Our reigning Outstanding Actress winner (for the Shaw Festival’s stunning 2016 Uncle Vanya), the incomparable Moya O’Connell returns to the category this year for her performance in Middletown, also with the Shaw Festival. I first fell in love with Moya watching her play the grand heroines of the 19th & 20th century- Hedda Gabler, Maggie the Cat, Tracy Lord– roles she tackles with effortless elegance and gravitas. So there’s something endlessly fascinating to me about seeing her play an everywoman, a contemporary everywoman at that. In Will Eno’s stunning small town portrait (soon to be remounted in Toronto), Moya brought beautiful subtlety and touching relatability to Mary, a true everywoman whose glamourless complexity was a profound argument against the validity of the word “everywoman”.
Catch us up on your life since last year’s Nominee Interview Series.
One year has gone by. Let’s see … I spent the spring, summer and fall at the Shaw Festival rehearsing and performing Middletown and Dracula. I moved back to Vancouver, where I spend every winter. I got back on a plane to Toronto to do a remount of our Crows Theatre production of The Wedding Party in December and January and then came home to Vancouver, where I am prepping to play Lady Macbeth and Flavius (Timon of Athens) at Bard for the spring, summer and fall.
What attracted you to the role of Mary in Middletown?
When I first read Middletown, I felt drawn to it but I am not sure I fully understood the tone and core of Will Eno’s play. On the page it felt distant, full of a humour I didn’t quite understand. The character of Mary seemed quite blank to be perfectly honest. I couldn’t get a feel for her. I knew we had a nice long rehearsal process, so I decided to just be patient and see what revealed itself in the playing of it. I could sense that there was mystery and ache to her everywoman existence and that excited me. I remember speaking with Gray Powell about the play (who played John Dodge) a bunch of times before we began. We both knew there was something incredibly unique and tender in the script but it was really hard to define what it was. Our conversations about Middletown were probably quite akin to some of the conversations within it. A kind of jab at understanding mixed with complete confusion.
Will Eno has a very unique style to his writing. Coming out of so much Shaw and Chekhov and Ibsen, do you approach a role differently when the style is so hyper-contemporary?
The play is spectacular. Maybe that’s the wrong word. There is very little spectacle actually. It is a phenomenal piece of literary architecture. I followed that script (we all did) to the minutest of details. I knew every coma, every period, every pause. It may be hyper contemporary but the big mistake, I felt, would be to treat it naturalistically. It would create a jokey, surface world. What he was trying to get at through form was something much trickier and profound. It has a style to it and the details within the text would reveal that style. Or so I hoped. This is exactly the same type of work that you do when you work with any great writer …. Ibsen, Chekov, Shaw, Shakespeare. Eno is hyper-contemporary but his writing is no less full of style and form than any of the aforementioned writers. The tricky part would be, and always is, melding the understanding of his style with a fully lived-in human.
Will Eno came to see our production. I was so nervous to meet him that I actually ran away after the show. I felt that I couldn’t bear it if I read disappointment on his face. Which is ridiculous because he is categorically one of the kindest and most generous people out there and I felt very proud of our production. Will has such profound empathy for human beings. I don’t know of any other contemporary writer able to express such deep connection and puzzlement at the human condition. He gets at them/us in such unexpected ways. I am a HUGE fan of his work.
How does Meg Roe’s process compare to other directors you’ve worked with?
Meg is the most collaborative director I have ever worked with. She believes in the theatre as a collaborative art form and her room is one where everyone has an equal say and an equal stake in the show. Our crew were 100% as involved in this show as the actors were. She runs an open hall which means that anyone can come on in and sit and watch rehearsals at any point.
Now, I am not going to say that the lady doesn’t have ideas of her own that she will fight and push hard for. She is a powerful life force. In fact, she has one of the most powerful life forces of any human I know. She fairly shimmers with life. But she shares it. Middletown was a great show for the sort of theatrical ideas she is interested in investigating. Community. Equality. Subtlety. Lack of artifice. Meg kept talking about a “me, not me” approach to the show. I am not sure I will accurately articulate what she was trying to achieve, but she wanted us to explore a theatrical world which was very close to our own grubby selves. Free from pomp and style and artifice. The lines of us and the characters and the audience would be very unclear and mixed up in each other.
Middletown is so much about the community and the world of the town. Tell us about working with the ensemble.
The acting ensemble of Middletown was a direct reflection of the play. We became our own village living within that village. We had the benefit of having worked together for decades which is an obvious and rare fact. We had a very long rehearsal period, so the world of Eno’s play could slowly and gently swell and grow into performance. We had the equal voices of our stage managers and lighting designers and ops and stage crew. It was a rare thing. I don’t think I can put too fine a point on that. I also found it incredibly challenging. I constantly had to resist the urge to lean into something I found important or funny. We all watched each other’s process and I think we all understood in the end that what really works in the play is the cumulative effect of its seeming mundanity. The idea that sometimes the most banal conversations and interactions in life can in retrospect be the most meaningful. But it is for the audience to uncover that, not for the actor to point out. The spirit in which it was created was the most important contributing factor to its success.
Middletown was one of multiple productions last year that embraced the “two way theatre” philosophy that sent the actors into the audience to interact before the show and during intermission. How do you feel that concept influenced the production and is that something that’s comfortable for you?
I had a hard time breaking that wall between actor and audience. I don’t feel very comfortable talking to the audience, but that is mostly because I can feel how strange and freaked out they are by the idea. When that is the case, it seems artificial and the conversations seem strange and forced. However, in the case of Middletown I really did try because I knew that although the audience might feel a bit strange off the top, it would pay off. The play and ourselves would weave in and out and the desired result would be the feeling of us all just sitting in a room together free of performance lines. Meg was terrific about this idea because she always said to us “feel free to talk or not talk. Draw, hide, chat … don’t force it”. I would only interact with the audience when I felt their desire to talk with me. This made me tuned in to the audience’s desires off the top, which is a nice place to start from. If they were aloof then I could feel it and see it and work on them in another way. What I wanted to get rid of is the curtain call. After all that gentle weaving in and out of the audience I don’t want to stand in a line and bow to them. Let’s all clap for each other! Or not clap? Maybe we should just all sit together until it’s time to leave.
You’re competing against yourself in the Outstanding Ensemble category this year with Middletown and The Wedding Party. Tell us about that production.
Middletown versus The Wedding Party. Ha! Well I will say that creating The Wedding Party was one of the most hilarious and collaborative experiences of my life. I just shared a backstage with my husband Torq (he was performing his one man show True Crime) during the remount of The Wedding Party and he said to me. “It’s super weird to be around you guys backstage because you are constantly improvising and creating bits”. And it is true! We are always coming up with new characters and expanding on old ones. The world of The Wedding Party is constantly expanding into a more ridiculous universe. It was created over the course of five years in complete collaboration and the spirit of ownership and improv is everywhere. We live to make each other laugh.
Tell us about your experience working on Dracula last season.
Eda Holmes gave me this great opportunity to play a ghoulish nurse in Dracula last season. A really great little character part. Hard smoking, sadistic and funny as hell! Nurse Grice ruled Bedlam [Asylum] with an iron fist and probably more than a couple whips. I made myself unrecognizably gruesome and ugly and had a terrific time. I mean it’s Dracula! The highlight was sharing a dressing room with the indomitable Chick Reid. She and I solved the world’s problems in dressing room three.
What were some of your favourite Shaw productions of 2017?
There were some pretty wonderful productions last season but if I have to choose I am going to say Wilde Tales. Kate Hennig‘s adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales hit just the right balance of whimsy and profundity. My eight year old daughter loved it and saw it about seven times, although she was mortified when she had to pull me sobbing incoherently from my chair. It was magic.
What are you up to now/next?
I just got back from vacations from Haida Gwaii and Kauai which were both incredible in opposite ways. Haida Gwaii is wild, scruffy, remote, alive and deeply beautiful. The north shore of Kauai is … well, I am not even going to attempt to say. It was my third time there and we are already planning our return.
I start work on Macbeth in a couple of weeks and my head is really in that world at the moment. It has been 12 years since I have done Shakespeare and so I am really trying to go back into that universe. Bard gave me one of my first professional gigs right out of theatre school and I spent six seasons there. I am looking forward to being part of that company again this season. It is a close, familial community. I am scared shitless about playing Lady Macbeth, but that seems proper somehow. If I wasn’t, I might be in for a shock. I run Macbeth (directed by Chris Abraham) in rep with an (almost) all female production of Timon of Athens (directed by Meg Roe) all summer. After that, it is back to Toronto to remount Middletown at Crow’s Theatre in November. So it’s just great people as far as the eye can see.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
Thanks so much for the support. My Entertainment World has always gone out of its/their way to support shows at Shaw and I really appreciate it. So THANK YOU!!!