Carrie Crowley, star of the Tricycle theatre’s current production The Dead School, talks to Charlotte Marshall about growing up in Ireland where the boys still took to the stage in the absence of girls, her impatience to get on stage every night and why it is always important to listen to your mum.
Where did you grow up?
I’m Irish. I’m from Waterford which is in the South East. I grew up in a family of two children; I have just the one sister, and my parents. They met when they were both working in Waterford and settled there, so we were both first generation Waterford, but it is absolutely home. Even now – and I’ve been out of it probably 15 years – it’s the place that I would always call home.
Were your family theatrical at all?
Both my parents would have taken us to everything. Everything that happened in the Theatre Royal [Waterford], that would have been grand opera, reviews, pantomime, it didn’t matter what is was. There would be plays with nudity and people would say “God you can’t bring the children” and my father would say “It’s theatre, they can see anything they want to see.” He worked sometimes in the theatre, he was a guard but he’d do voluntary work, so it was very much part of our background.
Was that what got you into acting?
Probably and when I was at school I’d be in school shows. There was a local boys’ school that used to do a musical every year, and the first year they decided to bring girls into it – real girls, as opposed to the boys dressing up as Mary Magdalene! – the priest who was the chaplain there, I knew, and he said at the opera one night “Would you be interested in auditioning for the show?” That was the first time I actually thought “Oh my God, maybe I could do this.” I auditioned, it was for Oliver! and I played Nancy and absolutely loved it and then the following year I played Golde in Fiddler On The Roof. I played both those roles much later on professionally, so it’s sort of interesting it started there. I would have been about 17.
What did you do next?
I went off to be a teacher because it was a job [laughs]! I think it’s probably the personality type that I was or that I am, but I never actually realised that I could do something about things, I just accepted things as they came along at the time. I think I’ve changed considerably; I want to have changed anyway! I just thought “Yeah it’s a job, it’ll keep me going.” And then when I was teaching I realised, literally every second month I would be racing home from school to lie down for an hour to get to the theatre to get on stage that night, and then staying out half the night as you do after shows. So it was kind of crash and burn and one of them had to go and I thought “Well I’ll give it a go”.
So I left the teaching and worked in the pizzeria while I was getting a first few paid gigs, and I was also singing with two other women, we did three part harmonies and that took off. So I ended up sticking with that. We travelled the country and we did a lot of TV and radio work. That kind of became the main stay, as opposed to the theatre. I couldn’t really do both. Then I started doing radio and loved radio work and then did that for 10 or more years.
It was only around the time that my dad died I remember thinking ‘What if I were the one to have died? What have I not done with my life that I really would have liked to have done?’ I realised I’d never followed up on the whole acting thing; I’d always had it as a peripheral thing. When I had moved to Dublin to work in radio and television, there weren’t as many opportunities there. I suppose at home you could literally walk out the door and walk in the door of the theatre, because everything was so closely linked, whereas in Dublin it wasn’t and I just didn’t have any connections with groups that I could join or be a part of. And then I decided to just give it a lash! It’s been really interesting in some ways. It’s been quite tough because you have to earn the stripes again, you have to go back to the beginning, and I was back at that stage hitting 40 when I decided to give it a go professionally. So maybe it was a mid-life crisis or a wonderful flash of light and revelation! But I love it, I’m really happy.
Tell me about The Dead School.
Oh my God, where do I start? The Dead School is very hard to describe. The core protagonists are two teachers of different vintages; they are a generation apart. One is the old school principle who believes in doing his best by everything that’s important to him and he just has a really purist approach to the world and to work and everything. The other teacher is a generation younger than that and he’s of the generation who are getting off their heads on dope and stuff and are hippies, but he’s got his own quite tortured past that he brings with him. The two of them end up working together, but it transpires that it’s just a disaster.
On stage there are five of us and someone I knew came last night and said “Oh my god, five of you play around 109 parts” and that’s sort of what it’s like. Literally in the flick of a wrist you’re another character. It takes a bit of getting used to as an audience. In the beginning they sort of scratch their heads and go “what the f**k’s going on here?” and then it starts to become clear. When you see the relationship between these two men and you see the relationships between each of the men and the women in their lives, their families, I just think it’s quite unique. It’s the beauty of Pat McCabe’s writing. What’s presented in the world and what goes within the person’s mind is very much explored in this and Pat just has a way of accessing the darkness that’s in everybody. All of us have the dark side within us, but he’s able to paint it very clearly and dramatically and it’s really beautiful, I just think he’s a genius.
What characters do you play?
I play the older teacher’s wife and then I also play his nemesis and I also play his mother, so it’s quite interesting!
Is that challenging?
Yes it is, but it’s great fun because you really work your butt off and then you come off at the end of the night and people say “Are you not exhausted?” but you’re not, you’re actually on quite a high because you’ve been putting out so much energy during the night. When you come off, it’s very hard to sleep until two. It’s great if you want to go for a few pints and stuff because you’re in the form for it!
Having grown up in Ireland can you relate to the play in anyway?
Oh yeah. But I think it’s the kind of play that relates to different generations in different ways but impacts on everybody which is really nice. You can do a lot of theatre that’s pleasant, or funny, or moving, or that’s pretty or whatever and then you get something like this and it’s all of the above and that’s the beauty of it. I think of anything I’ve ever done, it’s the thing I’m most proud of. A lot of the stuff you do you think “Yeah that was great, that was a job and an enjoyable job” but you wouldn’t stand over it as much as I think we all do at The Dead School. I think we all have a huge amount of pride for it and a huge amount of hope that it will be recognised for what we all see in it.
What’s the best thing about being on stage?
I think one of my favourite things is the process of developing it. It’s so rewarding and it’s also a development of you personally because you end up having to dig in to yourself a lot and dig into your own mindset, so that’s hugely rewarding. It’s like therapy, it’s like therapy for five or six weeks and then you’re up and running! And then when you’re up and running, I think knowing that you’ve hit the audience is really rewarding.
And the worst?
I don’t know if there is a worst thing! I don’t get stage fright, more what I get is “Let it start, let it start, let it start!” I just want it to begin, I never don’t want it to begin, I never feel “Oh God, I’m terrified”, I just always just want it to go, press the green button, let us out there, let us fly, let it happen.
Some of the daytimes when you’re minding yourself, I think a lot of us can become a bit neurotic about our health, about our throats. You kind of live a slightly different style of life when you’re performing, so maybe that’s a kind of nerves. But it’s not stage fright, it’s a kind of body fright; ‘What if? What if? What if this tickle in my throat becomes something worse? I better go to bed!’
Most obscure job (acting or otherwise)?
I sold lettuce as a child. It was my very first job, it was my own job. My father used to grow a lot of vegetables in the garden and he would let me have the lettuce as it grew, and I had a little basket and I would go up and down the road and sell it to my neighbours and they’d give me money for it! I loved doing it and they’d all have a little chat with me. I was probably 9 or 10. They’d bring me in. I’d have a biscuit and a cup of tea or a glass of milk and I’d go home with my money [laughs]! It was lovely.
You presented the Eurovision Song Contest, what was that like?
It was actually a really enjoyable thing to do. I think for about a year or two afterwards I just wanted to banish the word because whenever anyone heard my name they’d go “Oh yeah tell me about the Eurovision” and I though “How can I ever forget that?” But now with a distance of 10 or 15 years I can look back and think that was a really good thing to do. I had absolutely no nerves because we had rehearsed. It’s like when you’ve done enough rehearsals for a play and you know it inside out, we knew our scripts and the only thing that could GO wrong is that the phone lines would go or something would blow up on stage, but what’s the worst thing that could happen? No one’s going to die! I can still remember that buzz before we went out, it was pretty cool.
If you weren’t an actor you would be…
If I weren’t an actor I would probably be still ticking away at radio work, because I love it and I have great respect for it. I think there are some really, really good people in the business and there are people who just put together wonderful programmes. Not all programming is wonderful and there is some absolute tripe! But there’s a lot of really good work that is done on radio and there is something about it as a medium that I love.
When I was working at the pizzeria, I really enjoyed the kind of job where there is no need for thought. You just hand out the food, chat to the people “how’s your day, how’s mine?” There was something lovely about that, it was really good fun and sociable. And the lock ins where good; obviously there was wine as well!
I think I have one of those outlooks on life where I don’t mind what I do. If this all fell apart I would find something else to do and it wouldn’t necessary really matter what it was, it doesn’t have to be something specific. I love what I’m doing now, so this is what I want to do as long as I can get the work, but if it dries up? Then I just go on and do something else. We live once, don’t close the doors!
What is the best advice anyone has ever given you?
The same priest that I spoke about earlier on – he was a family friend and he would be one of my important people in life, one of my mentors I suppose – when I was working in television I was doing a really crappy chat show that I hated. I met him again at the theatre and he said “Talk to me about this show you’re doing. I don’t really recognise the person presenting it.” And I looked at him and said “I don’t recognise the person presenting it, you’re absolutely right!” I had become what the producers wanted me to be and I just thought never do that again. Never become something that someone else wants you to be, stay true to yourself.
The other thing I always think was my mother always used to say what’s for you won’t pass you and I think in our business that’s always worth holding on to because you can get really down about lack of work when there isn’t work, or the fact that other people are getting jobs, and mum just always said “What’s for you won’t pass you.” So when it’s meant to be it will happen and if you can accept life in that way, you know if it’s for you it’ll fall into your lap and if it doesn’t, there’s a reason. It makes it much easier to accept what comes your way and what doesn’t come your way.