Finding Liberty on the stage


KAREN ARDIFF is a busy woman. While acting in Rough Magic’s production of the Neil Simon play Plaza Suite(currently at the Gaiety), she also has the premiere production of her first work as a playwright – The Goddess of Liberty– on tour. And, to add to the general busyness, she has an 11-month-old baby with her partner, actor Michael Glenn Murphy.

“I swore I’d never get together with an actor,” says Ardiff. “But it works very well. We understand what each other does and the hours that come with it. With the Rough Magic tour, it has us two nights on the road and then back home. What usually happens is that one of us is working at night in a play and the other might be rehearsing during the day, so we take turns.”

Ardiff has been a consistent presence on the Irish stage for two decades and is an award-winning actress, having appeared in most major theatres here, as well as making several prominent television and film appearances. Now, she is beginning to make an impact as a writer – her debut novel, The Secret of my Face,was well-received. So when theatre company Gúna Nua approached Ardiff to write her first play for the stage, she had some literary form behind her.

Having had an idea distilling in the back of her mind for many years, the time seemed right to cultivate it. The resulting play, The Goddess of Liberty, directed by Paul Meade and with a cast led by Geraldine Plunkett, is set in a boom-to-bust town where the gold is drying up, and follows the story of two Irish emigrants. Ardiff first got the idea while on tour in the US with Hugh Leonard’s play Love in the Title.

“I have about two ideas in my head all the time – one being worked on and one in case it doesn’t come to fruition,” Ardiff says. “About 10 years ago the idea of a story during the Alaskan gold rush came to me. Obviously the themes fit in very well with today. But the actual idea for it has predated what happened in Ireland. It is a story of greed and corruption and the consequences of that, which are universal and go in cycles. I think that greed is probably built into human personality.”

Was Ardiff tempted to write a part for herself? “I fell between age stools with the roles. The characters are in their 20s, 30s and 60s and I’m in my 40s. So I managed to write four meaty roles for women without one I could actually play myself. If it gets another life in the future you never know, maybe I could play one of the older women in it.”

Writing for the stage has given Ardiff a whole new respect for the work of actors and she says that during the rehearsal she never felt like swapping roles or giving acting advice. She was on too much of a steep learning curve as a writer, although she did enjoy the process. “You have much more freedom as a writer than an actor. As an actor, unless a piece is devised, your job is pretty simple and that is to express the text as written. When you are writing, you have this complete freedom in that sense, although you are still constrained by what will connect with the audience.”

Ardiff is not afraid to mine her personal life for material, although she is careful to mask the references. “All the characters come straight out of my head, but sometimes the situations they find themselves in might be ones I have encountered. My own mother had a stroke and so I encountered that particular illness at close quarters. I think though once you extract a piece of someone’s character and use it, they are no longer identifiable as themselves.”

In the future, Ardiff will continue to write. She says it’s not so much about choosing between acting or writing; it’s about finding engaging outlets for her creativity.

“The Rough Magic show has been doing really well while all this is going on. Plaza Suiteis a rip-roaring comedy that is great fun and everyone comes out beaming. The dream has always being to do something that didn’t necessarily involve being in one place. In terms of creative impulses, it is lovely to be doing more than one thing. I have to say it is just really cool.”

The Goddess of Libertyis at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght until February 25th, Belltable Arts Centre in Limerick from February 29th until March 3rd. Plaza Suiteis at the Gaiety until March 3rd