The actress talks about pivoting during lockdown, learning to leave the drama on stage, and the revelation of acting as a shy person
‘I’m not taking for granted that we’re back on stage, so I will not complain about anything,” says actor Maeve Fitzgerald when I ask how she found her recent tour of Blackbird, a two-hander by David Harrower about a woman confronting the man who abused her as 12-year-old.
The show is very intense – 80 minutes on stage, no interval, no let-up. It is demanding of performers and audience alike, and memorable for that.
“The subject matter is difficult to tackle,” Maeve agrees. “There’s just two of us, and not many laughs. But Declan [Conlon] and I both said during the run, that play doesn’t tire you, it gives you energy. The writing is so good. Anyway,” she adds. “I’m just so happy to be doing it again.”
‘It’ of course is acting. Did she have moments of soul-searching around her chosen profession during the downtime of the pandemic? After all, society is now full of people who have decided not to go back to whatever it was they were working at pre-Covid.
“Absolutely I did,” she says. “When Covid hit, I was very lucky. Several of the jobs I had lined up they were pay-or-play contracts so I was getting paid regardless of doing the work, which was really good.
“So the work I was meant to be doing did slip away, but there was money coming in. I was kept busy with a lot of stuff online – doing readings – and whenever lockdown lifted I was looking to be in shows, so I never felt very far away from it. But during lockdown I qualified as a personal trainer. I thought, I can’t do nothing, but also, what if this never comes back?”
Why personal training? “It’s something I had planned on doing, something I’ve been interested in for a long time. So I studied to do that during lockdown and it was good for the head. Good for a sense of purpose, but also it provided a great sense of relief. Say everything does go tits up and we never do get back to theatre and what we’re used to, that there would be something else.”
So how has the return to work been so far? “I am very grateful that things seem to be trickling back, bit by bit, and audiences are finding, gradually, the confidence to step back into theatres.”
Maeve has form in choosing intense roles. She has appeared in Eugene O’Brien’s Eden, Marina Carr’s On Raftery’s Hill, as Lady Macbeth, and as Desdemona in Othello.
She has been nominated for Best Actress at the Irish Theatre Awards several times, and won Best Supporting Actress (for ANU’s Basin). After Blackbird, she appears in Andrew Flynn’s adaptation of Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea. Why is she drawn to difficult roles?
“I don’t know if I am drawn to them,” she says. “They just happen. I’d love to do Noël Coward, but I never get cast in those. I’d love to do some comedy.”
She certainly has the looks for dramatic intensity – but maybe that’s a terrible thing to say? “I don’t know,” she says with a laugh. “The thing is I’m not really like that in real life at all. But you want the parts where you can dig really deep and there’s some substance.
“You never get bored with those kinds of roles. I don’t know, they just seem to happen and I’m not going to complain, because if I could go back to sitting in drama school and see the things that I’ve done, I’d be very happy with that. So if people want to cast me in ‘difficult’ roles I’ll take them and I’ll do the best that I can. Though people do say, ‘you need to do something a bit lighter, for the sake of your own health.’”
So how does she manage to balance the intensity of what she does on stage, with the off-stage, ‘normal life’ times? Turns out, it’s not the subject matter so much as it is the process.
“If the director is responsible with his or her actors, you’re always safe. I’ve done what people would consider very dark pieces that deal with incest and abuse and all sorts of terrible things. But we had fun in rehearsal, because the director was responsible enough to know the drama stays on the rehearsal room floor.
“The only time I would be bringing stuff home with me would be if I was having doubts about the work I was doing, the quality. Sometimes you do have directors who fill you with doubt. And that’s more traumatic than the actual work.
“The play is like a boat everyone is trying to row in the same direction – but when someone is telling you you’re rowing wrong, you’re setting everybody else off course, that’s more challenging.”
This hasn’t happened “very often, thank god,” she says. “I’d say maybe once. I think, in hindsight, I should have done more. I was afraid, I think. You want to prove yourself. It’s frustrating because you think you’re working the hardest you can and the person is still going ‘you’re not good enough’.
"What you want to say is, ‘why did you cast me then?’ Now, with a wiser head on me, I’d probably sit down and have that conversation. At the time, I think I just cried.”
Is there always a fundamental power imbalance between director and actor?
“When the director is responsible and good, it doesn’t feel like that, it feels like a collaboration. There isn’t a hierarchy per se, everyone is in it together. But it’s true that what you don’t want to do, ever, is appear like you’re being precious, or a moan. Again, this only ever happened once – but I certainly got confused: ‘Is this about the play? Or is it about me?’
“I think everyone goes into acting to challenge themselves as much as they can. And if you have the opportunity to do that, then every day at work is a joy, it never feels like work.”
Surely, I say, some go into acting because they want to be the centre of attention? Perhaps, she agrees, but that’s not her. “I find being the centre of attention very difficult. I’m naturally very shy. The idea of getting up on stage as myself, I’d rather poke my own eyeballs out.
“I even find this difficult, talking about myself. I think most really good actors that I’ve worked with have a healthy fascination with the darker sides of the human psyche and are not afraid to explore that.
“I wouldn’t call that process performative. It’s more revelatory, if that makes sense? To perform something, in my mind, means to pretend, whereas I think really good acting is revealing something. I think that maybe there’s a part of you that reveals things about yourself, as a shy person, in performance that you would never reveal in real life. The idea of getting up and performing – yes, it is what you do, but you have to start with the truth before you can perform.”
So what brought Maeve to acting?
“The first time I decided I wanted to I was 12, and there was an Irish film on TV, The Treaty, with Brendan Gleeson and Barry McGovern. I’d never seen a film with Irish people in it. Something clicked in my head: ‘An Irish film, with Irish people acting? I’m Irish, I want to act...”
She started youth drama classes, then went to the Gaiety School of acting as a teenager.
“When I was in transition year I did work experience in The Gaiety and The Gate. Every Thursday was work experience day but even when it finished, I’d put my uniform on, with clothes in my bag, get the Dart into town, change in Connolly Station loos, then rock up to The Gate saying: ‘Oh, we’re off school this week, can I just be here?’
“And they were all so kind to me. They’d set me these stupid tasks – sorting through programmes that didn’t need to be sorted – because they figured, ‘she’s here, we’ll find her something’. I was just very needy and wouldn’t leave them alone.
“Sometimes I’d just sit in the auditorium and watch tech rehearsals. I asked could I do work backstage, so I would sit in the Green Room and watch all these actors coming in and out in their costumes. I thought, ‘this is amazing, there’s nowhere else I want to be in my life.’”
At the time, she was 15. What happened at school?
“I had no interest, I used to be very studious, but it all slipped away after that happened. It’s not that I didn’t study at all, but I could have done better.”
And her parents?
“My parents said ‘fine, you want to do this, but you have to get a back-up plan’. So I was convinced to go and do an Arts degree. I went to UCD – to do English, Irish and Greek and Roman civilisation – and I lasted three months. I left. I auditioned for the Gaiety School and the Trinity acting course. I got both, and I took Trinity.”
What was the catalyst that made her leave UCD?
“I was sitting in an English lecture, listening to someone talk about the Canterbury Tales, and thinking, ‘this is all very interesting, but it’s not for me’. I spent my whole time in DramSoc. There was no point doing exams, because I had no idea what was going on. Thankfully when I chose to leave, my parents didn’t try to stop me. Although they were concerned. They probably still are,” she says with a smile.
In fact, Maeve has worked very consistently, mostly in theatre. Even so, there are frustrating periods in every actor’s life. Presumably she has had these?
“Yes, but I’ve never thought realistically about giving it up. I was given some advice: ‘What’s the key to success in this profession? Be the last one doing it. Be the one who doesn’t give up.’ That was good advice. And I’ve been very lucky as well. I just never get bored of it. I can’t believe I get paid to do plays.”
How does she cope with the rejections?
“I remember once I went for a part, in London. I thought I did a good audition, and I didn’t get the part. I asked my agent for feedback, and I was told the director said ‘she didn’t fit into my landscape.’
“At the time, I was like, ‘what does that mean?’ But in hindsight, I understand. I think if you go for a part and don’t get it, and later go and see the play, you understand why you didn’t get it – it wasn’t your part.”
Her collaboration with director Andrew Flynn has been very fruitful so far. How did that begin?
“He came to see a show I was in, then asked me to be in a Marina Carr play, Mai, he was directing. I think I’ve done about five shows with him now. He’s incredibly collaborative, he has such respect for the actors he casts. He’s a beautiful person and a really good director. He trusts you.”
Flynn has previously adapted Ryan’s novels for the stage, including The Thing About December, in which Maeve played Siobhan.
When it came to From a Low and Quiet Sea, she says: “I had a profound experience reading this novel. I was familiar with his writing, his genius. This book – it’s heart-stopping. I had such a weird experience reading it. I couldn’t tear myself away from it, but every now and again, it would sort of be too much. I’d have to put it down, take a bit of a breath, and then go back to it. That’s the challenge – that’s what we’re hoping to recreate for audiences with this.”
Did she meet Ryan?
“We did a workshop of the piece last year. He was there for that, and was very patient – he listened to all our suggestions. When actors start making suggestions... it’s like that joke, a camel is a horse made by a committee, everybody has something to say! He’s very, very generous. He’s involved, but he also trusts Andrew.”
When not working, Maeve turns to exercise.
“I think it keeps me on the straight and narrow. This particular profession can lack structure, at the times when you’re not working, so to put in some sort of physical activity puts in some structure, some sense of control. I do that, I do some hot yoga, hang out with my husband. He’s an assistant director, in film.”
But the couple don’t talk shop. “We fill each other in on our days but rarely sit over a meal and talk about work. We talk about our cat – I’m really boring!”
I doubt anyone who has seen her on stage would agree.
Donal Ryan’s From a Low and Quiet Sea, directed by Andrew Flynn is at Nenagh Arts Centre, July 6-8, and Galway International Arts Festival, July 9–24; decadenttheatrecompany.ie