In the first of our Big Interview series, we talk to actress Alison McKenna about her training in Trinity, turning down Michael Winterbottom and co-founding b*spoke theatre company.
Alison McKenna: I first took acting classes with Betty Ann Norton in Harcourt St. It was a great way to spend Thursdays from 5 pm as a 14 year old. I had no idea that those classes would end up shaping my career. One term Nuala Moiselle came to cast a Channel 4 film and I got a great part in it. That was my first taste of a film set and I loved it. As a result – two films later – I applied to Trinity to study theatre and I was accepted. I don’t come from an acting background so looking back it seems like quite a brave decision. I was really clear at that age that acting was the life and career that I wanted.
IFM: You trained in the Samuel Beckett Centre, Trinity College. How did that environment shape your acting?
Alison McKenna: Trinity gave me the confidence to call myself an actor. I think I felt at the time that if I didn’t train I would always feel like an imposter. We had great tutors. The course was very hard work. It was a privilege to be part of. It made me realise that I needed a lot of vocal work and that in order to be an actor you need patience, resilience, stamina and focus. It was about discovering who you were so that you could leave that person at the door of a rehearsal room and take on other characters. Trinity shaped me into a stage actor.
IFM: How did you get into the acting business, and was it stage or screen first?
Alison McKenna: It might seem odd that having started working professionally I made the decision to train. I think somewhere I had learned that theatre was a completely different idiom to film or TV and at that time you were really considered an actor if you had success on stage. I had an urge to act on the Gate and Abbey stages and in other great theatres, and to this day that’s still the thing that makes my heart sing. Don’t get me wrong, I love working on camera but I spent a long time doing stage work and you can see that from my CV. As a young actor I thought (wrongly) that all sorts of offers would come my way ad infinitum. So at the tender age of twenty three I met Michael Winterbottom at Bafta and he asked me about playing a part in a series he was doing – I said no. We met four weeks later and I said no again. I didn’t think I would be good enough in the part. I wish looking back that someone took me by the shoulders and said he’s a great director and if he thinks you have it in you to do then do it. I had all sorts of other offers at the time so I didn’t think twice about it. When I saw his wonderful film Genova two years ago I realised once again I had missed a pretty fab boat. Mr Winterbottom, can we meet again?
IFM: Back in 2001 you starred in the ill-fated comedy ‘The Cassidys’ for RTE. What are your memories of the show?
Alison McKenna: In 2001 I was cast to play Ed Byrnes sister in The Cassidys. It was a great job to work on. The only thing that stood out early on as a sign of things to come, was that the scripts at the audition stage seemed funnier than the ones we finally worked with . There was a really good bunch of people involved and we were looked after incredibly well. Unfortunately the work itself was not strong enough and it was generally panned. My memories are overwhelmingly good of that summer. A great cast, good producers and a very comfortable work environment. We worked hard and recorded on Friday nights and then went out and had a ball till late. Its a sad reflection on the work that actors do, that the journey is not really relevant retrospectively, the work itself has to either stand or fall on its own merit and fall it did. Spectacularly.
IFM: You’ve worked on screen and on stage both here and in the UK. What’s your criteria for choosing a role?
Alison McKenna: When it comes to choosing roles I think that its the script that makes me want to do something. Great writing is so enticing. I suppose that’s why I have done so much theatre, classic plays offer fantastic roles. Similarly when you come across new writing its a dream for actors to get the chance to make a part their own for the first time. Second to scripts for me in terms of choosing work is the creative team. If they show form then I am really interested. If you told me when I was nineteen that I would go on to work for Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre, Ian Rickson, Marianne Elliot, Patrick Mason & Gary Hynes I wouldn’t have believed it. I still pinch myself that I go those chances. There have been times in my life when I have been offered lots of work and other times when I have thought the phone was never going to ring again. Sometimes I go out to work to remind myself that I can still do it. Acting is a muscle. It has to be used or it atrophies.
IFM: You’re also a well established voice-over artist, how did you first get involved?
Alison McKenna: Voice over work first came my way through Ronan O’Leary when he asked me to audition for an animated film. The Sign Of The Fish, which to the best of my knowledge was never finished. Ben Kingsley played Jesus and Susannah York, Mary in stories from the bible. I played their maid. we recorded the scripts and then the animator artists created the scenes. It was another great cast, and I recorded over several months. I was working for the RSC in London at the time and every Saturday I would fly back to Dublin and record on Sundays and then fly back to rehearsals and later, performances in London. That was my first taste. After that I did alot and somewhere along the line I did eight months of promos for RTE2, I was their female voice. Then radio plays for RTE & R4 followed. I have done a lot of Dermot Bolger’s work. I absolutely love radio. I love recording books and doing plays for it. Last year Radio 4 asked me to do their series Poetry Please and it was a great pleasure to go and record loads of poetry for them.
Alison McKenna: In 2002 not long after The Cassidys, Jane Brennan and I set up b*spoke Theatre Company. It was to give us the chance to produce plays and to create work. It took off better than we could ever have imagined, and though it has been hard work it has been really rewarding. Taking Tom Murphy’s play The Sanctuary Lamp to London and then on a national Irish tour is still a highlight. Tom directed the play himself, and the creative team and cast were all excellent. There are images from it that are burnt into my memory and I am incredibly proud of it as a piece of work.
IFM: The theatre company has received numerous awards since it’s founding, how does that recognition help when producing work?
Alison McKenna: It’s great to get nominated and we have won on a few occasions which allows us call ourselves ‘an award winning theatre company’ when we promote shows. So it’s great in terms of letting the public know that the work will be a certain calibre. However without funding from the Arts Council no work would be done and on that level I can’t say that awards make any difference. Its very competitive right now for Arts Council money. The pot has been reduced hugely and there are a lot of very good companies out there and there has to be room for new companies too. So when we apply for project funding, nothing is a given. You just hope that the proposal for the work will be supported and that you will get the chance to do more of the work which has been so enjoyable. But nothing is a given no matter how many trophies you have.
IFM: Between your acting and work in the theatre, you must have a busy year ahead of you. Give us an idea of your upcoming work?
Alison McKenna: The coming year….. well I have just given birth to a gorgeous boy so the past few months and the next few months will be taken up with him. And that is proving incredibly enjoyable. Apart from that … it will be difficult to perform on stage as it would demand too much time away from him so I am hoping some nice TV might come my way. Though I have done so much theatre I have also done four series for the BBC and RTE where I have played regular characters for months at a time. Ideally I would like one of those jobs to come along and it would be great to continue doing radio and audio books. And as for producing, my eye is on the front door mat every morning these days. We applied for funding a few weeks ago and the answer is due any second now by letter.