How One Irish Woman Moved From PR To Theatre Acting

Actor LISA DWAN talks to CATHERINE HEANEY about life on the road, pursuing her dream and coming home to the NATIONAL STAGE …

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On a cold Dublin day, Lisa Dwan is busying herself in her temporary home near Baggot Street Bridge. The Athlone-born actress has been back for two months, playing Anna Karenina at the Abbey and rediscovering the city she left 16 years ago. The homecoming has been all the sweeter for being a long time coming: she left partly because, back then, she couldn’t get auditions for serious theatrical roles, being told repeatedly that she was “a TV actress”. So getting the call to play the lead in Marina Carr’s adaptation of the Tolstoy classic was more than just a great part. “They’re inviting me home, I thought. I couldn’t say no. It was my dream come true.” While in Dublin, she has made a haven for herself in the elegant flat where she is staying – today a fire blazes in the hearth, the smell of freshly brewed coffee hangs in the air and a washing machine thrums gently in the background. But then, having spent the past three-plus years on the road, Dwan knows all about creating a home wherever she finds herself. “I love making cities my own,” she says, “and one way I do it is to create little meaningful relationships wherever I go. They’re usually with the barista or the newsagent or the stage-door guy – I love being known by people, and knowing others.”

A couple of hours in her company, and you start to understand why. There’s a magnetic quality to Dwan, in person as well as on stage, and her petite dancer’s frame belies a powerful presence, never felt more keenly than when she fixes on you with those huge eyes. Her success, though, was far from overnight and, as she tells it, came about in spite rather than because of her arresting looks. “I’m a blue-eyed, blonde, pretty girl and that puts me in a particular box. You wouldn’t look at me and immediately think “Hmmm … Beckett actor.” It has taken a particular kind of mettle – countless hours of graft and every ounce of that charisma – to get her to where she is today. She herself calls it “defiance”.

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Having gone to ballet school, Dwan was on course to become a dancer until injury put paid to her dream. Knowing that she still wanted to perform, she “fell” into acting instead. “I craved that live experience,” she says. “What happens in a theatre is just so … so… punk rock! I think that it’s the most radical, exciting, dangerous space. It’s my church, and I adore it.”

But it was one that still proved elusive, even after she moved to London. So, like countless actresses before her, she paid the rent by doing a series of day jobs – in publishing, marketing and PR (she launched the Onesie) – until one day, by accident she still believes, she was sent the script of Samuel Beckett’s one-woman play Not I. Famously one of theatre’s most challenging roles, Not I features a spotlit disembodied mouth speaking a monologue “at the speed of thought” and involved Dwan being bolted into a harness and summoning an almost primal voice of virtuoso range, night after night. Her breakthrough came with a production at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2013, and so began a worldwide theatrical phenomenon: queues around the block for tickets, sold-out houses from New York to Paris to Sydney, and huge critical acclaim. Life changed. She was hailed as the modern face, and voice, of Beckett, with the celebrity admirers to prove it. Baryshnikov turned up to her dressing room in Paris; Nick Cave was in the audience in London; after her shows in Toronto, the singer Feist would take her out to gigs to let her hair down.

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It all sounds terribly glamorous, but Dwan is quick to dispel any illusions. “Truthfully, you’re on your own a lot. When I perform, I squeeze every little cell that’s available to me – the audience has it all. It’s an ultimate giving. And you can come back very empty after an experience like that of a night.” Those lonely moments aside, she is careful to acknowledge the extraordinarily lucky position she finds herself in, and to be grateful for her international circle of friends and the “major gifts” she has had in her life.

One such gift is the flat she bought a couple of years ago in London’s leafy Hampstead. She had two months to buy, renovate and furnish it between legs of her tour, and even though she hasn’t been able to spend much time there, she says that having a home has been the anchor that has allowed her strike out. “I don’t think I’d be in the position I’m in now without it. It sounds stupid, but for me to know that somewhere there’s a bed that I have a receipt for – I may not have slept in it for two years, but it’s my bed. And I own a couch, and I own a table. I own utensils!” she laughs.

Still, it doesn’t look as if those utensils will be put to use any time soon: next up she’s back to the US to lecture on Beckett at NYU and Princeton, before returning to Dublin in June to bring her latest production No’s Knife (another Beckett piece that she adapted herself, and performed to mesmerising effect at the Old Vic last year) to the Abbey. She’s also writing a book and developing a new piece. It’s more than the young girl from Athlone, “dreaming out the window of some sort of escape to another life”, could ever have imagined. But that’s Lisa Dwan all over: determined, defiant, forging ahead, a force.

Lisa Dwan will perform No’s Knife at the Abbey Theatre from June 10 2017. Visit www.abbeytheatre.ie for details and tickets.

Catherine Heaney

This article appeared in a previous issue, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out this Thursday April 6.

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