The female race
Do laps while learning lines, be brave and don't laugh at dodgy accents: the year's best actresses on their acclaimed roles
Irish theatre has often been criticised for its lack of strong female roles, yet three of the four best-actress nominations in this year’s Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards are for performances in new plays. This year’s nominees range from relative newcomers to well-known stage and television actresses, some of whom have been nominated previously. Here, the four nominees talk about how they prepared for their roles and what it means to be nominated.
Nominated as Mary in The House Keeper
Cathy Belton says there is no great mystery to turning a good role into a good performance. It requires research, good choices and hard work. Her character in The House Keeper, Mary, faces having her home in Manhattan repossessed, so Belton had to work on her New York accent. “I got a great app on my phone, and I was cycling to rehearsals listening to New York radio,” she says. “You have to submerge yourself in it. We were lucky to have the writer of the play, Morna Regan, with us for the first week, and we grilled her to within an inch of her life.”
Belton’s second Irish Times Irish Theatre Awards nomination is all the more pleasing as it recognises her work in a new play, which she found intimidating initially. “It is so much more dangerous being the first voice of a new play on stage,” she says. “When I read The House Keeper first, I thought it was a great script, and I was scared of the part. I think that is always one of the great acid tests. If I feel a fear about a role it is usually a good thing.”
For Belton, learning lines meant hard graft. “Ingrid Craigie [who played Beth in the play] and I would meet 30 minutes before rehearsals and do 20 laps of a nearby pitch, running lines,” she says. “We did it every single morning. For me, learning lines is like learning spellings and tables in school.”
Currently midway through filming a television series, Belton says it took her years to get used to the uncertainty of an acting life. She now accepts it, despite the lack of security. “We need more women’s roles, in my opinion, as there is still a lack of big female parts for women of a certain age. When I started off first, the insecurity used to get to me, and I tried to leave acting. I couldn’t stay away and made a deal that I was just going to have to get used to the down time, use it to refuel, work on my craft and just keep going.”
Nominated as Young Girl in The Boys of Foley Street
This was one of Caitriona Ennis’s first professional roles in theatre, so to be nominated came as a huge surprise. “To have my name beside these actresses, most of whom I spent years watching and idolising, is so lovely for me,” she says. “It was also a great starting point to do a piece of work I was passionate about.”
Much acclaimed, The Boys of Foley Street was months in development before getting to the rehearsal room. Ennis says this long lead-in was key in helping her unearth her character. She also spent a lot of time interacting with families in the Foley Street area of Dublin. “During development we really focused on different stories in the area, and then when I found my own character it was all about the development, physically. Having the time meant I was able to challenge myself to find something, and I could try different things or make braver choices.”
Ennis, who teaches drama at Dublin Academy of Dramatic Arts, says training is a huge part of the preparation for an acting life. Her time studying drama at University College Dublin allowed her to be seen by casting agents and directors, she says.
“It is really hard starting out, and without the training in UCD I think it would be really difficult to have the opportunities I got. It is tough being a female in this industry, but there is a huge amount of interesting work going on in Ireland at the moment, in stage and television. There’s a real buzz around the industry.”
Ennis has just finished work on a film with Paul Mercier; next she will turn her attention to a theatre project for later in the summer. In the meantime, she’ll continue to teach. “It is nice to pass on what I learned, and it also keeps me grounded. It reminds me about the joy of acting and how not to get caught up too much in the roller coaster I’m on at the moment.”
Nominated as Maeve Brennan in The Talk of the Town
“I was last nominated in 2005,” says Catherine Walker, “and I think you can never tell with our job why some work is nominated and others aren’t. As a freelancer, it always feels like you are starting at the beginning every time. What is lovely is having done a piece of work that means so much, and you get to revisit it in your head when you are nominated.”
With The Talk of the Town, in which Walker played the writer Maeve Brennan, she was involved in the early stages of drafting the play, and so, like Caitriona Ennis, she benefited from having a long period of time to think about her character.
“I knew about the role for a year before it happened, and Annabelle Comyn is such an inclusive director that she ensured I was part of the development process. As she and Emma Donoghue were cocreating the work, I was kept involved in a way you never normally are as an actress. I was able to read early drafts and discuss what aspects of her story appealed to me. That was different. You usually turn up on day one of rehearsals and all the decisions about the script have been made.”
In trying to represent the life of someone like Brennan, Walker says, the temptation can be to overresearch the role and not leave room to make choices in the rehearsal room.
“There is no point having all the decisions in terms of the character made before rehearsals start. I also had to be careful I didn’t get intimidated by this extraordinary, intelligent and brilliant woman. We had a photo shoot very early on, and when I looked at the picture, all I saw were the differences between us. I have an enormous nose and she was very tall – but thankfully the photo didn’t turn out too bad.”
Walker was on stage for the entirety of the play, which she found easier than stepping in and out of character. Did it take long to get Brennan out of her head after the run had ended?
“I am getting better at it. I used to go into grief and not know what to do and find myself at bus stops saying the lines like a mad person. I was very satisfied with the work we did, so that helps. You always hope maybe it will come back, so we’ll see.”
There’s a film project in the pipeline to prepare for next, but apart from that, she says she will spend the rest of January waiting for the phone to ring.
Nominated as Betty in A Whistle in the Dark
For her role as Betty in A Whistle in the Dark, part of the DruidMurphy cycle, Eileen Walsh had to adopt a thick Birmingham accent. Several weeks before rehearsals started, she began working with a voice coach and later imposed a rule on set that no one could make fun of her early attempts at the accent.
“As soon as someone jokes about the accent you stop being brave,” she says. “Working with the voice coach gave me confidence. I’d be walking around Hampstead Heath [in London], talking to my daughter in my Birmingham accent, and it was a way into the character for me and the isolation she feels with her new family.”
Walsh rehearsed three plays within a short period of time for the DruidMurphy project, so the preparation for her respective roles was intense, she says.
“It was a massive physical stress. In the rehearsals, we would do two days on A Whistle in the Dark, then two days on Conversations on a Homecoming and then two days on Famine. You needed to have full focus to be able to jump from role to role as quickly as [director] Garry Hynes needed. On the first day of doing the full cycle in Galway, everybody felt physically sick. As an actor you just have to trust the technicians can do their job, and jump into it.”
Putting on the cycle on the Aran Islands was one of the highlights for Walsh, and she pays tribute to her other cast members, all of whom she says contributed to her being nominated.
To unlock the characters she plays, Walsh says, “I look for a line of the play that makes sense and opens up something else. With A Whistle in the Dark, I focused on a line of a poem I read that said although this moment will hurt, another beautiful one will come along. That seemed perfect to me in relation to the character I was playing. I listened to a lot of jazz before I went on stage and singers like Mary Coughlan. The lads would be listening to real full-on Irish music and the contrast was perfectly intimidating.”
Walsh is working on films in Ireland and the UK, and there’s talk of a play in Scotland. “It is a tough enough business,” she says. “So it is nice to have a night when you do take time out to celebrate.”