JAMES STRECKER: If you were asked for 50 words for an encyclopedia to summarize what you do, or have done, in the arts, what would you say?
FIONA BYRNE: Fiona discovered her love for acting while studying English and Drama at the University of Toronto. She graduated from the National Theatre School and since then has been working as an actress, mostly on stage, sometimes on television and in film.
JS: What important beliefs do you express in or through your work?
FB: I believe deeply in the power and gift of collaboration. I think that belief grew from my time as a dancer – the beautiful necessity of the other, the endless possibilities of truly working together to tell a story. I believe that theatre can be life changing, for both the makers and the watchers. It certainly has been for me, in both capacities. I believe that generosity is key – with each other, with ourselves, and with the work.
JS: Name two people, living or dead, whom you admire a great deal and tell us why for each one.
FB: I met the brilliant actress Goldie Semple when I first started at the Shaw Festival. I had admired her from afar and was lucky enough to work with her several times. Onstage, she was regal, beautiful, but her deep humanity shone through, and her kindness. I suppose the big gift she gave me was her friendship. We shared dressing rooms together over the years and she was so funny and self-deprecating. And yet she knew how to take care of herself and stand up for herself and her character, in rehearsal and in performance. She took her space. Goldie was very much a mentor to me, and I feel her absence deeply.
And my Dad, John Byrne. He possesses an optimism and a curiosity about the world like I’ve never seen. He’s not always had it easy but he has never, ever, ever given up his belief in the goodness of people and in better days ahead. He doesn’t believe in the importance of material things at all – he knows very little is needed to live a happy life. He has an easygoing, gentle tenacity that beats all the tough stuff to the ground. No doubt, he’s the biggest inspiration in my life. (My Mom is pretty awesome too – I better include that or she’ll be put out!)
JS: How have you changed since you began to do creative work?
FB: Being immersed in the work that I do has made me notice the theatre in the everyday. I will be at a restaurant, in a store, or on an airplane, and I will see the nerves of the people who work there, the backstage versus the performance area, all of it. It’s obvious I suppose but for me it makes me see how we are all interconnected and how the theatre of life is around us all. I love it. It fuels my imagination and comforts me somehow in this crazy, sometimes lonely world.
All of my report cards as a child commented on my shyness and quietness, which are still present, but because of my work, and feeling more confident in my own artistic voice, I’ve become more gregarious. I trust my own opinions more and more.
JS: What are your biggest challenges as a creative person?
FB: Oh, I would say fearing failure. I wouldn’t say I’m a perfectionist, but I am very hard on myself, and overly sensitive, and I think caring so much about what “others” will think of me as a person and as an artist really blocks me sometimes. There are moments, though, when I am onstage and I forget about everything except my character’s thoughts and the faces and energies of those on stage with me, that’s when I feel free. I stop judging myself and I sort of disappear into it all. And I stop caring about result, about effect, about criticism. I wish I could carry that with me all the time, because I know that’s where true creative power lies. I know I judge myself more harshly than any critic ever could.
JS: Please describe at least one major turning point in your life.
FB: I was an Irish dancer for 17 years, and I remember competing at the North American Championships as a teenager. I was doing well and then half way into my final dance, I slipped and fell. Everything went into slow motion for me. I heard the audience gasp, and become quiet. I immediately got up and kept dancing. It was surreal. I ended up winning the championship, and I remember one of the judges commenting on my ability to recover. Looking back, that was a big moment for me in connection to my own ability to handle adversity onstage and to be present – to recover when things go awry. I was surprised by my courage onstage.
JS: What are the hardest things for an outsider to understand about what you do?
FB: I think people are surprised to hear that it can be a grind – that there is slow, methodical work involved in the creation of a piece of theatre. My friends who don’t work in the arts think of my job as really glamorous, and there are times when I would agree, but not often. And I’ve had many conversations trying to explain how I don’t get unemployment, or maternity leave. That’s always a shocker.
JS: How and why did you begin to do creative work in the first place?
FB: Well I danced from a very young age, and that no doubt planted the seed, but in university I started to do community theatre and to take drama classes, with every intention of being an English professor. And then, I just wanted to act…I abandoned the idea of being a professor and auditioned for the National Theatre School and after I was accepted, I considered it fate, and an affirmation that it wasn’t a crazy idea, and I kept going. I actually didn’t fully articulate to myself that wanted to do this as a career until well into my second year of theatre school. I just couldn’t believe I could do it for a living. But it made me feel complete, and I think it gave me, as a shy, under the radar kind of person, a place to feel like I could expand the possibilities of who I was. I remember, at theatre school, my first-year voice teacher, the wonderful Sheila Langston, asking me why I loved acting, and it was the first time anyone had ever asked me, and I remember saying that I felt like I was ready to burst with colour every time I got to perform. And, bless her, she said she understood.
JS: What haven’t you attempted as yet that you would like to do and please tell us why?
FB: I would like to do a one woman show. That terrifies me enough to think it might be a really good thing for me to do. And to do some more Shakespeare. I saw Groundling Theatre’s brilliant production of Lear recently…it was so clear, sharp and deeply felt. I felt very inspired leaving the theatre.
And I’d like to become a decent potter. I’m a big lover of the ceramic arts, but it’s all from afar… but to make something passable, that I could actually put on a shelf and be able to look at without cringing, that would be great.
JS: What are your most meaningful achievements?
FB: Well, I have two beautiful daughters, and I feel proud to be their Mom. And I am also proud to love the amazing David Jansen, who is among the greatest of men and a true, brilliant artist.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who would like to do what you do?
FB: Well, as difficult as this choice of career can be, I know how fulfilling and life affirming it can be, so I would always encourage them to follow their ambition. But I would also advise that they ask as many questions as they can of artists about what it is really like, day to day. Ask other young people who are starting out, ask older people what their lives are like…really investigate… and then go for it if it’s still their heart’s dream.
JS: Of what value are critics?
FB: They are necessary as part of the creative machine, and serve the public who, more and more, are tentative about spending their hard-earned cash on often expensive tickets. If I am curious about a play here in Canada or elsewhere in the world that I know I won’t see, I read the reviews, but if I see a play after reading a review I become too influenced and distracted. The experience becomes comparative instead of allowing me to fully concentrate. People love to tell me about my reviews, though, and boy do they love to post them, which I find curious. I have no doubt that critics are often excellent writers and observant thinkers…I am just too easily swayed and this skin of mine is just too thin. I will fully admit to peeking very occasionally at my own reviews after a run is finished. So hard not to, as they are online forever…and ever…
JS: What do you ask of your audience?
FB: To listen. To be open to having their minds and hearts changed. To try to leave any agendas at home and come to experience something fully, by just being present. And also, no candies.
JS: What specifically would you change about what goes on in the world and the arts?
FB: I am reading a lot these days about how we are not doing ourselves, or our kids, any favours, by introducing them to technology and allowing it to become a replacement for real communication, for real life. I admit to being a part of the problem and often getting swept up in technology with the cost, I fear, being high, for myself and those close to me. Kid’s attention spans are now shorter than fish’s, or some such odd statistic. How can we expect them to be interested in seeing a full-length play, or reading a book not laden with distracting illustrations? How can we expect the next generation to know how to look at each other, to honestly look at themselves and to like or even accept what they see?
To me, what I worry about is that no one is daydreaming anymore. I have to say I spent a lot of my childhood lying in my backyard imagining stuff. I feel like it helped me figure out what I really thought, and gave my brain space to be creative. Oh, how I miss those days. And of course, I am not saying it’s all bad now, and it was all perfect then. Of course not. But I would wish for us all to put our phones down sometimes and start daydreaming again. I was eating at a restaurant alone recently and I didn’t have my phone with me. I just sat and ate, so happy, having a rare moment of peace, and I caught the eye of a woman in a group across the restaurant, looking at me with confusion and a bit of pity. I think she was tempted to bring her phone over so I would have something to do.
As far as the arts go, I want to see a time when fairness, decency, respect, and diversity in casting, would be a given. That all artists, no matter their gender, colour or age, would be given an equal voice.
JS: If you could relive one experience from your creative life, what would it be and why would you do so?
FB: The opening night of ‘Belle Moral – A Natural History’ at the Shaw. It was at the Court House, which is still in use but not in the same way anymore. It was an intimate space and I could feel the audience really living and breathing the play with us. The feeling at the end was one of unity and pure joy. I will never forget it. Oh, and Top Girls. Also, in the Court House. That scene with Marlene, Joyce and Angie at the end of the play is a masterclass in writing and getting to perform it with two of my favourite actors and people, Tara Rosling and Julia Course, was beyond my wildest dreams. I used to walk home after every performance of Top Girls on a giddy high.
JS: Tell us what it feels like to be a figure who is presented somehow in the media. What effect does this presence have on you?
FB: To be honest, I don’t think of myself that way at all. Working in Canadian theatre gives me a nice anonymity where I can do my work and get on with it.
JS: Name two places you would like to visit, one you haven’t been to and one to experience again and briefly tell us why
FB: I would love to go back to Galway, Ireland. I lived there after theatre school, interning with a theatre company, and it’s also where I have some family based (the rest are in Dublin). It is one of the most gorgeous places, looking out onto the sea, and the city itself is bursting with music, theatre, art of every kind – and incredible, daring artists. I found inspiration everywhere in Galway and the surrounding towns. I want to bring David and the girls and to experience it with them. I want to sit in the pub while the rain comes down and hear a session of musicians play.
And I’ve always wanted to visit Japan. To spend a good amount of time there exploring it fully…it strikes me as a place of exquisite beauty and art.
JS: Please tell us about one or more projects that you have been working on, are preparing, or have recently completed. Why do they matter to you and why should they matter to us?
FB: I have been teaching and coaching at the National Theatre School this winter. I haven’t spent much of my career teaching, and to get to work with these students at my alma mater has been incredible. It has been inspiring and humbling to revisit my old school in this capacity. And it has given me the chance to re-examine my own process in a very real way. I like to imagine it will feed into my work as a performer. Speaking of which, I am pretty chuffed to be working on Sarah Ruhl’s “Stage Kiss”, starting rehearsals pretty soon. It’s a play I’ve loved for a few years, packed with both wit and heart, and I am both thrilled and terrified to be playing ‘She’…and then the ‘Strange Lady’ in Shaw’s really funny “Man of Destiny”. Neither of my upcoming characters have been given proper names, which I love. So much mystery. These projects matter to me because they are awesomely challenging and will test me in new ways…I feel grateful for that.
JS: Let’s talk about the state of the arts in today’s society, including the forms in which you work. What specifically gives you hope and what specifically do you find depressing?
FB: I got this questionnaire to fill out in the midst of such a difficult and important time, and it all still feels so new and raw. First, I will say that the arts are more vital as ever as we push back hard against a world that can be filled with hate and abuse and suffering. What gives me hope is the bravery I see all around me. Bravery to make art that explores and lives inside unspeakable pain, like Betroffenheit.
And also, the bravery of women to come forward whose personal lives and artistic paths have been compromised by sexual harassment and horrible mistreatment. I find it depressing how commonly power is misused and abused, not only in the situation coming to light now, but in many rehearsal halls and theatres around the country. I am really fed up. And I feel lucky to have worked in generally healthy spaces throughout my career, where I felt respected and safe. And able to do my job. Because I know that’s not the case for so many.
What gives me hope are those same brave women, who have spoken up for so many who felt they couldn’t, and have made change possible. Enough is enough. There is change afoot, and I am eager to see what art is possible when every person feels heard and empowered, where no one feels stifled or alone.
I want theatre that takes great risks, but where the artist feels utterly safe. I do feel it’s possible.
JS: Finally, what do you yourself find to be the most intriguing and/or surprising thing about you?
FB: Oh, let’s see…well, I think this might not be either intriguing or surprising, but I do know that when I meet people through my work, they seem to get an impression of me (not their fault, it’s what I present) of being a somewhat together person. In truth I am often so scatterbrained, and I can talk a mile a minute often in constant non-sequiturs to the confusion of my patient friends and family. I like to delude myself that it’s a Virginia Woolf-like stream of consciousness, but ultimately, I know it’s just my mile-a-minute thoughts running away from me. I am trying to rein it in as I get older. In vain.
And also, I adore hawks. I even belong to a hawk watching society. I can be seen walking around my neighbourhood, always looking up at the trees…just in case I see one.