What happens when a theatre actor loses a year?
The pandemic has given performers a chance to recalibrate ambitions and expectations
John Doran and Caitríona Ennis in the The Fall of the Second Republic Photograph: Ros Kavanagh
In mid-March of last year, against surreal new events occurring in the world, members of the Dublin theatre industry sought the warm camaraderie of peers inside a city centre pub. It looked like this might be the last night of live theatre for a while.
Actors from different productions arrived, unsure if their shows would close early or if rehearsals would be curtailed. The gathering, as described by John Doran, who was acting in the comedy The Fall of the Second Republic at the Abbey Theatre, sounded like an evening near-festive in its jollity (“It was a piss-up,” he says) but also an occasion to share in the bewilderment, allowing friends to console each other as months of work vanish before them.
Those were the strange early days of the pandemic when public-health advice on social interactions was mixed. At the Gate Theatre there were pithier signs of things to come. Bláithín Mac Gabhann was acting in the psychological thriller Our New Girl when she noticed that nearly half the audience members were wearing masks. “It gave me a lot of fear,” she says on a video call, still dazed by the experience.
What does it mean to lose a year as a theatre actor? For Mac Gabhann, the shutdown hit during a crucial point in her career. After first attracting attention in the wild revenge tragedy Lex Talionis and showing up as a team player in the ensemble drama Citysong, she gave a breakthrough performance in Our New Girl, playing a rivetingly ambiguous nanny whose arrival complicates a couple’s teetering marriage. Her career seemed to have gained serious momentum, with further roles onscreen in Normal People and the single-take film The Way Out, just when everything ground to a halt.
Mac Gabhann has emerged from a frazzled period of questioning whether to freak out or not. She noticed that most of the concern seemed to be coming from outside, from people assuring her that everything would be fine, while she continued adjusting to a career very new to her. “I was wondering should I be worried that it’s this early in my trajectory when everything is stopping. I decided to accept it as a big pause and trust it will continue to be fine,” she says.
Through these weird days of Zoom auditions (“They’re like self-tapes. There’s no person-to-person contact”) and discovering radio acting through a role in the RTÉ Short Story Competition, she feels she has been very lucky. Being employed by the Gate at the beginning of the pandemic meant that she immediately received the pandemic unemployment payment whereas many freelance artists had difficulty accessing it.
Another revelation, amid the denial and panic of those first months, was that the shutdown gave her a break. Mac Gabhann had been in the middle of a 13-month stretch of non-stop work without any scheduled leave. Being new to the profession, she assumed this was the norm, that the relentless lining up of gigs was a widely accepted part of the grift. Now she’s thinking about how to work differently when the pandemic is over.
“What I’ve learned is: take time off. I’m insanely grateful for the last year and getting work regularly but when your actual body is your entire job and you have no time to take care of your body, it’s going to make you worse at your job,” she says. That raises the question of not only when actors will go back to work but also what are they going back to.
David Fawaz has, similarly, made commitments to doing things differently. He was fresh from drama school when he got cast in Louise Lowe’s The Anvil, a contemporary play staged in Manchester. Set in the shadow of that city’s Peterloo massacre in 1819, Fawaz played a Nigerian immigrant working as a food delivery cyclist whose precarious existence gets seen up close in Lowe’s intimate take on immersive theatre, bringing actor and audience near enough to confide in one another – a directorial technique that may be impossible in an era of social distancing.
Fawaz would have been introduced to Dublin audiences in Lillian Hellman’s 1939 play The Little Foxes at the Gate, one of many productions shut by the pandemic. What was he expecting from his first appearance on stage during a run that might have attracted a few thousand people? “I’d be really interested in experiencing what it’s like to perform in front of that large an audience. I feel it would be different somehow,” he says.
Set in early 20th century Alabama, The Little Foxes centres on a corrupt white family of cotton plantation owners. Fawaz was cast as Cal, a black servant whose good-natured blunders conceal some pointed stings against the family’s greed. He was enjoying working on it and was devastated when it was postponed.
It’s not lost on him that The Little Foxes is typical of old-fashioned plays where only minor roles are written for black actors, something once considered progressive (Hellman was a liberal in her day) but now risks being a step backwards. Fawaz hasn’t been able to work during the pandemic, a period when the theatre industry wasn’t immune to the issues raised by Black Lives Matter. His own outlook remains bleak. “I’ll be honest, I don’t see the opportunity for me. There are no plays here for actors of colour to get high on the ladder in the acting world,” he says.
When I ask him what plays he would like to act in, he lists a number of prestigious American dramas including August Wilson’s Fences and Seven Guitars, and the subversive murder mystery A Soldier’s Play. He speaks most passionately of A Raisin in the Sun, and of his love for its original star Sidney Poitier. He says Poitier’s experience as an immigrant in a new country, told he couldn’t speak English well enough to become an actor, resonates with his own past.
He’s currently focused on screen work and, like Mac Gabhann, has begun to scrutinise his options more closely, sorting meaningful characters from flatter roles. “By saying no to a lot of things I am now auditioning for casting directors I never saw when I was always saying yes,” he says.
Reasons for optimism
There are reasons to be optimistic about what the other side of the pandemic will look like. John Doran says he’s heartened by the National Campaign for the Arts, which has amplified the conversation about artists’ basic needs to such a volume it seems to be catching serious attention.
Doran hasn’t been idle during the pandemic. He normally spends half a year employed in development, intensively workshopping new plays prior to their production, and those jobs have continued with roles in a new comedy penned by Ali Hardiman and in Theatre Lovett’s new play for young audiences. He also released a streamed theatre version of We’re In Here, his touching new play about role models and parents that was thematically stealthy compared with the broad comedies he wrote a few years ago (what he calls his “showcase plays”).
Wanting to write about mental health and the internet, he originally grounded We’re In Here in ideas about policing, conditions of enforcement that the pandemic coincidentally brought about. “Either way, it works,” he says. Among his influences had been the writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, whose memoir showed similar signs of longing to be something more surrealist (Levi eventually turned to science fiction). Doran is now writing a new play during the shutdown, signalling an intriguing new direction in his artistry.
Actors’ creativity can flourish within group environments and, to recapture that dynamic, Doran has been facilitating an actors’ workshop every week on Zoom. He describes it as an “open gym” which has been attended by players at all stages of their careers. He questioned stepping in during moments when the workshop seemed to stall but he realised everyone was actually pausing to listen carefully. “It has just been so long since we’ve talked to each other,” he says.
Those signals given from one actor to another, allowing new energy to be generated between them, is something that has been restricted by the pandemic but in Doran’s workshop it can be recreated virtually. Actors are using technology to rediscover how to listen to each other, while waiting patiently to be heard in front of an audience again.