Before we announce the winners of the 2011 My Theatre Awards, we’re proud to present the My Theatre Nominee Interview Series.

A My Theatre favourite on the Stratford Festival stage, Laura Condlln stole her scenes in Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peter Pan before starring in the 2011 season’s best cast as the scheming Mistress Page in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Now entering her 11th season with North America’s most prestigious Classical Theatre Company, Laura took the time to answer a few questions before she heads into rehearsals in a couple days.

Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
First experience in theatre? Oh, wow. Uh, hmmmm. Well, no. I mean, yeah. I mean, no. I um, I don’t know if this really counts. I certainly, I had the best time. I was part of this troupe called The York Minstrels. It was this amateur theatre troupe that operated in North York, and they were very good to cast me in some shows. I was very very keen. But that wasn’t until—that was in Grade 9. But before that I went to this grade school that’s amazing. It’s got all of the arts programs going and so I guess my audition for that was theatre, and then my very first part in the play, called The Big Deal, which was written by the best, the hugest mentor of my entire life, my Grade 4 Drama teacher, and I played the Queen of Spades. It was a big bit. It was all a lesson about racism and bullying and acceptance and all that stuff. But we did it—we toured it around school, and we had costumes and sets that we put together, and a whole troupe of Grades 4, 5, and 6s, you can imagine, all acting. But before that I had such an interest. I’m an only child, and I was always dabbling in something pretend. *Laughs* Anyway, I don’t know if that’s helpful, but that’s the truth.

And how did you get started with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival?
I was really very lucky. I had just graduated school—I went to the University of Windsor, I got my BFA, and then I graduated in 2001. And that spring, I auditioned for the conservatory training program in Stratford. I went in, and I did—I think I was supposed to do two monologues, perhaps three—two classical, and one contemporary. At least, that’s what I had prepared. And I got in front of Richard Monette, who was the most amazing man. And he—the three pieces weren’t enough. He kept saying, “What else have you got? What else have you got? What else have you got?” And I spent like, 25 minutes in there, it was amazing. I even sang a song, searching the heavens for anything else I might offer him, short of giving him my blood or my firstborn. *laughs* And from there—that was my first audition—from there I got a callback and I went back and I did much the same—not as many pieces—but sort of went through my little act again, and I didn’t get hired. And that was okay. I was still sort of getting used to the audition routine, certainly in Toronto, where I’d just moved and started living, like, the adult actor life.

But then I got a call, when I was on shift, at the Hot House Café, from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, offering me a job. Not as part of the conservatory training, which is what I had auditioned for, but as a member of their Apprenticeship Program, which doesn’t exist now, but at the time, Canadian Actor’s Equity had apprentices in many theatres in the country, and you didn’t have a lot of responsibility, but you certainly were there to observe. It was like a typical apprenticeship that a plumber or an electrician would do, just in the arts. And I, in the end, was replacing another actor in the company, who had been successful in getting acceptance to the Conservatory training program. So I came into the season, partway through, through a very random thing, and it was rare, and it has never happened again, but I joined the company in July—July 1st, as a matter of fact—for their 50TH season, which was kind of an extraordinary time, because it was—the celebration was huge, and especially for me, just out of school, I had just barely one professional credit under my belt, and I was just a kid in a candy… universe. Totally mind blowing. I mean, the actors that I was in the building with, let alone in the room with, let alone, on stage with, was remarkable.

So I joined—the machine was already running at full tilt, because they start in February/March—so I joined, and learned my duties by watching the girl I was replacing from the audience. I joined in The Scarlet Pimpernel, and I watched the show, and I got one rehearsal—I didn’t get a lot of responsibilities—I mean, I did get my head cut off, *Laughs* which was sort of a terrifying prospect, having never been in a theatre of that size, of that caliber, of props and sets and how everything runs so efficiently. And then the huge treasure of the contract was that I joined Christopher Plummer’s King Lear, from the beginning, ‘cause at Stratford they have things called “late openers” which don’t start rehearsing usually until June or July, and then they open later in August. And in this case, they started rehearsing in July, and I was able to join that show from the very beginning. So, it was my very first, kind of, bird’s eye view and experience of a rehearsal process in a repertory company. But also, the stakes were so high. Doctor—I mean, Sir Dr. Jonathan Miller—was directing, this man whose reputation is huge, and Christopher. I mean, it was sensational, to watch him, in rehearsal. It was amazing! So that was my first—that was my entry.

And you’ve been there for 11 years—
Yeah, this will be my eleventh. This coming season will be my 11th. I’m very, very, very lucky, and very grateful. They’ve been very good to me there.

What have been some of your favorite roles?
Well, top of the list would be Helena, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

That was my favorite performance of yours!
Oh, *Laughs* thank you!

That was a gift. And one, frankly, if I am honest with myself, and you, it’s one that’s hard to top, because it meant so much to me at the time. I really, really fought to get the role. I will never be able to thank David Grindley enough for giving me that opportunity. It was a long production- lots of opinions about whether the vision worked—but for me it didn’t matter, I just wanted to play that part and go on that adventure, and do that journey. So it certainly is the one that tugs at my heart the most, I would say, closely followed by Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan, which was, I think, an amazing production, helmed by a great director, Tim Carroll—certainly a man that I would follow to the ends of the earth to work with again. And then that would be closely followed by my experience—we did an outdoor show, about five years ago, four years ago—they built an outdoor space—

…the one about Shakespeare’s women?
Yeah!  That was conceived and directed by Peter Hinton, who is a man that I have adored and respected for a very long time and his brain is… not really matched by anyone I’ve ever met. Because he’s just so… well, “smart” just doesn’t come close to explaining how smart he is. He’s incredible, and also he took care of us with such a huge heart and such passion for the work, and for humans, and for actors, and it was an amazing time, and we were just our own little company. Six people, which is unheard of at Stratford, because we’re a rep company. But in this case, we only did that show. So the six of us just did Shakespeare’s Universe, eight times a week, in this beautiful outdoor space. It happened to be a very rainy summer, so we were often shifted and shunted into different spaces, but the show must go on, so we always gave an audience a show. It was great. It was amazing… and eclectic.

You mentioned Mrs. Darling, I wanted to ask you about that. It’s such a small part but actually, in the narration, JM Barrie says that Mrs. Darling is his favourite character, and the most important character. How did you wrap your head around that?
You know, that was very daunting. I guess it was really daunting because I feel that the play’s about mothers. It’s about a lot of things, but there’s a very maternal theme that carries through the story. And I myself am not a mother yet, and… I, certainly, in theory, know what mothers are, and what being a mother might be, but to be THE mother in the story—in Peter Pan—I was very trepidacious about that, for sure. But it’s one of those things like, you can’t act being the narrator’s favourite character, and that’s certainly a little coaching that I would tell myself, “It doesn’t matter what the narrator says, I just have to do my job and put my children to bed, and love them and hope that they’re going to be okay.” I mean, I could never predict that the window would be burst open by a small light fairy, *laughs* and a strange boy would come in and kidnap them. So I can’t play any part of that story, except the job that I have to do, which is just to love them with every fiber of my being and that is certainly where I tried to put my attention, and focus, and energy. And also, I had the most beautiful dress I have ever seen. Ever. And that really helps. It really helps make me feel kind of soft and lovely and like I could sing a lullaby and get away with it. 

And who are some of your favorite people to work with? You mentioned Peter Hinton.
Mmm. Tim Carroll for sure. I mean, actors… Lucy [Peacock], Tom Rooney, Seana [McKenna], Yanna McIntosh, who I’ll be spending some time with this summer. Oh gosh, you know, there are people that I’m dying to work with, but that I haven’t worked with yet. I haven’t spent a lot of time with Antoni Cimolino [General Director and newly appointed Artistic Director of The Stratford Shakespeare Festival], in terms of playing a principle role for him, but he runs a really amazing rehearsal room. He really cares so much about the actors and provides an environment for real play and exploration. And Frank [Galati]—in terms of Merry Wives of Windsor—Frank, I’ve never met a more generous and supportive kind of galvanizing with his whole heart kind of director. So that was, that was also very special. 

Oh, you know who I want to add? Matthew Jocelyn, who’s now the artistic director at Canadian Stage, and I worked at Can[Stage earlier this year]. And Jennifer Tarver, who [I worked with on a] series of Beckett’s plays at the Berkeley Street Theatre, co-produced by Queen of Puddings Music Theatre, which is this amazing music company, well, they’re not necessarily a theatre company, but they do a lot of theatrical music, and anyway we [were] doing this play called Beckett: Feck it!, and it is four Beckett shorts interspersed with some music that perhaps was inspired by the writings of Samuel Beckett, and most of them are trumpet and Soprano duets which are kind of amazing, the whole thing—I’ve never been part of such an amazingly eclectic evening. [It was] so great, and Beckett shorts are wild, and intricate, and … it makes you really think. I mean, we could dig, and we could talk about them forever, and some of them are four minutes long. The longest one, I think, might have run 20-25 minutes, and the other ones are so, so short. But so much happens. I’d never done a Beckett before, so it was a great, kind of crazy adventure.

Merry Wives had probably the strongest ensemble cast of the season. I saw that cast list come out and said, “They just put all their big names in one play.”
Yeah, it’s pretty remarkable. But the company is like that. You sort of look around and it’s so very humbling to be in the company with such extraordinary talents. Not to mention, good humans. You know, and there’s a saying Des [McAnuff] says often: “The bench strength in the company is pretty astounding.” Because it is. I mean, even people playing supportive and ensemble roles, their presence is huge, as is their resume, as is their experience, as is their skill. And it’s tough in a company. You’ll often hear the women kind of grumble and groan because the classics are tough, they’re really tough. We live in a company where the mandate is just, in general, better for the men. But then we take a look at this past summer, and there’s Seana, playing Richard III. I know that next summer Sophia Walker is playing the Boy in Henry V, and so there is room for us to get our elbows out and to get down and dirty with the boys. And every once in a while there will come a play like Trojan Women, or well, we haven’t done a [female-driven] Tremblay in a while, but—or maybe some of the Irish work where there’s going to be a slew of parts for women. That’s exciting, because then a whole bunch of fantastic actresses get to sink their teeth into something really fantastically meaty, you know?

How did you approach Mistress Page?
With lots of patience. I tend to overwork. Like, I work, I work, I work, I work. For a while I forgot that it was a play, and it’s a very lighthearted play. And so I had to keep reminding myself just that it was a play. And that she was playing—that she was teaching this guy—that they were teaching this guy, this man, a much-needed lesson, but it all needed to be fun. And that’s something people lose sight of, I think—well, certainly for me, it is, to have fun while doing it. *Laughs* And so much of it is very, very silly. And of course with Ger[aint Wyn Davies] in the room, he’s just got a twinkle in his eye all the time, he’s so mischievous, and just a little imp. And it’s also interesting because that play is all in prose. And a bulk of my Shakespeare experience has been in verse, and that sounds really academic to say, but they’re different. It’s just different. And so, in verse, I discovered that—that it was not as easy as one might think… to make sense of the prose. The prose can be like conversation, but in Shakespearean times—like, in Elizabethan language—some of those thoughts go on for a really long time, whereas in the verse you’ve got the structure and the rhythm to really help you. The prose is just a little bit trickier to make sense of, so I started on the page, just trying to make sense of the text. And then in the room, everybody was so playful and patient as we sort of worked out the scenes as well as the gags. Like, the basket scene is very, very famous and it’s really challenging also, so you know, but just layer by layer, sort of carving away at it. And not forgetting to have fun.

You’re slated to come back this season. What are you playing?
Well, I am going to play Irene Molloy in The Matchmaker, with a director—Chris Abraham—who I’m really really excited to work with. I just respect him so much. His work is so good. And then later in the season, I will be in Elektra, at the Tom Patterson Theatre, which again I’m really really looking forward to. I’ve never done a Greek play, so I’m really excited about that. And also the ensemble there is astounding, and Thomas [Moschopoulos, the director of Elektra] is coming over from Greece and, I think, bringing much of his Greek tradition to his process. It should prove to be very, very interesting. Our chorus is entirely made up of women, and singers, actually. So I think much of it is actually going to be sung, in perhaps—well, I mean, the rumors I’ve heard are that there’s going to be traditional Greek, well, not wailing, but it has that kind of real, from the gut, from the womb, kind of sound and feeling, so that should prove to be really powerful and intriguing project.

When do you go into rehearsals for those?
Well, I’m actually also—we have these things called non-appearing understudies at the Festival, because everybody has lots of responsibilities, and everything needs to be covered, just in case something goes wrong—so I’ll be a non-appearing understudy in Cymbeline, and that’s actually first. I start that March 2nd, and then Matchmaker starts, I think three days later, or something like that.

So are you learning all of Imogen’s part and you might not do it?
Well, I don’t think I’ll be covering Imogen, but that is the thing. Like, I’ve certainly done that before, where—like, last year, I was in the show, I was in Richard III, but I covered Yanna, who played Elizabeth, and I never went on. But it is my responsibility to be able to fill that gap, should the situation arise.  Um, and I did it once, I covered Lucy, actually, in—David Latham directed Othello a few years ago, I don’t know if you saw it—but Lucy played Emilia, and Jonathan Goad played Iago, and Claire—anyway, it doesn’t matter. And I wasn’t in that show. But I covered that, and I never went on. It’s just one of those things. You’ve got to call the theatre, and you’ve got to be available, and you’ve got to be close by just in case anything happens, so that you can come to the theatre and go on. And it’s happened. People go on halfway through the show sometimes.

Do you try and see every play in the season?
Oh, definitely. At least once.

Did you have any favorites in 2011?
The Little Years was my favorite of last season. I mean, it’s hard, right? With so many amazing performances, but in terms of the whole thing, the whole production, everything—Little Years was my favorite. I just loved it.

Do you have any dream roles you’re still itching to play?
Oh yeah. I’ve gotta—I mean, who knows if this will ever happen, but I really, really, really want to play Rosalind in As You Like It. I love her so much. Maybe, maybe still. I think I got some time. Just a little bit, but…. so, we’ll see.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
No, I’m just so—thank you so much for, first of all your interest and your support. It’s kind of amazing, and lovely.