You and Your Audience
Seana McKenna takes you on her journey
by David Sklar
(All photos courtesy of Stratford Festival, all production photos by David Hou except when noted)
Seana McKenna was raised in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke and in nearby Port Credit. She spent one year at the University of Toronto before attending the National Theatre School in Montreal until 1979. She made her professional acting debut the same year at the Blyth Festival, appearing in This Foreign Land, Child by James Nichol and The Death of the Donnellys. Her long and distinguished association with the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario began in 1982, when she joined Shakespeare 3 Company, as the Festival's Young Company was then called, appearing as Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream and as Diana in All's Well That Ends Well. Ms McKenna won a Dora Mavor Moore Award for her performance in the title role of Shaw's Saint Joan (Theatre Plus, 1991) and a second in 1998 for outstanding direction of Fugard's Valley Song. Her third Dora Award, in 2007, was for her performance as Lady Torrance in Orpheus Descending. She received a Jessie Award for Wit and a Genie Award for The Hanging Garden. In 2010 Seana McKenna was awarded an honorary Master of Fine Arts degree from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She served for six years on the Council of Canadian Equity, the actors' union, and for three years on its executive. Ms McKenna has received a Tyrone Guthrie Award for mentorship. With impressive technique and a silky, flexible voice, Seana McKenna demonstrates passion, intensity and intelligence in every role. She is considered by many to be Canada's finest dramatic actress of her generation.
CHARPO: Where did it all begin for you in terms of acting?
McKENNA: I think Brian Bedford and I shared the same first role, which was the Virgin Mary. I was five. I had a next-door neighbour who was an actress. Apparently, when I was about eight, I went with a bunch of neighbourhood kids and asked her if she would direct us in plays. I started at a very young age: in school plays. I had a fabulous theatre arts teacher in high school and I then went to Ontario Youth Theatre, the National Arts Centre and toured around with the Mad Woman of Chaillot. Then I went to Trinity College, they only had one drama course, and finally at the National Theatre School (NTS) I told myself, “I’ll keep doing this as long as I get work”. I have been fortunate.
CHARPO: And you worked with Joel Miller at NTS?
McKENNA: Yes. In my last two years. But I was brought in by Douglas Rain: he auditioned me. And those were heady days. The Parti Québécois has just been elected, and Montreal was a hopping city. There was one night, where I was asleep and it must have been around 3am and all of a sudden I heard car horns blaring in the street and the French side at school got the day off but we didn’t! Already there was a little bit of the two solitudes in the school.
It was very exciting. St-Denis was not the St-Denis that it is now. It was a great city to live and I think the sadness is that many English actors who went to the school couldn’t find enough work to stay. You’d love to live there. There just isn’t the same amount of work.
As Elizabeth in Mary Stuart
CHARPO: You graduated with actors that you are still working with today?
McKENNA: Oh yes. My classmates were Joe Zeigler, Nancy Palk, Judith Thompson and Barbra Duncan. We had many others during the years. I think we started with 13 and ended up with five. People left of their own volition or not. I’ve worked with people that I have taught. In a few years, we’ll all be on the same side of the boards.
CHARPO: And then you went to Stratford…
McKENNA: Well, no. They asked me but I wanted to graduate school. So my first job was at the Blyth Festival, where they only do new Canadian work and then for the first few years, I toured across the country. And I came to the Festival in 1982, as part of the Shakespeare 3 Company, which was the precursor to Young Company, which was also a precursor the Conservatory now. I think there were 12 young people who hadn’t done much Shakespeare and Kristin Linklater, who was the head of the company. We did a Shakespeare bath and did not know what parts we were playing and then we were cast at the Tom Patterson Stage which was called the 3rd stage then, hence the Shakespeare 3 Company.
CHARPO: What has drawn you back to Stratford over many years?
McKENNA: Right now is the longest I’ve stayed in consecutive years. I was there in 1982-85, left and came back in 1989 and left again and returned in 1995, left, and have been here now since 1998 which is a long run. My son was born and you know, you play it year by year, there is no long-term contact. You are here from year to year and I have always worked in the off-season.
What keeps me here is the kind of work I get to do and the people I get to work with. And the great variety of roles and plays.
CHARPO: Including the big hit, Mary Stuart which had four extensions.
McKENNA: Ya, who would have thought that Schiller would have sold out. The Tom Patterson stage is a wonderful space; it has the excitement of an arena. That makes it a great space for a political thriller.
CHARPO: Yes, I didn’t think I would be able to see it since Antoni Cimolino (Artistic Director of Stratford) told me he couldn’t even get himself a ticket but luckily my good friend had an extra one. (cont'd)
As Richard III
McKENNA: I know. People who work in the theatre told me that they couldn’t get in. “I’m sorry”. It spoils you. But it is lovely. And the audience has been fabulous. I think people are hungry for that kind of play that connects so obviously to world we live in today. You know, Teflon leaders where nothing is allowed to stick to them and the people around take the bullet for their decisions because that is how the state has to operate.
CHARPO: What is the first thing you do when you look at a new script?
McKENNA: READ THE PLAY, READ THE PLAY, READ THE PLAY.
The first time you read a play, it’s important because that is your first impression. When an audience comes, they usually only see it once. I’m always very aware of my responses to a piece, where I feel I connect and where I think I can offer something. In terms of the character, depending on the play, you approach it many different ways: how does the character serve this play and what is the author trying to say, what does the author want the audience to go away with. And then, I try to fulfill that function and then it’s all about the choices you make.
With Shakespeare, you do a lot of work beforehand. You have verse and poetry and so many things to dig into: the iambic pentameter, the alliteration, the oxymoron, and all those rhetorical devices that you need and then to be able to forget about them when you get on stage. All that matters is what’s happening with you and the other people.
Sometimes it’s from the outside, in. Uta Hagen once said, “you can’t play Blanche Dubois without your high heels.”
When I played Richard III, Miles Potter, my husband, who was directing it, we spent a lot of time thinking about the outside and how that affected his insides. Sometimes I’d be putting on my bald cap with receding hairline, greasy old rock star hair and I’d look at my face and say, “Oh, I don’t look too bad!” But I realized I was looking in the mirror but not with Richard’s eyes yet. How he sees the world inside out. And that is often what colours someone’s character. How they see the world.
And sometimes there are introspective pieces where we have to look inside, out. It changes. I don’t have a method. I don’t subscribe to a certain methodology. The word is important, the word is my clue. How they communicate. When I found the voice of the character, how they speak in the world, how they connect in the world, then I’m heading in the right direction. (cont'd)
As Madam Arcati in Blithe Spirit
CHARPO: Well what happens when you are doing a one-person show, as you have done many times?
McKENNA: Well then it’s you and your audience. Your audience is your partner. And even with one-person shows, there are so many different kinds of address. I did Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe and I toured it across the country and that is really storytelling with an audience. We had large houses and you had to immediately charge into different characters and when I remounted it, I knew the body shift before I knew the line.
With Shakespeare’s Will it was the same kind of storytelling with just hints of character. It really was her address to her late husband, Bill Shakespeare. And that was inclusive but in a different way. Whereas, in The Year of Magical Thinking, it is very direct addresses to individuals in the audience and talking to them in a contemporary way. And that is hard because sometimes they are riffling through their purse, looking for their cellphone. But they are your partners and they are the reason you are there.
CHARPO: What was your most embarrassing audition?
McKENNA: Oh my god! I don’t know about embarrassing but I do remember some really “choice” television auditions. You know, when the camera pans your whole body and I made a comment like, “If I had known I would have worn my bikini” or when a director asked if I had any questions for a role and all the character had was, “Hey, wait up!”
But I do remember auditioning for Michael Langham to get back into the Young Company and he didn’t like my choice for the first piece, Katherine of Aragon, who was much too old for me. I was about to start Phoebe from As You Like It and right before, he asked, “it’s going to be a funny Phoebe?” And I looked back and said, “We don’t know yet, do we?”
Auditions, they’re hateful things. They really are. They are for different reasons. When you are auditioning for theatre school, I think they are looking for that spark, the animal that’s inside, not necessarily looking for skill. It’s a mystery.
But sometimes it’s more about getting to know you. You know, “who are you?” Do we have the same aesthetic, are we on the same pages because you don’t want to find out two weeks into rehearsal.
Once I was asked at an audition, “Do you have anything else?” And I thought, ok I had done some mask work in school, so I put on a pair of sunglasses and just improvised which was liberating and fun. I was playing. And that is what you are trying to get at, even with text written down: it’s play.
When I work with young people, I tell them to find something in it that delights them that they wish to share so it’s more about you than worrying about what “they” are going to think. It’s like me for opening nights but with no drinks afterwards.
CHARPO: So your process for contemporary and classical text is quite similar?
McKENNA: Yes, it is quite the same. Looking at the play and what the playwright wants. And it’s a collective creation so you bring in the material you find interesting.
When it’s a new play it’s different; when the playwright is in the room and you’re trying to work it out. I’m still trying to understand what the playwright wants. I don’t want to bring in things like, “Well, my character wouldn’t do that”. It’s not my character yet. It’s part of the story that the writer wants to bring forth.
You feel an added responsibility because you want this play to have additional productions. You want to give its best lift off: to give it a long life. (cont'd)
As Dolly Levi in The Matchmaker (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
CHARPO: Because Stratford revisits Shakespeare’s canon every couple of years, do you feel an added challenge to either reinterpret or go against the previous interpretation of a character?
McKENNA: Well, yes, it’s a trap for any great role. There are so many people that come before you but you can’t be intimidated by that. Even if it’s from film, because that’s their Richard or Lady Macbeth. We all have the same headlines in our head, even the same weather. Theatre is a different beast altogether than other mediums but…what was the question again?
CHARPO: People will remember the Shylock from six years ago and say…
McKENNA: Oh, right. I always find that helpful. I see a lot of theatre. I am one of the actors that like going: a lot don’t. I love it. I’ve seen seven Scottish plays and say, “that really worked, ok, why is that not working?” People steal from the best. I’ve seen things in other productions and went, “Oh I guess they saw the show or the director liked that idea”. Or they came to it of their own mind. You can’t be frightened of what’s come before you or else why go on? Since it’s a different time, or you’re a different age, you can always bring something new to it. There is only one perfect production and that’s in your head.
It’s important that these plays keep getting interpreted in new and different ways. Sometimes there is this notion that you have the artistic team (the director, the designers) and the cast. The cast is just interpretative beats. But actors are creative animals. They bring as much to the table as any of the people in the creative team because any choice you make is a creation.
And that is sometimes the difficulty for the theatre critic because they don’t know where to assign praise or blame. They don’t really know who made that choice.
CHARPO: So damn the critics!
McKENNA: Oh, I don’t know about that. They have to see my work to make their living but I don’t have to read theirs to make mine. Everybody’s got a job to do and watching plays, well that’s fabulous.
CHARPO: Do you find, as a woman, there is enough work in the canon of Shakespeare? Is it frustrating?
McKENNA: Oh yes. Of course he was writing for men, so he didn’t put a lot of females in the work because he probably only had a few good boy actors. Yes, it’s harder for a woman especially as she gets older. You usually play your great leading roles in your 20s and 30s. In your 50s, it’s rare to combine your experience with the size and challenge of a Shakespearian role. That’s why it was so thrilling to play Richard because I could bring my years of experience to that part as well as lead a company. But I thought my time would have been up long ago. I’m always ready for when there is nothing for me to do.
But I am really looking forward to returning to Montreal to work on Tennessee Williams, a great love of mine, at the National Theatre School. You know, I probably even enjoy playing Tennessee Williams more than Shakespeare.
CHARPO: So, can you give us a preview of what you will be doing next season?
McKENNA: Are you asking me if I have a job next season? I don’t think I’m allowed to say because apparently journalists leak. So I won’t confirm or deny anything but yes I will have a job here and no it won’t be ushering. Even though we had an actor from Three Musketeers who did both. Yes, it can be done.
Seana McKenna will be giving the Shakespeare Lecture at McGill University on November 12 at the Maxwell-Cohen Moot Court, 3660 Peet Street. Shakespeare in 3D: An Actor's Point of View
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