The focus of theatre is often literary, aiming to explore the plays themselves, but it’s also important to remember that it’s the people behind the production who are instrumental in lifting the words from page to stage. For this reason, we want to get an insight into all different aspects of a production, front and backstage, through conversations with people involved in all parts of theatre. This week we talked to Grainne O’Mahony, a 3rd year English student at New College, and a well-known actress in the Oxford circles – her first production was the Caucasian Chalk Circle at the Playhouse, and since then she has featured in a huge variety of roles across a diverse range of productions during her three years at university.
How did you become involved in the Oxford drama scene?
I was a very keen fresher! I signed up at the OUDS stall at Freshers’ Fair, and went to the OUDS drinks in 1st week. Someone on the committee recommended that I audition for everything and see what sticks, so I did.
Did you find it difficult to get involved?
I was quite lucky as my first audition was for the The Caucasian Chalk Circle which was at the Playhouse, so auditions were advertised really well. It was a big cast with an emphasis on working as an ensemble, so I got to know people in older years pretty quickly, most of which I got to work with again. But it was right place, right time; if the only plays at the Playhouse that term were musicals I would have found it a lot more difficult to get into Oxford drama.
What’s been your best memory of your time working on productions?
The rehearsal room’s my favourite part because that’s where you get those satisfying eureka moments. However, one memory that stands out for me was the final night of the Japan tour last summer: it was a private gala performance on this giant field with a small river dividing us from the audience. After Romeo and Juliet are dead, I, playing Balthasar, would run onstage with Romeo’s letter and try to dodge one of the watchmen (played by Arty Froushan), who would essentially headlock me and give the letter to the Prince. That night I accidentally managed to get my revenge by side-stepping Arty, who then slipped up on the grass. I could see the bushes shaking from Lord and Lady Capulet’s offstage laughter. Suddenly the fate of the play was pinned on whether or not Night Watchman No. 2 could catch springy little Balthasar. Live theatre doesn’t get more exciting than that, right?
What’s the worst mistake you’ve ever made on a production?
I’ve probably blocked it out of my memory… though last year, I played Orlando (alternating with Dom Applewhite) which requires you to be onstage for the whole play. In the second half, when Orlando becomes a woman, I had to change frocks, and I starting untying my sash only to realise that I was inadvertently turning the play into a burlesque: I forgot to put on my slip during the interval. The other actors who were meant to dress me thankfully caught on—they started dancing around the stage with the costume pieces, giving me enough time and comedic cover to dart offstage and pop my slip on.
How much control do you think you have over the course of a production?
I think it depends on the director, how collaborative they are with their actors and crew, how willing they are to see characters develop in a direction they wouldn’t have when they first read the play. For me, that’s the most exciting kind of direction. In my experience I’ve always been able to have a say, it’s just been about becoming confident to recognise it, which I definitely wasn’t in first year. It’s funny because, creatively, directors have the final word, until the curtain goes up, or the lights go down, and they have to relinquish all control to the actors and technicians…
Is there anything you’d change about the drama scene in Oxford as it is?
Oxford offers a very unique opportunity, as in we can put on productions that you simply can’t put on in the market-driven real world. It’s a training ground where you can create and design really wacky, adventurous productions, make interesting, diverse, and meritorious casting choices, and crucially create something new. Some productions—even productions of the classics—really do get this. Still, most of the time the output is canon-orientated, or looking at what’s happening on the West End now. Which is fine, but safe.
Do you think reviews are the best way to measure a production?
Great question. Once a review is written, it’s written, that’s it. It’s like that line from The Social Network, when Rooney Mara’s character says, ‘The Internet’s not written in pencil, Mark, it’s written in ink.’ With live theatre it’s tricky because every night is almost like a different play, so often a review can only count as a review of one night. Constructive criticism is good, it can be motivating—sometimes reviews are so bombastically positive they can’t see the rotten wood for the trees—just not when it’s out of malice or for the critic’s own agenda, which does happen. I realise this is coming from an actor but critics can write ill-judged reviews, just as actors can give terrible performances, or writers bad dialogue. The power dynamic, however, is problematic because reviewing automatically gives you an air of authority. There are some excellent, shrewd reviewers in student journalism. However, it’s not regulated meaning a lot of times companies put months of love and energy into a production only to be reviewed by someone who wants a free ticket to a show, or to make a name for themselves, and in turn giving a bad name to reviewing. So I guess what I’m saying is, in theory but not always in practice.
Would you recommend getting involved in stage productions in Oxford?
Absolutely. I totally understand that theatre isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Having said that, Oxford may be your last chance to try theatre out — so, why not? There are so many roles onstage and off in which your might realise untapped potential. And it’s a silly amount of fun.
Do you think you’re adding anything to society by being part of the creative scene?
Any medium that tells a story is adding something (says the English Literature student). Storytelling is one of the most important things in society; theatre is another form of communicating experiences, of critiquing society, of engaging our empathetic faculties. What makes acting in theatre special is that it’s immediate, live, right in front of you; you can’t escape the story. To take that one step further, two years ago Duncan Macmillan said that theatre is at its best interventionist. I agree, it asks questions that force you to mull over its solution, and prompts conversation.
If you weren’t an actress, what other part of the creative process would you want to do?
Writing and directing. But I sometimes wonder do I actually want to direct, or do I just want to increase the number of female directors out there?