Occupational Hazards

the actress suzanna geraghty

Tanya Sweeney

I knew I wanted to be an actress when a very nice lady, Mrs Mooney, took a handful of us to see a panto with Maureen Potter. We were sitting up in the gods and I remember thinking this was phenomenal and really, really important.

I had a very wild aunt who then told me if you wanted to become an actor, you either have to know how to act or be very attractive. I was a frumpy little teen, so I knew I had to train.

I packed up my suitcase and went to the US with the names of three colleges written on a piece of paper. I dragged my suitcase to upstate New York and arrived at Bard College. After being told that I couldn't just arrive, that there was a process involved, I finally got an interview and they let me in.

I was 17 and, as I headed off on the plane, my mother had her rosary beads wrapped around my neck. All I remember were those chilling words: "For God's sake, don't get pregnant."

Out of the 450 of us who came out of Bard, there's only one person left acting – and you're talking to her. There is a huge amount of financial struggle in being an actor. At some point you go, "how can I go on with this uncertainty?"

It's not just financial, it's psychological, too. What I had to do was figure out how to go on in this industry. And I realised that if I for one moment attached any of my self-worth to an audition, it would lead to tremendous unhappiness. Even if I was pleased and I got an audition, I had to realise that the casting process was very subjective.

When I saw younger members of the acting community heartbroken because they didn't get something, and they were doing piecemeal jobs, I wanted to help. So I wrote 'Auditions, Zoe's Auditions' – a one-woman play about the process of auditioning as a rising actor. In the play, there is very much the message, 'don't make this about your self-worth'.

After I trained in the US, I wanted to see how the English went about it. So I worked with Liz Percy of RADA and went back to the US for a year, where I worked with the Lyric in Boston. My mother became terminally ill and I ended up in Ireland again for a few years. Then I went back to the US and decided to live the actor's life in New York in 1996. So I was hostessing and bartending and arriving to the Union Building at 6am every day.

The union makes the theatre companies hold open auditions for all the shows that they're doing, and the first 230 people there get seen for about three minutes. It's a true test of your resilience, especially when you're working late at night all the time, but it was a great time. For the auditions, I created this comedic character Zoe, and did small segments where I would recite 'Wuthering Heights' in three minutes. I began to be known as the Irish Lucille Ball.

Nowadays, I'm up at 6.30am producing the show that I'm about to tour across Ireland. No two days are the same – every day there's something new to deal with. You're dealing with a variety of people, different disciplines and crafts, and it's about trying to understand what they're doing, and bringing everyone together.

Zoe is a real underdog and this is especially resonant in the recession. But, when you think about it, some great comedy comes from tough recession times. The message from the play is 'even if you're the underdog, be yourself and being yourself is plenty'. I'm still on a massive learning curve but I'm very grateful to be here, the last one standing from Bard.

'Auditions, Zoe's Auditions' is touring Ireland from Wednesday, August 21, starting at St John's Theatre, Listowel, and hitting Limerick, Dublin, Bray, Waterford, Offaly, Omagh, Armagh and Derry. See suzannageraghty.com for information

In conversation with Tanya Sweeney