Saturday 17 March 2018

Doing it for herself... Irish actress Lisa Dwan

There was a time when Irish actress Lisa Dwan despaired at the parts she was offered. Then she took control. She tells our reporter how defiance is the secret of her success

Determined: "I took a chance to do what I love," says Lisa Dwan, and it paid off. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Lisa in a production of the Importance of Being Earnest a few years ago.

Ciara Dwyer

On a bright, blustery morning, I spot a petite woman with a trilby hat and tweed coat bounding up the steps of the National Concert Hall. She intrigues me; perhaps it's the athleticism of her movement and the way that in contrast to most Irish women, she is actually dressed for a winter's day. I jump to the conclusion that she's not Irish. In her tweeds, she reminds me of a female character in an old Woody Allen film, Hannah and Her Sisters. She looks bookish and bright; as if she has just walked off the streets of Manhattan.

Moments later, I realise that this whirling dervish is actually my interviewee; Irish actress Lisa Dwan. It turns out that some of my hunches are spot on. OK, I may not have been right about the nationality - she grew up in Westmeath - but less than 48 hours before we met she had been in New York. The energy of the Big Apple still lingers. After finishing her latest Beckett show, No's Knife at the Lincoln Centre, she took her curtain call, headed to the airport and then it was on to Dublin.

"Last night was the first time I slept in 48 hours," she says.

Welcome to the world of Lisa Dwan, where a gruelling schedule across different time zones is the norm. Before New York, she had been on tour in Toronto and Paris. Her shows sell out fast and have received huge critical acclaim.She mostly specialises in Samuel Beckett. In March, she will perform two of his plays in the NCH as part of their Imagining Home 2016 Centenary Programme.

"In commemorating 1916, I always find it weird to see the parades and whistles," she says. "Footfalls is a meditation on conflict. We don't often sit in silence and put our finger on the trauma of the wound but Beckett does that."

Then she explains that Not I is funny, dark and full of defiance.

"There's a sense of defiance in all of Beckett's work," she says.

Defiance is a common theme in Dwan's life too. At times she can sound a little angry, but in her life, she has used that energy as a healthy fuel to create the successful career which she has now.

"There is this daily defiance and I've had it throughout my life," she says. "I was bullied in school. And I've always been a bit of a lone wolf. I never fit in and any time I've tried, it's been worse. So, I stopped trying and I decided to thine own self be true. I'm certainly not going to be defined by somebody else. There are all the things you are told, like an actor can't direct or produce. Who are they to tell me that? I got knocked to such a point that I decided I either give up, or I just do it. It would be nice to get encouragement but I don't depend on it. I just do it.

"There are some people who go through their whole life not knowing what they want to do, or even worse, knowing what they want to do and not doing it," she says. "I took a chance to do what I love, and also, I have learnt to be my own boss. I'm not wandering around town waiting for some man to give me a job. I've created my own productions. I'm in a very spoiling environment in terms of what Beckett offers. I get to choose who I want to work with and what work I want to do. I'm not dependent on Ireland, the Abbey or the Gate, or whoever the authorities are here. I just saw what was ahead of me and I thought, I think I'll just go do this instead."

She was sick of being offered the same old roles - the bitch, the bimbo and the prostitute.The minute the camera stopped rolling, she couldn't hide her dissatisfaction. Once on a film set in India, Martin Sheen saw that she was bored. He told her straight, "Kiddo, you've got to do a one-woman show."

And so she did. At that time her obsession with Beckett also began.

"As a woman, I cannot tell you how gorgeous it is to have your body removed and not be the blonde, blue-eyed thing and to immerse yourself in this. I get to play a consciousness. In many respects, I'm grateful that I was never invited for an audition at the Abbey or the Gate theatre, or that people just saw me as a television actress. All of that made me ask myself if I wanted it and if I wanted it badly enough. That's when I decided to move country. Dublin was impenetrable but London gave me a chance. People said yes. I've lived there since 2001."

Lisa Dwan may look as delicate as a doll, but appearances are deceptive. There is a steely determination to her which was always there. In London, she worked in publicity and even promoted onesies. She tells me that even though she is not afraid of hard work, doing a normal job with regular hours was not for her. And so, her wages from promoting onesies went into putting on Beckett shows. Performing is in the genes. She remembers watching her father in amateur dramatics and her mother encouraged her artistic side. When she was three, Lisa was brought to ballet classes, and by the time she was 12, she was chosen to dance with the world-famous Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev in Dublin.

"I remember this beautiful looking man," she says. "He was stunning - his elegance and stature. He had this green beret and long green coat. I was terrified of him because he was this towering presence. He stood in the wings shouting at the Americans to stop being so flashy with their hip alignment."

As she tells this story, her eyes light up. It's clear that she admires his perfectionism. Aged 12, she was offered a scholarship to a ballet school near Leeds.

"My parents were really worried and didn't want it but I was adamant. I just had to do it. Of course, it was difficult being away from home but I felt so privileged. I got to dance my confused adolescence away. I'm kind of weird, and, as a kid, I had an old head on young shoulders. In ballet, the discipline is very strict and those lessons stood to me later on."

Lisa finished in ballet school and went on to dance, but her career was cut short. She had problems with the cartilage in her knee and it would not heal. Although she was deeply disappointed at first, she accepted it and was even thankful, referring to it as "a happy accident." Without this injury, she would never have moved on to acting. These days, when Lisa isn't working, she goes dancing to switch off - whether it's cheesy wedding dancing or Brazilian or African. She relishes the unthinking joy. There was a man in her life but she came out of that relationship when she was embarking on her Beckett tour which began three years ago and she hasn't stopped since.

"I've met loads of interesting people," she says, "but no one that I'd want to give up a good night's sleep for yet."

I tell her that she could have a fun-filled siesta instead, but she doesn't seem interested. Right now, her work is all-consuming. The stage fright which she experiences sounds terrifying. In those dark moments, she calls her friends and tells them about her crippling self-doubt. "I don't think this is good enough. I don't think I'm good enough. I have some Jewish friends and I even ask them to pray to St. Anthony to find my courage. Of course, they want to kill me after the show, when they hear I got a standing ovation."

Her life sounds frantic in its globe-trotting and she thrives on it.

"My life is very full and I feel like the luckiest girl alive."

I wonder if she would ever settle down or think of having a baby. She is 38.

"Of course the biological urge is there, but it's vague. It's on my to-do list but I have a lot of other things on that list too. I don't want to be selfishly driven just because that desire is there. If I have another being I want to honour that, just like I honour every project. I think it would be tough but I'd make it work. I'm not going to do motherhood half-heartedly."

She takes a sip of coffee to keep the jetlag at bay and says, "Would it surprise you if I said, I want it all?"

Not one bit.

Lisa will join Fintan O'Toole, Barry Douglas and Camerata for Into Europe in NCH on Wednesday March 30, 8pm, as part of their 'Imagining Home', Ireland 2016 Centenary Programme ph:01-4170000

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