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Interview with performer Katie Monks- training, injuries and positive and negative fitness

I first met Katie Monks (@katiemonkslifeandfitness) on a production of ‘Fame the Musical’ we performed on a cruise ship for 2 months, where she physically trained several of us in the cast, inspiring me to go and do my qualification in Personal training. Katie has performed in several productions including the ‘Happy Days UK Tour, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show UK Tour’, ‘The Body Guard’ and ‘Pretty Woman the Musical’ and continues to inspire others to get active on her Instagram @katiemonksfitnessforlife as well as instructing for @fit_birds_fitness.

I had such a good chat with Katie about her musical theatre training, her work in the gym and her professional career where she was very open and honest about her experiences.

You both trained in musical theatre and qualified as a personal trainer, can you tell me about your experiences through your training and why you decided to qualify as a PT?

OK so my first year at college I was primarily training on the dance course, I went to a college that's quite small and it was actually linked to Reynolds training Academy which is the gym that actually runs alongside. Emma Reynolds created her empire Reynolds and that was a gym primarily but then she opened up the Dance Academy.

It had been a dance school for many years but I think because its slightly outside of London, people didn’t really know it existed, Which is such a shame because had the most inspiring industry professional teachers! But because I lived in Kent it was perfect for me. In my first year I studied on the Dance course, however there was a musical theatre course that had only just started that year. In my second year I spoke to my teachers who said I think you should move on to musical Theatre course, I said okay well if you think that's the right route for me then I'm going to trust you and I'm going to go for it.

In my second year I moved over to the musical theatre course as i felt I really needed to work on my singing and acting if I was going to have a shot at the industry. In my first year we had the option to either do our ISTD teacher training, or to become a Level 3 personal trainer. I Chose the PT course as I hadn’t taken any previous ISTD exams. So in the first year we did our level 2 and then on passing did our Leve 3. I can’t remember whether it took 2 or 3 years to complete (it was a long time ago) But I left Reynolds with a National Diploma in Dance and as a Level 3 Personal Trainer.

And you suffered with an injury during your training, can you tell me more about that?

So, I had a Patella dislocation in my left knee, I injured it when I was 14 and then that injury just kept coming back and back and back. I did it in drama when I was playing and I felt it, though when you're young you don't think, and it sort of felt a bit different but then that summer it went away. Then it wasn't until I was physically active, you know 8 hours a day at college, I said something’s creeping in a little bit here.

So in my second year I had surgery in my left knee. I had what’s called a tibial tuberosity which is where they slightly move your tibia over to correct the alignment in your knee joint, in doing so they had to shave part of my knee cap away because it was just so battered from recurrent dislocations. Then I went back into my third year.

So how was that recovery period?

It was a lot. I couldn’t walk for nearly 8 months.

I was on crutches, the muscle just completely disappeared by not being able to be physically active. My mental health for the first time, I'd say, ever, was massively impacted. You go through ebbs and flows of feeling like do I want to become a performer, is this what I want to do and then you do a jazz class and you're like yeah I think I do, yeah it brings me a lot of happiness but then add an injury on to that and you can feel pretty defeated.

So when you don't have a choice in the matter and it's literally being swept from underneath your feet, you want it even more. At this point, I was 21. I was like this is what I want to do forever. The come-back game was going to be strong and it was going to be worth it. Or so I thought. Then the injury just kept creeping back, but I stripped it back to physio. After my surgery I had to do physio before every single class, I just tried my hardest.

So, were you really ‘on it’ with your physio and the exercises that you were given?

Yeah, I had to, I had no other option. And I think the biggest thing for me was I got so depressed once I had the operation and I had a slight infection within my knee which meant that I then had to wait another couple of months for the infection to heal, so that I could go to physio once the inflammation and the infection had gone. But in doing so, the knock-on effects, mentally, were so debilitating. I'm like, this isn't going to happen for me. Even the doctor said to me you know maybe you should think about doing you know something different. And I said, that's not an option for me. Normally they’ll say you're young you'll bounce back, but these things weren’t being said to me and it was a lot to take in.

When I was late starting my rehabilitation I hit a bit of a brick wall with it and I stopped for a couple of weeks, and my knee was so stiff they said to me, if you don't try and move it yourself we're going to have to put you under anaesthetic brake the scar tissue and then will start again from there and I was like “I’ll move it, I’ll move it!” It was the shock to the system I needed because I knew from that moment I couldn’t rest and not do my physio because it was either do it, or don’t perform.

I had a few niggles in my third year but I kept going, I kept doing my physio. I was actually known at college for having a little green candle that used to bring in my bag to just pop it under and just do a few VMO (Vastus Medialis Oblique- one of the quadriceps muscles on the inside front of the thigh, just above the knee) extensions, I'll just get that muscle working before class, stick a rolled up towel underneath and work on my knee extension. My full extension didn't come back until the last few months of my third year, but I just kept pushing it and I went for it and I kept going and hoping that it was going to be okay. I just wanted to make it through to the end of my third year, I didn't care what happened after that, which is ridiculous!

It’s just the most important thing to you at the time isn't it.

Yeah, but I couldn't be more different now. It's so bizarre how when you're younger you feel like everything that's happening in that moment, feels so utterly important, like it’s the only option you have. And it's funny because, having injuries later on in my career I do have had those doubts, you do think; is this the one that's gonna break the camel's back and is it going to mean that I can't dance anymore. But you're in a different mindset, well for me personally, I'm in the mindset of you know if it is, I know I really tried and I did try my hardest and I did do the physio, my body is just not wanting to do it anymore. Which is actually the softener that my mum says to me when I get injured, you tried your hardest!

You have to get to that place; you have to be okay with that realisation that that could be your future. Otherwise it's just heart breaking. It’s awful having injuries. Not only is it your body's way of saying okay we need to be kinder to yourself, you also feel a little bit like why is my body not working with me here, you feel so hard done by.

So you had done your Personal Training qualification while at drama school, is that what had gotten you into adding more gym based/ resistance training into your routine?

I had a bit of downtime from it because I was so focused on my physio and my performing career and always saw the gym to be so taxing that I couldn’t possibly do it whilst auditioning or doing shows. Then on my 1st [professional] job I needed to take my Physio to the next level. I was on a UK tour, ‘Happy Days’ a new musical, and again the green candle, she came with me. But when the green candle stopped working and I wasn't gaining the strength around my knees, it was merely mobilisation and you know fine-tuning the joint, ligaments and tendons, but I needed to build proper muscle.

So I got my membership to the gym and I literally just used to do VMO exercises and glute med exercises. I was maxing out on cardio in rehearsals, but on the way back from rehearsals, I would go into the gym and I’d do my VMO exercises and my glute med exercises…and my candle work!

The more vigorous training would only have probably been integrated after that job. I got a taste for it on that job, and I saw a lot of other performers around me going to the gym. When you graduate, you're like dancing in the show so exhausting, like I can fit in a gym session, and all of these people were doing it. I then started to think, hang on a minute, should I be doing this? And I think I knew at this point when I started to plateau in the show I needed to have that extra physical activity to stay strong and increase my stamina further. So probably towards the end of my first job I started to integrate it so yeah, quite late.

How did you find that the strengthening and then more vigorous work you were doing in the gym then impacted your performance on stage?

Technically definitely, because my alignment was a lot more focused. I remember being at college and feeling like my knees would knock and then when I started doing the glute med exercises and the VMO my alignment from my hips all the way down to my ankles was just so much straighter. And that was going to be something I had to keep up because I felt like if I'd worked those muscles, I was then hyperaware within a show because the muscle memory was there.

And that technique worked for me, I guess my knee pushed me to the point where I couldn't just rest on my laurels and think I'll get through the show, I had to really think about it. So yes, it did help me physically but then you do take an element of it away from the performance because you're so focused on thinking about all these things I think about- it’s hectic! Having an injury is all encompassing, it’s the first thing you think of in the morning and the last thing you think of at night.

How do you think that all your training has not only impacted your dance but impacted your career as a whole?

Okay, I think its impacted my career aesthetically and there should be no aesthetic or expectation of what a dancer looks like, which is something that is positively changing right now in the industry. However I have been put in boxes because I look quite athletic. Like the strong dancer that looks like she can back flip (I cant) I think its impacted my career due to looking muscular (as a result of my training) by the shows I've been cast in. I have always worn barely any clothes (sorry mum) which to be honest has for me, made me put pressure on myself to look a certain way, and when you're young, well for me I definitely took that to the extreme.

Like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’, I had to be in underwear, so I know that the team would have had to believe I feel confident on stage in my underwear. Even if I definitely had some tears due to body confidence. ‘[The] Bodyguard’, again, you don't even wear tights. Never did I ever think that I wasn’t going to wear tights. For me I knew my body had to look a certain way for me to feel comfortable not wearing tights. And even ‘Fame’ I had to wear the tightest green spandex. So yeah, potentially it may have impacted the jobs that I’ve done. Also to be completely honest I train my body to feel strong regardless of what it looks like, I love feeling strong and have always trained for that reason. (We do speak more about theatre aesthetics and how this has changed later on.)

How about mentally, confidence-wise, do you think that has helped you in that sense?

I think it has helped and hindered. It depends on the social situation you're in. For me, for instance, on ‘Fame’, and I can say it now because you know I'm in a much better place, because we had so much time on that ship, It's the first experience that I had been content with in a relationship, because when I was on the happy days UK tour my relationship was breaking down and I sort of used exercise as my positive outlet. Whereas on ‘Fame’, I used it massively negatively.

As much as I would always preach to you guys when you're working out make sure you're complementing that with the correct food you're having a balanced diet and stuff whereas I was contradicting everything I was saying- I was over working at the gym and I was under eating. It was my coping mechanism at the time, because I missed Joe, who I am still with, so much and we didn’t have any routine on that ship other than doing 2 shows every single day, it was exhausting. It was my coping mechanism.

So I guess fitness has positively impacted my life when I'm in a positive headspace and I think that's why I came to the conclusion, actually after ‘Rocky Horror Show UK Tour’ like I think I need to stay at home for little while and feel all round happiness. And I had to make the conscious decision that, you know, work might not happen, if I choose to stay at home, but for my mental health I knew that being at home with Joe was what made me happy and going to the gym and pushing myself beyond my limits with injuries it wasn't making me mentally happy anymore. That was a huge step that I took.

Having had these experiences, having gone through the injury and impacts on your training, having used fitness positively and negatively and making those decisions and taking that action for yourself; what advice would you give to current or aspiring musical theatre performers?

I think it's the most crucial to understand from the very beginning to listen to your body and not only be kind to your body, respect it. Training professionally is really hard and you put your body through so much. Don't try and do too much, eat the right things because that's the only fuel that's going to better you and enable you to become stronger and perfect your technique and dance for the hours and hours on end. Body MOT, check in, go for massages.

Do this whilst in training so that you're already in that positive mindset to take you forward into your career.

What else would I say…knowledge is power, If there's something that's niggling you do your research in it don't just push past it understand and really know what is going on.

Also I think one of the biggest things is, and I'm so happy it's changed now, is that stigma being removed on how you should look the industry to fit a certain category, obviously when I was auditioning for stuff like 6/7 years ago the aesthetic was in a totally different vision than it is now and I think it's fantastic, it's amazing. Be happy in the skin you are in, know your body, know its worth and know that that's why we're all in this industry, it has so many different roles and positions out there for everyone because everybody's body is perfect and we fit in somewhere…we all fit in.

Just be kind to yourself.

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