Reading each other's cues
Andrea Smith meets a mother and daughter acting duo who have always had a special bond
WHEN she was pregnant with her daughter Gemma, actress Anita Reeves was playing Ruth in The Pirates of Penzance at the Olympia until two weeks before the birth. She was most amused, therefore, when she went to see an amateur production of the same show a week after she finished up, and when the cue for Ruth came on, the baby suddenly woke up and became very lively and animated.
"Gemma was born a few days later, and when they put her into my arms, it was the closest thing to heaven that I could imagine," she says.
Anita grew up on Sundrive Road in Dublin 12, where her dad Jack was a sergeant at the Garda station on the same road. After school, she held down a day job, and attended the Brendan Smith Academy at night. She played an extra in a play during the theatre festival, and became friendly with the stage manager, Marie Kelly, who happened to be looking for an assistant. Although her mother Kay was "tearing her hair out for a while" when Anita packed in the steady job at the complaints department of a laundry to take up the theatre job, both of her parents were ultimately very supportive.
Having worked her way up to stage manager level, Anita's big break into acting came during a Gas Company Theatre production of The Plough and the Stars, when she had to step in for an actress who got food poisoning on the opening night. Thus began Anita's long and distinguished career, which has seen her grace theatres everywhere, with many TV and film appearances, including Into the West and The Butcher Boy.
When she was in her 20s, Anita met her husband, Julian Erskine, "an amazing, smart, and very loving man," who is now senior executive producer with Riverdance. Julian works with Long Road Productions, which manages Riverdance and also produces other shows, such as I, Keano.
Gemma recalls her mother being very warm, fun and loving, and says that her childhood was quite unconventional, because she got to go to rehearsals and hang out back stage.
"I think part of the fun of having an actor for a mum, was that she could always do funny voices and tell us great stories," she says. "And I suppose there weren't many other children whose mothers dressed up as glamorous ladies at night, or as pirates!"
"Gemma was very funny in an imaginative way, rather than a slapstick one," recalls Anita. "She was always chatting away, and her teacher in playschool even discovered her talking to a little mouse in the corner one day!"
Both mother and daughter recall how Gemma never really went through a rebellious phase, which they attribute to the spirit of openness in the house, where everything was talked out.
"Mum and Dad were quite cool parents," says Gemma, "and they allowed me to be an individual, so really, there was very little to rebel against."
One thing that Gemma did rebel against, however, was the automatic assumption that she would end up treading the boards, following in Anita's footsteps.
"I'd be thinking, 'Not necessarily,'" she says. "I was too shy to apply for drama school, so I studied philosophy at Trinity instead. During my summer holidays, I worked as an ASM [assistant stage manager] with the B*spoke Theatre Company. I got a teeny part as a villager in The Drunkard, and loved it, and couldn't deny any more that acting was what I wanted to do."
Since then, she has appeared in many high-calibre productions, such as Doubt, The School for Scandal, and The Crucible at the Abbey. Her performances have garnered much praise, including rave reviews for the "eloquence" of her title role in Deirdre of the Sorrows for DruidSynge.
A special family occasion occurred in 2000, when Anita married Julian after 25 years together, in a ceremony where their son Danny, 20, gave his mother away, and Gemma made a speech.
"I was working in the Abbey, and the other girls there put me up to proposing to Julian, because it was leap year," says Anita, who had been unable to marry him straightaway as she had been married previously. "We had a small ceremony in the register office, and then a big hooley in Terenure Rugby Club with a ceili, karaoke and a bouncy castle for the adults. It was great craic, and there was something fantastic about the children being old enough to be there."
"It never bothered me when people asked why my parents weren't married," says Gemma, "and I always thought they seemed the most in love of all of my friends' parents."
Gemma and her mother will be appearing together for the first time in the forthcoming production of Romeo and Juliet at the Abbey. Gemma is playing Juliet, and Anita is playing the nurse, and while they both feared that it might be a somewhat weird situation, they were delighted to discover that it felt "surprisingly normal".
"When Gemma and I meet in the morning at rehearsals, I give her a special look, to check that everything is OK with her," says Anita, who oozes warmth and friendliness. "After that, we get on with the day's work, and talk as colleagues would, although I am, of course, inordinately proud of her. It's as if we have two separate relationships though, because inevitably one of us will ring the other in the evening, and we can talk for hours, without even mentioning work."
For Gemma's part, she says she's glad that she had a few years to develop as an actress by herself, before the opportunity arose to work with Anita.
"If it had happened much earlier, I might have been more needy, looking to her for support and advice," she says. "It's a cool situation for me to be in too, because I've been looking at Mum in rehearsal rooms all my life, and now, part of me is thinking, 'Wow, I'm getting to work with Anita Reeves!'"
'Romeo and Juliet', Abbey Theatre, February 6 to March 22. To book, call (01) 878 7222