [Editor’s note: Unfortunately the show was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the shutting of all theatres]

What would you tell your teenage self?

I wouldn’t do much differently because I think it was important to discover many of the lessons I’ve learnt myself. I would say that everything is going to be alright. There were things that were massively important to me then, but in reality, they were miniscule in relation to where I am now in my life.  Have confidence in your own choices and your own ability. Trust your own feelings, they are valid.

What advice would you give to those interested in pursuing a similar interest?

Throw yourself into the co-curricular life of your school. You should pursue your passion whatever that is; there are so many different aspects to this industry and something for all tastes. The industry is so diverse and part of its beauty is that it is really accepting. We always get told as actors to have a backup plan, in case it doesn’t work out. However, that can be negative, and hold you back.  Just get stuck in and remain focused on your goal. 

The New Wolsey in Ipswich and The Mercury in Colchester are excellent for young actors and have a really good youth programme. I don’t want to sugarcoat the process, it is difficult and many will tell you that the market is saturated, but persistence pays off. If anyone has any questions, please get in touch through Twitter or Instagram.

Twitter @OliverKearney4 
Instagram @okayactor