Still exploring his role
Galway-born Aidan Dooley has travelled the world telling the story of Antarctic adventurer Tom Crean through his widely acclaimed solo performance. But, as Julia Molony discovers, the actor's journey from a working-class background to life on the stage is as enthralling as that of the intrepid explorer's
From the west of Ireland, all the way to Antarctica, Aidan Dooley has charted his life's path around the legend of explorer Tom Crean. "No matter how often I tell this story I know it so well that it is in every pore in my body," says Dooley.
Seven years ago, he fell almost accidentally upon the creation of a stage show based on the exploits and character of the Irish adventurer, who had been previously best-known from the Guinness adverts. Dooley cannot have known at the time, just how much Crean was going to shape his life. Such has been the popularity of the show that it has taken over, growing into a singular obsession and become, he admits, the defining role of his career.
Of course, as a west of Ireland boy, living and working in London, Dooley automatically had more than a little sympathy with the subject matter when he was commissioned by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to bring the historical figure to life through a performance piece. Until then Dooley had mostly forged his career as a jobbing actor by capitalising on the vogue for "living- history" pieces in museums and cultural institutions, work which kept the wolves from the door.
"I'd go out as Thomas Crapper or as a tunnel miner in the Transport Museum, or as a First World War soldier in the Imperial War Museum," he explains.
When the Maritime Museum asked him to build a three- dimensional character to tell the stories of legendary polar explorers Shackleton and Scott, Dooley's research led him to discover the pivotal role that Kerryman Crean, a humble naval officer, had played in both those men achieving glory, even saving their lives. It was then that he decided to go off brief, choosing to honour Crean's unacknowledged heroism. When he started performing his show, out of nowhere, visitors to the museum began to write, telling how powerful they had found it. From its initial popularity there, the show has found its way to stages all over the world.
Dooley's own road to success in London was a long and winding one. Born into a working-class background in Galway in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, pursuing a career in acting seemed like a ludicrous flight of fancy back then. "My father was a labourer, a taxi driver and bus driver. He was a fitter. He was a real grafter.
"We grew up in the equivalent of a corporation estate. My father and my mother imbued us with the notion that we weren't at the bottom end of the ladder. But when you look back we were in the bottom end of the ladder but we had notions of being a bit higher. They filled us with a certain amount of self-confidence."
So despite an early love of musicals at school, Dooley followed the prevailing orthodoxy and got a job at the bank, regarding his love of theatre as a hobby.
"I was mad keen on doing musicals in school," he says, of where his interest in performance came from. "I was at the front of the queue. That fed into my desire to go into amateur dramatics when I worked in Dublin in the bank. While most people, and rightly so, use amateur dramatics as a dating agency, I was much more interested in the acting. I really wanted to do more of it but there was nothing in Ireland in the Eighties where you could platform into a professional career. You couldn't give up a pensionable job in the bank on a Friday and start swanning around on a Monday knocking on the Abbey door saying: 'I'm now available, darling.'"
He moved from Galway up to Dublin, living in a flat above the AIB in Grafton Street where he could easily have carried on for the entirety of his career. But he was released by a request to transfer to London, and it was there, liberated from the grinding financial urgency of life in pre-Celtic Tiger Ireland, he began to see that there might be another way. Eventually he summoned up the courage to quit his secure job in the bank and take a leap into the unknown waters of drama school.
"My mother thought I was off my head," he says.
Living in Cricklewood, studying acting in Guildford, he fell into a creative set. It was in drama school that he met his wife Miriam, a Londoner. No sooner had they graduated than they were effectively in business together, both hitching their fortunes to the joint investment in their shared talent.
"Most actors are probably lucky enough to either have a partner who is a professional, or someone who loves them enough to let them hang out and wait for the phone to ring, and put up with it. And when you've got two, you really are living by the seat of your trousers," Dooley says.
And yet, the partnership works. Initially Miriam followed him into museum work, but gradually they have expanded into a family business, setting up a thriving little theatre-in-education enterprise which encompasses the Crean show, and even jointly taking on lecturing duties at Christchurch University for Performance Arts department.
"I have a certain fieriness and Miriam has really great ideas," he says of why it works. "I'm quite reasonable at least on the practical stuff. Keeping the books balanced. Miriam is fantastic with creative ideas. The marriage is literally the balance of ying and yang, and it works in the artistic field as well.
"It works. Our marriage works really well. We've been married 21 years. We've a 17-year-old and a 10-year-old. And we're off, we've loads of projects going on this year."
Family life, he admits, put an inevitable shape on the direction of his career. "My dad was very much the provider and I'd have picked up on that. When our first baby, Liam, came along in 1994, that provider instinct in me kicked in and I held onto the museum work. Possibly at the expense of a more lucrative Irish-actor-in-England career. But I don't know. Stability at that point was paramount. We had to keep a roof over our heads.
"To be honest with you, it was a case of survival," he says of how the desire to drum up work as an actor led to him cornering an unusual niche, as a performer in museums. "We literally wondered where next month's mortgage was going to come from. The more fires you started the more chance you had of getting some heat from some of them. My fear of not having enough heat has meant I've kept those fires going. Sometimes at the expense of the stress levels in my life. I'm a classic actor, I can never say no. I haven't quite got to the stage of going: 'No darling, I won't do that.'"
He has performed his self-penned Tom Crean stage show more than 600 times. Not to mention a couple of hundred performances in the show's initial format -- as a "living-history" demonstration at the National Maritime Museum. "The minute I open my mouth as Tom, it's like putting on a jacket. It just pours out of me."
The theory has been tested, on more than one occasion. Such as when he went on stage in America in the grip of a nasty dose of stomach flu.
"I was drained, I felt nauseous," telling the story with the hushed dramatic emphasis of a Seanchai. "But I thought, if I cancel this show I won't be able to go home, because we'll have to offer them a different date.
"I sat down on a stool and I just told the story. I had a little bit of stale Coke in a cup, and I was sipping it.
"The woman who ran the theatre was a nurse and I remember her standing there just out of earshot. And she was saying: 'Aidan, you can stop anytime you want'. And I was thinking: 'What do I leave out?' I put on my jumper, and I thought, oh no, I shouldn't have done that. And I'm breathing. Every sentence was laboured.
"I did about a half-hour of the first half, and I came off, and I was crying. I was a wreck. I just put on my Burberry and T-shirt in the second half and I went on and just staggered through it."
In the end, he got a standing ovation. "I met an Irish actor afterwards and he was saying 'that was fantastic. And when you turned to us and said, I'm not feeling too good. That was brilliant!' I really burst his bubble. I'd literally been throwing up before I came on."
Though Dooley has been busy of late preparing a new show, based on the story of O'Sullivan Beara during the Battle of Kinsale, his fortune will always be wedded to Tom Crean.
"Tom," he says, referring to Crean again as more of a family member than a historical figure "has given us a great sense of security. What it did was more or less pay our mortgage."
In return, he does his best to honour Crean's memory, even editing out bits of Crean's story which he worries might be a little unpalatable for his family.
"There's only one tiny bit of the story that I don't say -- because of respect to his family, and that's in relation to a girlfriend he had. I decided not to go down that route.
"He wrote a letter -- he was talking about the fact that he saved Scott, or saved this officer, and said: 'Can you put a word in for Hannah'.
"Hannah was the daughter of a school teacher in Annascaul. But that's the only reference, and then you ask around in Annascaul and people say: 'Yeah, yeah, yeah -- he might have had a thing for her -- that's why he asked'.
"Then he came back to Ireland but Hannah's father, I don't think, would let her marry him. That's when he bought the pub initially -- to make the father -- the father was a school teacher you see. Why would she be marrying some scut out of the navy who wasn't even an officer? So she married a school teacher. And then within six months of that, Tom was back in the Antarctic.
"There's part of me that feels, I wouldn't want to be sitting there with my mother and father and thinking, well, he really loved someone else. That's not really my place.
"The respect for his memory was always paramount," he concludes, "The whole raison d'etre has always been to tell his story."
Tom Crean -- Antarctic Explorer runs at the Everyman Palace Theatre from tomorrow to Saturday at 8pm. Tickets: €2/€20 concession; €7 students (opening night only). To book go to www.everymanpalace.com or call (021) 450 1673.
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