About her play “Charolais,” television actor Noni Stapleton says: “Think ‘Father Ted’ meets John B. Keane, directed by Tarantino.”
PHOTO BY DEBORAH LOPEZ LYNCH
By Peter McDermott
As reported last week, the Origin Theatre Company has decided to postpone the 10th annual 1st Irish festival in New York until January. However, if the reviews are any guide, then Noni Stapleton is more than ably flying the flag this month for new Irish and European drama with her play “Charolais,” which is running at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan through Sept. 24.
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The Irish Times called the play directed by Bairbre Ní Chaoimh and produced by Dublin’s Fishamble “fast-paced, witty and intensely emotional.” The New York’s notices have been just as enthusiastic. “A rare thing,” said Reviews Off-Broadway, “a whip-smart play masquerading as a simple story.”
The Stewart Parker Trust Award 2016 winner Stapleton plays a woman and her principal rival for a farmer’s attentions, a sexy singing Charolais heifer.
“Moo-La-La!” said Talkin’ Broadway. “You are in for an evening that both delights and surprises.” Meanwhile TheaterScene praised Stapleton’s “engrossing writing” and “mesmerizing performance.”
Stapleton found some time in recent days to answer a few questions from the Echo.
How do audiences differ in New York from back in Ireland?
At home the audiences really get all the references in the play so I am pretty much coasting on a wave of laughter throughout. Here it’s a little different. The audiences are having a good time and I can see them chuckling to themselves but they are much more reluctant to be very expressive. Though that being said, there are some guaranteed laugh-out-loud moments in “Charolais” that definitely translate. Also the Irish sense of humor is very dark and the play is a black comedy. It’s great when there are Irish people in the house as it almost gives the rest of the audience permission to really let go.
Tell us something about your background and your career as a writer and actress.
I grew up in Ireland. We moved round a bit because my dad was an officer in the Irish army – Cork, Tipperary and the Curragh Camp and Naas in Kildare, with a bit of Israel and Lebanon [with the army’s United Nations peacekeeping missions] thrown in for good measure. I didn’t grow up on a farm like most people think after they see the play. I had to do a lot of research and on my first trip up to the farm where I learned about all things bovine, I actually calved a cow.
I live in Dublin now and have done for the past 20-something years. I can’t call myself a Dub though. I don’t really feel like I’m from one place except I do cheer for Munster in the rugby, when I’m not hollering for the women’s international team, so deep down I must think I’m from the People’s Republic [of Munster]. Actually, my cousin Nora Stapleton just retired from the women’s international team. I’d love to give her a shout out. She has dome amazing things for women’s sport in Ireland.
I went to the Gaiety School of Acting and graduated in 2002. Since then I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to make a living from this mad old game. Well, most of the time. I had no real intention of becoming a writer. Acting is my game, but in order to generate some work for ourselves, actors often put pen to paper and so I co-wrote two plays after I left drama school. They are called “One for Sorrow” and “Two for a Girl.” The second one is about Traveler culture and a love story between a married settled farmer and a Traveler woman. Again the Traveler element was something I needed to research quite in depth with a Traveler heritage group. I love that method of writing, going into a new community and learning about their culture. It seems to work for me.
Are there any particular influences in your work, whether Irish or not?
Well, the Irish are storytellers, aren’t we, and that certainly influences my work. I love to gather scraps of conversations, and odd little mannerisms and then they come out somewhere in my writing or acting. So, in all honesty, the influences are often everyday people. When you tour enough you meet some off-the-wall but brilliant characters.
I also love writers like Flann O’Brien and Seamus Heaney – the former for the devilment, and the latter for his humanity. The surreal kind of element to “Charolais,” when the cow starts to speak and fancies herself as a French cabaret singer, well that must be influenced by films I watched in my 20s. “Amélie” and “The City of Lost Children” are two favorites. That blending of the hyper real and the surreal is very appealing. Think “Father Ted” meets John B. Keane, directed by Tarantino. It’s a little bloody!
Who are your role models?
My mam and dad. The people I admire are those ones who are kind and decent. Those good humans who treat others with compassion and respect. I am lucky I have a lot of them in my life and I hope to be someone that my friends and family can rely on.
Do you prefer working on the stage as opposed to television? Are there particular things you like about working for the screen?
Ooh, that’s a hard one. I love both for different reasons. Stage, there is nothing like it. It is live and it is alive. The actor and the audience make this new creature every night together. The more film and TV I do the more I appreciate the difference in the work I need to do in preparation for a stage job versus a screen gig. Film sets can be intimidating places so the focus I need is different. On stage there are a group of people rehearsing and making this thing together. Literally making something 3-dimensional from words on a page or improv or however you do it. That’s magic.
On screen, though, so much of it is out of your control and sets can be intimidating places in terms of hustle and bustle. However, as I get more experienced in working on screen, what I love is actually that very thing – that, yes, several elements are completely out of your control, but your performance and your ability to connect with the other actors is still within you. Plus, it’s great that there is this machinery of technical stuff to support you.
Spoiler Alert! On “Penny Dreadful” when I had my death scene, I kept forgetting that I had this gruesome prosthetic attached to me and that does a lot of the work for you.
It’s immensely exciting to see the finished production on those gigs, too. There is one scene when Timothy Dalton goes into a dream/hallucination of his old life and I appear to him with his children in a ghost ballroom. It is magical. The room turns from a disused dusty old ballroom to a candle lit glowing marvelous space and I watched that happen in front of my eyes. We were made up to look almost silver and the shot was set up so that nothing had to be CGI [computer-generated imagery]. It was absolutely astonishing.
However, I did pinch myself a little on take 10 or 15 when I was delivering my umpteenth kiss of the day to Tim and the director sidled up to me to say “Um, yes, Noni, just dial back the passion on the kiss.” Mortified!
What’s up next for you?
I am taking a little break and visiting friends upstate and also in DC. Then back to Ireland to do a two-week run of “Charolais” as well as a mini tour.
Can you tell us what you’ll be doing in the next year or two?
Ah! Can any actor tell you what they are doing in two years. Oh, I wish! Well, how does two months sound? I will be working with a theatre company called AboutFACE back in Ireland, doing firstly a week’s workshopping of a play called “Brutal Selfish Rattlesnake” by Aaron Weissman. Then in November, I will be working with them again on a series of rehearsed readings sourced from a brilliant playwriting festival that they co-run with Tangent Theatre called “Newvember.” This is all happening in Ireland. AboutFACE are an Irish-American theatre company and I am a company member. They were based in New York City for 10 years but have moved home and are making great work over there. So exciting times ahead and then who knows what is next. That’s part of the deal but I don’t mind. I get to do very exciting things like come to New York with my own work. It’s been brilliant being here for the last two weeks with “Charolais” and I know the next two will fly so I’m going to lap it all up. What a city!