Upfront: The actress talks about grief, growing up in an acting dynasty and learning from Maureen Potter
Barbara Brennan (72) hails from one of Ireland’s biggest theatrical dynasties. Her parents were the renowned actors Denis Brennan and Daphne Carroll and some of her siblings – Stephen, Jane and Cathryn – became actors. She has one daughter Eva from her marriage to Jim Bartley and two daughters, Jessica and Amy from her marriage to Don Irwin. She’s currently performing in The New Electric Ballroom by Enda Walsh at the Gate Theatre.
Tell us about your parents.
When I was quite young, I saw my father on stage in the Gaiety Theatre. But he retired from the stage early. He’d had enough of it. He was renowned for his voice work and he did a lot of radio, as did my mother. We’d often hear her on radio as Pinocchio or God knows who. Then years later, she blossomed back onto the stage. She was a great woman and she held the fort. My father passed away quite young – 56.
How did you get into acting?
My mother was involved in RTÉ Radio Rep and she was asked if she had anyone at home who could read. I was brought in when I was eight to do my first radio play. It was in Henry Street.
What were you like growing up?
I was the eldest of five and reasonably responsible. I had very straight hair. I would have loved it to be curly. I longed to be one of those girls with ringlets and tap shoes in the Gaiety pantomime.
Tell us about your first purchase from your first pay-packet.
I went to school in Beaufort in Rathfarnham which had a brown school uniform. I hated it. When
I had money myself from the radio plays, the first thing I bought was a red coat with a white collar. I was 11.
Define yourself in three words.
Durable, ambitious and kind.
Who inspired you and why?
Maureen Potter. I worked with her when I was very young. I was only a dancer in the chorus and then I gradually graduated to being the principal girl in the panto and other things. Her work ethic was fantastic and she had marvellous timing. There was nobody like her. She taught us about professionalism – things like you weren’t allowed to sit down in your costume because they’d be all creased when you went out.
Which stage role was pivotal?
Sally Bowles in Cabaret was my first big leading role. It allowed me to act and dance and enabled me to move onto playing more leading roles like Hedda Gabler. There’s a bit of glamour in theatre. And there’s a magic between the audience and the stage.
Describe your latest play.
The New Electric Ballroom is about three sisters living together and two of them don’t go out. They retell the same story but in a different way. I play Breda. She has had a more colourful love life than the others. My sister, Jane, plays one of the sisters.
The show must go on. Have you ever had to work during grief?
No. I’m lucky that I wasn’t working when my eight-year-old son Emmet died but my mother was doing something in the Gate at the time and she had to carry on. He inhaled vomit during an asthma attack. It was a one in a million accident.
How did you cope?
It’s very unnatural to lose a child at that age. You just don’t think you’ll ever get over it but you find yourself going on. You don’t think you’re going to be able to put one foot in front of the other. But whether you like it or not, other people are depending on you. After Emmet died, my daughter Eva pulled me through because she was a year younger than him and I had to be there for her.
And your dear husband Don died in October.
He was only diagnosed with cancer last February. After trying different therapies, they moved on to palliative care. It was quite a rapid descent for somebody who looked absolutely wonderful in the early part of the year. We’re a very close family. I’m fortunate that I’ve lots of support from my brothers and sisters and my daughters. The grandchildren come around. It’s hard to be moping around when there are small children around because they are very uplifting.
‘The New Electric Ballroom’ runs at the Gate until April 1 and moves to The Everyman, Cork, April 4 -7 gatetheatre.ie