One of the most indelible performances of the year came from a Canadian theatre legend who gave new (literal) meaning to the term “she can do it with her eyes closed”. In The Company Theatre’s sublime production of John (one of two Annie Baker pieces that came to define the year in Toronto theatre), Outstanding Supporting Actress nominee Nora McLellan provided big laughs and other-worldly wisdom we’re still wrapping our heads around.
Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
I remember seeing theatre when I was very young, but my first experience with the theatre was when I was 8 years old, and I was in a production of La Bohème at the Vancouver Opera.
That’s a prestigious start.
It was an astonishing start. My friend Marek Norman was also in the production, and it was Marek’s mother who encouraged me to go into the arts when I was a little girl.
In your career thus far, you’ve played some really legendary roles. Do any stand out in your memory as really close to your heart?
I know this is going to sound pithy, but every role that I’m just about to do or have done is really close to my heart. I was in a production of Mrs. Warren’s Profession that was very close to my heart. I was in a production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I love every time I get to stand on a stage. I don’t really want to go down that road, but I’ve really only had about three where that [experience] was not fun from beginning to end, and that’s in a long, long career. The majority of the time, it’s a wonderful experience, and I treasure every second of it. The ones that I mentioned are just off the top of my head. As soon as I leave here, I’ll e-mail you with one that I go “oh my gosh, I completely forgot about this”.
I was thinking about this because of watching Lear: there have been a lot of productions that I’ve done that have been all-female productions for whatever reason. They’ve always been really interesting because people think “oh, gosh. There’s that trope that it must be a very bitter experience to be in the room with all women”. And of course it turns out to be just the opposite. The Trojan Women – really positive and wonderful experiences. Not to take away from all the ones, but I was just thinking yesterday because I hadn’t seen Seana [McKenna] for a while. I was just remembering when we were doing The Trojan Women, and how great it was just being backstage.
You are one of those artists that’s really bumped around the whole country, you’ve worked with all the big companies, and all the big stages. Do you have somewhere that feels like your artistic home?
I have a few of them. I know it’s weird to say, but I’m from Vancouver. If I could work in Vancouver, I would. There are not a lot of opportunities there at the moment. I’m hoping that will change, but I was born in Vancouver, and I started there, of course. I worked when I was 17, started working with Christopher Newton, and then moved with him to Niagara-on-the-Lake. So I would say Vancouver and the Shaw Festival, neither of which places I work at anymore. But they would be the two homes.
How did you get involved with John?
I’m not sure, but I think it was Jonathan Goad that may have recommended me. I’m hoping that’s the truth. I had a conversation with Philip Riccio, and that was how I got involved.
Your character was mysterious and almost divinely wise. What’s your point of view on who she was and the role she was meant to play in the story?
The one thing I will say about John and Jonathan Goad, our director, and The Company Theatre, is that it’s a very actor-centred theatre, so it’s about the process. Jonathan Goad really opened my eyes to a whole new way of looking at the work, which was really terrific. There’s nothing like being an actor in your early sixties that gets a knock on the head and goes “why don’t you take the whole sum total of knowledge with which you approach and throw it out the window?” Fantastic. Really, really fantastic. I’m still working on that show, and it’s been a year.
Annie Baker writes a play for four actors. In the character description, it says the character, and whether they can see, whether they can’t see, whether they wear glasses and whether they don’t wear glasses.
And an age. Genevieve is supposed to be 85. I don’t know if I could have necessarily done that.
So my character is “Genevieve, 85, fully blind”. So I would say that it was telling to me. I kept my eyes closed, I really did. It’s a funny thing. Poor Shannon Lea Doyle – I never gave her credit for her astonishing set [because] I only saw it once, and that was when we were in tech, and I looked out and went “whoa”. I really just kept my eyes closed and trusted Nancy Beatty to get me wherever I was going.
I feel that, whatever you think Annie Baker was trying to say, Genevieve can see everybody, including the audience- I do a direct address to the audience- I know that people are watching, and I am also actively listening. There’s a great sense of wisdom with someone who can acknowledge their own insanity. What drove them to it, and where they are with it today.
I wanted to ask you about playing a blind character from a technical point of view. Other than closing your eyes, was there much to capturing that physicality of someone who is not only blind now, but also knows how to navigate the world as a blind person – which presumably you do not?
Presumably. Actually, that’s not true – I’ve got terrible eyesight, and so with my contact lenses it’s just terrific. I can’t see in the dark, which for a theatre person is horrible. But what I did was really just keep my eyes closed, and have my dream date of Nancy Beatty as my partner. These two women love each other with that really profound sense of loving friendship, so the trust is profound. When I came out at the end of Act 2 to directly address the audience, I do know that room very well because I’ve been there many times, but I really came out with my eyes closed. I had on weird contacts, and I also couldn’t see anything. I just felt my way to where I thought the curtain was. It was an interesting exercise in trust, but I feel terribly at home onstage, so I trust that environment more than I probably should.
Speaking of your connection with Nancy and how fundamental that was to your role in the play, John’s one of our most-nominated productions this year. Tell us a little bit about working with your co-stars.
Oh, my gosh. Well, Nancy and I have never worked together till this time. We were supposed to do a show together in the 80’s, and for unforeseen circumstances Nancy had to drop out at the very last minute, but I adore her, and I was so thrilled to find myself in a room with her. I just marvelled at her, and again, that instant connection that we had. Philip Riccio is just a wonderful actor, and Loretta [Yu]– oh my God, Loretta was a profound revelation. She is as natural onstage – she’s a delightful actor. Oh my God. I couldn’t believe how wonderful she was. It was a pleasure to listen to the whole thing. Jonathan Goad is one of my favourite actors, and if you think he’s a good actor, he directs as well as he acts, which is just wonderful. And the rest of the team – Shannon and Kevin [Lamotte, the lighting designer]– they’re all people that I respect so much. I miss them.
This was Jonathan Goad’s directorial debut, right?
Yes. I think he’s done some things with National Theatre School, but yes, it was. And that’s okay. As Riccio said, “I think it was right for Johnny to direct it because he wouldn’t have known what it entailed”. I don’t know if he was making a joke or not. I’m pretty sure he was.
In terms of taking on a three-and-a-half-hour mammoth kind of thing?
Yes, that’s true. But Johnny just turned everything that I thought about how I would approach things, and I just loved that. How he appreciated the silence, and appreciated the exploration – it always felt like we were never going to stop work. We were always in rehearsal. Or at least I felt that way, that if I ever landed on something that was pleasing to me as an actor, that hit that sweet spot – Johnny would say “Yeah, so don’t do that anymore.” [laughs] We used to think that was terrific.
Was there something you discovered in rehearsal that you then let go of in the process that you missed a little bit?
That feeling of “that feels good, I’ll hold onto that.” If you’re trying to recapture or capture something again, you can’t be living onstage because you have to be outside going “Why didn’t that work as well as it did the night before?”, and “Isn’t it great that it worked as well as it did the night before?”
You mentioned the silences, which Annie Baker is famous for. She has a very specific style of dialogue and approach to her writing. Was her style something that sat naturally with you? Can you talk a little bit about approaching the style of the language?
The style of the language is very natural. Hyper-natural, even though my character and Nancy’s character Mertis talk about magical topics, I found it very easy because it was very conversational. I found it a great relief because as I’m a people-pleaser in my own life, I don’t like silences. I feel like I need to fill silence, as many people do, so I’m sure people would just go “could you shut up for a second?” So I found a great relief in getting to live in the skin of somebody who was quite comfortable not talking for any reason. Not feeling that you have to fill those silences. I think that was the interesting thing, to do nothing.
Wasn’t that hard, though, to hold the silences for that long and not want to jump in with your next cue?
[Laughs] It was great. And it wasn’t as if that was a power struggle between you and the audience, either. It was a relief. It was joyful to just sit with an audience and go, “we’re not going to do anything for a bit, and are you okay with that?” Asking the audience that question. The audience seemed to go, “okay”. Just to see what that’s about. When I’m thinking back on it now, the whole thing was very comforting to me. Makes me want to cry.
What were you hoping the audience would take away from the production?
I’m not sure what the audience would take away. I never saw the production, so I would have to ask you that, because I really don’t know. I was in it.
You always hope that the audience has had an experience. That’s the bottom line of every performance – that there’s something that somebody has thought about. As I was watching yesterday’s performance [of Groundling’s Lear], I had my moments. There was a moment where I thought of another actor, who played a part in a different production. There was a moment where I remembered the text that was going to come, and how much I loved that particular text. There was times where you wonder what will happen next, of course. If anything, I guess a very long answer to your question would be “what happens next?”
Did you have a favourite moment in the production?
No, every moment was a favourite. Well, let me see. I really enjoyed Nancy Beatty walking me in and out, because I never knew which way we were going.
Did she change the route?
I don’t know. I think she did. I think she may have. I really wasn’t watching. [laughs]
I enjoyed sitting in the dark listening to the scene with Philip Riccio and Loretta. Knowing that they did not know that I was there, knowing that the audience knew that I was there, or maybe had forgotten. That was interesting. But I’d love to see the three women drinking the wine. Again, I’m not being specific because the entire project was a dream.
What are you doing now? What’s your next project?
I’ve just finished playing Ebenezer Scrooge in a production of A Christmas Carol at Theatre New Brunswick, which was terrific. I had a wonderful time, and to get to play Scrooge as a woman, that’s great.
I will be doing Shirley Valentine again, at Victoria Playhouse.
[lowers voice] I don’t want to say that I’m going to be in an episode of [redacted] because I want the fans to be surprised.
But I’m really just, as usual, trawling for work. When I say trawling, I mean actually pursuing. This is the plight of the female over 60. You’re just at the peak of your powers. There’s not the work to get back. I did John, and I worked in other things last year, after John, so for somebody that’s used to maybe taking four weeks off a year, it’s a shocking shift. It’s exhausting, just to try to cope and get work. And I’m wanting to work so badly.
Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
I’d just like to say thank you, My Entertainment World, for your promotion of the theatre. It’s an important time, as you know. Arts coverage is dropping profoundly, and there is an awful lot of theatre in this area. This country has an astonishing talent pool across the board on every level of expertise, and that’s from front to backstage to throughout – playwrights, designers, technical directors, backstage crew, stage managers. I just love being a Canadian actor. I love that I get to go from coast to coast, and I’d love to go to coast [points up, meaning North], at some point. So all of this effort that you are making to facilitate that is really important, and I applaud that because it’s a very important time that our creative world is here to offset the rest of the world. Either to hold a mirror up to it, or to escape from it – either way. So that’s what I would like to add, very profoundly, is my sincere thanks for all of the work that you’re doing to help people join in.