If you’ve been to the Shaw Festival in the last decade, you’ve probably seen the stunning Moya O’Connell play one of the great parts in the 19th/20th century canon- Hedda Gabler, Tracy Lord, Maggie the Cat, even the Queen of Hearts. In 2016 she turned in her most remarkable performance yet, a quiet and complex portrait of the misunderstood Yelena in Annie Baker’s sublime adaptation of Uncle Vanya at the Court House Theatre, earning her first Outstanding Actress MyTheatre Award nomination in the process.
Can you remember your first experience with theatre?
Yes. Vividly. I played Mary in the Nativity, with my mum’s blue curtains as my costume. It was in grade 3 and I was so excited that I’d been cast as Mary. Obviously. And the boy who was playing Joseph, his name was Adrian Jelly, and you’ve never met somebody who’s suited their name more than Adrian Jelly suited the name Adrian Jelly. He was skinny, and he had this wobbly head, and really wobbly eyes, and this sort of wobbly hair. He looked like a blancmange, a custard; he was very sweet, but quite shy. And the night of the Christmas concert came, and poor Adrian Jelly got [nervous], he was puking offstage the whole time. He couldn’t play the part. So my friend Melanie stepped in at the last minute, and I thought that was just the most exciting thing ever. I was hooked. Poor Adrian. Oh, I wonder how he fared.
Who are some of the artists who have always inspired you, and are they the same today?
Hmm. People that have always inspired me. I don’t know that they’re necessarily actors, but I’m often inspired by artists in general, like musicians, I know a lot of musicians, or fine artists, painters. People that- because theatre is such a collaborative art form- people that do it by themselves, a painter who really doesn’t get much coming back at them, and just works and works and works. But some of the actors that I admire- it changes because I work with different people. Right now, I admire Tom Rooney a great deal as an actor.
Who doesn’t? My gosh.
Right? Come on. And Ric Reid, I admire a great deal. Sherry Flett. I mean, a lot of people that I work with at the Shaw Festival because I’ve been there for 10 years, but there’s all sorts of people that I’ve met over the years. One of the biggest, most profound influences in my artistic life was Douglas Campbell, who was my father-in-law. He hired me and introduced me to his son. He was a guy who – I don’t know if you know him, or know of him, but he was a rabble-rouser to beat all the rabble-rousers. But he loved theatre so much, and lived his entire life in the theatre. He died at the age of 87, and I’d spent a lot of time with him over those final years. He would sit at the breakfast table, and I was working at a Shakespeare festival out West, and if I was gonna be gearing up to play a part, I could ask him about any manner of parts – Ophelia, or Portia, and he could just, at 85 years old, extemporize the quality of mercy, or the whole mad tract in Ophelia. He just knew Shakespeare like the back of his hand, and he knew so much about Shaw. He was married to Ann Casson, who was Sybil Thorndike’s daughter. And so Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson were his in-laws before he remarried. So he was really in close contact with that world of Shaw. I learned a lot about Shaw through him- the Shaw of that time; I think it’s really shifted, how people perceive Shaw, and how they act it, but he was a man of his time.
How did you first get started with the Shaw Festival?
I had been asked to audition by Jackie [Maxwell, artistic director] for Raina in Arms and the Man. I was living in Montreal at the time, and I went, gave an audition, thought it went really well, and I never heard back. I thought “oh, I guess I bombed it.” But the next year I got called in again, because a couple of people had taken some time off to have babies- I got called in to read for a part in The Circle, by Somerset Maugham. I went in, and was waiting in the hallway, and I was still living in Montreal- there were all of these fantastic actresses waiting, and I was really nervous. The late Neil Munro walked out and called my name, who I’d never met before- and when he saw me, he lit up with this smile of recognition. Like he thought he knew who I was, and then he realized after about a minute that he didn’t know. But it was enough to set me at ease, and we got along like a house on fire. So he hired me for that season.
What draws you to the style of work in the Shaw mandate?
Well, the ideas. At the beginning, I was drawn to the sort of elegance of it, and the intellectual rigour of the Shaw festival. Because that’s what I was interested in, a theatre of ideas, and this intellectual exercise. But as I’ve grown up as a person, as an actor, I’m much more interested in pushing against those things as well, and the confines of how people perceive that to be. But I think a great play is a great play, and the Shaw Festival is one of those places that programs great plays, and you can be in a season where you’re doing Coward and Ibsen together, or Shaw and Williams together. You’re working with the greatest playwrights- there’s a whole raft of great playwrights, but you’re working with some of the greatest modern playwrights. And I think that’s what drew me to it, because as an interpreter, as an actor who, I guess – I wouldn’t define myself as an interpreter, but I guess that’s what I’ve mostly done in my career, interpreted the works of others- you always want to work on work that’s proven, and is beautiful, and is profound. It makes your job a lot easier.
You’ve played a lot of the most legendary women in the English theatre canon at the Shaw.
I’m very lucky.
Do you have any that stand out specifically as favourites, or parts that were really important to you?
Yep. I love playing Ibsen- I loved playing Hedda Gabler. It’s pleasurable, but in a fucked-up way. But deeply pleasurable. Because she’s so unhappy. And I loved doing Lady from the Sea, even though it was a terrifically difficult play. I love where he sits, how strange his worlds are… I want to do more Ibsen. I was watching this Norwegian show on television recently, and I thought “I don’t know much about Norwegian people. I’ve been there, but I don’t know much about them”. It was really fascinating watching this series because it gave me a little bit of an insight into their sense of humour and I thought “oh, that’s it!” They’re always cracking jokes, but it doesn’t seem like they’re cracking jokes. It’s interesting. So when I was doing Lady from the Sea, I was talking to Peter Hinton because he knows so much about Ibsen, and he loves Ibsen so deeply. So a long time before I was due to start it, I sat down with him, and he gave me some advice. He said “you know, you should read all 12 of Ibsen’s prose plays chronologically, because they’re a cycle. And read them by the same adaptor/translator.” So I did do that, and I read it by an English fellow called Michael Meyer. I don’t know if I’d want to act his adaptations, but for reading, they’re amazing. And every single play – I thought “that’s the one! Oh my God, how come no one’s ever done that?” and it kept going and going and going and going. They’re astonishing. He’s getting done more and more. I sure would like to do more.
So those are two of my favourite. And there’s ones that are just purely pleasurable, like Uncle Vanya was definitely one of my favourite shows that I’ve ever done at the Shaw.
Speaking of Uncle Vanya, you were working with a new adaptation by Annie Baker. How do you think Chekhov’s Yelena was re-shaped first by her interpretation then by yours?
I wonder. You know, I was thinking about that, coming into today, and I’m not sure. I mean, when I read Yelena’s other adaptations- I read about four- I was struck by her lack of presence in the play. I never could get a handle on who that person was. I could get a handle on who Astrov was, and who Sonya was, and who Vanya was. But Yelena was a real shapeshifter to me. And in Annie Baker’s adaptation, I felt that she was such a modern person. She’s a very conventional woman, but I could see who she was in that world. And I think for me, in Chekhov- which I haven’t done before, and people always say how pleasurable it is, and how human it is, and I would say that both of those things are true- it was always just seeking out my relationship to my other actor on stage, who they were to me in life. Because I think in Chekhov you can’t play at the characters, you have to actually be the characters in a weird way. You really have to understand them. So to me, Yelena was someone who was a young woman who was a had-been- she wasn’t very young, because I wanted to play her as my own age- but a young woman who was very accomplished, she’d gone to the conservatory, which where Tchaikovsky went, she was this daughter of a senator; by all accounts, people thought she was beautiful. She had options. She married this star academic, by all accounts charming, who had retired, and then become old and cranky. And she was caught. And she had never really done anything. She had never really pursued anything. And what other people say about Yelena in the play… so often you’re taught as an actor to hear what other people say about you as information, but I think what’s so brilliant about what [Chekhov] writes is what other people say about her is not who she is, and is not how she feels about herself. She actually has very low self-esteem, and thinks of herself as a minor character in a play, as an inconsequential person, a person who hasn’t accomplished much, and probably won’t. She gets bowled over by this man, and she’s kind. I think she can be indolent, and she can be aloof, but Vanya is her friend, and imagine you’re sitting there with your friend, who you trust – who’s really your only confidante there – and they keep on trying to touch you, and hit on you. It’s so annoying. And I don’t think she realizes that he actually loves her. I think in Yelena’s mind, he doesn’t.
Do you think he does actually love her?
I don’t know. I think he thinks he does. But I don’t think he sees who she is, like what they connect on- they actually feel quite similarly about things, you know? But she gets bowled over by Astrov- do they fall in love with each other? I don’t know, I don’t think so. I think they really wanna have sex with each other, and there’s really amazing attraction that happens. But it gets spoiled, people walk in, it gets fumbled, like life, everything falls apart, and she has the opportunity to stay. He asks her to stay, but she’s a conventional person. She doesn’t want to hurt Sonya. She knows how it would rupture those people’s lives, and rupture her own life. And I think that’s just so much like life. People very rarely do those sorts of things.
You mentioned that you drew on your relationships with your co-stars. Tell us a little bit about Patrick, Neil and Marla and how you developed those relationships onstage.
That’s one of the truly great things about being part of the Shaw Festival, is the ensemble. I’ve worked with those people for a decade, I’ve known them for a decade. So there’s a shorthand and a trust and friendship that exists. That you just wouldn’t have. I mean, you could create that in a collaborative, if you’re rehearsing, but those sorts of things take a long time to trust somebody a lot. Neil [Barclay] brought to Vanya so much of his own sense of humour. I mean, Annie Baker’s script is very funny, but also, a lot of humour in our show came from his great understated gentle way, wryness, and we followed suit. We all found the part of ourselves that could lend ourselves to those characters. Patrick [McManus]’s messiness and his intellectual rigour and his brashness, and his macho-ness, his maleness, he brought that to [Astrov]. And Marla [McLean] is someone who knows how to work hard. There’s parts of her that are intensely glamorous, but there’s another part of her that knows exactly who that woman [Sonya] is. Of course you’re in the confines of the storytelling and the world, but more than any other show, really, we were relating to each other as fellow human beings and friends.
Having read four other adaptations or translations of the original Chekhov play, did you feel that Annie Baker’s contemporary feminist viewpoint permeated her adaptation and, specifically, the relationship between Yelena and Sonya? Did you feel it was more prominent somehow?
I did. I did feel that. She did do that, but I also felt that was Jackie [Maxwell, the director], too, refocusing it. I didn’t read any reviews of Annie Baker’s other productions, so I don’t know if other people had felt like that about the production. I wonder. Like that wonderful scene that they have is just one of the greatest scenes – two people talking about a boy, a man, that they love.
Can you talk a little bit about the challenges of playing someone so guarded? So much of Yelena’s point of view is expressed silently or in very private scenes, you understand how people have the wrong impression of her.
That was so much of what I hoped to accomplish with her. I felt like I was a really playing a long game with Yelena. You’re not gonna like her in the first act, and by intermission, you’ll be heartbroken for her, and then by the end of the play, you’ll think “oh God, just go with him. Just change it,” but she doesn’t, she closes that door. I think that was certainly so much of what I hoped to achieve with it. And when someone is silent, when someone doesn’t say much, people can often assume a lot of things about them.
There was a lot of silence in the play. What were some of the most interesting discoveries that you found in the moments where you’re just sitting and listening?
It feels the same as when you’re doing improv. Like this process I’ve been working on with Kristen Thomson over the last four years, about exploration. When you don’t have the text to hide behind, you reveal [truth]. Or it’s like putting on a clown nose, a mask- the less you do, the more you just look, the funnier it is, because you reveal yourself for who you are. And so the silences were incredibly difficult at the beginning, because we didn’t know what was happening, the stories we were trying to tell, and as we grew as an ensemble and the story we were telling became clear, they became incredibly pleasurable because there was all sorts of subtleties that could happen in the silences, and you could change them every day. We didn’t set them. They would shift. The timings would shift depending on what the energy was. [Jackie] really wanted to honour them. But they’re tricky, they hurt as an actor. You want to fill it up. You want to be active. That’s your job, to take action as an actor. But it’s scary to [stay silent], because you feel like you’re failing. You feel like nothing’s happening but, in fact, if you’re just inside thinking, things are happening – and in a small space like that, people can see you think.
And you’re challenging the audience to really focus and stay with you.
Yeah, you really are.
Did you have a favourite moment in Vanya?
I try not to have favourite moments. It’s impossible as an actor because you get attached to things. Yeah – I loved playing the scene with Patrick near the end, as Astrov, when she can’t leave, when they – I mean, I love different moments of that. I love saying goodbye to Vanya. And I loved laughing with Marla, I would say. Those were my three favourites. But again, you always try to – it’s like when you do something well onstage, and people respond, you know? You have to – one of the challenges is not to repeat it. Because you can’t, you know. And the audience can smell that. So you always have to try to free yourself from the chains of that success, in the moment, and keep in pursuit of – because other things will come.
Uncle Vanya was one of Jackie Maxwell’s final productions before leaving the Shaw after a very long time as artistic director. What are some of the biggest things you’ll take away after her tenure and your work with her?
I love Jackie Maxwell very much. I get a very perverse pleasure in the fact that in the 905, the very rich white conservative area which is Niagara-on-the-Lake, there is a theatre festival based around a socialist pacifist vegetarian barnstormer run by an outspoken feminist. I think that’s incredibly unique, and the voice that she gave to female playwrights and directors and with female characters in her time there, was incredibly unique. To have one of our major cultural institutions run from a feminist point of view, I felt was inspiring, and I certainly benefited under her tenureship. There’s no denying that she’s a great woman. She’s joyous and she’s got that Irish ability to make speeches and rouse people to really believe in her vision. And she loves her company of actors. She was very dedicated to keeping a group together. She was married to an actor, and she loves actors, she loves the idea of the ensemble. So she was very committed to keeping people and nurturing families. When I was there, I had a baby. When I was doing Hedda Gabler- myself, Jim Mezon, Gray Powell, Patrick McManus, Claire Jullien- all of the major players in that, we all had children who were two or three years old. So I was nursing in rehearsal halls. And when she was directing, and in the green room, there’s high chairs, and it’s a family-friendly environment, which for artists, is just amazing. Because history sort of dictated that it’s not that okay to have a family if you’re an actor or an actress, especially if you’re an actress. And that really changed under her. So that was huge. She’s in service of the play because she was a dramaturge before, and she was always working with new Canadian plays. So she was always in service of the story and the play. And I appreciated that about her directing, as well. She really honoured writers.
You seem to play a lot in the Court House Theatre. Was that your favourite space at the festival?
I do play a lot at the Court House. It is now, yeah, because it allows great subtlety. I think when I first started there, I didn’t know how to play the space. It’s tricky- it’s not the best space for audiences because the chairs are not very comfortable. You still have to reach quite high up vocally. But people are right there, so you can have things that only one or two people can see, and I like creating that. You can work in a multi-dimensional way with your body and voice for that audience. I would say yeah. And I think it’s a favourite among most actors at the festival, that space, because of those reasons.
On the other end of the spectrum last season you did Alice in Wonderland, a gigantic production in the large festival theatre. Tell us a little bit about that crazy world, and working with Peter Hinton on that.
It was a crazy world. I had a great time working on it. It was like being on a film set, in a way, because there were so many moving parts to the play. There was vast, huge production aspects of it, but you’re still in the Carrollian world. And for me, the great pleasure of it was having a seven-year-old daughter who was obsessed with Alice in Wonderland, and to be able to play that part for her every day. She saw it like eight times, so my job was to be joyous. Peter Hinton, his vision, there’s a reach to it- whether you love it or you hate it, whether it’s deemed in quotation “success” or “failure”- there is no doubt that the man has a spectacular mind. And he pursues something artistically. So being inside of that is fascinating. Every director is a different world, and I so appreciated his mind. He’s got a beautiful mind. And he cares so deeply about the shows that he puts on. I had a great time doing it. It was a tricky show to be in, but at the same time, you’re in Alice in Wonderland, so part of the job is to do it with joy. That’s sort of what I want to do, just play with joy in whatever I’m doing, even if it’s terrifically torturous.
If your daughter’s a huge fan of Alice in Wonderland, how did she feel about you playing the villain?
She hated that. She’s like “Mommy, please switch with Alice. Please?” I told her “Honey, villains are the most fun to play. They’re the most fun.” She gets it in the end. She still wished I was playing a little bit softer.
Do you have any dream roles or shows that you really want to be a part of someday?
I used to have those parts, like every actor. I don’t as much anymore because I’ve found that sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to play a part on that quote, unquote, “bucket list” – they’re never the ones that you’re the happiest with, because theatre is a collaborative art form, and you may want to play that part, but the show may dictate that it’s produced in a way that doesn’t fit your vision of it. So I try to make myself relax on that. Having said that, I want to do more Ibsen. I really want to do more Ibsen. And I have always wanted to play Rosalind in As You Like It. I’m a little long in the tooth for it now, but maybe.
Do you try and see every play in the Shaw season?
What were some of your favourites in 2016?
“Master Harold”… and the Boys, was sensational. I loved it. Black Girl was fantastic, I really enjoyed that. I loved Engaged too; I thought Gray was just fantastic in it. I mean, it’s a silly play.
It’s fun to see him play goofy, he’s usually so serious.
I know! Totally. It was great. I felt like he was channelling John Ritter. He’s one of my favourites. And I thought Nicole [Underhay] was wonderful as Mrs. Warren. “Master Harold”… and the Boys was just my favourite. It was beautiful. It’s a great play, it was beautifully directed and beautifully acted. It just had that across-the-board, all three of them. Those were my favourite. And I didn’t see much at Stratford last year, I only saw two – I usually try to see much more, but it was just a busy year for me. I saw the Scottish play and I saw the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Tom McCamus from that is going to be making the jump to the Shaw festival this season.
Which I’m thrilled about, because I just think he’s the bee’s knees. Obviously, he’s an amazing actor, so we’re lucky to have him.
What are you scheduled for next year?
I’m really excited, actually. I’m doing Dracula, which I think will be really fun. Liz Lochhead, this Scottish poet, she’d adapted it. It’s quite sexy. So I’m playing a smaller part in that; I’m doing a character part- a sadomasochistic nurse who beats her patients in bedlam, and a vampire bride- so I get to straddle both worlds. I think that’ll be a hoot, and it’s also just working with people that I love, like Marla, and Steven Sutcliffe, who I love, is Van Helsing.
But I’m really excited about Middletown. It’s an ensemble play but, at the centre of the ensemble there’s John and Mary. I play opposite Gray Powell, who I play opposite all the time. And I love playing opposite Gray, so thank goodness for that. It’s a beautiful play. I’m really excited about it. It’s being directed by Meg Roe, who I did Lady from the Sea with. She’s from Vancouver and is wonderful. I think it’s a really cool play, I’m really excited about it. It’s the best play I’ve read for a long, long time.
What do you think it is about the combination of you and Gray that you keep getting cast together?
You tell me, I don’t know! We joke that we’re going to be going off to Port Colborne, doing the Gin Game, or something, I don’t know what, in our seventies. We started at the Shaw the same year. And I would say that I’m an actor who likes to take action on stage, and Gray is an actor who really exists on stage. In the old days, as we were working our way out, I’d be like “he has to meet the energy of this scene!” and he’d be like “she’s doing too much, I’m going to do less,” and we’d be “grr!”
So it’s balanced.
It’s balanced! But over the years, I’ve learnt from him, and he’s – well, I don’t know that he’s learnt from me; I would not assume that. But I just mean that I’ve trusted myself more to just exist. And we’ve both just grown as actors, I would say. I have no idea. I also play opposite Patrick [McManus] a lot. I think it’s an age thing, but I never play opposite Martin [Happer]. It’s always Gray or Patrick. Who knows.
How much do you know so far about where the new artistic director is going to take the Festival?
I have heard snippets, I think he’s interested in a changing theatre, improvisational, being available, open, not working too hard, speaking the text, letting the play come through you. Those are things just very generally, but I haven’t worked with TC – he’s asked us to call him TC, it’s not my nickname for him, Tim Carroll- so I’m not sure yet. It’s to be determined. But I do know that he is interested in playing against the emotion, or the idea of getting lost in the wash of an emotional state. And he wants to simplify that job for the actor. But I think he loves actors, and he loves the idea of an ensemble. He’s doing a production of Androcles and the Lion where it will be different every night, and he did a production of The Seagull where it was different people every night performing the parts, and it was improvised. I mean, they knew the story, but they were improvising the scenes. So he’s definitely got an approach to the theatre that I think will become clear. I don’t know exactly what it is yet. I’m intrigued.