We are not exaggerating when we say that Seana McKenna is the iconic leading lady of her generation in North American classical theatre. She’s unmatched in both status and scope of career and no Canadian performer has been mentioned more than Seana in answer to the question “what artists have inspired you?” (a question we’ve posed to hundreds of actors over 5 years of the Nominee Interview Series). Her steadfast and stirring performance in Brecht’s epic Mother Courage at the festival where she made her name was a perfect encapsulation of that legacy.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
As a child, I played quite obsessively with puppets. My father built a puppet theatre for me, and I spent hours creating stories with them. My next-door neighbour was an actress named Elizabeth Walsh, and apparently I asked her, as an eager eight year-old, if she would direct the neighbourhood kids in a play. She did, the first one being Pandora’s Box. We did a few more, and put them on at Briarcrest Public School. We also did radio plays over the school intercom with our librarian. The first professional play I ever saw was Mame with Angela Lansbury, on a dinner-date with my Dad. Roast-beef dinner at Honest Ed’s before, of course.
What actors and actresses have always inspired you?
My first exposure to acting was film, and my heroines were Anna Magnani and Joanne Woodward. On stage, my inspirations were the great Charmion King, Martha Henry, Jennifer Phipps, Frances Hyland and Douglas Rain. Later, it was the revelatory Passe Muraille crowd: Janet Amos, Anne Anglin, David Fox, Eric Peterson, Terry Tweed and yes, my far-in-the-future husband, Miles Potter. Later I got to work with the extraordinary Douglas Campbell and inimitable Brian Bedford, who passed on their passion, tenacity, and work ethic. Bernard Hopkins was also an invaluable mentor.
We ask every person who joins the Nominee Interview Series the previous question. Over 5 years and hundreds of interviewees, your name has been mentioned more than any other Canadian performer. How conscious are you of your legacy and the effect your career has had on generations of aspiring artists?
I am surprised, and touched by this. As a stage actor in Canada, you really need to repeat the mantra “It’s about the work, it’s about the work, it’s about the work”, because it certainly isn’t about fame nor fortune. I think all actors who trod the boards in this county put down footprints for others to step in. They say with each footfall, “This is possible, right here at home”. We often tell ourselves that if one person is affected tonight, changed, moved, provoked, it was worth it. So it is gratifying and humbling to know that it does indeed happen, and that we may have even lured some young people into the theatre tribe. When young actors say they saw me when they were growing up, I am pleased. I can own that now; it was a bit disheartening at thirty.
Do you feel like that icon status gives you some artistic freedom or does it simply add pressure to live up to some sort of legend?
Icon? Omg. Meg Roe used to tease me with that name a decade ago, and it still sounds alarming, like a perfect statue of stone; I have always preferred the cracks. As for artistic freedom, I have always felt I had it. Unless you are creating your own work or your own company, the actor’s only power is a simple, ” No, thank you” to offers of work. I have said that a lot, even as a young actor, when nothing else was coming up. I think working with many people over many years opens doors for you, and gives you more choice, and consequently, more freedom. As for living up to my legendary past – that makes me chortle.
Let’s go back a bit. How did you get your start at the Stratford Festival? Do you remember your first time on the Festival Stage?
I was offered a job at the Festival by Robin Phillips when I was in my last year at The National Theatre School of Canada. Wanting to graduate, I declined. I auditioned for John Hirsch for his first season in 1981, and was not hired. But the next year they offered me a part on the mainstage, which I declined. Then they asked me if I would consider being part of a new company called The Shakespeare 3 Company at the Tom Patterson Theatre ( then called the Third Stage, and in the round). It was a training company, led by Kristin Linklater and her team. No parts assigned for the two Shakespeare plays we would do, several weeks training, 12 young people and four senior mentors. I jumped at it. The next year, 1983, I moved to the Festival Stage as Mariane in Tartuffe, directed by John Hirsch; the Second Weird Sister in Des MacAnuff’s Macbeth and As Cast in Hirsch’s As You Like It. I understudied Roberta Maxwell as Lady Macbeth and Rosalind. I cannot remember the very first time I set foot on that stage, but each first time is …magic.
What was your first big role at the festival?
Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream that first year at the Patterson. I went on three times for Roberta in As You Like It. The first leading role on the Festival Stage, that I actually rehearsed, was Juliet.
Over 23 seasons, what have been some of your favourite roles?
Oh my. Juliet, Medea, Queen Katherine in Henry VIII, Margaret in Henry VI, Parts 1 and 2, Kate in The Taming of he Shrew, Hannah Jelkes in Night of the Iguana, Lady Torrance in Orpheus Descending, Amanda in The Glass Menagerie, Amanda in Private Lives, Dotty Ottley in Noises Off, Phedre, Anne Driver in Good Mother, Anne Hathaway in Shakespeare’s Will and Richard in Richard III.
Who have been some of your favourite directors to work with?
Miles Potter, and a few who are not my husband.
Having run through pretty much every major female role in Shakespeare’s canon at least once, in 2011 you started in on the male ones by playing Richard III. What was that experience like?
Fantastic. First, it is great fun playing a Shakespearean villain. Their sense of humour, their irony and their rapport with the audience, while committing heinous deeds, is a delight. As a woman, it was satisfying to combine my experience and age with a major Shakespearean role, something usually reserved for males in the non-Greek classical canon. Trying to make myself as repulsive as possible was also liberating. Richard tries to please only himself. My Richard was not a sexy guy with a limp; his attraction, if any, was the power he held. He is, after all, a direct descendant of the popular character Vice in the mystery plays. It was immaterial to me if people thought I was male, female, or transgendered: vice knows no gender.
If you were to revisit any one role you’ve already played and do it entirely differently, what role would you choose and why?
I have done many roles twice, but I can’t think of any I did, or would do, entirely differently. If anything, I made my choices even bolder, but in the same direction. I would have to liked to have played Cleopatra again, without pneumonia.
Your nomination this year is for Mother Courage and her Children. How do you approach Brecht differently than Shakespeare?
I don’t, really. Because it isn’t in verse, you are not doing the kind of clue-finding investigation that you do with poetry. But you still have to find where the world of the play sits. What does your character want? What are the obstacles in your path? David Edgar is a wonderful writer, and his adaptation was very spare, direct, harsh, contemporary. I try to serve the playwright. Quaint idea, I know.
How did Brecht’s signature alienation effect alter the choices you made in portraying Mother Courage? How do you feel the distance affects the audience’s experience of the play and connection to the story?
I didn’t think about it at all. The narration and the placards and the unsentimental writing take care of that. And Martha (Henry, the director), believed the term “alienation effect” is misleading. Brecht was writing in response to the theatre he was seeing, and not liking. His aim was to remind us that we are watching a play, to think about what is being said, and not to tell us what to feel. The accumulation of that unsentimentality pays off, in that the ending becomes unbearable, and strangely enough, cathartic. I allowed myself only one emotional release in the play. If Mother Courage collapses with her grief, she will never pick herself up again. And as we know, she keeps on pulling that wagon.
Tell us about working with Martha Henry. Was it a collaborative experience or does she come into the room with firm ideas of what she wants the play to be?
Martha certainly has her vision, but she loves and trusts actors, so it is very collaborative. As an actor herself, she understands process and is extremely patient. She comes into the room totally prepared, with so many wonderful thoughts and directions, yet is open to ideas that come her way.
You shared a beautiful onstage connection with the actors who played your titular children- EB Smith, Antoine Yared and Carmen Grant. What can you tell us about working with them?
They became “mes enfants”: my relationship with each of them, as characters and actors, is very different, but I adore them all. As I imagine is the case if you have more than one child. It was a great pleasure working with such talented and committed young actors. I miss our vagabond “family”.
Mother Courage had a strong mix of established talent and up-and-comers. As one of the veterans, is there much of a culture of mentorship at the festival?
Oh yes. Besides the official mentorship programme we have, where young actors are paired with a senior actor, it happens naturally. You feel it is a duty to pass on your experience, as an actor, and as a veteran of the Festival, to those starting out who can be overwhelmed by the sheer size of the company. Antoni (Cimolino) has started Lab classes where we can work with visiting directors, teachers and actors throughout the season, to keep training in new ways. There is even a Tyrone Guthrie Award for Mentorship: The William Needles Award. I was honoured to share that award one year with Lucy Peacock.
Do you have a favourite moment from that production?
I am not a singer, but with the help of the extraordinary Laura Burton, I achieved my goal: to find pleasure in singing. I loved the Great Capitulation Song and the Lullaby at the end, sung over Kattrin’s dead body. I loved tousling Antoine’s hair, the special language that Carmen and I had, and the last moment when one of the Farmer’s sons handed me Kattrin’s drum. That son was played by my real-life son, Callan Potter. That was special.
Do you have any dream roles that you still haven’t tackled?
Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night, Alexandra del Lago in Sweet Bird of Youth, Claire Zachanassian in The Visit, Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard, and maybe Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. There: I just jinxed them all, but I may be past a few of them anyways…
Who are some of your favourite people on the Stratford stage professionally and personally?
Too many to count. I am so lucky that some of my best friends are also my colleagues, and that so many of my colleagues are fine human beings. On the whole, theatre folk are a pretty great bunch.
Do you try and see every play in the season? What were some of your favourites of 2014?
I have seen every play in every season I have been at the Festival, except for one. As for 2014, I loved so many shows, but I think I loved Christina, The Girl King the most. I found it haunting, provocative and moving.
You’re due back for your 24th season at the festival this year. Tell us about the roles you’ll be playing.
I am currently rehearsing Gertrude in Hamlet and Fraulein Doktor von Zahnd in Durrenmatt’s The Physicists, adapted by Michael Healey. Very different worlds, and very different women.
Any word on what the productions will be like?
Very very good.